I have written directly about a portion of the discourse I want to take up in this post in some detail before, and referred to this notion multiple times. Thus far, however, I have only closely considered the “no” side of the equation. I want to spend some time today talking more about the “yes” side of parenting. I’ll explain more what I mean by that in a minute, but first, I want to lay a particular foundation of perspective on the role of the parent in child-rearing.
I don’t want to waste your time with remedial parenting concepts, but for those of you who haven’t thought about it, or have been taught the opposite, or once knew but have forgotten — there are two basic perspectives/approaches to raising children. One idea is that we as parents have to continually curb and redirect the otherwise negative impulses of the pretty little chaos balls affectionately called kids (which is the same thing we call baby goats). The other version is that people are born essentially good and kind, and they just need to be educated in how our current society manages the expression of those natural drives. One path is dominated by containment, control, and demand for compliance; the other by empowerment, trust, and cooperation. One is the domain of “No.”. The other is the land of “Yes!”. Depending on which side of this proverbial coin we find ourselves, we will either be more inclined to be a force for narrowing our children’s scope of experience (and therefore the scope of their development as well), or a force for broadening their horizons (and thereby increasing the potential of their development).
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good reasons for a decisive “No”. The problem is simply that too often, if you’ve been brought up or taught to think of the first camp as the superior one, the “no”‘s can quickly get completely out of hand and become a habitual and unnecessarily common response. The main issues with too many “no”‘s are that they get weaker and weaker the more often they are employed, and they put us on the losing end of our children’s biology. Our children have a serious, almost insuppressible urge to experience — to explore, to create, and to enjoy being. That is their prime directive, and this drive must be honoured — the mind-body system won’t let them be daunted in this task. If we fail to meet this need and/or continually subjugate it to our preferences for control and homogeneity and social etiquette, then with or without our kids’ knowledge of it or ability to control it, that biological impulse will find other expressions. Period. This is why so many parents, once headed down the “no” road, find themselves doing Bill Cosby impressions all day — “No, no, no-no-no-no-no, no, NO!”. They’ve inadvertently stopped-up the normal flow of exploratory impulses so much that it is springing leaks all over the place, and generally the leaks are much worse (i.e. messier, less socially acceptable, and/or otherwise harder to handle), and take more work to stop — both, because there is “pent-up’ force behind them, and because the methods of stopping them simultaneously get less and less a/effective.
Wilhelm Reich (a well-known student of Freud’s in his day) theorized in depth about this mechanism of human biology, and although he is sometimes discounted because of his other theories (see “cloud busters”), I think he got it absolutely right on this one. In his estimation, when the normal impulse drives of a child are repeatedly thwarted and/or repressed, then the child forms an energetic block in a corresponding part of the physical body that in the eventual becomes what Reich called “neuro-muscular and character armor”. The armor then takes over the repression of the corresponding impulses and thereby creates neuroses. So it is a potentially serious trespass against our children to regularly thwart their need to experience and let their natural impulses flow freely.
The bottom line for the moment is that if we choose, or have been duped into choosing, the parenting approach of constantly controlling our kids’ behaviors, and wind up getting caught in the habit of “no”-ing our way through every day — we are doing our children a life-long disservice. The parenting mythology that presides over much of what we think of as “normal” and “right” for how to raise our children would have us think that if we don’t control them they will be out of control — but the reality is that the more we try to control them, the more they shift toward a systemic lack of self-control.
But enough about that at present — let’s flip that coin over and take a look at the other side, shall we?
If we adopt the second of the two general parenting perspectives I listed above, and seek instead to reside in an attitude of acceptance, allowance, and empowerment of our children’s natural drives toward exploration and experience, then pretty much the entire terrain of raising our children is altered for the better (that is, for the easier and the more developmentally productive). If we make “yes” our habitual response, look for ways to meet our children’s needs (in this case, a need for information about/interaction with life), and work with our children toward finding mutually satisfying means of honouring their inner drives, then we not only make it easier for them to do exactly what they have come here to do, but we also make it easier for us to get cooperation from them when we need it. Put another way, if we aren’t constantly thwarting their impulses, then fewer of those impulses will need to find side-exits and/or other (less desirable) avenues of expression. And remember, the secondary and tertiary avenues of expressing these repressed drives are almost always less desirable — both to us and to our children’s developing psyches.
Now let’s be very mindful here, I know we are treading dangerously close to that dreaded chasm of Permissiveness… I know we have quite a bit of cultural fear and mythos built around what happens if you just let these lawless half-pints run free. I know there’s even some decent research that seems to show that “kids with no boundaries” turn out worse than “kids raised under an iron thumb”. So, I want it to be clear — both for those of you who do carry some fear of permissiveness and those who don’t — I am not talking about turning a blind eye to what your children do, giving them the green light to run recklessly amuck, or ignoring issues when they arise. And further, I am not even trying to tell you to blindly agree to everything your kids want or begin.
