The Puritanism Of Progressive Parents

Spurred by voters in Portland, Oregon who defeated a bill that would have provided for the fluoridation of their drinking water, Mark Oppenheimer decries the trend of “left-wing Puritanism”. He relays this telling anecdote:

Last month, at a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

His broader argument about the meaning of liberalism:

I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons.

First, thinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

But more important, realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix. Liberalism, as the political philosopher Corey Robin has recently argued, should be above all about freedom. The best reasons to want a labor union, or universal health care, or Social Security are to be free of worry, want, and privation, and to be out from under the hand of the boss. It makes no sense to re-enslave ourselves with fear, worry, and stress. That is not liberal but reactionary.

Arit John adds a point of contrast:

[C]onservative parents have generally become relatively more open-minded. Lenore Skenazy was famously called the worst mom in America after admitting that she let her 9-year-old ride New York’s subway home alone. But really, she’s just instilling her kids with self reliance and pull-yourself-up- by-your-bootstraps-grit. Skenazy’s Free Range Kids movement supports events like “Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day,” which is both self-explanatory and (potentially) horrifying. And yet none of her children has gone missing or been taken away by the authorities.

All those liberal worries about about obesity, high blood pressure, germs, autism and industrial chemicals, is leading to a lot of stress, which may in the end be more harmful than anything. Your bickering about the virtues of antibacterial hand lotion might give your kid a complex.