I’ve had some parents ask me to write about how living with these principles changes the act of parenting. The subtleties of this are difficult to convey in words, so while I may feel like I’m bouncing between different subjects, there is a central truth I’ll attempt to indicate through the juxtaposition and intersection of the ideas expressed below.
There is no getting around the fact that no matter what a parent does, every human being will still need to travel through phases of understanding as they age. No explanation can replace the act of the living through the experiences that later lead to certain inevitabilities, as is demonstrated by the fact that puberty brings on a sudden physical interest in the opposite sex. A parent who asks a child to behave as though they are not having those natural experiences is doomed.
Every human being’s identity—and therefore presumed capability—is created through the early experiences they have as a child. So up until they’re 18, a parent essentially represents the world to the child. Whatever the parent does for, or subjects the child to, will be whatever the child subconsciously expects of the world around them.
Parents who beat their kids either teach them to use physical violence as a response to anger or frustration, or they teach them to respond very strongly if any helpless child—or animal—is in jeopardy. This is why some news stories outrage some people, and not others. It depends on what conditioning you got.
Simply put, if the child blames you for your situation, then they will do the opposite of what you do. Otherwise they will blindly be the person their experiences dictated, without them even noticing it. They could change at any time with different thoughts, but who people are is really just the natural outcome of what their experiences lead them to believe.
For example, if a boy lives with the terror of uncertainty regarding when his father might come home drunk and beat him, then it wouldn’t be surprising that he would expect the world to be dangerous and uncertain and he might be inclined to get a job like policeman, where he would have a gun and authority and the ability to stop any chaos.
If a girl got molested then she may feel uncomfortable being touched by anyone, even people she loves and would like to be intimate with. And if a child is spoiled and given everything they ask for, then they will come to expect that the world will prioritize their needs and desires over others. Later, when the world inevitably fails to comply with the expectations of a poorly trained mind, much suffering will result. The parent will literally have taught the child how to suffer.
Parents routinely teach all kinds of concepts without much thought about whether or not those concepts truly exist. We teach fairness and yet fail to mention that what’s fair depends a lot on your values and your perspective. We teach honesty and yet we lie in front of kids routinely. (“Oh sorry, no we can’t come over for dinner, we’re booked that night,” and you’re not. etc. etc. etc.) We say learning is good, and yet inevitable mistakes are too often met with anger, which teaches the child to fear being wrong, not to mention it’s likely to create another angry parent.
Too often parents worry more about and react to how a child’s behaviour reflects on them as a parent, rather than remembering that through their responses they are teaching their child how to react to the world. A compassionate response to a mistake means you will be teaching your child to respond to people’s errors with compassion rather than anger.
It’s a very simple cause-and-effect formula. But too many parents are not doing this calculation simply because it isn’t convenient. They don’t want the answer to this question. Because then they will have to change. And particularly for the very weak—the spoilers—this is a painful experience. Setting limits (and learning to set them) is a key life skill, so continually caving in to the demands of a child is to live a contradiction, and that contradiction will do absolutely no good for the child’s future.
Do not build the idea of an ugly or a beautiful world within your child. Simply teach them a patient, healthy, loving response to whatever their life brings. Because if they’re in a patient, loving, healthy state of mind, it really won’t matter much what’s going on around them. They will not only be well off, they will attract other healthy people to them.
Parenting is infinitely complex and easily the most difficult job in the world, and yet it is simple in that there only two things to do: 1) ensure the child knows they belong and that they are loved, and 2) ensure they have all of the necessary skills to survive and prosper without you. The rest is gravy.
You don’t need to buy your kid’s loyalty. You don’t need to beat sense into them. Your kids don’t need to be told what to do, they need to know how to approach things in principle. They need your example, your time, your patience and your wisdom—not to grow up the way you want them to, but rather to grow into effective versions of who they naturally are.
Healthy child-rearing is far less like teaching and far more like cultivation. Children don’t need to be directed or shaped as much as they need to be nurtured and supported. Because ultimately a parent does not decide what kind of child to raise, they discover what kind of child they have been blessed with. Once they have recognized that, they can offer responses that are appropriate to the growth and development of the person their child already is.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.