This article was first published on Technorati as Parenting In Our Time Part 2: Who Is Your Child . It is the second essay in a series entitled “Parenting In Our Time.”
It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement – that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.
– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
From time to time I lead parenting workshops in the U.S. and China. I begin the programs by asking the parents to reply briefly on a preprinted template sheet to four prompts:
- Please describe 3-5 of your child’s most significant traits.
- What are your child’s most evident talents?
- What are your child’s greatest challenges?
- What are your child’s most heartfelt hopes and dreams?
These questions provoke palpable distress. For a protracted period many of the participants stare into space, gnaw at their writing instrument, worry their fingernails, tug their hair. Eventually all the parents respond to some of the queries. Hardly any reply to #4.
Few fathers take part in the workshops. Many send word that they have sincere interest but no time because of the demands of their work. [Virtually all the mothers also work, almost always in professional positions at least as demanding as the fathers’.] When dads do attend our seminars, their replies to the questionnaire often disagree radically with the moms’.
My experience in workshops has been reinforced by a multitude of parent conferences in my capacities as a dean, a classroom teacher, and a school director. I’ve learned that few caregivers are convinced they know who their children are, and few converse comfortably with one another about this all-important subject. Not many women and men who partner in parenting have developed clear, definite, accurate understandings about their child’s consciousness, capabilities, tribulations, and aspirations.
Three universal misconceptions
The reason many parents find it hard to reply to the questionnaire is that we don’t often recognize our children as autonomous and distinctive persons. Consciously or unconsciously we regard our children as extensions of ourselves, markers of our legitimacy and worth in the communities in which we live.
In this context we commonly make three mutually reinforcing assumptions that are involuntary and unaware but powerful in their impacts – and most unfortunate in their consequences. Most parents believe:
1. My child is an entirely malleable blank slate. I can make her become whoever I think she ought to be.
2. My child is inherently uncivilized: unclean, indolent, underdeveloped, and not yet productive. My primary parental duty is to civilize him: make him hygienic, responsible, ambitious, and successful.
3. There exist definitive norms that at every stage in her development my child must achieve. No, must exceed. My child must excel, because my child is a reflection of me and I must be perceived as a normal – no, as a distinguished – person.
Why do we do this to our children?
We know these assumptions are false and injurious. We embrace them because we’re taught to embrace them. They’re socially programmed. Our parents believed them, and they inured them in us. Every society’s institutions enforce them. Every culture mandates them.
The assumptions are the more invidious because they’re subliminal. We don’t consciously recognize we’re experiencing them. Nor do we realize we’re imposing them upon the children we adore, thereby diminishing their individuality, hindering their inborn potential, and impeding their God-given freedom, dignity, and grace.
What part of us does this?
These terrible fallacies aren’t governed by our most empowered adult energies. They’re controlled by the inner child who always lives inside us. They’re maintained and managed by our primal memories of our own wounded youth and adolescence.
From the earliest moment that we were girls and boys we were compelled to acquire and yield to these obviously inaccurate and awful misconceptions about childhood. We’ve never outgrown them. How could we?
I believe our wounded, grieving, interior childhood personality reaches deeply into every aspect of our adulthood. Certainly it reaches into every aspect of our parenting. In crucial respects we continue as mothers and fathers to “know” what we were obligated to learn as children: that all human beings need to be circumscribed in order to be socialized, made “normal” in order to become valid and valuable.
This is why it’s so difficult, disorienting, and frightening for parents to reply to my seemingly simplistic questionnaire. We rarely can think of our daughter as a discrete, singular, authoritative person. We can’t easily conceive of our son as an independent, self-directed soul. We’re trained to regard our children as symbols or semaphores, prenatal social structures, incomplete civic sagas subject to our authorship and wholly dependent upon our ministry.
Like all of us Sigmund Freud made many errors in his thought and in his life. But he surely was wise, right, and healing when he taught that we frequently construct our lives’ most important beliefs and actions upon “false standards of measurement.” Without ever meaning to, we instinctively let our own early socialization distort our parental love. Without ever intending to, we commonly impart many of our own early wounds onto our loving, trusting children. And we give this tragedy such names as wisdom, maturity, and committed caregiving.
Our inner child’s suffering, grief, anger, and fear are real. But that’s all they are. That stuff is just residual internalized pain, sorrow, and rage. We can comprehend it. We can command it.
We can acknowledge and honor the tumultuous internal morass with which we must coexist – yet move beyond it to seek, find, cherish, nurture, and fiercely protect our children’s unique birthright humanity.
Who, then, is your child?
If you put aside our sad, sterile, unnecessary misconceptions about childhood you’ll discover your actual living child.
You’ll discover your daughter is herself. She is her own innate self and soul.
You’ll discover your son is himself. He is his own self-governing person and spirit.
We influence our children vastly, but who our children are is ordained. Their identity, nature, and future are intrinsic to themselves: related to us by genetics but sovereign, sacred, and free.
Every child’s essence is her own, or his. Our children are who they are, and they yearn and deserve to be seen for themselves, known, loved, and defended.
But what about norms?
Your child is subject to no social construct concerning type, mean, median, average, below-average, or above-average.
Each of us develops in our way, in our own time, for our own purposes that should not and ultimately cannot be defined or ruled by anyone else.
Our children are subject to no institution’s judgment about age-level appropriateness, grade-level achievement, or any other nonsensical imperative of quotient or percentile. Nor, for that matter, are we.
That is not what we are here for. Human beings are not born to replicate one another. We are not brought into existence in order to fulfill and reproduce preexisting criteria of commonalty.
We are granted life so that we will explore, experience, imagine, and act. Each one of us, child and adult alike, needs to do this in our own manner, with our own heritage of percepts, attainments, and challenges.
In this context “norms” are irrational and irrelevant. Our children don’t need to meet or exceed inapposite stereotypes. They need to identify, embrace, accomplish, and enact their maximum potential in every element and facet of their individual identity. They need to do this not to prove anything about us, but for their own sake and for the sake of the civilization of which we all are citizens.
The criterion of personal best – a criterion evident, indisputable, and sacral – has sweeping implications for teaching, learning, and assessment in all of our families, preschools, schools, and universities. We’ll discuss this cardinal subject in a subsequent essay.
What does my child want?
Again and again children of all ages tell me they want their parents and caregivers to know them, see them, hear them, and nonintrusively help them.
Again and again children tell me they feel lonely at home and solitary at school, underappreciated, expected to be someone they don’t know, don’t understand how to become, and don’t want to become. Someone taller, shorter. Thinner, less thin. More beautiful. More gregarious, less gregarious. Smarter, stronger, faster. This, that, or the other. Someone bigger, someone better. You know the drill. You remember it well.
Again and again children tell me they don’t need and don’t want money, things, lacquers or liquors. They need and want their parents to see them, know them, accept them, love them for themselves, and assist them as they find their own way on their own journey.
In future posts we’ll workshop how we better can accomplish our holy work of knowing, accepting, loving, and helping our children – and helping the hurt child who lives within our adult selves find understanding, forgiveness, love, and peace.