I believe that a free society is possible only if we change some of our fundamental premises about parenting. First, I will address the relationship I see between parenting and how we think about control, and the type of society we create. Then I will offer a vision of what I believe parenting would look like in a free society.
I’ll start with: “What is parenting?” What is this word? What does it mean? What idea does it stand for? I looked up parenting in a few dictionaries and asked some random groups of people what parenting is. I got a variety of answers that can be summarized as “Parenting is the hardest job we’ll ever love.” People said it was hard; the dictionaries did not mention that, but I’ll address that later. What I want my reader to note now is that when we think of parenting, we think of a job.
The thing about jobs is that they come with job descriptions, goals, and the desire to do a good job. If you closed your eyes and pictured Good Parents doing a Good Job, you would probably imagine that they read with their child every night, did homework with their child, attended every sporting event and artistic performance, went on family outings to enriching places like museums and foreign countries, provided their child with memorable holidays and birthdays, made sure their child never watched too much television, made sure their child ate healthy meals, and made sure their child had good manners. The list goes on and on.
Some of the job aspects that I have been hired to help with over the last decade include: children not doing well enough in school, children needing to lose weight, and teenagers throwing tantrums. With younger children, they’re either hitting, sucking their thumbs, or not potty training. Fixing these problems is the parents’ job, but if they can’t fix it, hopefully they can afford to hire someone who can. That was my job.
The problem with what I am going to call job parenting is that when we have a job to accomplish—when we have a list of things to do (we have to get our kid to sleep, get him ready for school, get him into college)—the psychology of accomplishing a job is all about the person doing the accomplishing. The other person is being accomplished upon. In my head, the child is either the thing that is helping me accomplish my job or the thing that is not helping me accomplish my job. He is objectified.
For example, when my baby is rolling over while I’m trying to change his diaper, it upsets me because he is not helping me accomplish my job of changing his diaper. My psychology becomes, “What is the best way to get him to do what I want him to do? Should I hold him down and force him? Should I beg and plead with him even though he’s only a year old? Should I distract him with a toy while I clean him?” That’s what most parenting books tell you to do.
The same psychology occurs in other relationships. For example, I Googled “how to get your husband to take out the trash.” I found exactly what I was expecting, on hundreds of sites. My favorite line was from WomansDay.com. It said: “Reward good behavior, the sexier the better.”
In our current society, various forms of coercion, such as guilt-tripping or seduction, are like common sense. From a disapproving glance to threats against someone’s life, or from a look of approval to praise or bribery, coercion is the language of current relationship psychology.
This method we use—that we have been taught since birth—is called the carrot and the stick, or reward and punishment, or external control psychology. This psychology rests on the premise that humans can be trained, just like Pavlov’s dog. Parenting author William Glasser describes these unhealthy coercive relationships: “Punish the people who are doing wrong, so they will do what we say is right; then reward them, so they keep doing what we want them to do.”
What kind of society would be created by a group of people who believe that a little coercion and manipulation to control others and get what you want is totally OK? Would they create a free society of equals or would they create a complicated belief system that defends power stratification as normal and inevitable?
There are people who have power over you (bosses, teachers, preachers, parents), there are those with whom you share power (friends, lovers), and there are those over whom you have power (subordinates at work, children).
And what would happen when those in power, who believe that a little control is OK and desirable, discover not only what was right for them, but also what is right for you? Wouldn’t they be obligated to force you to do what they know is right?
The ideal power dynamic between a parent and child as described in many parenting books is not too authoritarian and not too permissive. A parent should be like a benevolent dictator, praising good behavior and punishing bad behavior, always with a spirit of benevolence.
I don’t think it’s by chance that we benevolently dictate to our children and our government benevolently dictates to us.
Before I move on, I want to touch on one last thing. It’s often hard to understand why this job/coercive psychology/ benevolent dictator way of seeing parenting—or any relationship—doesn’t work, since it looks like it does; you can force your children to lose weight, get good grades, be good athletes, or go to law school. But you can’t force them to be happy.