My point here is really only to argue that our job as parents is to nurture growth — that is, to give what is needed to grow. We want them to grow strong, well-rooted, and full. The seed of the oak doesn’t need to be held back from becoming a thorn bush — it just needs to be allowed to become the tree it was born to be. Our children are born to become healthy, happy adults, and they are destined by their own biology to mature in flawless fashion — so long as we don’t blow the whole operation with mistrust, anxiety, disconnection, or ill-concieved plans to dominate the natural processes of development with 50’s Behaviorist psycho-babble.
Therefore, and in order to best serve the natural progression(s) of our children’s development, I believe in the following:
• When our children want to explore, want to try something out, want to taste CD’s, or draw on themselves — we let them. If isn’t a big deal and — as Alfie Kohn so eloquently charges in Unconditional Parenting — if we don’t have a reason to say, “No,” then we say, “Yes!”. We make room, make way, and make nice about it — we don’t try to make our children feel guilty about it, or gross, or in any way unacceptable — when we allow their impulses, we do it with a smile.
• When we can’t, or (the virtual equivalent) we really don’t want to agree to or allow the current experiment, we don’t immediately or automatically refuse. Instead, we do one or more of these:
- We empathize — as much as we are able while rooted in our own shoes, we try to get a sense of what it’s like over there in the kid-shoes. They just want to do stuff, and they unconsciously know that it is in their best interest to do stuff and lots of it. They’re driven — without being able to ascertain why — to just go for it. And it’s hard to fit that into a prim, ordered, almost mechanical adult world. It’s really hard to be all jazzed about some idea and have the overlords blare “NO” in your face without any good reason. It’s really really hard to just suck it up, when you get blown out of the water time and time again. When we can get in touch with those feelings — it softens our rigidity, and reminds us to be more allowing, and to make room for healthy development.
- We defer — generally by saying something like, “Yes you can do that tomorrow,” or “After lunch,” or we offer some other version of delaying the timing so that we can get on board with the idea, and/or finish what we are doing in order to assist, etc..
- We negotiate — we look for a way or ways to honour our preferences and boundaries while still making room for honouring their preferences and drives. Sometimes it may only require a simple tweaking of arrangements, other times it takes a delicate and empathetic finesse. Either way, it is worthwhile in the moment, and in the long-term for the modeling and bond-maintenance it offers.
- We address the root need — we may not like the original plan of drawing on the dining room wall with a Sharpie, but we can find a wall that is acceptable to draw on, or another surface, or something just as fun. Under any particular impulse or interest is a more basic one, often we can address and allow that without allowing something we don’t want.
- We explain and comfort — we do say “No” multiple times a day: when we have a good reason, when safety is an issue, and when we are just too darned tired or currently juggling too many things to accommodate. When we have a good reason (and our girls are highly trained to look for one when they hear “No”), we tell them about it. We let them know why it doesn’t make sense to us for them to rearrange the entire living room and build a fort right before the grandparents fly in for a visit. We explain, and then, if and when they have feelings about the denial, we offer them genuine empathy and consolation if they want it. Tonight, I just held Echo and petted her head for 15 minutes, identifying with and validating her feelings because she was upset that she preferred not to wear the headphones to listen to her audio story and we weren’t in agreement to let her play it outloud in the living room because it disturbed Xi’s concentration on the homework she needed to finish. I wasn’t going to change my mind about it, and she wasn’t ready to move on or negotiate a settlement, so I just held her where she was. After awhile her feelings calmed, and she wanted to go talk to Mama about it — they got her set up with headphones and she listened happily until dinner. That scenario is so common that we often say empathizing with our children’s feelings evaporates 80% of the issues that arise without ever addressing or redressing the issue itself.
• For everything between the two poles of what we can immediately allow and what we cannot allow at all — we þεη∂ and strrrreeeeeettcchh and lean in the direction of becoming more open and more allowing and more condoning of our children’s natural impulses and drives to connect with and root themselves in this world and this life as it truly is — not just as is readily convenient for us. It is among the many blessings of this journey as parents to learn to be more compassionate, more understanding, more accepting, and more trusting of the natural flow of life. Some of us may have been thwarted so much in our lives that it literally hurts to open ourselves to more allowing and more faith in the benevolent process of becoming, but if we can be that brave and remain dedicated, it will surely heal us in ways we cannot even imagine (yet!) — and it will certainly mean that we’ve offered our children the best chance at lifelong health and happiness that we can muster.
And in truth — that’s all we have to do as parents — just give them the best possible chance that we’re able to provide for them to grow to their fullest potential. That means empowering them to follow their natural drives for input and experience, trusting the miraculous design of their biology to do what it was built (tested, reformulated, rebuilt and retested, in perpetuity) to do, and cooperating with, both, the natural processes of maturation and with the little beings we are hoping to help mature. In a word nurturing. To me, that all means saying a whole lot more “Yes!”‘s than “No”‘s, and allowing a whole lot more than barring our children’s being children. After all, it’s always children who do the growing up, whether we adults try to control it or not…
May we all become skilled at nurturing the natural in our children with courage and grace, and plenty of “YES”‘s!
Be well, my fellow people-growers.