I received a comment from a reader today that relayed their concern over how shielded and protected our ‘parenting’ approach might seem to be. The concern was primarily that providing such a regulated environment for a young child could be a disservice in that the child would be rendered unprepared when the harshness of reality came knocking on their door.
I wanted to address this reader’s genuine concern because it is one that I am presented with frequently from those who do not have the benefit of seeing what it’s like to spend “A Day in the Life of… Us”.
The gist of the comment offered is as follows:
“…in an ideal world, no child would ever feel any stress, but the world is far from ideal… I am worried, you seem to be obsessed with making everything just wonderful for them. Not that there is anything wrong with that as such, but I am a bit worried about how you will react when something terrible happens to them, that you cannot do anything about? Say when a boyfriend/girlfriend dumps them, or a pet/relative/friend dies.
Children are naturally resilient, they have to be as they have to learn that bad things sometimes happen that cannot be avoided…. I am NOT saying that suffering is good… But perhaps some gentle adversity as they grow up might help them to withstand something really bad when life sometimes really hurts?…”
I very much appreciate opportunities to talk with others who can see why the approach my partner and I have chosen to employ in creating the environment for our daughter’s childhood can be so wonderful and beneficial, while questioning whether it is realistic. Many have inquired, and some have outright informed us that our refusal to punish, and refusal to diminish, will lead to a child that is full of her own importance, doesn’t care about others, and doesn’t think authority is anything worth considering submitting to. We run into similar concerns when others discover how we educate our children. Our curiosity driven, child-led environment, unconcerned with expectations or requirements to be part of the “norm” really seems to rattle some people. Our focus is in the full development of the whole human, without expectation of a set timeline or specific outcome. Cheerfully, every once in a while we run into those who genuinely understand the benefit of a peaceful, respect giving, upholding home that honors one another as equals, and reveres our children’s childhoods, yet they still worry children from these homes won’t be able to cope in the ‘real world’.
There is a simple quote, reiterated and slightly shifted from one person to the next, but the idea is that rather than accept that which is not beneficial to life and living things, and force the mind to learn to cope and manage, instead demonstrate through one’s own behaviors and choices, a reality that abandons that which harms, and reinforces that which is universally beneficial. ~ In other words, be the change instead of the victim of circumstance: go and create the world we want to live in.
Granted, this way of thinking is one that is full of ability, proactive thought, action, and empowerment. It isn’t for those who feel they have no real capacity to impact the world around them. Well, maybe it should be for them the most, but such a way of thinking has to be developed. In our home, I think we choose to live the way we want life to be, as much as we can. In our case, it is an intentional and conscious choice much of the time, but I think maybe it’s become sort of second nature because living with these truths for us is what provides harmony and peace, where otherwise difficulty and negative experiences would overwhelm and take us under.
Recently, and throughout our history as a species, some humans have known intuitively that it is harmful to cause a newly formed mind to cope with that which surpasses the presence of connections necessary to support such experiences. Those that don’t seem to have an inherent sense of this concept have observed and chosen to become educated in understanding that the human child’s mind is “under development” and that causing it to deal with experiences it is not yet equipped to grasp causes development that is inevitably malformed as a result of the cocktail of negative chemicals overwhelming the neurological environment in which the connections are forged.
With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.
– There are many articles that discuss this understanding, and I want to encourage you to educate yourself if you are interested.
One thing that many adults do not seem to realize, especially in Academia, is that children by nature do not need many of the “lessons” we give them, but would gain and develop so much more thoroughly and effectively if we got out of the way and let them explore, discover, and adapt in their own time and space. This method is espeially successful if we walk along side them, providing them insight and security on their journey of developing Self. One example that is relevant in our home currently is the concept of bigotry and racism, as well as religious discrimination and indoctrination. My 6 year old has no concept of there even being anything out there when it comes to humans of a different skin color, gender, or class, any more than she does of a dog having white, black, brown, tan, red or yellow fur. In fact, she has so little awareness of anything negative along these lines (our differences) that any time we have seen her exposed to retellings related to any of these concepts, she simply responds to the ideas of cruelty, injustice, and inequality; she has no concept of there being an external human rational for the harmful behaviors.