You can give them Prozac but you cannot force people to be genuinely happy with their lives. You can’t make them live authentic lives. You can’t make someone be your genuine friend.
In his book, Choice Theory, William Glasser writes: “The vast majority of unhappiness [in the parent-child relationship] is the result of well-intentioned parents trying to make children do what they don’t want to do. It is so hard for people, especially parents, to accept how limited they are in what they can do when they are dissatisfied with how their children are behaving. They are limited to controlling their own behavior.” That’s the only behavior we get to control. He goes on to say, “Few of us [parents] are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us some control over them—our relationship.”
This is true of any relationship.
To conclude our current paradigm of control: We see parenting as a job, and when we see things as a job our psychology changes. We start controlling people, and the knowledge that controlling people is OK creates people who control massive numbers of people, called a government, and that government in turn tosses us our parenting job description.
In order to understand how I see parenting working in a free society, we need to pause for a minute and discuss relationship theory. Which means we are back at the beginning: What is a relationship? What is this word? This idea?
My favorite relationship theorist, David Jay, describes the three things that must take place to call something a relationship between two people:
The two people must come together and explore ways to experience spending time together. They can cuddle, play chase, change diapers, nurse, eat, sing, dance, etc.
They must express to each other how they felt about that time they spent together. “I really enjoyed reading that book with you, Dad.”
There must be a commitment to spend more time together. Otherwise it is not a relationship, it’s just something that happened one time. “Good night, son. I’ll read you this book again tomorrow night.”
All of these things must be present for something to be described as a relationship, and all of these things can be done in a healthy or an unhealthy way, which will make that relationship either healthy or unhealthy.
Spending time together: In a healthy relationship the two people are always looking for new ways to experience being together. Because they are present, any experience is new. It is through these experiences that they learn about themselves and what it is that they value in this life. These experiences lead to personal growth, and that is why good relationships are so satisfying. If both parties in a relationship are continuously learning about themselves, they grow and their relationship deepens.
When the people in a relationship stop exploring ways to be together, they stop learning about themselves and stop growing. The relationship becomes stagnant and starts to die. Relationships are like gardens. They never stay the same; they are either growing or dying.
Both parties must express what they felt about the experience: In a healthy relationship both parties express themselves freely, openly, and honestly.
In an unhealthy relationship, they don’t. Perhaps one person is trying to manipulate the other person, so she says she likes going camping when the truth is she just wants the guy to like her. Or perhaps it’s a relationship between a parent and a child, where the child would like to express himself honestly but the parent keeps saying things like, “You don’t mean that! You love your sister. You do. You love her. Deep down.” Or “Oh, look, Uncle Mike gave you a puppet, you love it don’t you? Tell him thank you.” Or “We had so much fun today, didn’t we?” This is not honest communication.
Commitments: For a relationship to be healthy, commitments must be made and kept. A relationship in which you cannot trust the other person to be there when he said he would is not headed in a healthy direction.
A parent-child relationship is a type of a long-term committed relationship. It’s not a voluntary one like friendship or marriage. Instead, it’s a long-term commitment we are born into.
Long-term committed relationships have a special potential to become toxic because they almost always come with job descriptions. Best friend, wife, father—these words are relationship commitment descriptions, but they are also job descriptions. We have a cultural idea of what it means to be a good friend, a good wife, a good father. These job descriptions can lead people to cease being in a relationship and instead to take on a job. And when you have a job to do, that leads to all the coercion we just discussed.
When we think of parenting, we think of a job. When we turn a relationship into a job, it is no longer a healthy relationship. The way we think of parenting is not healthy. Our conception of a “good parent” requires us to have an unhealthy relationship with our children.
