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Parenting Within Civilization

By John Breeding, PhD

It is true that our very long dependency period and intense vulnerability can result in horrific patterns—aggression, fear and greed—caused by trauma and conditioning. But when we emerge and grow under the right conditions, human essence naturally unfolds as the sweet warmth, vitality and instinctual intelligence of babies, and develops into more mature forms of loving affection, creative intelligence and zestful engagement with life.

The ways of natural childbirth and attachment parenting —breastfeeding on demand, co-sleeping, valuing expression— are as wonderfully proper and nurturing as ever. Treasure the wisdom and support of midwives, and embrace the sacred, natural experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Carry your babies in your arms for that first six months to a year, so they learn and know in the deepest way what great pleasure it ought to be to live in a human body. Enjoy breastfeeding and sleeping with your children, and all the joys and pleasures of physical touch and affection.

Men, we must know that there is no greater act than to support our women and provide a safe, loving space for their pregnancy and birth, and the early experiences of our children.

We’re told that the Buddha said that the guardians of truth are paradox and confusion. Trust that the fundamental paradox of attachment parenting is true—the best way to encourage the development of confident, secure, independent young people is to encourage their initial dependency and fully meet their needs. Allowing and embracing complete closeness and utter dependency is the assured route to relaxed separation and independence. Helping our children at this stage is not about pushing separation; it is about making it completely safe to be oneself. This awesome accomplishment— the ability to be true to yourself and intimate at the same time—is hard-earned. Behavioral theorists call this “rapprochement.” Pushing separation seems only to interfere with the child’s important work.

Trust your children and your desire to be close to them. At the same time, know that many of us experience a breakdown of attachment parenting as our children transition from babies to toddlers. We learn to love doting on our babies, but become fearful and frustrated as toddlers enter the “crisis of opposition,” and begin to find themselves by making imperious demands and saying no. However much we learn to trust the crying and constant neediness of babies, we are more easily suckered into the need to “civilize” our toddlers—to teach them respect and obedience. As Naomi Aldort puts it in the title of a wonderful article, with toddlers we face the crucial decision: “To Tame or to Trust?” I urge you to take delight in and give due respect to your children’s developing power.

We have also become overly attached to a theory (attachment) that we did not fully understand. We tend to deny our own feelings and needs, justifying it by virtuously claiming that we fully trusted the child’s needs. This latter is true, but we fail to see the child’s concurrent need for us to be authentic about limits and the nature of human interaction. Robin Grille writes about this beautifully in his article, “After Attachment…What Then?” We need to be real, allowing our feelings, honoring our limits and engaging our children.

In a related way, Kali Wendorf, publisher and editor of the fantastic Kindred magazine, is the best writer I know to help us with the feelings of guilt and overwhelm that inevitably crop up when we fail to live up to an ideal (such as attachment parenting theory). In the face of an insane culture that demands actions to survive that are not congruent with the best interests of children, we do the best we can. The early years of intensive parenting are particularly hard—not because we are doing anything wrong, but just because it’s a hard job. Our civilization is structured not for community and family, but for fragmentation, disconnection and isolation. Community and support are not givens—rather, they are intensely challenging building tasks for all of us. The good news is that we are intelligent and resilient, and so are our children. And children do not need perfect parents — just imperfect, good-enough parents who never give up!

Joseph Chilton Pearce’s notion of the “model imperative” is another important concept for parenting. Pearce stresses that children need models in order to bring forth their various potentials, and that our greatest influence as parents is generally not what we say or do to them, but what we demonstrate by who we are and how we act. Regarding the task of separation and individuation, we are called to model rapprochement and the dynamic tension of an intimacy that requires complete closeness on the one hand, and complete fidelity to one’s own truth on the other. As a reference point, I like to suggest to adults that we examine our own experience of this domain. How easy or hard is it for you to stay intimate with your beloved, while refusing them an important request because you have a deeper call to go your own way on something?

With Pearce in mind, let me not forget his directive to save our world by saving our children—”throw away your TV.”

Another huge, related, task is what I call “parenting as emotional healing.” I cover this in my book, True Nature and Great Misunderstandings. The universal law is that in parenting, your own issues will come up. Put another way: We face a choice, again and again, to suppress our children or to transform ourselves and our lives. Uncomfortable with crying? You can either give your child a pacifier, or face your own hurting inner child. Frightened of anger? Either insist your child be “nice,” or work through your own pain and reclaim your power. Frightened, in general? You can constantly beseech your child to “be careful,” or you can face your fear and send your child out to boldly “take a risk!”

We live in a troubled world. I wrote a “21st Century Manifesto for Parenting,” [published in Pathways 25] to address this fact, highlighting the ongoing need to protect our children from such things as unnecessary immunizations, toxic foods, militarism and gross materialism. Here is the opening statement of the manifesto:

I recognize that as a parent, it is my responsibility to protect the well-being of my family from the dangerous and detrimental practices of our Western society. Therefore, I have vowed to keep my eyes open, to educate myself and to provide protection for my children to the best of my ability against the most grievous harms.

With the help of many guides (including Derrick Jensen’s magnificent A Language Older Than Words), I have come to see that our civilization is insane and incredibly destructive. This civilization is built to support unsustainable numbers of humans in cities by using up the landbase and life forms (called “resources”) of other people and places. In order to do this, we humans must be made numb, and conditioned to deny the exploitation and destruction of people and non-human life and land all over the planet. The end result is that we are all living in peril. That is the context in which we become parents today. One solace is that there is plenty for us to do, and parenting rates at the top. Everything we do to raise loving, intelligent, aware people is vital for the individual, and for all of us.

Jensen thinks that our best antidote to numb denial and ongoing self-destruction is to reconnect with our deep caring and love for life — that when you love something deeply, you will not stand by while it is destroyed. I agree with him and his suggestion that the best way to facilitate deep love in our children is to contradict the isolation that goes with living almost all our days in virtual reality, within the confines and inputs of human creations, divorced from a genuine relationship with the “more than human” world.

Whatever else you do, however you can, do not let your children’s instinctive affinity with the natural world be forsaken. Take your children to wild places. Make sure they spend a good deal of their formative years with wind and water and all kinds of more-than-human life forms—in indigenous American terms, with “all our relations.” Let them learn that life should not be taken because it can be, but only by necessity. Let them learn from a place of deep love, connection and respect, that the taking of life conveys an obligation on the part of the taker to ensure the preservation of the community of that life form. One of Jensen’s loves is eating salmon. Doing so, he argues, requires a wholehearted commitment to defending salmon runs and working to remove the dams that guarantee the demise of salmon. In general terms, this reciprocal relationship between giver and taker of life means that the taker promises to preserve the place or habitat that sustains the species of the giver.

I end this with a quote from an essay called “Sense of Wonder,” by Rachel Carson. I think her invocation for wonder may be interchangeable with Jensen’s call for a deep love of the more-than-human world.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, the excitement and mystery of the world we live in. Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mode of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature—why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

“Paving the way” is an unfortunate metaphor in a world that systematically puts concrete over land and life, but the message is clear. Let’s give our children an opportunity to fall deeply in love with life, in all its magnificent diversity.