Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Evasion

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

In one of her recent podcasts, Diana Hsieh brought up the subject evasion and children, referring to a question that I had been pondering on the internets (Twitter I think) some months ago. The original subject came about because of some discussion on HBL.

To summarize very briefly, and leaving aside some of the other issues that were being discussed, the question I was wondering about had to do with the issues of focus, the act of thinking, of turning one’s mind on, and free will, which is the choice to focus or not. My question was: why/how would a child learn to unfocus his mind, when the obvious benefits of turning one’s mind ON are so compelling?

The small children I’ve observed seem to have their minds ON all the time. They are hungry for knowledge and experience. So it is hard to envision a very young child choosing to turn his mind off. Yet I know that many people, probably beginning in childhood, learn to do just that.

Diana shared in her podcast a really interesting story about a scene she recently witnessed in which a father’s handling of a problem actually encouraged his daughters to evade reality, to turn their minds off (or at least dim them). I think she is on to something. It’s definitely worth listening to, so go listen now! (It begins at about 12 minutes into the recording.)

In this example, the dad yelled at one daughter and ordered her to stop crying. No doubt he was very conscious of how loud she was on the airplane and the fact that her crying was disturbing to other passengers (trust me—no one is more acutely aware of this stuff than the parent). He wanted her to stop. And he got what he wanted. The girl stopped crying. But at what cost?

I completely agree with Diana that this girl learned something about evasion. So did her sister. Both kids learned that Being Quiet on an airplane is more important than anyone acknowledging what happened, justice, or problem-solving. And while the dad got what he wanted, he did nothing to help himself in the future because he made no effort to help prepare the children for the next altercation by helping his children learn to handle their emotions or conflict.

The girl who was bitten might have felt ashamed of being so loud—not because of the disturbance to the crowd on the plane, but because she had done something of which her dad disapproved. The girl who bit her sister might have felt sneaky or guilty for having gotten away with that unacceptable behavior (based on their approximate ages, I’ll assume she knew that her behavior was wrong). But both probably learned: What Dad Says is more important than What Happened.

This incident underscores the danger of parenting solely by authority. And for all we know, this dad is a wonderful dad who parents more carefully as a general rule. But each time a situation is handled in this manner, there is some kind of damage done. The damage could be to the parent-child relationship, but mostly, I think the real damage is done in the lesson that is taught to the kids in those circumstances. If the parent’s default parenting technique is one of parenting by authority, when obedience IS a virtue, these repeated lessons will be hard for the child to overcome in the future.

Because as my friend Kelly put it, teaching them to substitute Dad’s Authority for Reality is teaching them to evade.

I’ve slipped into Parenting by Authority, oh, lots of times. It’s hard for me to overcome as a parent, because that’s the pre-existing recording that’s in my head. “This is what I want you to do—now do it!” However, this is not my default parenting technique, and it’s not the way I wish to parent, so when those slip-ups occur, I am able to say “Okay, that was wrong of me. Let’s try this again.” and more forward in a more positive, teaching way.

Please don’t misunderstand me—this is not to say that I don’t exercise my parental authority. I do have it—you sort of get it automatically when the kids are very small. As they are utterly dependent upon the adults in their lives, they of course learn to rely on them for the things they need, including guidance, and they do view parents as authority figures.

But what I try to do is to never ever make my authority the sole basis for discipline. I explain my reasons—sometimes those explanations need to be provided to the child after the fact (there’s that rushing out into the street example again). I try to show or tell them something about the reality of the situation and guide them through what needs to happen. And if they can’t or won’t do what they need to (like not biting a sibling), then I will exercise my authority and help them stop.

Parenting by Authority does encourage kids to evade. They can learn to squash their feelings, to pretend events didn’t happen, and to learn how to game the system. They learn that what Dad decides is more important than what actually occurred. And they lose the ability and the chance to use their minds independently.

There’s a flip side, too—eventually, a parent who uses up all of his authority early on runs a serious risk that his children will lose respect for him completely. And then that authority granted to him when the kids were small will be all gone. This happened in my family when my siblings and I were teenagers. It just got to the point that we respected almost nothing they said, and when they tried to exercise some guidance or discipline, we laughed it off. Literally. This is bad, because at this point, the kids are as big as the adults and can do things like drive cars.

I am keenly aware that my oldest is only seven years old, and I don’t profess to be an expert on the ways of teenagers. But one of my goals is to have a decent relationship with my teenaged (and adult) children. Relationships go both ways, of course. And since children are possessed of that pesky thing called free will, I know that there are no guarantees. So I choose to concentrate on the things under my control. What I can control is ME. How I respond, how I act, the things I say.

I believe that the way I generally parent is conducive to having healthy relationships with my children going forward, while also reinforcing the primacy of existence and epistemological independence. Acknowledging the reality of a situation, helping them develop independent ways of handling problems, assisting them in figuring out the relevant context in sticky situations, remaining close by to be a resource but not the Decider of All Things—these are ways in which I can help my kids turn their mental focus where it ought to be—on reality.

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