To illustrate why it’s so unhealthy to turn a relationship into a job, imagine a new husband takes on the job of being a “good husband.” He starts doing all these things he doesn’t really want to do—mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, reading to the kids, helping his wife with the dishes. He gets the highest paying job he can and works his tail off, and at first he’s patting himself on the back, thinking, “I am such a good boy.” But after a while he starts to feel like being a good husband is a huge obligation, a chore, a long list of things to do. It’s not fun anymore. And he’s starting to resent his wife and see her as this kind of slave driver.
The reason being a “good boy” is so unfulfilling is that he’s following a pre-written “script.” He’s not learning or discovering or growing, and without growth there is no life.
The other reason it’s so unhealthy is: Who wrote the script? It wasn’t the husband.
Henry David Thoreau published Walden in 1854. It’s a true story about how he wanted to build a cabin in the woods to discover himself and what life was all about for him. His neighbors thought he was a little weird, but this was what he wanted to do, so he did it.
What he learned and wrote about is that the secret of life is following your heart. Whatever weird ideas you have, whatever fascinates you, whatever brings you joy or peace, follow it. It will take you on a magical journey.
Many people who read Walden think that what Thoreau was trying to say is that the secret to life is leaving society and living in a cabin in the woods. This is a misunderstanding. “You must advance confidently in the direction of your dreams,” he said.
According to Joseph Campbell, the foremost scholar on the religions and myths of mankind, our misunderstanding of Thoreau’s teaching is similar to our misunderstandings with the teachings of religion. When someone writes a book about how he found his bliss, pretty soon we are trying to follow his path to bliss, instead of our own. And then we spend our lives doing what we think we have been told, when all along what we were actually told was to look within—that “the kingdom of heaven lies within us.”
The other reason we so often succumb to following someone else’s script is that it has a social function almost always encouraged by those in power. Scripts enable people to be in power. Joseph Campbell says they homogenize our behavior. This makes us easier to control. Campbell says the primary function of our scripts is to “integrate the individual into his group,” to “infuse the individual in the system of sentiments so that each individual can be relied upon to respond in an anticipated way, an expectable way, to the stimuli that that group and world offers.”
One of my favorite professors at Wesleyan, Khachig Tölölyan, said it much simpler: “Those who create normal rule the world.”
Whether it’s This is what a nursery looks like, this is what an education looks like, this is what an expertise in children looks like; whether it’s the rule that you must remember your girlfriend’s birthday (or you are bad boyfriend) or you must attend your friend’s wedding (or you are bad friend), our internal job descriptions that we did not originate have tremendous power over us.
The parenting job description is perhaps the most important script to control. Every conqueror since antiquity has known that you don’t have to worry about the people you have conquered if you take over how their children are raised.
So let’s take a closer look at our parenting script. What does it produce? If you decide to be a good parent, doing what you believe a good parent does, what will the likely outcome be?
First: Our current script produces miserable parents. Study after study has shown that non-parents are happier on a day-to-day basis than parents. If you follow the good parent script, it’s likely you will find parenting to be a grueling, exhausting, bank-breaking, guilt-ridden, marriagekilling, 20-year power struggle.
Second: The product of the typical American childhood— this parenting style is not only a problem here, but it’s easier to do the numbers for one country—grows into an adult who gets an associate’s degree, makes $28,000 a year when he is young and $42,000 a year by the time he is 65, is overweight or obese, gets four colds a year and spends 20 percent of his income on medical problems. He will be permanently on at least one prescription drug by the time he is 35, and on three by the time he is 45. One of these drugs will likely be a mood-altering drug, like an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety pill. He will get married, have two kids, and then will most likely get divorced. He will spend most of his free time watching TV, and his education and life experiences will lead him to the conclusion that the best political ideology is that of the Democrats or the Republicans.
The part nature plays aside, how we are raising our children creates this adult.
Who wants to be that adult? I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want my son to be that person. Do you want to be that person? Why are we creating that person? Who benefits from the existence of massive numbers of these people?
The families I worked for were in the top 1 percent of income earners in the country, but statistically, their kids grow into very similar adults. The top 1 percent of Americans have better college degrees and make a lot more money, but they are still overweight and unhealthy. They have lots of colds and even more medical problems, they are even more likely to be on prescription drugs, especially mood-altering ones. They will spend just as much time watching TV, and are slightly less likely to get divorced.
