Acquired Spontaneity

Thoughts and practices for personal and social transformation

The Invisible Suffering of Children

So much of what children do today they do because of fear of consequences.

Intense and terrible, I think, must be the loneliness
Of infants… 

– Edna St. Vincent Millay (untitled)

...by the time [the infant] is taken to his [sic] mother’s home (surely it cannot be called his) he is well versed in the character of life. On the preconscious level plane that will qualify all his further impressions, as it is qualified by them, he knows life to be unspeakably lonely, unresponsive to his signals, and full of pain.

 – Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept

I am not a parent, and I cannot speak with the authority of a parent. I closely followed one child’s upbringing, which has been one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had, convincing me, despite being a sample of one, of what’s possible. Sadly, I am limited in my ability to talk about the glorious vision of that possibility of parenting without alienating at least some parents. I am quite concerned that this piece, in which I talk about my own pain about how children are raised, can do exactly this instead of inviting reflection, dialogue, and mutual exploration to find ways of supporting both parents and children to find meaning, peace, and joy in their shared lives.

Before completing this piece, I spoke with a few people, including two parents, about this limitation of mine. I deeply long to find full, vibrant compassion for the extraordinary challenges that parents face, especially in today’s world, where the support systems for parents are so limited, where the harshness of the life we have created is reaching intense proportions, where the entire future of our species is uncertain. I hope very much that these conversations helped me move closer to embodying this understanding, and am explicitly inviting you, the readers of this piece, to give me feedback, especially if you disagree with me.

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Turning off Feelings in Order to Parent

I was visiting some friends for an extended dinner and evening plans that included friends of theirs from out of town who had two daughters, ages two and four. At some inevitable point, the younger girl was told it was her bed time, and was sent off to another room. When left alone in that room, she started crying, and continued for quite some time. I was completely unable to focus on anything else, my heart clenching in distress at her agony. Her father, who was sitting in front of me, looked entirely unperturbed. Eventually, I didn’t find a way to contain my discomfort, and asked him how he could hear her cry and not suffer as a result. I realize, in retrospect, this is a loaded question, and I hope that were this to happen today I would know how to handle the situation with a whole lot more empathy for him than I was able to muster at the time. Regardless, his response continues to reverberate in my mind, more than fifteen years later. He looked me in the eye, and explained to me that in order to be able to give children what they need, parents simply must learn to turn off their emotions, so they can hear their children cry and not be disturbed by it. I almost started crying myself when I heard him. He was telling me that in order to parent, an act of love if any there is, he had to turn off his emotions. Even while writing this, I feel helpless, knowing that many who may read these words will see the world in the same way that he does, and not knowing how to make the plight of children visible and understood, how to help all of us see that this father’s emotions are the most reliable indicators of his own heart’s well-being, and that I wish so much that he listened to his heart instead of shutting it off to do what he fervently believed was the right thing to do. It’s clear to me that he suffered, too, not only his daughter. 

The challenge is quite enormous, in part, because what I see as the routine mistreatment of children is not motivated by hatred, social distance, the misguided quest for power, or economic benefit and exploitation, which is what has motivated some more pernicious systems of oppression. The tragedy I perceive is that the vast majority of parents genuinely act on the basis of love and their best and deepest understanding of what would most serve their children, and yet they engage in reward and punishment, nowadays referred to as “consequences,” use their superior physical strength and access to resources to impose their will on children, and are often unable to provide the kind of supportive ear, mirroring presence, and relaxed acceptance that are so essential to every child’s thriving. 

Learning, Consequences, and Love

I’m not talking here about people who harm their children, either in desperation or in active intent. I am talking about the experience of loss of choice that comes from within because so much of what children do they do because of fear of consequences. I am talking about being in public places and seeing parents interacting with their children and most of what I hear is “do this” or “don’t do that.” I am talking about children being deprived of the possibility of knowing inside what they want because everything is determined for them. 

This is why so many of us, adults, have to work so, so hard to learn again to know what we want so we can truly choose instead of being gripped by “should,” “have to,” or “can’t” on the one hand, and “can’t help myself,” or “what can I get away with” on the other. We so often live in internal submission or rebellion instead of choosing from the deep clarity of knowing what we want and what the effect on others might be.

Of course everyone will want their children to learn deeply the effect of their actions - that’s what the real consequences are. However, what most children experience, because that’s what most adults know, is imposed consequences, stemming from the parent’s intent in teaching a lesson. Whether or not a lesson is learned, all that happens is then wrapped up in fear, which limits the child’s ability to truly learn anything. 

For many, it’s OK for children to be afraid – if that’s what it takes for them to learn the harsh lessons of life, to be prepared for later. From their perspective, the parents are lovingly offering the children the sacrifice of their own willingness to do the hard job of parenting, so the children will understand how life and society work. What a terrible and painful bind for all. I still wonder whether, deep down, parents ultimately wish for a world in which life is not so hard and therefore their children wouldn’t have to be “trained” for it. I imagine it may just be too painful to hold that wish consciously. 

