Since I wrote my piece on The Invisible Suffering of Children, I have received a fair amount of commentary, both on the blog and off it. I am not surprised, as I knew I was walking into charged territory. In this response, I want to address some of the threads of what came.
I want to reflect, in particular, about three comments I got from father, mother, and late teen son from the same family, Rick, Sarah, and Leo, all of whom I know personally and love. What a treasure that has been. What most surprised me is that it was Leo, the son, who is the oldest of three, not his parents, who raised the issue of boundaries and the question of children’s need for security. Rick and Sarah, on the other hand, were speaking, in different ways, for the excruciating struggle of what it’s like to want to parent in the ways I describe and to run against obstacles – both external and internal. The external obstacles take the form of inability to manage it all alone in a society that leaves parents without clear support structures and makes their children their own problems. This is contrasted with societies in which the village that it proverbially takes to raise a child is actually there, and children are tended to by everyone. How can one parent, even two, handle three or more children with challenges, and provide the level of presence, engagement, creative thinking, and flexibility that are required for living a collaborative life? This echoes, also, the comment by another person that invited me to think and reflect more prominently about the role of the systems and structures within which parents raise their children. It’s a pioneering act to parent children in the ways I allude to in our kind of culture. Pioneering anything means, by necessity, not having sufficient support structures, and therefore being called to task more than is sometimes humanly possible.
This is where the external and the internal meet. All of us are the products of millennia of authority-based thinking, as well as our own personal upbringings. In order to parent in a way that’s different from what’s out there, from what our own parents did, from what the vast majority of books and advice columns continue to say, we need to be able to take on the internalized version of it and work with it to regain our own freedom of choice. In any area this is challenging. In parenting more than anywhere. It requires making friends with our own wounded childhood, accepting the vulnerability inherent in life, recognizing wholeness and brokenness as coexisting in each of us, and being humble enough to not know. It takes letting go of the idea that we are responsible for what our children become, and that they reflect on us. That we are supposed to be able to control their behavior. That they are different, immature, incapable just because they are, like all of us ultimately, dependent and in need. I bow to you all, the parents who try. I mourn with you for your shortcomings, and I pray that your children can recognize that you tried.
As I was reading the comments and reflecting in conversation with others, I came to a place of clarity about myself: it’s far easier for me to have compassion for the parents who try, who want to live the relationship of trust and collaboration with their children and run into obstacles, than for the parents who believe that controlling children is the right thing to do. I know these are not entirely distinct, either. Somewhere, I would like to believe that every parent, even the most philosophically authoritarian, would be open to collaborative approaches if they trusted the results and the feasibility. In this moment it seems likely to me that the initial collective descent into the attempt to control – nature, children, ourselves – may well have started from overwhelm and desperation about how to maintain life, how to survive, in the face of obstacles. I hope so very much to keep growing in my empathy towards parents and everyone who believes in controlling. I fully recognize it as my limitation that I am not there – in that sense I am like the parents… I want to, and am running into internal obstacles in the form of my own anguish about the world, especially as it relates to children.
I haven’t yet addressed Leo’s concern about children’s need for security, and the conclusion that he draws from it that some amount of willingness to choose against the child’s wishes is essential for their child’s well-being. I cannot improve on what my sister Inbal articulates in her writings on the topic of limits, I can only try to capture it in a few words here, and hope that her full article will be available soon through the NVCMarketplace. There is no question in my mind that part of the process of learning about life and the world involves facing limits. Where I differ is in what constitutes limits. Just as much as we have natural consequences and enforced consequences, we can have natural limits or arbitrary limits. The latter are imposed by parents – bedtime, rules, and the like. The former are created by life itself, most often in the form of the adults in the picture attending to their own needs. In this way, the limits that the child encounters are relational and real, and working them out is an interdependent process rather than an arbitrary rule. I see such limits as the best chance we have of raising children who have awareness of others’ needs instead of acting out of fear of punishment without deeply understanding and integrating the significance of things.
This is not to say that there won’t be moments of extreme anguish for both parents and children in trying to sort things out. Each interaction in which the parents are able to step into the willingness to surf the intensities with their children builds trust over time. I remember, for example, a time when my sister experienced alarm at something her son wanted to do that was clearly dangerous, perhaps it was something about poking his fingers into an electric outlet. He was, perhaps, 18 months old at the time. What she said to him was something like this: “You know that I never say “no” to you without reason. I don’t know how to explain to you why this is dangerous. Can you trust me and stop doing it?” Because of that trust, because at that age he already knew that his needs mattered and were part of the picture, including his need for autonomy, he could relax and let go without any need for restraint. If you watch the video interview I made with him on YouTube, you will hear him describe one of the very few instances in which force was being used, when it was a matter or potential life and death. I recognize, to loop back to the compassion for parents, that having one child and being able to homeschool is a different story that has a lot of privilege in it compared to having several children and navigating the exigencies of work and schools.
In conclusion: the intentionality matters, and it is far from sufficient. Without radical changes in the way our society is structured such that parents have more support, children have more support, and overall we live in ways that honor all of our needs, it is highly unlikely that most parents would be able to make the huge shifts on their own.
I feel grateful to everyone who responded, and look forward to continued engagement into the future.