Authenticity: Rejecting The Job Model Of Parenting For A Freer World
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.”