– I am, a stride at a time. [James Joyce, Ulysses]
For more than forty years, I have taught literature, history, consciousness, and writing as a senior teacher and administrator in schools and universities. In the context of these profound and elemental fields of learning, students of all ages often have confided in me with uncommon intimacy and trust.
From my students I have learned that nothing in life is more important for human beings than our experience of parenting. How we are parented almost always determines how we conceive of ourselves, other people, life, and the universe: how we exist, how we seek, what we achieve, and what we accomplish.
There is no single method or formulaic means of parenting that is suitable for every parent and ideal for every child. However, children do seem to experience several universal requirements.
What children need
Children have three fundamental and essential needs. They need their parents to:
1. Know their true nature
2. Love their true nature
3. Nurture their true nature
The child’s true nature
Children need their parents to know them for who they actually and individually are. This sounds both simple and evident. It is neither.
We accept that all of us have unique fingerprint whorls, retina patterns, and speech timbres. We understand that all of us have singular DNA compositions. We realize that every snowdrop is distinctive and matchless. We believe in theory that every human being also is unique, singular, distinctive, and matchless. In the lives we live, though, we often find it impossible to apply this belief to our children.
Instead, parents vision their children. Many parents attempt to program their children. Consciously and unconsciously, we hope and expect – in many cases, we require – that our children will evolve into people who will fulfill our preexisting ideas about them. Frequently these ideas express one or more paradigmatic but hidden aspects of our negative egotism:
- Our dreams about ourselves. We want our children to be the person we wish we had become.
- Our parents’ dreams about ourselves. We want our children to fulfill our parents’ expectations about us. We ask our children to remedy our inability to fulfill our parents’ often unreasonable hopes and requirements. We require our children to accomplish the inevitably incomplete missions of our childhood.
- Our ideals about our identity in society. We want our children to reflect to the world our normalcy, rectitude, and consequence. We demand our children demonstrate by their commitments, manner, and achievements that we are correct, worthy, responsible, good adults.
We rarely consciously apprehend when we surrender to any of these subliminal impulses. No doubt we always leaven our irrational and unfair impulses with authentic love. However, our children invariably discern, fear, and resent our unconscious contortions. And in their fright and anger about the manipulations we unknowingly impose upon them, they often cannot detect the true love that shapes and informs our behaviors.
What do children do with their frustrations?
How do children express their frustrations with our parenting?
Often they don’t know that they do feel frustrated. Children rarely understand themselves any better than we parents understand ourselves.
In any event, it might not matter if children could fully comprehend their wish not fulfill our subliminal agendas. Children rarely can advocate for themselves, and they almost never can acquire advocacy from society. Society is primarily organized by and for adults.
In time, though, all children discover that they do have abundant power. Primal, prepotent power. Later we will talk much more about children’s reluctant discovery and complex, uneager exercise of their unique authority.
The sad struggle
We who parent continuously struggle to impose our unconscious preconceptions and our seemingly all-powerful will upon our children. But over the course of their developmental years, our children invariably find ways to demonstrate and eventually to embody their inherent character and true constitution. In every element and aspect of their existence, they express their sensibility and enact their personality. They display their likes, tastes, wants, and talents. They indicate their dislikes, disinterests, and disinclinations – the sum of which conveys not necessarily their weaknesses, but rather their own preferences and potential life directions.
All children expect that the parents who birthed them will know them, and will rejoice in their inborn nature. They expect we will hear them, see them, and revel in their unadulterated actuality. Not prefer them to be different from who they actively are. Not require them to fulfill mandates external to their spirit and psyche. Not oblige them to develop interests and talents they lack. Not hector and hound them to become replicas of other, somehow more desirable children. Not yearn or insist that they be thinner, taller, prettier, more handsome, more graceful, smarter, more practical, more spiritual, more this, more that.
Every daughter and every son’s most urgent life need is to become known, accepted, and cherished by other people: particularly and principally by their own parents. At one or another level of awareness, every child thinks, always: I reveal my spirit and my soul to you so clearly. Please see me, hear me, know me. Please love me: “As I am. As I am. All, or not at all.” [These lines are spoken by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses.]
If we can recognize and love our children’s intrinsic character and consciousness, we can devote our parenting to fostering all the passion, confidence, capability, and creativity with which life or The Divine has gifted them. We can help them build their own pathways of power. We can help them incubate, protect, and limitlessly expand their sacred infinite potential for happiness and success.
This is not an easy role, for we often cannot help but respond to our own fierce subliminal drives: our need to fulfill our parents’ imperatives, our mandate to be perceived in our community and culture as adequate and correct adults, our yearning that our child will evolve into the person we hoped to become.
Our task – this should be a joyful mission – also is challenging because our children may well be different from ourselves. Radically different. Am I by birth, predilection, and choice mathematically inclined? Devoted to and gifted at intellection, cerebration, calculus, the numeric? What if my daughter in her mind and soul is an intuitive? What if she possesses the faculty of attaining to direct cognition and knowledge without evident rational thought and inference? What if she’s an ecstatic, and doesn’t thrill at all to the discipline of numbers and their operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions, the science of space configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations? It may be that my daughter, unlike me, was birthed to become a poet. Perhaps a savant. A healer. My opposite, yet not apostate. My opposite, but not my opponent.
Our children need from us precisely what we needed from our parents, and most likely did not completely receive. Our children need us to perceive, treasure, and nourish their genuine essence and identity. They need us to help that flourish. Not fear it. Not dread it. Not prefer something else to it. Not improve it.
The social imperative
We want our children to understand, embrace, and develop their full inborn potential. However, we also want them to comprehend, move fluidly within, and ideally exercise effective and just leadership upon their social and civic surround. We need them to establish what we have sought to establish: a suitable balance between their innate sensibility and the civilization that houses their individuality and enables its power.
This is the ultimate project of our children’s selfhood and our parenting: how to create a middle path between the extremism of unfettered personality and overly intolerant conformism.
We continue this conversation in an essay entitled: “What children need – 2.”