By: Joe Newman
Since the 1960s, American parents have come from generations whose basic identities have increasingly been characterized by their rejection of, and contempt for, authority. So the last thing many parents today want to be is an authority figure. Rather, parents want to be their child’s best friend. The need to set firm boundaries, to say no to certain things, to administer difficult consequences, is all somehow distasteful. Confrontation is shunned as making things more difficult than necessary. Why not reason with children until they see the error of their ways?
However, during certain periods of a child’s development firm authority is exactly what is needed. This authority should be fair, compassionate, and without emotional judgment. But it needs to be authority nonetheless.
A great teacher of mine once said that a person of wisdom adeptly moves between strictness and compassion, and between practicality and poetry. Our child rearing has moved away from strictness and practicality and moved toward compassion and poetry. One way this has manifested is in our idealized view of the nature of children. We worship childhood and youth as perfect and without flaws or weakness.
There is a school in Santa Monica called Garden of Angels. While I know only a little about their approach, I suspect that it must be somewhat based on the belief that children, left to their own devices, are angels. I’ve always hoped a school would open across the street called Field of Warriors just to correct the imbalance.
As most parents will attest, children are angels and warriors. Children aren’t moral creatures. Nor are they immoral creatures. Children are amoral. The problem with basing your parenting on the assumption that children are naturally angels is that it places an unreasonable burden on the child and not enough burden on the parent. If we assume that children are angels, then we will naturally be disappointed when they hit someone, or take their toys. Disappointment is judgment and can quickly become manipulation. Everyone resents being manipulated, and manipulation begins a cycle of aggression whether passive or direct. When a parent assumes that children are naturally moral, this excuses them from the burden of shaping their child’s character. The parent who takes responsibility for setting consequences that make it in their child’s best interest to behave respectfully, exercise self-discipline, and consider others, will raise a healthy child. The parent who sets boundaries and consequences without judgment will raise a child who communicates without manipulation or aggression.
A few weeks ago I was at an elementary school and the Assistant Principal was shadowing a first grader. Apparently, the boy wouldn’t follow the teacher’s direction to stay in the classroom or stop disrupting the rest of the class. They had tried talking to him but he just wouldn’t listen. So for almost an hour a day, a few times a week, the Assistant Principal would let him run outside, and in and out of the classroom, while she followed him until he was ready to return to class. I was also told that he should be medicated but the boy’s mother refused to have him evaluated. So instead of stopping him, holding him if necessary, and enforcing the boundary so that it was meaningful, the school had let this boy call their bluff. The boy was willing to test the limits, but the school wasn’t willing to enforce them. The boy was a little warrior, smart and willful enough to push for what he wanted. But the adults at the school refuse to acknowledge who he is. Instead, clinging to the myth that if he didn’t respond to reasoning it was because he wasn’t able to.
This boy is a little warrior, but no one will acknowledge and respect who he is. Instead they want him to fit this mythical stereotype of the perfectly ethical, reasonable, self-controlled child. When he doesn’t fit this fantasy we decide he must be one of the psychologically disordered millions who require medication.
For the last eighteen years, most of the children I have chosen to work with have been unquestionably seen as warriors. I like warriors. I admire them. I prefer the warrior to the diplomat. But to be a great warrior you need strictness and compassion, practicality and poetry.
For me, I like the taste of my own blood, the pain of aching muscles, the excitement of competition, battling against the elements, pushing myself to the edge of my abilities and exhaustion – these things make me feel more alive, they make food and love and the warmth of the sun more joyful, and at the end of the day I sleep soundly and without regret. The last thing I need is to have all this medicated away.
Joe Newman, author of Raising Lions
[Photo Credit: Flickr Member Sartita Agerman]