There’s a curious irony to my practice in that, if a couple is sitting in front of me concerned about their teenaged child, I will almost invariably meet a solid young person who might be struggling with understanding the world, but they’re working from a strong and sturdy foundation provided by good parents. They can reason, and they have a good understanding of value. These are children whose parents have always reacted proactively to concerns.
Being responsible in that way, those sorts of parents have generally raised their children using principles rather than rules. Assumptions, opinion, and learning are not the same as discovery, reason and understanding. The parents raising wise kids aren’t worried about what other people will think of them for bringing them to someone like me —they have the kid’s interests first. So if there’s a way for the child to achieve better reasoning and understanding, they promote that.
At this point it’s important to point out that I’m not defining groups of good parents and bad parents. These are equal people who approach parenting from two different perspectives, that produce two different results. But if people don’t connect the approach to the results, then they can easily and innocently use methods that are less successful, and then blame the bad results on the child.
That distinction is important because one approach quite logically and naturally leads to largely calm, self-reliant, patient, tolerant and strong people. The other approach is not wrong, it just naturally leads to more drama, neediness, impatience, intolerance and weakness.
The issue today is, the current addiction to ego that the Western world is suffering under is amplifying the number of people in the latter group, and over time we will see that impact on our societies. Fewer and fewer people want to discipline their kids because they don’t want to admit even to themselves that their kid isn’t doing well. If they do that, then an insecure parent will see that as them ‘failing’ as a parent, rather than it being simply that the child is ready for more learning.
It’s understandable that, if judgment is high in society, many people will hide from it rather than face it. That being the case, life today is often not about being real and growing; it’s about pretending to already be perfect. If you’ve ever untagged yourself from an unflattering facebook photo then you know what this reaction to judgment feels like. We withdraw from it. But we cannot let our fear of judgment get in the way of arming our kids with the skill sets they need to live rewarding lives.
When I was still in high school, I was shovelling snow once with my Dad, and I was thinking about a guy at school who had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. It made me realize that the physical world was ready for me to be a dad, but my mind hadn’t even imagined that possibility until my buddy’s situation. So I asked my Dad how a parent is supposed to know what to do to raise their kid? And my Dad’s answer was, “You just teach them what they need to know to live without you.”
It was simple and elegant and humble and just like my Dad. From there, the only question is, how far you take the qualifier: “need to know.” Because some parents think their kids need to know sports stats, or how fix computers, or that they have to have a college degree. But others are focused less on specific bits of knowledge, and more on the principles employed to gain knowledge.
At this point we might fairly ask, what’s a principle, versus what’s a belief that we’re essentially taught to believe is true but that may not be? Here’s some examples that might pertain to kids of different ages:
A kid can be taught the belief that some genre of music is stupid or bad, or brilliant or good. In contrast, they could be taught the components of music, exposing them to a lot of different forms, which thereby lets them find out what appeals to them as individuals distinct from their parents.
A kid can be taught to vote in this or that way because it’s the parent believes it’s ‘smarter,’ when that doesn’t even make sense in a democracy. The idea in a democracy isn’t that one group is smart and the other group is dumb. It’s that everyone has strengths and useful perspectives and we’ll make wiser decisions if we everyone’s perspectives are taken into account. So the principled kids should vote for whoever they feel is taking the most people into account, not for some specific person or party their parents told them to.
Some kids are taught they have a right to scream, irritate, damage or even destroy the value that exists in someone else’s time or space. In contrast, other kids understand that society is made up of how everyone treats everyone else. If we want a healthy society then we all have to do our part by modelling cooperative behaviour even when it might not be convenient for us personally. It’s like the rules of the road. They’re not there to be tyrannical. They’re not there because we’re stupid. They’re a set of principles that allow us all to function successfully as a group.
Some kids are taught that we should never have to wait for anything, and if we do our response should be to complain, versus understand. Alternatively, others are taught that the world will absolutely leave us waiting, quite routinely. If we don’t develop the brain wiring for waiting and patience, then we can grow into one of those insane 50 year olds who beats the crap out of the inside of their car during traffic jams. Waiting is part of life and it’s a skill parents need to both exhibit and demand to ensure that the child learns the necessary skills to exist in the world as it is.
In the end, each parents has two routes: we can teach a child to make the same decisions we make, or we can teach the child how the world works and then they can make up their own mind about how to function successfully within it. It’s like memorizing math tables versus actually understanding what the concept of multiplication means. In one case, the child is simply repeating what they were told. But in the other they actually understand and are capable. One group cannot adapt or change or accommodate other views, whereas the latter group is open, humble and flexible.
In the taught group there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers and a kid can be disciplined for getting the wrong answer. In the discovery group a kid can only misunderstand, and so nothing more than further explanation/discovery is required. It’s not that the kid was wrong, it was only that their understanding had been limited by limited information or experience. To increase experience is to increase understanding.
In the end, we don’t raise successful kids by telling them how the world works and by telling them what decisions to make. We raise successful kids by showing them how the world works and then let them make their own choices based on the wisdom and common sense that comes naturally to all human beings who don’t have it replaced with a parent’s beliefs instead.
If you’re reading this and you’re questioning your parenting skills, remember, your kids are amazing. They are capable. They are naturally cooperative and generous and compassionate. They need less than we think. As long as we don’t teach them to hate others, and don’t teach them to expect or demand or want, then nature alone can leave them feeling quite strong.
For a person internally, this life isn’t about external achievements, it’s about the experiences we have while succeeding or failing. If we teach them to be fully alive in this world, then we will have introduced them to a way of being that will lead to the best kind of life possible: a full and rewarding one. Not one devoid of pain. But one that can derive value from the experience of pain.
In addition to the points made herein, I recently read a couple of blogs that discussed other important aspects of parenting and so I’m including links to them below. But just remember, healthy kids aren’t built, they’re raised. They’re not taught what we believe, they’re exposed to knowledge. Rather than being good at following rules, they can instead come to a better understanding of how things work.
We’re best not to teach kids what we know. We’re better to teach them how to verify their own discoveries. That’s a humble process that we can join them in and it will be good for all involved. So take the pressure off yourself. We don’t need to describe the world to children. We simply have to ensure we open their eyes as wide as possible. From there they will amaze us with their brilliance. So if you have kids now, here’s to a great day with your little burgeoning geniuses.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.