“Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good. That is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.” Shunryu Suzuki
If I had to sum up what is wrong with our society in one sentence it would be this: “Too much fear, and not enough empathy.” This is especially true in our dealings with children. I struggled for far to long (and still do at times) with the misguided and unfounded fears of parenting.
What if someone yells at my child?
What if he turns out to be ungrateful?
What if people think I am a bad parent?
All these concerns are not centered around the well being of my child, but my own personal fears, prejudices, and desire for comfort.
I strive now to replace these with more important questions.
What is best for my child?
How must my child be feeling in this situation?
What might she be thinking?
How would I feel if it was me?
Being empathetic toward your children not only allows you to care for and protect our societies most vulnerable individuals, but also shows your child the importance of being compassionate. It empowers them, and helps them to realize that it is okay to have feelings and emotions, and they are not something to be afraid of, hidden, bottled up, or dismissed. It creates a healthy environment where burdens are shared collectively, and conflicts are resolved respectfully.
Conversely, hitting, time-outs, yelling, control, bribery and artificial rewards (which in my experience are almost always rooted in fear) let children know that their feelings are unimportant and insignificant. Children learn to keep their emotions, desires, and thoughts to themselves. Either out of fear of being labeled a whiner (or worse), or simply because they don’t think anyone cares.
Daddy, Why Aren’t You Helping Me?
When I was a new father my wife and I lived quite far from our families. We made a trip to our home town when our first child was about a year old. Her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were excited to see her. So when someone reached to take her, I gave her up right away. She grabbed onto my shirt and started to cry, but was pulled away into the arms of someone who to her was a stranger. She looked at me, confused at first, then her eyes filled with terror as she continued to cry and reach out to me. My family assured me that this is just what kids do, and you have to let them cry sometimes. But she wasn’t “just crying,” She was telling me something. She was trying to communicate. “I’m scared, daddy,” “I don’t know what’s going on,” “I’m not sure who these people are,” “Daddy, why aren’t you helping me?” But her pleas fell on deaf ears. I did not want to make waves or upset my family. What would they think of me or say about me if I wouldn’t allow them to hold my child? I figured it wouldn’t do much harm, so I did my best to ignore her crying. My wife, however, did not share this sentiment. She put our daughters needs before her own fears, and refused to ignore her desperate cries.
The Result? I severely damaged the relationship I had been building with my daughter, and she learned that she couldn’t trust me. She didn’t feel safe with me anymore. For some time after if I was holding her, and something made her feel uncomfortable, she would seek out my wife, someone she knew would listen and understand. Someone she could trust.
Even though a lot has changed since then, we still don’t live in a perfect house where it’s all daisy chains and unicorns. We are haunted by the ghosts and scars of fear and control. But every day we increase the love, the compassion, the respect, and the empathy, and every day we grow a little closer.
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There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Perhaps,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Perhaps,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Perhaps,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Perhaps,” said the farmer…
I love this. It is such a wonderful reminder that no event is the be all and end all of life as we know it. Don’t dwell on the tragedies, and don’t get attached to the seemingly positive. True control comes from realizing you have none.
“We have a cultural notion that if children were not engineered, if we did not manipulate them, they would grow up as beasts in the field. This is the wildest fallacy in the world.” ~ Joseph Chilton Pearce
Do you remember being a kid, growing up? You and your sister would both lay hands on some toy, or other desired object, and pull with all your might in an attempt to remove it from each others’ grasp. And then, after a few minutes of tug-of-war, you would decide that there was something even better than having the object you so desired. Then, releasing the object, you would watch as your little sister proceeded to roll across the floor.
Since becoming a father, I have been in a similar power struggle with my children. Each of us white knuckled, struggling to take control from the hands of the other. What they wear, how they speak, what they learn, where they go, when they sleep, where they sleep, what they eat, when they eat. At the onset, I wanted control over every aspect of their lives. After all, I am the parent, I am the adult, and I know what is best for them, right?
I soon found out that this was the wrong way to have a healthy relationship with my children. I also learned that lessons are much more powerful when you learn them for yourself, rather than having them forced on you. So I let go, and watched in terror as they rolled across the floor. They weren’t ready for control, they didn’t know what to expect. They had spent their whole lives being told what to do, where to go, and who to be. I had created an environment of fear, manipulation, and control, and instilled a belief that “Might makes right.” That wasn’t going to go away overnight.
I am doing my best to let the kids make their own decisions whenever possible. We are still recovering from the days when Dad was the Dictator, and the kids sometimes make choices that tie my gut up in knots, but I am convinced that this is the way I should have been parenting all along.
If you are struggling with your children over control of their lives, it might be scary to think about letting go. But the sooner you do it, the softer their fall will be, and the better your relationship.
“Children pursue life, and in doing so, pursue knowledge. They need adults to trust in the inevitability of this very natural process, and to offer what assistance they can.” ~ Earl Stevens
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“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure , the process is its own reward.” ~Amelia Earhart
It is a wondrous thing to be an autonomous being, able to feel and to think and to decide. Run your own race, and don’t let anyone keep you from doing what you know is right.