Slavery, oppression, punishment, torture, war… These things are not something we prefer to have her exposed to yet, but much like religion, it’s inevitable it will come NOT on our timeline, a timeline dictated by her demonstrating she has attained an emotional and intellectual development to be able to think through things without a resulting negative or damaging impact on her whole perspective of her world. And so, when they come before she is able to really grasp them in a beneficial manner, we sort through them the best we can, offering encouragement to her to ask questions and think out loud as much as she feels like doing so. We don’t say much in these instances, we absorb her experience and do our best to get out of the way of her thoughts, and allow her to form these most valuable connections in a safe environment.
My hope is to encourage adults to recognize that children are constantly observing and absorbing everything around them, and the input stream is a continual source of information their minds use to form thoughts and responses that shape their existence and who they are.
In our home, our focus is harmony and security, respect and consideration, integrity and gentleness. We all have difficult days, moods that are just not helpful to self or others, and struggles, but when we demonstrate concern for one another, a concern that comes from a genuine appreciation and mutual, equal value, those emotional struggles (often a result of physical or logistical challenges) become opportunities to grow and gain, instead of feeling defeated or ineffective and powerless. When shame, guilt, manipulation, and false consequence are not part of the equation, in their place can be honor, integrity, compassion, empathy, consideration, and kindness.
So, how does this work? How do we know it will work?
Well, we’ve seen the outcome to some degree already in our own home as well as others, but honestly what it comes down to is trust. It takes a rooted and renewable trust… Trust in the process, trust in the science, trust in the knowledge, and trust in the child and their mind’s natural course of development. It takes trusting that they will gain and obtain throughout their life all that they specifically need to live their life, not that which is necessary to live the life of others.
If a child is allowed to obtain in his or her childhood that which they will naturally absorb and integrate into their being, these experiences will shape their mind in such a way that it will cause them to have what they need to navigate their existence, from the first moments of consciousness to the last. Again, knowing this, trusting this, and getting out of the way to allow the natural course of this development to occur is something that doesn’t come to many of us easily. We worry because of what we have been through and how our minds have managed those experiences – we are tainted, and justifiably so. The deepest challenge is to override our own mental conditioning (sometimes at a very deep and integral level) and not allow our own challenges to become those of our children. Instead, we work to empower them to build their own world, and build a world where benefit and compassion are far more common than self serving and violence.
To address the specific concerns of the original comment, and to tie in the concept of “trusting the process”, I will share a bit about what my 6 year old specifically (only discussing her life here, not any other children that have been a part of our home) has experienced and sorted through so far in her 6 years with us. None of these experiences were manufactured by us intentionally, each of them has forced us all to grow, and quite some percentage of them we did our best to shield her from the full blow of because her mind is not yet developed enough to be able to manage them in a way that causes her healthy growth.
At two years of age, my daughter was required to adapt to losing her big sister while simultaneously being moved to a new home, which for months was in a state of transition and change (literally, location change – new surroundings). Her father and I remained the only constant, along with her dog and some of her most important possessions. The result? Monsters… They came to our house, lurking around every corner it seemed. We watched a little girl, previously unafraid of anything and totally calm and secure, suddenly exhibit great fear, dread, threat, and anger.
After a few weeks of this, her father devised a solution. He walked along side her through that which she had to face (in spite of our efforts to protect her from having to cope with things beyond her developmental abilities). He walked along with her, and when she saw those monsters start coming for them, she told her Papa and, after getting the full descriptive run down of each one from his little girl, he simply ate them. With peanut butter, ketchup, mustard, cheese, and salt and pepper on top. Eventually, she decided she could do the job sometimes herself when her Papa was not available… that happened about the same time we made a very hard decision and chose a home to stabilize us in, even though a good option had yet to present itself.
At four years of age, our daughter was exposed to the idea of us adopting a sibling for her and bringing an addition to our family. She experienced the whole process, from interviews, to exams, to training, to our private conversations. It took 18 months, but finally a young boy joined us. 6 weeks later, after we had all started to attach, especially our daughter, we had to disrupt the adoption and could no longer be a home for this boy. The primary reason? Somehow, in spite of the highly involved social workers and their expertise, they missed something crucial: this boy was entirely not capable of being in a family with another child, especially one younger than he. Not only were his behaviors threatening and his volatility damaging to our daughter and to our home, but him having to witness our positive and supportive, gentle treatment of our daughter (which was a stark contrast to his own experiences through his childhood) caused him so much pain, and at such a deep level, that the exposure was determined harmful to him (and to us). The adoption was canceled. And so, my then 5 year old had, at that point, had effectively lost two siblings, one that had been there since her birth, and one that had come from great intention, effort, and hopefulness.
