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John Locke is arguably one of the most influential political philosophers to ever live. The father of liberalism built the intellectual scaffolding that hoisted Europe up towards the Age of Reason. He also effectively build the philosophical foundation for the founding principles of the United States. America serving as not only an enduring social experiment but as a living tribute to Lockean ideals. Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government serving as the fodder for the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…


The first paragraph of the Declaration almost serves as a succinct summary of Locke’s 2nd Treatise. Locke’s influence on America’s political heritage is indisputable. Many of our cherished rights such as free speech and freedom of religion are based on the concept of natural rights. The concept of natural rights served as the core justification for Locke’s arguments in the 2nd Treatise. There was one observation in Locke’s grand treatise that was only quasi-political which was the relationship between parent and child. To refer to such as dynamic as even quasi-political may seem far-fetched to many modern observers. Then again, this may be an indicator that we have allowed the government to have too much dominion over our daily lives.


Locke begins his argument by stating that both the mother and father have authority over their children (p.30). Providing paternal power to both parents.  Citing the Ten Commandments  of the Christian Bible, the commandment ” Honor thy father and mother”. Providing biblical justification for allotting control to both parents in rearing their children. Versus having the father serve as the one and true tyrant. There is also a practical consideration if the mother has no authority over her children, what is she to do in his absence? If he is sent off to war. If he passes away due to disease. It is only sensible to endow both parents with the authority of arising their children.


Why do the parents need to exert control over their children? Does John Locke assert that all men are born free? Yes, equal in the sense of the capacity for reason. By being born as a human being and therefore possessing the faculties for reason.

Children, I confess are not born in a full state of equality, though they are born into it. Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them, when they come into the world, and for some time after; but it is a temporary one…. The bonds of this subjection are like swaddling clothes they art wrapt up in, and supported by, in the weakness of their infancy: age and reason as they grow up, loosen them, till at length they drop off, and leave a man at free disposal  (Locke, 1690. P. 31. Ed. Macpherson, 1980)


This eloquent description explains how parents will relinquish their control once their children reach adulthood. Before becoming an adult, most children lack the full capacity for sound judgment. The parents must instill values in their kids. Also, to assist them with developing their reasoning skills. Reasoning skills are partially a byproduct of experience. However, there is also a biological component to this development as well. Contemporary research suggests that brain development continues into our mid-20’s. Back in the 1600s, the life expectancy was approximately 39 years. It most likely would have been unrealistic to assert an individual was a fully cognizant adult at 25. Most likely after the child had a firm understanding of basic reasoning and societal norms and values was when they were deemed an adult. Currently, in society, we utilize arbitrary age cut-offs to determine adulthood. Libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard asserted that a person becomes an adult once they are self-sustaining.


The question remains how does the stewardship of parents over their children pertain to political life? Parents are preparing their children to become active members of the community. The values that parents instill in their children will have consequences for society as a whole. Granted, once the child reaches the age of majority they are free to exercise their will. Often, our childhood does have implications of our behavior and decisions as an adult. While not every parent is capable of raising upstanding citizens, most are.  How children interact with the community and society as a whole is based upon the modeling of their parents. Humans not only learn from auditory input (the directives of our parents) but also visually. We watch what our parents do and to some extent absorb it into our repertoire of permissible behaviors. It wouldn’t be outlandish for a parent who doesn’t vote to raise children who choose not to vote.


A lot of our “political behavior” is learned from our parents. More often than not an individual declaring allegiance to a political party. It wasn’t a choice.  Choice requires a specific degree of evaluation and subsequent discrimination. Much like religious convictions they are often bequeathed to the children from their parents. Further demonstrating the importance of parents in establishing the child’s capacity for moral reasoning. While it is imperative to initiate children in a cohesive moral philosophy such as religious domination or a set of political beliefs, developing reasoning supersedes both.  Having morals inculcated into you does not make you moral. You must first be able to distinguish morality from immorality. Then the individual’s religious and political beliefs have substance. Without having a strong moral framework choice are arbitrary and lacks context. Effectively makes any decisions you make at the political level done so blindly. Such moral and rational illiteracy can be disastrous to an individual, community, or country.

5 thoughts on “Locke and How Parents Shape our Political Reasoning

  1. Excellent post (full disclosure: I am a huge fan of John Locke and the natural law tradition). That said, what if the parents themselves diverge over some aspect of their child’s upbringing (say, one parent is Jewish or Roman Catholic, while the other is atheist). What then?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be a matter of internal dynamics. It would have to be rules unanimously agreed upon. Even if there are some compromises.

      The couple could opt to give deference to religious custom. I believe ( don’t quote me on this) Judaism the transmission of religious beliefs is matrilineal. If the mother is observant, the atheist father may need to concede a little bit in order to avoid destroying his marriage.

      If the mother is more liberal in her beliefs then the result might sway in favor of the father. We could strike a golden mean for the ratio of religious conviction to willingness to compromise if such qualities could be quantified.

      I am just speculating. There are no hard and fast rules. As long as the couple can find an effective strategy for sorting the matter out, we have an optimum result. I kind of wish Locke provide a resolution to this potential problems. However, that is wishful thinking because in the 1600’s very few people (if any)intermarried!

      I really like Locke as well. A pre-runner to David Hume-style empiricism. By my account the first Libertarian. I think I need to read more of his work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good points. I still recall my first course in political philosophy. On the first day of class, our instructor, Dr Eskandari, asked the class our opinions about various matters, like abortion and the death penalty. Then he said something to the effect: I don’t care what your opinions are … until you have read Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. I was just 17 year old, and he changed my life forever!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

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