Parents demand blind obedience, Wollstonecraft argues, because they don’t discharge their duty on a reasonable basis, and “a mysterious sanctity” attaches to their arbitrary claims. Her view of the reciprocal duty between parent and child is simply that “The parent who pays proper attention to helpless infancy has a right to require the same attention when the feebleness of age comes upon him.” No child should be subjugated to the mere will of a parent once he or she is old enough to answer for themselves.
Wollstonecraft’s view of the relationship between parent and child is firmly founded on her Enlightenment perspective that only reason, not tradition and authority, can serve as the basis for truth. Most parents, however, resort to a kind of divinely-sanctioned blind authority to teach their children.
A parent who strives to form his child’s heart and understanding merits the lifelong respect and friendship of the child. Most of the time, however, respect is demanded on the basis of a blind natural right. But the demand of implicit respect, Wollstonecraft holds, is unjust, because the reasonableness of moral demands should always be transparently clear to all.
Wollstonecraft’s view of parenthood has parallels to her view of marriage. Both relationships must be founded on reason and respect for one another’s status as rational beings, not on traditional views of relational hierarchy.
When a “slavish bondage to parents” prevails, girls are harmed more than boys, because they are “prepared for the slavery of marriage,” or else they become “tyrants” in their own households. The parent who simply sets a good example and lets that example take effect, by contrast, will receive the rightful devotion of their child. The habit of submitting to reason should be instilled early, since it is simply “to submit to the nature of things,” and to God.
Wollstonecraft argues that the expectation of slavish devotion is not only unreasonable, it creates a harmful precedent for girls, who are primed to submit to husbands in the same way and to tyrannize their own children. Rather, all children should be taught to rely on their reasoning faculties, in harmony with nature.
When women are taught from an early age to act on the basis of “mere whims and customs,” it is difficult to undo the damage, because even if virtue is successfully instilled later in life, they look back and scorn their parents’ folly. Children should not be put in the position of having to make excuses for their parents’ failings; esteem for their parents’ virtues, as well as natural affection, should ideally be blended from the start. However, Wollstonecraft fears that until society is better constituted, parents will continue to insist on obedience by divine right.
Wollstonecraft’s republican leanings and Enlightenment influence are again evident here. She rejects any hint of hierarchy based on divine right, and she believes that a properly-structured society creates conditions suitable for virtue. As things stand now, however, children are in a difficult position; virtue instilled too late can cause them to be ashamed of their parents, which isn’t good for societal stability.