Susan Sontag’s List of 10 Parenting Rules

Image by Juan Fer­nan­do Bas­tos, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Par­ent­ing is dif­fi­cult. I don’t need to tell you this—those of you who face the chal­lenge dai­ly and hourly. Those of you who don’t have heard your friends—and your own parents—do enough com­plain­ing that you know, in the­o­ry at least, how rais­ing humans is rough busi­ness all around. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, there is no rule­book for par­ent­ing and there are hun­dreds of rule­books for par­ent­ing, seem­ing­ly a new one pub­lished every day. In my admit­ted­ly lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence as the par­ent of a young child, most such guides have dimin­ish­ing returns next to the direct lessons learned in the fray, so to speak, through tri­al after tri­al and no small amount of error.

But we do ben­e­fit from the wis­dom of oth­ers, espe­cial­ly those who record their exper­i­ments in child-rear­ing with the pre­ci­sion and thought­ful­ness of Susan Son­tag. In the list below, made by a 26-year-old Son­tag in 1959, we see how the young moth­er of a then 7‑year-old David Rieff approached the job.

The son of Son­tag and soci­ol­o­gist Philip Rieff (“pop,” below), whom Son­tag mar­ried at 17 then divorced in 1958, David has writ­ten a mem­oir of Sontag’s painful final days. He also edit­ed her jour­nals and note­books, which con­tained the fol­low­ing rules.

  1. Be con­sis­tent.
  2. Don’t speak about him to oth­ers (e.g. tell fun­ny things) in his pres­ence. (Don’t make him self-con­scious.)
  3. Don’t praise him for some­thing I wouldn’t always accept as good.
  4. Don’t rep­ri­mand him harsh­ly for some­thing he’s been allowed to do.
  5. Dai­ly rou­tine: eat­ing, home­work, bath, teeth, room, sto­ry, bed.
  6. Don’t allow him to monop­o­lize me when I am with oth­er peo­ple.
  7. Always speak well of his pop. (No faces, sighs, impa­tience, etc.)
  8. Do not dis­cour­age child­ish fan­tasies.
  9. Make him aware that there is a grown-up world that’s none of his busi­ness.
  10. Don’t assume that what I don’t like to do (bath, hair­wash) he won’t like either.

While Rieff has described his rela­tion­ship with Son­tag as “strained and at times very dif­fi­cult,” it seems to me that a par­ent who adhered to these rules would cre­ate the kind of sup­port­ive struc­ture chil­dren need to thrive. The remain­der of Sontag’s jour­nal entries show us a deeply intro­spec­tive, self-con­scious writer, and yet, writes Emi­ly Green­house at The New York­er, her work as a whole offers “sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle of her own direct expe­ri­ence” and she nev­er under­took an auto­bi­og­ra­phy. Yet, this short list of par­ent­ing rules gives us a great deal of insight into the per­spi­cac­i­ty and com­pas­sion she brought to her role as a moth­er, qual­i­ties most of us could use a bit more of in our dai­ly par­ent­ing strug­gles.

The list above appears in the new book Lists of Note, the fol­low up to Shaun Usher’s Let­ters of Note, both com­pi­la­tions of his exten­sive online archives of per­son­al notes and cor­re­spon­dence from famous and inter­est­ing peo­ple. Down­load a pre­view of the book and pur­chase a hard­cov­er copy, just in time for Christ­mas, at (if you live in the UK).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Films Made by Susan Son­tag and a List of Her 50 Favorite Films (1977)

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Tells His 11-Year-Old Daugh­ter What to Wor­ry About (and Not Wor­ry About) in Life, 1933

“Noth­ing Good Gets Away”: John Stein­beck Offers Love Advice in a Let­ter to His Son (1958)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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