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Parenting Paradoxy

By Scott Noelle

Today my 3-year-old accidentally created a kind of Zen koan, and she discovered the joy of paradoxy in the process. Her new game goes like this:

“Daddy, could you say ‘no’?”


“Could you say ‘no’?”


“Would you please say ‘no’?”


The more adamantly I decline her request, the more completely it is fulfilled, and we continue the spiraling cycle until we are both laughing our heads off. This is the magic of paradoxy. It makes no sense, yet it makes perfect sense.

Paradoxy is a way of thinking and perceiving that allows you to expand beyond the confines of logic and reason. Conventional wisdom is always “reasonable,” but extraordinary wisdom often defies reason.

If you’re attached to being “reasonable” and have children, then either you or your children (or both) are headed for trouble! Logic is useful to a point, but it will only get you so far. There’s a point of diminishing returns at which, if you fail to let it go, common-sense logic degrades into a rigid and oppressive mindset of orthodoxy.

The word orthodox literally means “correct thinking.” Orthodoxy, in this context, is any strict adherence to conventional beliefs, customs, and ways of thinking. It draws a clear line between right and wrong, and it tends to exclude anything (or anyone) on the wrong side of the line. Political correctness is a kind of insidious orthodoxy that has tainted even the “alternative” parenting scene.

The opposite of orthodoxy is called heterodoxy— the quality of being unorthodox. It includes political incorrectness and any kind of resistance or rebellion against the status quo, but it’s not the same thing as paradoxy. From the perspective of paradoxy, there is no significant difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. They are just two sides of the same, dualistic coin.

Are you still with me? If not, hang in there. A paradox is inherently confusing until you finally “grok” it.

The word paradox literally means “to think beyond.” A paradox is any statement or situation in which seemingly contradictory truths coexist without negating each other, like my daughter’s “no” game. It involves first thinking outside the box, and then outside of outside the box! Paradoxy, then, is a creative mindset that transcends and includes both orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

Paradoxy rises above the conventional and the unconventional to reveal the miraculous. It transforms the impossible into the possible. It releases you from the ever-swinging pendulum of oppressive dualities—from right/wrong to us/them to yours/ mine to love/hate and even to mainstream/alternative. Paradoxy is a higher-order game that’s inherently light, free, playful, creative, and…well…paradoxical.

Fortunately, as progressive parents we have ample opportunities to cultivate paradoxy, courtesy of our children and parenthood itself. Paradoxy is required to resolve the contradictions inherent in our chosen parenting path: giving abundantly and generously even when there seems to be not enough to go around; seeing children’s innate goodness even when they “misbehave”; honoring children’s human nature while participating in a culture that’s more-or-less inhumane and anti-nature.

Children, especially those under about 5, are natural teachers of paradoxy because they generally lack the ability to reason themselves into a corner. The logical walls we impose on children instantly vanish when they don’t serve the children’s natural and magical impulses.

The miracle of birth is one of the most powerful contexts for paradoxy. For example, the “pain” of childbirth can be experienced as profoundly pleasurable—spiritually if not physically. But while mystical experiences of childbirth are not uncommon, the opportunity to transcend orthodoxy is often lost in the everyday interactions between parents and children.

Unfortunately, the conditions of our culture have led us to rely too heavily on orthodox thinking for a sense of security or even a sense of self—especially in our roles as parents. Great books like Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept can give us a glimpse of a radically different worldview as it relates to parenting, and this may propel us temporarily into a mindset of paradoxy. But one can’t just flip a switch to engage in full-time paradox, as one’s ego/mind is likely to object. And that’s putting it lightly: In my experience, the ego will kick and scream and throw tantrums and create havoc until it becomes too painful not to surrender to the higher intelligence of paradoxy.

More common, though, is our tendency to try to put the lessons of paradoxy into some kind of orthodox box, especially here in America, where packaging is everything. But how do you put “outside the box” in a box? Simple: You create a bigger box.

The bigger box called “attachment parenting” is a good example. AP topples the walls of modern, conventional parenting and opens the field to allow much more of Mother Nature’s magic to flourish. But it’s limited by definition. It’s like taking a pet bird out of its cage and allowing it to fly around the house: It has more freedom, but it’s not exactly free.

Nevertheless, bigger boxes—or more expansive orthodoxies— are an important part of any consciously evolving parenthood. The trick is to use them as resting places or grounding stations along a path of ever more enlightened parenting, and to avoid the trap of confusing a larger cage with ultimate freedom.