Few insights gained in the last twenty years are so securely established as the realization that what we do to children when they are small – good things and bad things – will later form part of their behavioral repertoire. Battered children will batter others, punished children will act punitively, children lied to will become liars themselves, protected children will learn to be protective, and respected children will learn to respect others weaker than themselves.
- from Isa Helfield’s paper “Poisonous Pedagogy”, International Conference on Women and Literacy, January, 2001
About three weeks ago I wrote about the limitations of the Good Parent model – the Good Parentâ„¢ who raises the Good Childâ„¢ – and the suffering these concepts necessarily inflict (briefly, on everyone – but especially women, children, babies, families with disabilities, those living in poverty, and any marginalized group or minority).
I’ve thought a lot about how I needed to see the subject through. I want to edify, instruct, and help – not merely deconstruct and analyze – so a follow-up seemed necessary. The task is not simple. See, I’ve been elaborating on better models for parenting and better village practices, from the general to the specific, for some time now. I can say with authority the ideas I express, now matter how clearly and circumspectly and appropriately I put them forth, upset a lot of people. Our culture is so built on the necessity of child-as-second-class there is an immediate and vitriolic response to those of us who challenge these edifices. I’m reminded of a quotation I recently read by Dresden James, British novelist and scriptwriter: “A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed.” This, in short, is why people get so angry if you identify “spanking” as merely a special word for the practice of hitting children. This is why if one writes about the abstention of domination in parenting strategy, people trot out very old, unimaginative, and tired-out examples of “What if a child tries to run into the street?” and “Why don’t parents control their children in restaurants?” This is why so many try to frame any discussion of best practices for children as a cultural war between parent vs. non-parent, even though it is absolutely not (many parents enforce unhelpful and authoritarian – and failing – models of child-stewardship while many without children have some of the best and most creative ideas for a better society), which inevitably creates a rather terrifying and depressing cultural concept of “every man for himself” – an ethos singularly toxic and horrifying to thrust on our young ones as we wholly do.
I’m tired of some of these rather predictable conversations, and I’m disappointed in individuals and groups that should be doing better. This site was started as a social justice project within the blogosphere, but the current grassroots activist field therein has been an utter disappointment – and that’s an understatement – in discussing the rights of children and our responsibilities toward and treatment of the child class. Children are not “choices” (as so many other normally-astute activists frame them) but are a part of all of us; furthermore our commitment to bettering the world means recognizing they are our most vulnerable, most exploited, and suffering populations, across all racial and socioeconomic groupings, faith models and belief systems, class strata, and community models. I’ve discovered many social activists if not most are not willing or able to commit to a greater intersectionality in their efforts (probably because they don’t want to examine their own adult privilege).
So today I’m going to speak to a rather small group, I think. Those who already know we’re failing – who already see the “boiled frog”, the troubling results of our practices invested on children. I’m speaking to those who know we need to do better but aren’t sure exactly how. I’m speaking, mostly, to parents/carers who feel haunted and amiss – and to compassionate and intelligent adults who care about our future. I’m speaking to those who want to parent their hopes, not their fears, and the non-parents who are ready and willing to be a part of this.
I’m going to talk about Tenderness.
We don’t much value tenderness in our world. It’s one of those optional and circumstantial things, an occasional indulgence rather than a commitment to a way of life. We think of tenderness as a feeling, not a practice – something akin to the experience of affection. But tenderness is an exercise, a way of life, and functioning in our larger communities I might call it a discipline. It only improves with practice and wisdom.
When it comes to children many like to talk about the Real World (whilst they work at creating or supporting singularly artificial institutional environs for said children, like compulsory schooling). And of those who invoke the looming spectre of this Real World, many are ready with talons out to dash apart an enthusiastic practice or promotion of tenderness. You see, in their worldview “soft” or “permissive” parenting will result in a Failure in the Real World (or Spoiled Children). Usually those quick to criticize don’t even bother reading, with any critical or considered analysis, the most humane and deeply rugged practices put forth by stellar authors, thinkers, and spiritual teachers. Critics of more humane treatment of children create strawmen (sometimes straw-hippies, ha!) as fast as they can to tear them down. Their words are filled with deep-seated cynicism, pain, anger, and fear.
Of course, in the longest view, how we raise our children – and we are all raising the children around us, whether we admit it or not – is instrumental in creating the Real World. We have been doing a fairly poor job, as shown by our failing educational system, the endemicity of youth anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression and suicide (the recent bullycides have called attention to some of these very serious problems) – and just the garden-variety symptoms of misery I see in so many children today: duplicity, unhappiness, suppressed authenticity, and fear.