Rich or poor, our current parenting script creates unhappy parents and unhappy, unhealthy children. This has been the case for a long time, and whenever these facts are brought to light, the powers that be change the script. They change the job description, but never the premise that there should be a job description at all.
This is where the philosophy of parenting begins. Parenting, right now, is how we control our subordinates, which is the same way those above us control us. It’s why we try to control everyone around us in the same way, and why we think the way we think about control, power, force, aggression. I think there is a better way.
I propose that we reject the job model of parenting. I propose that we reject all scripts that have been written for us. I propose that we reject external control psychology and instead we make our one and only parenting goal to have a healthy relationship with our offspring.
If we want to adopt a healthy relationship-parenting philosophy, we must start with the assumption that every person, including the young people we temporarily refer to as children, has a right to exist for his or her own sake, and we don’t get to have power over anyone.
If we want to adopt a healthy relationship-parenting philosophy, we must also start with the assumption that the only control we have over our children is the quality of the relationship we create. This means that we no longer have to read any books on how to discipline children, get them to do what we want them to, or make them succeed in school. Instead we can benefit from the study of relationship psychology, emotional health, and good communication skills—things that will benefit us in every area of our lives.
When we get rid of this paradigm—if we don’t get to tell our children what to learn and who to be, and we don’t get to shape them or control them with reward and punishment— we have to accept that the best way to influence who they become is through modeling. This turns parenting on its head, because all we get to do is be the best people we can be. Regardless of what people attempt to teach with force and control, according to Nathaniel Branden, “all we teach is what we are.”
So we have to spend a little time thinking about what we are. Maria Montessori says, “We can always live better. Man has a tendency to laziness. It is the child who can help him to rise.” Instead of obsessing over our children and trying to control them and make them the people we dream they could be, we can only focus on ourselves and make ourselves the person we dream of being. Instead of reward and punishment, instead of wondering how you can get your child to do what you want him to do, the relationship model of parenting urges you to be the hero you wish to see in your children.
I am going to conclude with some scenarios and examples, because often when I explain this philosophy, people get a little fuzzy, like they’re thinking, “Is she really saying the solution is not controlling our children? Wouldn’t the result be chaos and gang warfare?”
So here are some example situations. A lot of these come from brilliant books that are already out there. I am going to use a newborn, because many people think that they can have a non-coercive relationship with a child, but it is very hard for them to understand how one would do it with a baby. Also, raising children without coercion is a lot easier if you start out that way.
Scenario 1: Feeding a newborn baby.
The job mom sees it as her job to get food into the baby. So she brings the baby to her breast, tickles his cheek so he opens his mouth, and puts her breast in his mouth.
The relationship mom does not think it would be respectful to just put something in someone’s mouth— even a little baby. She brings the baby to her breast so that her nipple is near his nose area and he can smell what she is offering. If he wants to nurse, he must turn his head and open his own mouth.
Scenario 2: When to feed a newborn baby.
The job mom knows she is supposed to feed her baby every two hours. She has a handy little device that goes off every two hours so she knows it’s time to feed the baby. If he acts hungry before the two hours is up, she distracts him so that he learns to wait two hours.
The relationship mom knows to question every rule, so she thinks, “In the history of the human race, clocks have only been around for a little while.” So instead of following this arbitrary script, she decides to follow her heart. I’m not saying this is what every mom would feel, but this one knows her baby can’t eat unless she helps him so she decides that making him wait is disrespectful and won’t help their relationship. She feeds her baby when he acts hungry. Maybe it’s been one hour; maybe it’s been three.
To recap, the relationship mom’s baby has been empowered, twice—he’s been made responsible for eating and for letting his mom know when he’s hungry. He must learn to pay attention to his hunger cues and he must learn to communicate that to his mom. She must learn to receive his communication. They are developing a relationship.
