Thoughts on the Early Years of Parenting within Civilization
by John Breeding, Ph.D.
First, remember to TRUST your children and take DELIGHT in their presence. Make a joyful noise! True human nature is glorious. It is true that our very long dependency period and intense vulnerability can result in horrific patterns-aggression and war, fear and greed-caused by trauma and conditioning. Given that we meet certain necessary conditions, however, human essence naturally unfolds as the sweet warmth, vitality and instinctual intelligence of babies 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, allowing expression-are as wonderfully proper and nurturing as they ever were. Treasure the wisdom and support of midwives, and embrace the sacred, natural experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Carry your babies for that first six months to a year-that way they learn and know in the deepest way the experience of 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 pleasure of physical touch and affection.
You men-know that there is no greater act you can do than to support and protect the presence of a safe, loving space for the pregnancy and birth for our women, and the early experience of our children.
The Buddha is said to have told us 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 here is not about pushing separation; it is about making it completely safe to be themselves. That awesome accomplishment the theorists call “rapprochement”-the ability to be intimate and true to yourself at the same time-is hard-earned. Our 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 have experienced a breakdown of attachment parenting somewhere in the transition from babyhood to toddlerhood. We learned to love doting on our babies, but became fearful and frustrated as toddlers entered the “crisis of opposition,” and began to find themselves by imperious demanding and by saying no and refusing. However much we learned to trust crying and constant neediness of babies, we are more easily suckered into the need to “civilize our toddlers-teach them respect and obedience and such! As Naomi Aldort writes in her wonderful article, we face head on again the crucial decision, “To Tame or to Trust.” (http://naomialdort.com/articles9.html) 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 tended to deny our own feelings and needs, justifying it by the claim to virtue that we did fully trust the child’s needs. This latter is true, but we failed 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?” (http://www.byronchild.com/arts50.htm). The point is we need to be real, allow our feelings, honor our limits, engage our children.
In a related way, Kali Wendorf, publisher and editor of the fantastic Kindred magazine (formerly Byron Child), is the best writer I know to help us with feelings of guilt and overwhelm that inevitably crop up when we fail to live up to an ideal (such as attachment parenting theory). I most highly recommend her magazine. In the face of an insane culture that demands actions to survive that are not congruent with the best needs 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 is hard. Our civilization is structured not for community and family, but for fragmentation, disconnection and isolation. Community and support, rather than given, are intensely challenging building tasks for all of us. The good news is that we-and our children-are intelligent and resilient. Also good is that children do not need perfect parents-just good enough imperfect parents who never give up!
Joseph Chilton Pearce’s notion of the “model imperative” is another important concept for parenting. This idea reflects the truth that children need models in order to bring forth 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 includes 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 lovingly intimate with your beloved, at the same time that you are refusing them an important request because you have a deeper call to go your own way on something?
While Joe Pearce is in mind, let me not forget his prime directive, after natural childbirth and attachment parenting, to save our world by saving our children-“Throw away your TV.”
Another huge related task is what I call “Parenting as Emotional Healing,” a chapter title in my book, True Nature and Great Misunderstandings. The universal law is that in parenting your “stuff” 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? Give your child a pacifier or face your own hurt inner child. Frightened of anger? Insist your child be “nice,” or work through your own hurt and fear, and reclaim your power. Frightened in general? Beseech your child to constantly “be careful,” or face your fear and send your child out to boldly “take a risk!”
We do live in a troubled world. I wrote a “21st Century Manifesto for Parenting” to address this fact, highlighting the ongoing need to protect our children from the overwhelming destruction of such things as unnecessary immunizations, toxic foods, militarism and gross materialism. Here is the beginning statement of the manifesto:
I recognize that our society is seriously disturbed and dangerous to the well-being of my family and my children in many ways. I recognize that our society has institutionalized many obviously harmful practices as acceptable tradeoffs for the perpetuation of the status values of Western civilization. This is not acceptable to me. Therefore, I vow 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, some of which include the following.
I have come to see, with the help of many guides including Derrick Jensen’s books, such as the magnificent A Language Older Than Words, 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 to varying degrees, 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 that parenting rates at the top. All 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, deep caring and love for life-that when you deeply love something, you do not stand by while it is destroyed. I agree with him, and with his suggestion that the best way to facilitate deep loving in our children is to contradict the isolation that goes with living most all of a life in virtual reality, within the confines and inputs of human creations, and divorced from genuine relationship with the “more than human” world.
Whatever else you do, however you can, do not let your children’s natural affinity with all that is natural be forsaken. Take your children to wild places. Make sure they spend a good deal of their formative years in the natural world outdoors. See that they spend lots of time with wind and water and all kinds of more than human life forms-in indigenous American terms, with “all my relations.” Let them learn that life is not taken because it can or should be, but only by necessity. Let them learn that from a place of deep loving, connection and respect, the taking of life conveys an obligation on the part of the taker to ensure the preservation of the community of that life form. Eating salmon, one of Jensen’s loves, means a wholehearted commitment to defending salmon runs and holding the focus for the destruction of the dams that guarantee the demise of salmon. In general terms, this mutually reciprocal relationship between giver and taker of life means that the taker promises to preserve the landbase and habitat that sustains that species or place or form of life.
I end this essay 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 deep loving of the more than human world.
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any gifts 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 call it giving the experience and opportunity for our children to fall deeply in love with life in all its magnificent diversity.