Besides, even if we were to pretend this rather dismal “hard guy” view of You Need To Learn To Cope in the Real World wasn’t a perpetuating cycle of dominator culture, poisonous pedagogy, and a rationalization of sadism, “tough love” parenting strictures actually countermand healthy functioning and growth in children – in other words, we end up seeing more aggressive, angry, fear-based behaviors and children who learn very quickly to behave differently depending on who’s watching or Who’s In Charge (as opposed to growing their intrinsic moral center). We are, in short, growing Bullies and those who will be hurt by them – not compassionate citizens and heroes.
Most parents/carers/adults want children to survive. Whatever my differences from USian mainstream parenting practices, we have this in common. It’s my view and experience that treating children with tenderness and protecting them while they are under our care prepares them supremely for the nasty aspects of this Real World (that is, if you believe Nature didn’t screw up when she built us, the most successful ape on the planet) and in fact positions them best to be the change we need in this world.
Many parents, carers, teachers, and adults without children intuit the need for better models for child-caring than our recent history affords; there are swelling movements, sometimes fragmented, to reclaim humane parenting and save not only our children but ourselves. You can see this burgeoning awareness in communities that align themselves with principles of Consensual Living, Non-Violent Communication, Natural or Authentic Parenting, Attachment Parenting, Attraction Parenting, Radical Unschooling, Life Learning, and Autodidacticism, etc. Still, even well-intentioned adults have a hard time releasing models of coercion and control with regard to children: hence you see discussions of “positive discipline” and “gentle discipline” (in other words, for example, a rejection of hitting alongside laboriously-crafted defenses of “time-outs”). These concepts of “gentle” discipline make no sense or at least are only cosmetically or by-degree different from those who use more loaded or violent words, strategies, and physical responses. Discipline is discipline and there’s nothing gentle or positive about it; that is, an authority big and strong and (to most children) scary who will Have Their Way whether they sugar-coat it with words like “bummer” or enforce by a systemic removal of “privileges” and loved possessions or time spent doing the things they want to. “Discipline” has nothing to do with safety – keeping our children safe and occasionally keeping others safe from our children – but it is an almost universally-accepted lie that it does.
Authoritarian and authoritative parenting (more hair-splitting of dominator culture) are exhausting battlefields we lay out. The skirmishes are grim or heated and brief moments of triumph are soon eclipsed in bouts of fear and shame and anger and confusion. Eventually our children move across town or the country or the world. Walls are set up. Parents are left lonely and uncertain and brittle. Children are left wounded and have cut themselves off from their parents; children, now grown, carry childhood injuries. They have lost even the desire to repair the lost connection with their parents.
Authoritative/authoritarian parenting propagates suffering.
But tenderness is life-changing.
From here on in this piece I’m going to refer to parenting, but really the concepts can be applied to any adult in relationship with a child.
What is tenderness? Tenderness is a spiritual practice: for those few individuals who do not believe we have souls, I suppose one could call it a logical one as well as it generally serves our health and herd relationships. It’s hard to articulate the practice of tenderness in a thorough, quantified way here in a short article; spiritual and humanist teachers have written entire tomes on similar concepts. I identify with concepts learned through studies of Christian and Buddhist works so my practice and concepts around tenderness are thus informed.
Briefly and significantly with regards to caring for other human beings, in the pursuit of the practice of tenderness I first must acknowledge my own suffering. I must – at least temporarily – abandon my scripts of blame and rehearsed anger and recrimination (note I am not offering a judgment on the validity or invalidity of such scripts) and instead simply see my suffering for a moment, with clarity, feel the shape of it – observe it and see it is not Me (“I” am who is doing the observing). This is the beginning.
Now for many if not most of us, our suffering is often such we cannot simply wish it away or banish it. Yet our suffering is at root of why we cling to worldviews and behaviors that are dysfunctional – and harm others. This is deeply relevant to the practice of parenting as the relative helplessness (enforced legally and socially in almost every way) of our world’s children puts us in power positions; we inflict deep damage. This is both an awesome and a scary responsibility, and one reason many are fearful at the thought of having children or even disgusted by the idea (such individuals also often want to believe they can just “opt out”, that they aren’t in fact participating in the larger village of child-rearing by their silent support of the status quo). On the other hand, this mission can be incredibly transformative; it is why, for some, having the care of another human being, a dependent – often their own child, but not always – can be the catalyst to a spiritual awakening unlike any they’ve yet experienced.
When we have the presence and space from our mind’s rehearsals of suffering and anxieties – that’s when we are best equipped to care for another human being (and not just children, either). That space is the fertile ground for the beginnings of the practice of tenderness.
