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Confucius Says: Modern Child-Rearing in Sync with Ancient Thought

December 7, 2011 – Views on child-rearing developed thousands of years ago are consistent with modern Western views, according to assistant professor of theology Erin Cline.

Cline discovered the link while researching her book project, Moral Cultivation and the Family in Early Chinese Philosophy.

“Early Confucian views on child-rearing are similar to modern views, including the thought that there is a greater potential for change during the earliest years, when brain development is most rapid,” says Cline, now on maternity leave with her second child. “The Confucians, of course, didn't know that about the brain, but they did believe these early years represented a unique and irreplaceable opportunity for cultivation.”

Another shared view, she says, is that children’s early experience plays a significant role in shaping life opportunities and that parental caregiving is the most important experience.

A Real Believer

Cline also stresses the differences between the two traditions.

“This includes the Confucian argument that the virtue of filial piety – including the love, appreciation, respect and reverence children develop over time in response to good parental caregiving – is the root of other ethical sensibilities and virtues,” she says. “They link virtue in general directly with the early experiences within families, which play a central role in ethics and political philosophy in Confucianism.”

She says her experiences during both of her pregnancies made her “a real believer in certain aspects of Confucian views,” especially the argument that good parenting and parent-child relationships begin before birth.

Mengzi’s Mom

“Their viewpoints prompted me to be even more attentive to the many ways in which my well-being is intertwined with that of my children, from pregnancy onward,” Cline explains. “Confucian views influenced me positively and complemented the excellent medical care I received – and for which I am thankful. I have no desire to experience pregnancy and childbirth in ancient China.”  

The professor says a well-known saying throughout East Asia – which translates as “Mengzi's mother moved three times” has its origins in ancient China.

The saying refers to Confucian philosopher Mengzi's mother, credited with making many sacrifices (including moving to a different area) in order to ensure that her young son had the best upbringing.  

Mengzi went on to become one of the most respected and influential thinkers in East Asian history.

Current Work

Cline’s teaching and research interests cross-disciplinary boundaries, and are a mix of philosophy, religion and Asian studies.

Her book, Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice, will soon be published Fordham University Press.

The work is a comparative study of moral psychology and social justice in early Confucianism and Western liberalism.  

The daughter of a cultural anthropologist (her father) and an elementary school music teacher, Cline says she grew up with a natural interest in other cultures, especially in using them to understand “our own culture and our own commitments.”