What Machiavelli Taught Me About Motherhood

Because that novel isn't going to delay itself
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What Machiavelli Taught Me About Motherhood

Post by THE HISTORY CHEF! » October 4th, 2010, 8:26 pm

As I settle down on the couch to read Amy Sutherland's brilliant New York Times essay "What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage," my daughters argue loudly in the family room. "Give it back to me! It’s mine!” Teddy screams as she grabs her Jonas Brothers backpack from her little sister, then stomps upstairs and slams her bedroom door.

In the past, I would have overreacted. With my maternal nerves frayed at the end of the day, I would have stormed upstairs and charged into her room while shouting out orders like, "Don't slam doors!" Stop screaming! I can't take it anymore!" But that only made my blood pressure soar and a simple sibling spat over a backpack quickly descended into an angst-ridden battle between mother and child.

Now, I simply turn around and say, "If you two don't immediately stop fighting, you will both be punished with timeouts." Just as Sutherland used techniques she learned from animal trainers to build a happy marriage, I'm using lessons I learned from Machiavelli to build a happy home.

Don't get me wrong. I love my children dearly. They're funny, kind, respectful, and polite and almost always say "please" and "thank you." But they can also be loud, messy, forgetful, demanding, and occasionally moody and defiant.

At 7, Teddy is mimicking me by screaming at her siblings when they irritate her with their silly childhood pranks. "Stop following me! I can’t take it anymore!" she howls as they giggle while snuggling up next to her on the couch.

Katie, who is four and has Down syndrome, is happiness personified, but can also be infuriatingly stubborn and defiant. And Trevor, now firmly in the midst of his terrible twos, has a tendency to throw earth-shattering tantrums whenever our cat Lucky manages to escape from his grasp or he otherwise doesn't get EXACTLY what he wants.

These irritating behaviors aren’t sufficient to trigger a maternal breakdown, but, in the aggregate, they made me begin to resent motherhood and question my fitness as a parent. “I'm a terrible mother," I'd mutter to myself as I changed another diaper and dreamed of the day they were all safely away at college. Then I'd feel guilty for wishing their childhood away.

Still, I desperately wanted to change them, to mold them into less irritating little children whose constant bickering didn't drive me to drink, who didn't suck every ounce of energy out of me with their constant needs, who were more obedient little creatures who would quickly and predictably submit to my parental authority.

So, like millions of other modern mothers, I ignored centuries of advice and tried to change them - by yelling, nagging or ignoring them, of course, which only made their behavior worse. They'd argue a little louder, slam doors harder, and leave dirty plates on the table more frequently.

One night, I talked to my husband about the oppressively isolating tyranny of motherhood. He didn't understand what I was complaining about and suggested that I take the kids to the park if I was going stir crazy in the house or felt like “blowing my brains out,” which I'm ashamed to say I was once apt to dramatically (but only half-seriously) threaten to do.

Without any strategies of my own, I acknowledged that maybe my husband was right – after years of infertility I was lucky to have three children – and resigned myself to another 15 years of hidden resentments and intermittent fits of maternal fury and despair.

Then something extraordinary happened. For a book proposal I was writing on "The Philosophy of Love, Marriage, and Parenthood, I began reading Machiavelli's famous sixteenth-century political treatise, The Prince. Written in Florence after the Medici family returned to power in 1512, its essential contribution to modern political thought lies in Machiavelli's then-revolutionary assertions that the ends justify the means, that moral imperatives have no place in the political arena, and that the preservation of the state, through the effective use of power, is a Prince's ultimate goal.

With a little imagination, I began to discern parallels between a sixteenth-century Florentine prince and a twenty-first century American mother, and quickly became convinced that the same strategies of warfare and statecraft that Machiavelli prescribed could also be applied to my children.

The first lesson I learned from Machiavelli is that, "Before all else, a Prince must be armed," which I took to mean that I must establish my parental authority with a decisive show of force. After all, a prince doesn’t get his subjects to submit to his reign by nagging or passively waving the white flag. The same holds true for the effective governance of young children. Accordingly, lengthy and immediate timeouts for bad behavior became the central weapon in my growing arsenal of parental arms.

The more I read Machiavelli, the more empowered I became as a mother. Soon, I decided to apply Machiavelli's much-maligned maxim that "It is better that a Prince be feared than loved." I don't fully agree with this premise as it relates to either politics or parenthood, but I do believe that the fear of punishment does tend to prevent domestic insurrections and civil disobedience.

As I pondered this concept, it eventually hit me that my children weren’t obeying my household rules because they loved me. Rather, they were becoming more obedient little people because they were afraid of being punished by their parents. "Yes!" I thought, excitedly acknowledging the obvious, "the only thing my little minions fear more than a ten-minute timeout is the dreaded Half-Hour Timeout.”