When we parent from this place we respond to our children’s needs while having a longer view of our job as parents. This is such a tremendous gift, and I wonder how many parents and carers experience it. Instead I believe, most are familiar with the tension-wire feeling we have at all times or that can be activated at any moment (sitting in a restaurant, we haven’t eaten all day, our two year old begins making happy noises, the table over shoots the very familiar toxic glares, our stomach knots, “not again”, our acute awareness of how unwelcome we are here and in the entire public sphere until our children sit still enough and are quiet enough for everyone else…). Ugh. I’ve been there. It sucks, and as I’ve said before, ultimately it is our children that pay the price as we lash out, restrict them, suppress them, require Obedience and Submission, hit and shout when “no one’s looking”, work ourselves ragged in the culturally-supported ritual of performing Good Parentâ„¢… and so on.
Yet parenting from a place of tenderness and Presence has the ability to lift these experiences, as incredible as this may sound, to transform them. Parenting with tenderness involves a deep-seated sense of unshakable joy; it involves my awareness it is my child I am with and the world around us in its chaos and coarseness and anger and fear, is just another presence in our day, nothing personal, not a boot to crush me (try as it occasionally might), powerful – is it? Time and time again my smile, which begins deep inside me, in my stomach, and emerges from my Being, I smile at the next table and I smile at my child (and I help my child) and I smile at my hunger (which may go unsated, for now) and I smile (with sadness) at how many adults react with such anger and fear to small children – and my calmness has soothed everyone – myself, my child, sometimes even, but not always, the angry customer at the next table. The trick is, you can’t fake it. But when obtained, it’s real.
Parenting from a place of tenderness keeps me strong for the times my children suffer or make mistakes and the times these events surprise or hurt me – or others. It is not “turning off” my instincts or alacrity or my loyalty to the rest of the human race, it is going deeper within myself where I find an indomitable ground, a strong woman, not her first rodeo, a person I like very much indeed as it turns out. Therefore some of the old fretting worries surface like they always have – Why is he/she doing this? Have I failed as a parent (mother)? What’s wrong with him/her/me? - but instead of the anxiety, fear, anger, and confusion I’ve typically experienced in the past I often feel calm, alive, aware – even amused. As author Eckhart Tolle relates after a disturbing event at his then-workplace long ago, “There was a brief shifting from thinking to awareness. I was still in the men’s room, but alone now, looking at my face in the mirror. At that moment of detachment from my mind, I laughed out loud. It may have sounded insane, but it was the laughter of sanity, the laughter of the big-bellied Buddha. ‘Life isn’t as serious as my mind makes it out to be.’ That was what the laughter seemed to be saying…”
Parenting with tenderness means trusting the process of growth; it means giving love and support and assistance instead of withholding it or provisionally doling it out in order to coerce children into “better” behavior, like the Operant Conditioning experiments performed on rats (sadly, many, many adults do this by rote to children). It means folding a crying child into your arms and not believing the thought (formed out of fear and narrowness) that their emotional display is “babyish” (over time, this thought coupled with negative judgment will not come at all… and what a beautiful experience for me to have left it behind!). It means over time seeing your child and their suffering with deep compassion and intelligence and depths and calm, not identifying with the phrases “throwing a fit” or “having a tantrum” (imagine my surprise and delight when this awareness began to evidence itself in my experience with other grownups!), nor identifying with the fear that would have you rush to “fix” their pain. Parenting this way, or beginning to anyway, has resulted in more peace and happiness in my home – and “better behaved” children – than I would have thought possible.
Parenting with tenderness means not looking over our kids’ shoulders for the accolades of others (or the label of Good Parent) as we hustle them to the Accomplishment – reading, writing, riding a bike, “please and thank yous”, multiplication tables, straight As, Miss Congeniality – but being with them as they set their own goals and helping them in every way we can and watching with amazement what they can do (not watching what we can make them do).
Children have or develop, when nurtured and not exposed repeatedly to the trammels of adult privilege – or exposed as little as possible anyway, innate reserves of intuition, wisdom, compassion, righteous outrage, brilliant humor, fair-mindedness, and a capacity for forgiveness and love that rivals any bodhisattva. Tenderness and responsive, considered stewardship of our children will not only raise wonderfully-adapted and “well-behaved” children (promise!) but will also promote our own healing. Tenderness and nurture assist our children (because much as a doctor does not heal our body, rather our body does the work – children grow themselves) more than any artificially-prescribed “boot camps” parents/adults convince themselves are necessary. To paraphrase author Naomi Aldort (and I wish I had her exact words here) – adversity is good for children, but not when organized by those whose job is to nurture and protect the child. I have seen this bourne out in our own family life countless times – countless.
Tenderness is meeting a child at their expressed need; tenderness is rejecting our arrogance when we attempt to direct what our children need, or what they need to be rescued from (the oft-maligned “helicopter parenting”), rather developing the extraordinary presence and observation and longer, more spiritually-centered awareness so many children find incredibly nurturing (my own father had this gift, despite much idiosyncratic coarseness). When we are in tune with our children, they will ask us with clarity (or we will be able to see with clarity) when they need our help. To my surprise, it’s been less often than I’d have imagined.
