Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931)
By Naomi Aldort
Author of Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves
My husband and I are often complimented on our children's behavior and demeanor. People think that we discipline them. We don't. It is ourselves we discipline.
We meet our children's needs, provide for their protection, and expose them to life's possibilities. We do not, however, meddle in their play, their learning, their creativity, or any other form of growth. We love, hug, feed, share, listen, respond, and participate when asked. Yet, we keep our children free of insult and manipulation resulting from "helpful" comments and ideas - influences to which children are so sensitive in their state of dependency.
This type of discipline is not easy. Not only does our society not support it, but the temptation to break the "rules" lives within us. The drive to intervene in children's activities is rooted in our upbringing and reinforced in our culture.
For me, the most difficult challenge to overcome has been a narcissistic impulse to show off my children. One day, when our oldest child was two years old, he played a smooth scale on the piano. I was amazed, yet held fast to my rule and stayed out of his way. Free to play out of his own love and interest, and not to gratify me, he went on improving his scale with tremendous joy and concentration for quite some time. Not until my husband came home did I fall into the trap. Unable to wait for a repeat performance in its own time, I covertly tried to direct our son to the piano to do his "trick."
Untrained in doing for the sake of pleasing, he was not fooled. He sensed the hoax and refused to play. Several weeks passed before he again immersed himself in the scale. This child loves to do things for others, enjoys helping and serving; yet, when he does something out of self-interest, that is how it must remain.
Although the self-discipline required of a parent is often challenging, it becomes second nature with time and experience. For me, this type of discipline developed gradually, beginning with "descriptive acknowledgment"1 and culminating in unadulterated staying-out-of-the-way a few years later. My best allies have been my realizations as a mother and educator, Daniel Greenberg's book Free at Last, and discussions with Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, about letting children be themselves.
At first, I thought that commenting, acknowledging, and praising children for their achievements express love and build self-esteem. In time, I realized that these well-intended interventions do just the opposite: they foster dependency on external validation and undermine the children's trust in themselves. Children who are subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please others. Gratifying others soon becomes their primary motivation, replacing impulses stemming from the authentic self and leading to its loss.
Contrary to common belief, children feel more loved and self-assured when we do not intervene in their activities. Not only do they remain secure in our love and support when we refrain from intervening, but they need us to protect them from these intrusions, which can interfere with their progress, self-reliance, and emotional well-being.
When we intervene with praise, wants, advice, and rewards, doubts sneak in and shake loose our children's trust in themselves and in us. Sensitive and smart, they perceive that we have an agenda - that we are manipulating them toward some preferred or "improved" end result. This awareness gets them thinking: "Perhaps what I am trying to achieve is wrong - I can't trust myself to know or choose," or "Mom and Dad have an agenda that I must fulfill if I am to have their approval and their love."
Gradually, a shift occurs. Children who were once doing for the sake of personal pleasure or understanding begin doing for the sake of pleasing. No longer do they trust in their actions, and no longer do they trust us, for we are not really on their side. Along with the shift to pleasing us comes the fear of not pleasing us. Emotional and intellectual dependency, low self-esteem, and lack of self-confidence invariably follow.
Even when we intervene with casual commentary on our children's imaginative play, doubts sneak in. What children are experiencing inwardly at these times is so often remote from our "educated" guesses that bewilderment soon turns to self-denial and self-doubt. Moreover, children perceive the phony and patronizing remarks for what they are, and may conclude that it is OK to be insincere and pretentious.
From Praising to Observing
It is difficult to stop dishing out praise. For one thing, we are hooked on our conditioning as well as on the "hard sell" of the holy cow called Praise. For another, we are easily misled: the praised-for-every-achievement child seems like a happy, successful, highly self-esteemed child. In reality, such a child has shifted to the pleasing mode, driven to success not by personal curiosity or delight, but by the desire to oblige us and live up to our expectations. As educator John Holt has said of children, "They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud."2 In short, the esteem we notice is not self-esteem, for the self has been lost in the early years of this type of conditioning. The happiness we see is not pleasure, but rather relief that another pleasing act has been accomplished, securing parental approval (emotional survival) and concealing a feeling of deep loss.
Children, too, can be fooled into believing that these pleasing behaviors originate within and have everything to do with who they are. The ultimate deception comes when children grow up to become seemingly accomplished and happy adults. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller, in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, gives voice to the lamentable conviction that arises: "Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved.... Without these qualities, which I have, a person is completely worthless." Miller goes on to explain why achievement based on pleasing denies self-understanding and, in so doing, leads to depression, feelings of 'never enough', and other emotional disturbances in often the most successful people.3
To "follow one's own drummer", a person needs to exercise the muscles of free choice and self-learning from the start. The difficulty we have in trusting our children's ability to flex these muscles stems from our own experience of not having been trusted. Trusting is, simply, not natural to us. Only as we make a concerted effort to get out - and stay out - of our children's way do we discover the wonderful truth: the magic is already in our children, ready to unfold in its own way and in its own time.
