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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.


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

  1. Ken says:

    I find this statement disturbing, “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.” To appeal to anything less than Scripture would by necessity by substandard. I agree with Chesterton and certainly we live without ideal circumstances in which to rear children but are you suggesting that we should aim lower than God’s word?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      No, we do not aim lower than God’s Word. The issue here, however, is that one can make the case for parents raising their own children from God’s book of nature (general revelation). One doesn’t need to be a Christian or believe in the authority of Scripture (special revelation) to make the case that parents are best suited to raise their children.

      1. ken says:

        Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Philmonomer says:

    This strikes me as an odd article, insofar as it seems to be using a debate from 1935 to argue against universal daycare today. To the extent the issues then and now are the same, I guess there is nothing wrong with that. However, the issues now and then appear to be radically different. Specifically,

    1) Russel seems to be arguing for mandatory daycare, because some individuals (employed by the state?) can do a better job of raising children than most parents can. No one argues this now (as far as I know). Now, it is widely held across our society that the best people to parent children are their actual parents. I don’t think there is any serious disagreement about this, anywhere.

    2) Indeed, no one even argues that universal daycare should be mandatory. All proposals for universal daycare that I am aware of are for optional programs that children could attend if their parents wanted. A mandatory program would be so over the top, now, in our culture that such a proposal cannot even be made, let alone entertained.

    Given this, I don’t really see the relevance of this article to today. Although it is interesting, from a historical perspective.

    I guess there are other (more interesting) questions that lurk here in the background: Is it wise to send your children to preschool at all? Should all children be given the option of going to preschool? Should we (as a society) pay for (optional) universal preschool? etc.

    The real issue here seems to me: Is it a good idea for the state to pay for (optional) universal preschool? But I don’t see how this article is relevant to that.

    1. Faith K says:

      I don’t think this article is arguing against universal daycare, mandatory or optional, at all. That reading is much too narrow. I think the point is referencing much more sinister in our world – the voluntary parental abdication of responsibility for their own children. Regardless of whether a family chooses to utilize daycare or other childcare services, natural law points to parents parenting their own children as the ideal. Not only is this not the reality we live in, but it is that way not only because of the *inability* of parents to take on that responsibility full time (because of the frequent need for a family to have two incomes, for instance), but also because many parents don’t feel their children are their own responsibility and readily pass that responsibility off to other institutions outside the family in favor of other pursuits. It’s tragic

      1. Randy says:

        Well said, Faith.

      2. Philmonomer says:

        I don’t think this article is arguing against universal daycare, mandatory or optional, at all.

        Huh? The rest of your comment then points out how the article is arguing against daycare. (But yes, that is not all the article is doing.)

  3. Andy says:

    I thought this was kind of an odd article. Funny thing though about then and now: Not really as far as raising children up to be good little people; I don’t think much will ever change in the benefits of a good family, both mother and father being present in the home. Now I don’t consider myself the brightest bulb on the tree, and you wouldn’t either, but what’s striking to me is that, educationally, there are probably as many people who are functionally illiterate then as there is now. And with so much value placed on education, and that really starts from birth and nurturing in the home, I think there are some fairly interesting things in this overall discussion.

  4. alan davis says:

    Well the government has done a really good job thus far, haven’t they? I mean take a look at the results of daycare in government housing complexes and by all means look at government run hospitals known as VA….

  5. Ideally, children are raised by their parents. But we live in a fallen world. Many families (esp. single parents and the working poor) need additional resources / help.

    I don’t see why we can’t lift up one as an ideal, while also realizing that everyone doesn’t live in ideal situations.

  6. Paul says:

    At first glance of the title I expected a very different article. I agree with previous comments that it seems a bit irrelevant and out of place today. Obviously the ideal exists, obviously we live in a world that is less ideal, and obviously some people choose to abdicate their responsibility as parents. There are some families able to get closer to this ideal than others, and there are some families who have little choice than to utilize day care or other forms of childcare outside of the home. The same argument could, and has been made, for public schooling. Ultimately it comes down to the parents as the primary influence on children, regardless of where they spend different hours of their day. Ideally, parents help their children engage and interact in the world, with different people, and grow them up in a way that they can actually live in the world instead of disconnected from it. I believe this can happen when a child is raised at home with one primary parent, or raised in a village, or raised in day care. At the end of the day they come home and their parents should instruct them. I don’t think anyone, when faced with a question about experiencing the ideal of something, would choose the lesser path.

  7. Akash says:

    As a male who has worked at a daycare ( very rare) and thus seen the effects on Kids, broken homes etc
    I ain’t marrying a woman who refuses to prioritise the home… if it means I remain single in the feminist world ( many authors here also find Titus 2 revolting) better single, than letting lives go through that…

  8. Meg Ishikwa says:

    Aside from the debate between Bertrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton in the previous century, what really bothers me is the influence that people like Melissa Harris-Perry have in the here and now. I had actually seen this advertisement over a year ago, though we live in Japan. It sent chills up my spine at the time as it still does now. She is not just a news commentator, but a college professor at universities that leave their mark in many walks of American life. Thank you for posting this Trevin. As I tell my kids, “Stay overseas here in Asia. You will have more freedom to raise your children according to Scripture over here than you will in the soon and coming culture of our home land.”

  9. Brian says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s helpful to learn from those who have gone before us and realize that many topics are not new but ones that have been wrestled with and prayed about long before we got to them. May we always turn to the rich work done in “thinking Christianly” that we can address the issues of today with great thoughtfulness, rich theology, and the generous love of God.

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