Tenderness is the only thing that has given me a compassionate awareness of my previous mistakes; after all, I could have heard all the well-reasoned and logical arguments in the world for more humane parenting but my mind could have dismissed them (as inconvenient or only for the “privileged few” or as naive or simplistic) – had I not been open and seen the suffering I was inflicting on these beloved children. Tenderness is the part of me that has, over the years, acknowledged the personhood of my child at the soul-level (or whatever you’d call it) – not merely a foil for my own ego and Expert status. Acknowledging my mistakes – instead of clinging to my dung pile - I have gained humility and wisdom (and hope to gain more). Our children will experience our improvements as healing, if they are not too far hardened to us. And on that account, it’s never too late to attempt to restore harmony between us.
And here, I would like to say a few more things about my own family.
The other day I heard my son Nels set up a cry and he came into the living room. His face was flushed and his eyes were full of hurt. His sister had bit him. Their skirmishes are increasingly rare; thus for one to proceed to such a level was surprising. Even as I opened my arms I knew something was wrong for my daughter, for her to hurt him thusly (not that long ago, before my husband and I began a deeper awareness of gentleness, a fight between my children that escalated to this level would be more commonplace and we’d have Laid Down The Law on them, more shame clouding up her own inner sense of justice and betrayal, obfuscating her integrity in a scary and humilating lecture…).
But now, in this moment, my son buries himself in my open arms. His bite is angry-looking indeed. But in less time than it takes to settle on the couch together he has stopped crying. My mind is calm and I am sad for his pain; I empathize without anxiety. Untainted by the fear and anger his sister’s behavior would have triggered in me only a short time ago, I have an awareness I must talk to her and we must try to discover what is wrong (which I later do). I have another moment of clarity: the wrongs the two commit against one another along with any redress will ultimately have to be navigated within their own relationship (in other words, I will not seek to force insincere apologies). My son soon hops down, his body language and spirit calm, fully recovered. He kisses me, his face tear-streaked and warm, he tells me he loves me.
Tenderness is making the time, later, to speak to my daughter Phoenix. She and I are sitting in her closet. She is silent and suffering (sadness, not anger), out of the reach of my loving hands, but she is stoic. I ask her if she wants to know what I think. She tells me Yes. I say, “I think you feel bad about yourself as a person.” “Yes,” she whispers. I say, “Part of this, maybe a lot of this, is my fault. I’m sorry.” After a beat I say, “I’d like to help you feel better about yourself. Would you like my help?” “Yes,” she says, again, and then slides into my arms. We sit for quite some time in calmness and I stroke her hair. I am sorry for my mistakes in the past but I am here with her now instead of there. After a while she makes a joke about her father, cooking dinner in the kitchen, his efforts coupled with much noise and clamor. We laugh.
Tenderness is my son in the car last night. “This is my golden apple. It is precious,” he says, as he smells its fragrance and holds it in his hand for along while. Later, he carefully eats it to the core and set it aside on a napkin so as not to mess the car upholstery. Later still, he tells my husband and I he wants to tell us something something. He says, “I know I always change my mind, and I’m sorry for that. But I regret coming on this car trip. I wish I’d stayed home and played.” (He is six years old.)
Tenderness is my daughter, as I type, from the living room: “Mom, can you please help me?” She asks. I come into the living room. She directs me clearly and with confidence (she is setting up a huge, messy living room fort for herself and two friends). “Thank you,” she tells me when I have finished assisting her, and I return to my writing.
Tenderness is a bit later as the house full of kids gets a bit rowdier. My daughter pops her head through the door and asks, “I’m sorry, are we being too loud for your writing?”
Tenderness is in our mistakes; tenderness is me seeing the children have poured too much milk and the half-full bowl sits on the counter and I am troubled as my mind goes to grim realities of grocery monies and I, exasperated, tell them to please try not to waste food. The kids smile and share the rest of the bowl of milk, drinking it up, standing in the kitchen, laughing. I apologize (which is accepted) and I ruffle their warm sleepy hair and I think how much smarter they are than I.
Tenderness is in our mistakes: tenderness is later at night when my husband, at the end of his ability to cope, very tired, snaps at our son and our son cries; our daughter puts his arms around him immediately and comforts him. A few minutes later my husband puts his arms around our (now calm) son and says he’s sorry.
Tenderness is my son sliding into bed with me this morning. I whisper, “Are you okay?” and he says, “Yes,” his entire Being infused with the knowledge of Self, security, and love provided for him. Tenderness is holding him in my arms while he falls back asleep.
Tenderness is the root – the only solution that will save our children, and will help them save others. It can help save us, too.
You are free to join us.
“You don”‘t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Martin Luther King