Nearly every child comes to life equipped with a self that is capable of blooming to capacity. Unhindered in its growth, this self will lead the child to skills and knowledge and, in the process, self-actualization. We have no right to attempt to control the direction of this growth. Instead of training our children through various forms of intervention to fit our vision for them, we need to train ourselves to respect nature's creation and to safeguard its full, authentic bloom.
Indeed, the end result we are looking for - an able, highly self-esteemed, creative, curious, and responsible human being - is already observable in a two-year-old child.4 Allowed to put these gifts to use in a self-directed, self-trusting way, the youngster will develop capabilities while enhancing these desirable qualities. Maturation will then come as an authentic expression of the self, rather than as an appeasement to parental authority and other forms of domination.
Getting out of the way gives us an opportunity to become curious observers. At the same time, it frees us of power struggles and initiates an approach to parenthood that is infinitely more enjoyable and fulfilling. I know of no more interesting, engaging, fascinating, and glorious "entertainment" in life than watching children unfold freely.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
1 Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (New York: Avon, 1980), pp. 171-200.
2 John Holt, How Children Fail (New York: Pitman Publishing, 1964), p. xiii.
3 Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 104.
4 Daniel Greenberg, "A Paradigm Shift in Education". An audiocassette available from The Sudbury Valley School Press in Framingham, MA.
For More Information:
Greenberg, Daniel. Free at Last. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press, 1987.
Holt, John. Escape from Childhood. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974.
Holt, John. How Children Learn. New York: Dell, 1972.
Holt, John. Learning All the Time. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1986.
This article originally appeared in Mothering, Issue 71, Summer 1994.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
Naomi Aldort is the author of, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. Her advice columns are published in
progressive parenting magazines worldwide. Aldort offers phone guidance and counseling by phone/Skype
internationally regarding all ages, babies through teens: attachment parenting; natural learning; peaceful and
powerful parent-child relationships. Products, counseling, and free newsletter: www.authenticparent.com
As I put my 7 year old to sleep last night, she burst into tears. “Mommy I don’t want to sleep alone in here, I want you to stay.” As soon as the words left her mouth, my reaction was run. My mind was shouting, “Get out! She wants to suck you dry. You will never be able to do the things you want to do if you stay here with her. It’s already 8 o’clock. You could be attending the class you wanted to go to or finish watching ‘The Next Food Network Star’ on TV but no Lori wants you to stay with her.” My mind runs rampant with the desire to bolt and this is my first cue. So I say to my 7 year old, “I can’t stay.” I give her all sorts of good reasons… “Its 8 o’clock. You asked to change your bedtime and we did. So, now you have to go to sleep.”
She says, “Mommy, you can’t go. I can’t sleep in here with this empty bed next to me. I am dumbfounded. The empty bed?! What’s wrong with an empty bed? So, I ask “what’s wrong with an empty bed?” and there are more tears and less understanding. And I realize after a while (and I mean a long while) that she needs me and I can’t give her what she needs. So, in a moment of parenting stupidity or wisdom (i am still trying to figure that out) I say “Lori, sometimes it must feel like I don’t want to spend time with you, like TV is more important to me than you.” A new wave of tears pours forth and I say “I love you but sometimes it is hard for me to be here.” As the words leave my mouth, I hear the judgment rising “how could you say that to her?” And then I realize. Pretending that it’s not true is probably worse than admitting that it is.
I do not have the naïve notion that my children don’t know exactly how I feel. Sometimes, they know it even before I know it. So, what’s better; hiding behind a secret or opening up the discussion? So I do. I tell her that I love her but sometimes it is hard for me. When I was a little girl I felt like no one wanted to spend time with me. So sometimes I recreate that. She looks up at me through tear stained eyes and says, “I love spending time with you mommy.” And with all of her sweetness I can see that she is still ok. I have not done the damage I often believe I have. she can still open up to love and be vulnerable and I know in that moment that we are ok. Now I have the opportunity to grab onto the parenting moment and show her that she is more important than any old belief system or TV show. I allow myself to lay on the bed reading my book and watching her eyes close and listening to her breathing deepen as she slowly drifts off to sleep. I realize in this moment that there is no better place in the world to be, than lying next to my sweet innocent daughter and showing her the love I couldn’t feel.
One of the greatest things about raising children is that they bring out all of our issues to work on, all of the things that we thought we grew out of. What amazes me, is that we repeat history. Family dynamic is pretty amazing. No matter what, if we are not aware, we as parents, together with the children, will recreate the same dynamics that our parents created. With my children, I see myself withholding love from them. I have a difficult time sitting on the floor playing with them, ironic considering the fact that I am a play therapist. I think this must come from my childhood where I got the feeling that I was annoying to be around so I automatically place this on them. My sweet innocent children who are not annoying in any way become something else through the eyes of my childhood. Now I want you to understand something; people tell me all the time that I am a pretty good mother but what I am saying to you is that even good mothers recreate bad situations if we are not aware of past patterns and family dynamics. If you looked from the outside you would say, “Wow, she is doing a good job!” Looking deeper and fine tuning helps me to grow and helps my children. It makes me even better. Considering that they’re only 3 and 7, you’ll have to let me know in a couple of years how I did.