“Who Should Raise Your Children?” When G. K. Chesterton Debated Bertrand Russell on the Ideal Family

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circleTwo years ago, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry was featured in a television ad in which she said:

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had a private notion of children. “Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility.” We haven’t had a very collective notion of “These are our children.” We have to break through the private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

The ad was widely panned, and thankfully so. But the concept hasn’t gone away, and conversations linger around the edges of this window into childhood. For example, President Obama’s state of the union speech this year was criticized for incentivizing working moms with the promise of universal daycare, leading some to wonder if he was implying that stay-at-home mothers are less than ideal.

The debate over parenting is so 20th century. In 1935, renowned mathematician and analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell debated G. K. Chesterton on this very subject, arguing that ”parents are by nature unfitted to bring up their own children.” Let’s take a look at their debate.

Bertrand Russell: “Parents Are Unfit To Raise Children”

Russell’s main point was that parents have difficulties with their own children that others do not have. Many parents are just bad at parenting. They can’t provide everything a child needs for optimum rearing, and they need help.

Russell dismissed the value of fathers (who were less likely to be involved in child-raising in the first place), and then pointed to the high infant mortality as evidence for his thesis. It was medical discoveries, not mothers, that lowered the infant mortality rate! This proved the inadequacy of mothers as primary care-givers.

In the end, Russell argued that two parents for 2-5 children can be either too high or too low of a ratio, and that ”well-run nursery schools” are the solution for bringing up children.

G. K. Chesterton: “Why Pay for Something Nature Provides?”

Chesterton’s response begins by returning to a fundamental notion of common sense: “Children must be brought up” and somebody must do it. But Russell had proposed that we “abolish the universal, fundamental institution of mankind” while claiming there is nothing fitted by nature to replace it. Russell’s “solution” was to have nursery schools pay officials to do something which nature leads parents to do already. He continued:

“You are exactly like a lunatic who should walk in the garden in the pouring rain and hold up an umbrella while he watered a plant.”

Analyzing the Debate

The Chesterton / Russell debate is surprisingly short (only about 4500 words). There are polite rejoinders, veiled equivocations, and deftly-avoided red herrings. The debate is a fascinating juxtaposition of a brilliant academic atheist with a jovial genius believer, all on national radio at the pinnacle of their respective careers. Depending on your leanings you will either share Chesterton’s dismay of “quaint and fantastic” notions or cheer for Russell when he protests the ills of society.

But the the elephant in the room is clear. One man – Chesterton – takes something called natural law as a given. He believes certain things are true to the way the world is made and we deny them to our peril. The other man denies the idea of natural law in any binding fashion, believing instead that we can and should alter such perceived ‘laws’ when we see fit. These outlooks on reality lead to divergent conclusions.

The entire discussion rises or falls on the value of family, whether the family is a reality into which we are born or whether the family is a reality that we can create. Laura Schlesinger was once interviewed on national television, and she argued against Russell’s notion of “well-run nursery schools,” in our day known, of course, as day care. She faced near unanimous opposition from the studio audience until she asked this question: 

“Who in the room would prefer to have been raised in a daycare rather than by a mother at home?” 

There were no takers – the room fell silent.

Mothers, Fathers, and Ideal Families

Now, we can’t deny there are difficulties inherent in the discussion; neither can we leave any room for self-righteous snobbery. But Chesterton was right to press us toward ideals, without which we have no real guide or purpose. In this case, Chesterton found that ideal in the ancient notion of children at home, raised at their mother’s knee, father providing and protecting, both parents tied intrinsically to the home and the children for which they are responsible. 

It’s not necessary to appeal to Scripture for such an idea, nor even claim that such an ideal is the right course of action in every circumstance. But the painful failure in achieving the ideal should not lead us to abandon or alter it. Instead, the idea needs to be upheld as beautiful and true. We are better off when we pursue it, even if we stumble on the way. After all, the story of the world centers on the family: holy mother, father, and Child, in a starlit stable that became a home.

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This post was co-written with Randy Huff, a Kansas native who has lived in six different states with his wife, Jane, and their two sons. That journey led him to serve in student life for a high school and two Bible colleges, lead church music, and find a love for Chesterton while writing an MA thesis on GKC’s family apologetic. He also works in the construction industry, currently employed in Alaska.

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