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Machiavelli for moms: Do the ends justify the means?

April 11, 2013 at 10:37 AM ET

Niccolo Machiavelli, Renaissance politician, philosopher, historian and... modern parenting guru?
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Niccolo Machiavelli, Renaissance politician, philosopher, historian and... modern parenting guru?

Deceit, manipulation and… motherhood?! The latest controversial parenting book to hit the market touts the virtues of applying Machiavellian principles to parenting.

A recent Wall Street Journal essay explores Suzanne Evans’ new book, "Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children." In it, Evans explains how she turned to Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” the classic Renaissance guide to ruthless leadership, in a moment of parenting desperation.

Evans’ experiment started about five years ago, when she was struggling to work full-time from home and take care of young kids. Newly married and trying to blend a family with four children, including a daughter with Down syndrome, she found herself looking for child-rearing answers in an unlikely place. “I felt more powerless and incompetent as a mom than not,” Evans told TODAY Moms. “In the past, I’d tried other things – I’d tried being Zen about it.” However, Zen didn’t cut it. Evans soon found herself looking for a different approach to parenting.

Following Machiavelli’s advice to divide and conquer one’s enemies, Evans wrote in the essay, “I 'divided' Teddy and my 8-year-old stepson Daniel by pitting them against each other in a not-so-friendly competition over who could do better in school.” The winner, Teddy, got to pick the restaurant for her celebratory dinner. “Daniel, whose report card wasn't so stellar, got nothing, other than the shame of losing the competition — to his younger sister no less, as I reminded him,” wrote Evans.

Deceit is another parenting technique she advocates. Evans recounts a time when she and her husband wanted a golf weekend alone. Not wanting to deal with the kids’ pleas to come along, she told them it was really a business trip. “In other words: Don't feel guilty for lying to your kids if it makes you happy and relaxed…because having a happy, relaxed mom always benefits a child,” she wrote.

Discipline is another area where Evans applied Machiavelli to motherhood. She recounts the punishment she meted out when her then 5-year-old daughter with Down syndrome escaped from the family home. While she states that she doesn’t believe in spanking, she did follow Machiavelli’s advice that "good laws follow from good arms,” and gave her daughter what she described as a “a quick pat on the behind.” When that method proved ineffective, she stuck with half-hour long time-outs in an attempt to keep her daughter safe at home -- and it worked.

Many of the hundreds of comments on Evans' Wall Street Journal essay criticized her methods. (Of course, that seems to be the usual for any mom who dares to write honestly about parenting challenges.)

"This woman is a train wreck," said commenter Warren Hurt. "You don't need 500-year-old book to raise a family. Just basic consistent rules, mutual respect, a little common sense, and a lot of love."

“I know that my approach might not appeal to everyone,” Evans told TODAY Moms. “But it helped me and my family get to a better place.” Evans said she knew the book would spark some controversy, and she's glad it's sparking a debate. As she practiced her Machiavellian mothering, she told TODAY Moms she realized, “My own happiness as a parent didn’t hinge so much on changing my kids’ behavior as it did changing my own behavior.”

Dana Macario is a Seattle-area mom whose most Machiavellian act is claiming not to know who ate the last of the Easter candy.

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