As peace and predictability began to prevail in our home, I referred again to Sutherland's essay, and, just as she analyzed her husband the way trainers consider an exotic animal, I began to analyze my kids through a Machiavellian lens of human nature. For five hundred years Machiavelli has been condemned for his political pragmatism, for advocating the preservation of power at all costs, and for being the founding father of modern power politics. Regardless of where the cold, hard logic of his realism may lead, Machiavelli’s view of human nature was quite enlightened.

Writing at the height of the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli shared with other humanists a profound skepticism of human nature, observing that men are generally greedy, hypocritical, and deceitful, and that their loyalties can be easily won and lost. To guard against shifting allegiances, Machiavelli advised that a prince must develop a reputation for goodness and generosity. However, he was careful to caution that if a prince is overly generous, he will lose civic appreciation and only increase his subjects' greed for more.

Immediately I thought of my children.

As a mother, I struggled to meet their every need, fulfill their every demand. Yet, as they grew older, I observed that the more material things I gave them, the more they expected and the less grateful they became. By applying Machiavelli’s maxim that a prince should never be overly generous, I quickly began restricting my toy store expenditures – and saving a lot of cash!

Now when Teddy and I go shopping on the weekends, I give her ten dollars to spend. Instead of greedily tossing DVDs and dolls into our cart, she now carefully examines the price of each item she likes and then makes a very considered decision. As a result, our shopping trips are much smoother, less costly, and my daughter is far more appreciative. Equally important, she’s learning the value of money as she sees how much things cost.

“What? Twenty nine dollars!” she protested as she examined the price of a Justin Beiber backpack.

I watched her but did not respond.

“Well, that’s just ridiculous!” she said with disgust as she put the backpack back on the shelf. “It's not worth THAT much!"

I just smiled as we moved on.

Like all children, my kids still occasionally bicker and misbehave. They did so today. After returning from the market, Katie rifled through the bags and ran off with a pink candy ring that I bought for Teddy as a reward for being such a patient and generous big sister. Before I could intercede, Teddy had retaliated by grabbing the ring and letting out a terrible, primal scream. Instead of reacting, I recalled Machiavelli’s advice that it is critical that a prince remain calm in moments of adversity.

In dealing with her husband, Sutherland adopted the trainer’s motto, “It’s never the animal’s fault.” Similarly, in dealing with my children, I adopted Machiavelli's maxim, “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.” In the past, I would take my children’s misbehavior personally, their defiance as a symbol of how they didn’t respect me. But applying Machiavelli’s maxims gave me the ability to consider their behavior more objectively. Now, I don't blame them for occasionally misbehaving. Instead, I try to examine my own actions and consider how my frustrations might inadvertently intensify theirs.

Like Sutherland, I also accepted that some behaviors are too instinctive to change. If she can’t stop her husband from losing his wallet and keys, I thought with relief, then I certainly can’t stop my children from bickering over backpacks and candy rings.

SOME SCHOLARS argue that Machiavelli's agenda in writing The Prince was driven by his desire to trap Lorenzo de’Medici by offering carefully crafted advice designed to undo the ruler if taken seriously and followed. Others claim that it is a "cautionary tale intended to warn men of what tyrants could be and do." Still others posit that Machiavelli was a peace-loving humanist who believed in order and stability and in "the disciplining of the aggressive elements of human nature into the kind of civilized harmony that he must have found among the many well-armed Swiss democracies of his own time."

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain for me: after reading Machiavelli, my approach to mothering is more calm and enlightened, my children are more grateful and complaint, and our home life is more peaceful and stable. And for that I have Machiavelli to thank – which got me thinking: what might I learn about motherhood from John Locke or Thomas Hobbes?

By Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D. http://lincolnslunch.blogspot.com

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Re: What Machiavelli Taught Me About Motherhood

Post by marinagraphy » October 5th, 2010, 12:34 am

OK. I have to read Machiavelli again so that I can see what you saw. I only have two kids, and I suffer the same way you suffered. Motherhood makes so many of us feel incompetent; I completely and whole-heartedly related to your mothering pre-Machiavellian techniques.

Great post.

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Joined: October 5th, 2010, 4:42 pm

Re: What Machiavelli Taught Me About Motherhood

Post by MsBrouhaha » October 7th, 2010, 6:48 am

Great post, very original. I don't have kids but enjoyed reading nonetheless. Hmmm, do you think it would work on colleagues?

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Re: What Machiavelli Taught Me About Motherhood

Post by THE HISTORY CHEF! » October 7th, 2010, 3:08 pm

Thanks, marinagraphy! And, yes, Ms. Brouhaha, I bet it would work on colleagues!

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