The Invisible Suffering of Children
So much of what children do today they do because of fear of consequences.
Posted Jan 18, 2013
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.