Watching French parents with their children was always a pleasure. (There was one uptight woman who frequently barked at her children, but there are exceptions to any generality) Families in France seemed to have a relaxed friendliness, children being children and parents fondly watchful while not interfering. Everyone seems to feel confident of their standing in the relationship, secure in their bond. French parents seemed to truly enjoy their children whereas American parents seem more focused on problems. Since the puritans sired our national culture, the attitude that comes with the image of a Maker, sets to molding the children into a specific ideal model with criticism as the primary tool. Some kids are born with the qualities that grow comfortably into the standard. Many don’t. Parents in the US have been so browbeaten by all the numbers and standards their children are supposed to match, that they are anxious at every deviation, so attention is too often focused on flaws. They’re vigilant at finding and eliminating any imperfection. It’s like clipping the petals of a rose so they match the picture in the book. Whose to say the child’s difference doesn’t indicate an improvement on the species?
The difference in attitude toward child rearing is like the difference between a shepherd and a trainer. The problem is cultural, not personal. Listening to a lecture by Alan Watts, there was laughter in the auditorium when he said that in America being a child is like being here on probation, you have to measure up. We laugh at what we recognize, a cultural pattern we understand from the inside. Many of us have grown up thinking we’re not good enough to begin with, that things are wrong with us that must be corrected, whether it’s medical, or the phases of moods and emotions, or how we learn. I heard the young man who recently sailed around the whole world saying on the radio, that education didn’t allow for how much a teenager is really capable of, that high school years are often like waiting around, with no serious extension of knowledge involved. The ones that do best are gifted at remembering and following directions, of matching the ideal of one narrow group of measurements. There’s very little room for the acquisition of knowledge and skills and most of all the flourishing of personal interest. What’s new and creative may wither if not be actively discouraged. The emphasis on correction emphasizes authority so if the child resists, the relationship becomes a power struggle.
After France I was at an American beach, and twice in an hour I saw mothers dismiss their child’s perception- “I was stung by a jelly fish”-“No you weren’t” / “I hurt my foot”- “It looks fine to me”. When the child tried to reassert the problem it became a conflict that ended with the child in tears. This is the classic double-bind situation that Gregory Bateson and others have written about as part of a family pattern that leads to mental disorders. You have a perception. You are told you can’t trust that perception and that you must agree that something you know is not true is true. American parents have been conditioned by the culture around them and the model of how they were raised. Those that become aware of these imprints can make a choice and see that it might have been far easier to look at the hurt, then give the child a hug and words of sympathy. Every problem doesn’t need professional intervention.
To be the responsible person in charge is not the same as being the boss. Setting an example and meeting needs arising from the individual child’s development assists growth by creating direction and self-reliance. Do we really want to condition young minds that obedience and conformity are the highest good? In a culture of criticism we grow up criticizing others and tend to be hardest on ourselves. Self-acceptance can be hard to achieve.
We need to have more faith in the intelligence and astuteness of children, give them more help and less direction. Consider the narrowness of the ideals we’re being sold and loosen up about the relevance of the Standard, giving full attention to the particular rose in our care. The admiration and appreciation of parents and other adults for the child has a far more lasting effect on self-esteem than trying to teach them they’re okay in middle school once they’ve already learned to distrust their own perceptions. Believing you are appreciated creates an attitude that wants to participate, to contribute to others that which is appreciated, and have a role and connection to the world.