The job mom’s baby has been disempowered, twice— food is shoved in his mouth whether he wants it or not, and it will be done when the clock says to do so, whether he’s hungry or not.
The relationship mom is getting in tune with her baby. The job mom is getting in tune with her alarm clock. Whether she means to or not, she’s showing her baby who is in power. It’s not him. It’s also not her. She’s just doing what she’s been told.
Now, imagine the baby is older—let’s say he’s 1—and he’s teething and bites his mom.
The job mom believes it is her job to teach her child not to bite people. When he bites her, she gives him a disapproving look and says, “Bad boy! No biting!” Then she picks him up and puts him in time out for one minute, because that’s how long time outs are when you are 1 year old.
The relationship mom first responds authentically to what happened. She says, “Ow. You bit me! That hurt!” She looks her baby straight in the eye, communicating with him. Then she says, “I can’t let you bite me. But”—and she looks around and grabs a nearby doll—“you want to bite. Here is something you can bite. It won’t hurt the doll.”
The job mom’s baby learned that he is bad, that his desire—to bite— is bad, that some people get to have power over others, that he is not in power, and that he has to please those in power. You will be punished if you don’t please people.
The relationship mom’s baby learned that biting hurts his mom, but it is valid for him to want what he wants. He wants to bite and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not a bad person. No one gets to judge him. But other people won’t allow themselves to be hurt by him. He’s learning non-aggression.
This way of thinking about your child—as a whole person with needs and desires, worthy of your respect— just continues as the child gets older. I’ll give you one more example, still using the feeding example.
Now we have a 4-year-old.
The job mom still believes it is her job to get food into her child and to make sure he eats vegetables. In order to get food into him, she does a variety of things. She bribes him with dessert, or cooks whatever he likes best, because if she tries to make something other than mac ’n’ cheese, he won’t eat. To make sure he gets some vegetables, she goes to great length to make various purées and sneak them into his food.
The relationship mom knows she has to eat dinner and shares whatever she makes for herself with her child, just as she has since he was a baby. Tonight she makes bratwurst, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes. What her child decides to do at this point is his business. She talks to him during dinner, but she never even looks at his plate.
The job mom’s child has learned that he has to eat, whether he is hungry or not. His mom has made that very clear by desperately cooking whatever he wants just so he’ll eat it, and by begging him to take just one more bite. He has been disempowered, and taught not to listen to his body.
The relationship mom’s child has been in charge of his eating since he was a baby. From the start he has been eating whatever his mom makes. Sometimes he eats it, sometimes he doesn’t. Especially if it’s a new food, sometimes he doesn’t even taste it. He eats a lot of vegetables when he wants to, but there has never been any pressure or guilt. He is not a good boy or a bad boy. He has no guilt associated with food. Eating is his responsibility. He has learned that his mother trusts him to take care of himself in this way. He has learned to trust his body to tell him how much to eat. He has learned that his thoughts and opinions are valid.
The only downside to the relationship parenting model is that carving your own path through the jungle is an enormous amount of work. Hopefully you are passionate about it. There are many parents out there who are rational and want to make rational decisions, and they want to study this stuff but they have this massive time-constraint issue called children. That’s where specialization comes in. I’m very passionate about this stuff, and I study it for fun.
This is information I wish I had known years before I had children. I have a great bibliography of all the people who wrote books on respectful, non-coercive parenting, including Dr. Emi Pikler and Magda Gerber for babies, Maria Montessori for preschoolers, and William Glasser and John Holt for older children.
Society is just a group of individuals. If we want those people to desire freedom and to believe in the possibility of a non-aggressive, free society—if we want to break the chains of slavery and control, if we want to deepen and improve our relationships with not just our children, but everyone—we should strive to be consistent in our beliefs and therefore seek not just a non-coercive political philosophy but a non-coercive approach to all of our relationships.
The new definition of parenting is “the opportunity to co-create and enjoy a healthy relationship with one’s offspring.”
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #54.
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