What Does It Mean to ‘Raise Good Humans’?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

It has become clear in the last few years that the internet isn’t fun anymore. People are still creating interesting and original work, but the ever-shrinking number of places where that work appears are looking and sounding more and more the same. But despite all this, we persevere in consuming the internet every moment of our lives. Our efforts are rewarded with, at the very least, an internet that is constantly changing. Usually for the worse, but hey! If we keep plugging away at it, maybe the tides will turn. We will keep plugging away regardless.

It’s no different on the internet of parenting. Sometimes I hear from friends without kids that they’re hesitant to have children because today’s parents make parenting seem horrible, particularly in the way they talk about it online. I realize that there are real-life parents who are very hard to be around, but most real-life parents, as I’ve made pains to acknowledge in previous columns, are actually cool. (Well, cool enough for a park hang, anyway.) But internet parenting is not cool at all. On the internet, being a parent seems outrageously lame.

The primary reason for this is that performing “family” on social media is like putting a square peg into a round hole. Almost every other pastime and lifestyle are natural fits for socials: showing off your outfit, showing off your sports, showing off your cooking, playing your music, being into gaming, foraging in the woods, crafting, being really into your pet, being really into your house, partying, astrology, having a sexual orientation — all of these translate beautifully and not at all awkwardly into visual storytelling.

Raising children, with all its rewards and contradictions, does not. Children are not hobbies, and love and satisfaction are far from the only feelings we have while caring for them. One of the reasons I decided to spend six years doing a Ph.D. on momfluencers is that I wanted to try to get my mind around the challenging contortions that so many momfluencers endure to make content about their families that conforms to a brand’s consistency and logic. It’s a quixotic choice. Family life at its very foundation defies this kind of capture. Fleeting snapshots have a way of showing what it really means, for a moment, to be in a family, and so do some novels and poems and films. But the flatness of digital content, combined with the limited affordances of a cute caption, is just about the worst medium representing what family really feels like.

It’s weird how the logic of branding has begun to inform the stylistic choices we make when trying to represent our families to our social networks. One example of a spirit of branding infiltrating the way families tell their stories is the widespread use of the phrase “raise good humans.”

“Raise good humans” is one of those internet phrases that kind of lives everywhere at this point. People use it as a hashtag and they incorporate it into their captions. There are many similar phrases — “raising them right” is another popular one, but “raising good humans” has really caught on. You can buy all kinds of merch printed with versions of this phrase. Brands invoke it as a way of identifying themselves to their followers as “one of the good guys,” although it’s become politically ambidextrous, appealing for different reasons to people all over the political spectrum.

My attempts at tracing the phrase’s origins on Instagram brought me to a creator named Sarah Komers who began selling Raise Good Humans T-shirts in early 2016. Her shirts were a hit and reached a level of visual ubiquity approaching “The Future Is Female” — a once-popular T-shirt graphic which was also a product of that early Trump era. “Raise good humans” is now all over the parenting internet, having expanded far beyond the realm of the shirts.

I don’t mean to pick on this individual creator and her shirts. There’s nothing wrong with making something that lots of people like. May she carry on and prosper. What I find fascinating is the precision with which the phrase “raise good humans” demonstrates why I think family life is such an awkward fit for social-media storytelling.

I don’t object to the sentiment behind the phrase. I think it’s fair to say no parent on earth would — it’s the absolute baseline, the x-axis on which we all anxiously rest. The parents of abusers and murderers are almost always trying to raise good humans. The parents of our political and personal enemies are trying to raise good humans.

The phrase is so general it becomes meaningless. In the absence of the poignancy achieved with art, social-media storytelling about family life usually leans heavily on platitudes, in the same way “I did a thing” became the way people once announced that something they had been working on was now complete. Talking about what pride, or relief, or love feels like is challenging, so we reduce our attempts to their bare bones and throw in a little wink of faux humility for flair.

In certain contexts, there’s a sinister undertone to “raise good humans” that rings almost fascist — in the way that a lot of fascism doesn’t realize it’s fascism until it’s too late and despots are in the midst of running nations into the ground. “Raise good humans” does unfortunately suggest the existence of bad humans, which is grim, especially since the humans in question are children. There are lots of Israelis who think Palestinians are not raising good humans, and vice versa. There are Americans who suspect their neighbors are not raising good humans, and this suspicion keeps them from supporting the funding of civic infrastructure like schools and libraries.

But let’s bring this back to the internet where it belongs. When I asked for help understanding why this phrase is so annoying to me, my friend Evie suggested that the use of the word “humans” instead of “children” implies an “interspecies conversation” that is cringe and dorky in the manner of “doggo.” She also said as a “self-hating millennial,” it would make sense for me not to like it, which is harsh but fair.

There is also something inadvertently grandiose about “raising good humans.” Oh, nothing, it seems to be saying. Just raising good humans! Again, this speaks to the awkwardness of creating digital content about family life. Raising a family is one of the most mundane things you can do, while also being (deep, sanctimonious breath) one of the most important. Calling attention to oneself in this way can seem like false modesty, or worse, like boasting about something that literally billions of other parents are doing without giving it a second thought.

But it can also seem defensive, depending on the context. One corner of the mamasphere where you see a lot of “raising good humans” is in the homeschooling space, in particular the large sphere of that world that is skeptical of government institutions and scientific methods. In this case, raising good humans is evoked as a humble (again — not really) act of resistance against an invisible world order hell-bent on turning children into brain-dead zombies addicted to screens, sugar, and social justice.

A final reason I object to the ethos of “raising good humans” is that it overdetermines a parent’s role in how their children turn out. Children aren’t raised like livestock on the hoof. They do not grow to reflect precisely the land they grew on. There is no assembly line of kindness or set of best practices for ensuring a child’s goodness. We can only do so much to influence how our children turn out. There is no way to express this sometimes stressful reality in the context of a social post, though. It’s much easier, and more befitting a successful personal brand, to presume that your best intentions will lead to the best possible outcome. But we all know that’s not how it works.

Social media has made it hard for us to express our feelings with nuance and honesty. The word “humbled” has long since been ruined by the way people misuse it as a brag. One is not humbled by an award or opportunity, one is honored. One is humbled by mistakes. Likewise, we aren’t raising good humans. We are attempting to raise people who are loving and loved in their communities. That’s really the best we can do. Everything else is privilege and luck.

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Why Does the Internet Tell Us to ‘Raise Good Humans’?