The Norm and an Alternative

Because the only alternative to coercion that we generally know of is permissiveness, even people who are actively engaged in social transformation, who are passionate about social justice and equality for all, often stop short of including the children. Whereas, at least in theory and by law, it is no longer acceptable to view or treat women, people of color, people with disabilities, and other groups as inferior, or to deprive them of choice (though I am aware that these struggles are still very much ongoing and far, far from complete), there isn’t even a pretense of equality with regards to children. Children are still legally the possession of their parents or the state; they are still perceived, using language and scientific proof previously used against blacks or women, as less capable of reason and immature, and denied the vast majority of privileges that are the norm for adults. For the vast majority of adults children are still expected to obey, comply, and adapt to the norms of adult living.

I, on the other hand, have never ever lost the perspective of the child, looking at the world, looking at what adults do, and feeling absolutely incredulous and heartbroken. I remember, vividly, what it was like to be a child in a world set up for adults. I remember, vividly, believing that there was some kind of conspiracy of everyone above sixteen against the little ones. I remember taking notes to myself, thinking through the many situations, so I would remember, when I would have the children I didn’t yet know then that I wouldn’t choose to have, and treat them differently from how I was treated and how I saw my fellow children being treated. Whenever I see an adult act in coercive, punitive, or harsh way toward a child, I lose some of my capacity to hold that adult with empathy.

I want to name the alternative as I see it, and to provide a pointer for a rich set of resources available for those who are hungry for a vision of parenting that upholds the full dignity and autonomy of children, is committed to sharing power, and is fueled by the passion for attending to everyone’s needs.

Here’s a story that illustrates the alternative for me. This past Sunday, I started a new yearlong program here in the Bay Area called “Leveraging Your Influence Using Nonviolent Communication” (still accepting new people, and there is an East Coast residential retreat version that’s coming up in April). Among the people who joined was a fifteen-year-old girl. As we opened the circle, each person was asked to express what brought them to the program. The girl, wowing all of us with her poise and clarity, explained to us that it wasn’t her first choice to be in this program, and that she chose to do it because she wants to be with her family on Sunday, it would in any event be difficult for her to get to church on her own on a Sunday, she loves Nonviolent Communication and it’s been super helpful for their family, and she wants to support her mother and her partner, who want to be there, because she understands what it means for their work. When I asked to hear more, she went on to explain that it was clear to her that she could say she didn’t want to come, and then they wouldn’t do the program. This is the absolute key to this possibility: because she knows she will not be forced, she could access true generosity. It is generosity we want from our children, not compliance. Compliance will never contribute to a new generation of people able to respond empathically, to act in line with their deepest values, or take a courageous stand despite fear of consequences. Similarly, the antidote to coerciveness is trust, not permissiveness. When we raise children with the trust that their needs matter as much as the adults’ needs, there is simply no reason to submit or rebel; there is nothing to rebel against! By extension, if you have children and they are rebellious, chances are good that even without meaning to you are using coercion.

At the end of the rich day, the girl came to me and thanked me for being so flexible about money, which enabled her family to come. She wouldn’t have been comfortable to come if her presence meant that they would be asked to pay more than they can. I thanked her and told her how much of a gift she was to me, and she smiled, saying it was a pleasure to contribute to me. The flow was exquisite, all day long (and continued in our interactions about getting her permission to write about this). This girl is not unique, either. I have had exactly similar experiences with quite a number of children and teenagers who have been raised in partnership. Even very young ones have a true sense of their own power, and a complete interest in the other’s well being, quite beyond what theories of child development would predict. 

I feel profoundly passionate about this topic for two reasons. One is personal, because of my own personal feelings, the vividly remembered anguish of my own childhood, and the ongoing agony of children I see around me, anonymous to me in most cases and intensely poignant. The other is because I know that unless we change the ways of parenting and teaching, the next generation will have just as much trouble finding their inner sense of meaning, choice, dignity, and self-acceptance as the many, many people I have seen in many countries who struggle. I cannot see how we can change the systems of power in the world without changing the foundational relationship in which we get imprinted and imprint others with an understanding of how power works. This is important to me because I also cannot imagine how we can transform our relationship with nature and with consumption so we can turn the tide of destruction raging on the planet. 

Resources for You

I said I wanted to point to some little known resources, and that’s next. If you are curious, if you are a parent, if you are a teacher, or know parents, I want to take this opportunity to invite you to a unique upcoming online and phone parenting conference offered by the NVC Academy: a “virtual conference packed with world renowned parenting speakers and … the latest cutting-edge parenting information on brain science, healthy brain development in children, and practical tips for parenting from your heart even when feeling stress.”

In addition, I am excited to point you to a set of written resources and a CD created by my sister Inbal Kashtan, who has pioneered this approach to parenting in her family with her partner, and who has theorized, practiced, and trained hundreds of other parent trainers. These materials are available through the NVC Academy’s newly launched NVC Marketplace. Inbal addresses in her materials all the tough questions about limits, power, and the realities of daily living among others. She will also be one of the featured speakers at the parenting conference above. I truly hope, for your benefit, for your children, and for the future of humanity, that you explore these opportunities.

I also want to let you know about the new way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. Each Tuesday at 5:30pm Pacific time, starting February 5th, you will have an opportunity to participate in a teleconference to discuss the previous week’s post, usually posted by Thursday. Almost all weeks the teleconference will be facilitated by me, except when I am on a teaching tour, in which case a trusted colleague will be facilitating instead. Those who sign up will also have an additional set of reflection questions available to them in preparation for the conference call. For more information, click here.

Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and serves as its lead facilitator and trainer.

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