Simultaneously, my daughter was presented with another intriguing challenge: her father was diagnosed with a stage 4 Melanoma, unknown initially whether it had spread to his Lymphatic system, unknown whether it could be resolved, unknown whether it would (or ever might) return, or if his life might be in jeopardy. She watched as we grieved, as fear consumed us, as we denied, raged, ran, scheduled exams and surgeries, and went through an emotionally charged experience such that our union was ripped apart and our life as we knew it was literally smashed to pieces. She watched while we did our very best to not allow fear to fill her mind, and did our very best to keep the full extent of the concern from becoming her burden to bear.
She then watched us rebuild, return, restore, and renew. She’s still watching this process.
Now, at 6, she is contemplating the impending loss of her Nana, her canine companion that has been by her side from the moment she was born in our bedroom. This sweet soul, and member of our family, still tries desperately to play with her 6 year old charge, in spite of a lack of mobility and loss of sensory function. We are all here, supporting and loving her, as she finishes her time with us and makes her way to her place of rest.
In the last 5 months, I have become pregnant twice, and twice have been presented with a situation where for one reason or another, the pregnancy did not continue beyond barely knowing about it. My daughter was aware each time, as symptoms were impossible to cover – she is empathic, as well as empathetic… she knew something was up when Mama stopped playing with her while simultaneously renovating our house. (Yes, I am renovating our entire house, myself, on top of everything. This is why the choice I mentioned to “stabilize” in a home, in effort to put an end to the monsters, was such a challenging one. Three years later, I’m about 70% done with the renovations that were supposed to be cosmetic and have become everything from structural to plumbing and electrical, to finishing, and without a reliable pool of professionals or local materials source to rely upon). We still are not entirely certain of the full reach of these losses for our family, particularly our 6 year old. However, signs that it impacted her more negatively than we desperately hoped against, appear now and then, mostly in the form of her stating she doesn’t think she’ll “ever have a sibling because there is no way for her to have one that seems to work”. She’s now resorted to sometimes informing us she doesn’t ever want a sibling, while other days begging for one, and still other days being outright angry with us for yet having provided her a brother or sister (that is still a part of our family anyway).
Along the way, my daughter has grappled with unkind children, children who have been abused and therefore harm others, unkind adults who diminish, witnessed children and animals being poorly treated, attempted to understand the benefit of the relinquishment of her fish, the death of family members, and most recently the continued absence of her father, as he struggles to balance work with living. You know that move I mentioned we chose to make a few years back? We made that choice out of necessity for career reasons, in order to provide us with a quality of life we thought to be impossible without the relocation and career shift. That very decision now renders me a single parent most of the time, and my child and her father, as well as he and I, find ourselves scrambling to make the most of every single second we have together because there are so few (not to mention the additional awareness of the fragility of life that greatly impacts this desire for togetherness).
So, now my daughter, at 6 and half years earthside, is intimately observing the strain and stress her parents are experiencing, facing her own grief and continued dread of her father’s absence, trying to grasp and deal with the impending death of her cherished canine companion, and somehow stave off resentment in the shadow of the loneliness the absence of a sibling has cast, as we work to better our life. So much for protecting her from having to cope with anything before she is really ready.
Or maybe not…
She now observes and absorbs our actions and conversations as we once again open our minds and commence our search, and resume our journey. For now, we are generating the life we want to live, instead of living the circumstances that . She is now taking her own steps, no longer being in our arms all the time, and we are all walking side by side, together, arm in arm.
This is real life.
**** When we force children to cope, we cause defensive and non-productive mental connections to be made. The neurological science that explains this phenomenon is actually very clear and simple to grasp. In the place of children having to figure out how to cope, instead we walk along with them through what comes, and protect them from that which is more complex than they’ve developed neurological processes to comprehend. In so doing, we allow them the natural environment necessary for their minds to make the connections in a timeline and course of development that doesn’t harm or cause fear or threat. When those positive and effective connections solidify, instead of a defensive, protective response generated by a replaying of threat and negative chemicals being released in the body, the mind provides a proactive and beneficial alternative. That alternative empowers our children to seek positive options, and advance and improve their world. The result is an empowered mind that will change our world in ways that lead to universal benefit.