I don’t see how anyone can have a child without feeling terrified.
When you create a new human life, you are having the spirit and health and future of a completely independent person put into your hands. Even if your intentions are good, you can do long-term damage to the child.
You can follow the best advice you can find — from your family and friends and experts of the day — and still get it wrong in ways that leave someone hurt for life. No matter what you do, many people won’t approve of your parenting. If all this doesn’t terrify you, I’m not sure you ought to have a child.
When I was younger, I was scared to have children. When I was married in my late 20s and 30s, I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t quite know why, but I understand now that something in me was afraid of continuing the family patterns that had come down from the families of both of my parents.
Even while I was still struggling to understand my dysfunctional upbringing, I was determined not to do to my children what had been done to me.
It was something like 10 or 15 years ago when I started feeling psychologically healthy enough to have children without breaking them. I was coming to a firm understanding of the dynamics that had existed in my family — especially narcissistic personality disorder in my father — and that started giving me confidence that I could do a healthy job of being a father. At least as good a job as any other flawed man could.
But I still clung to much of the basic pattern of how I had been raised. I was very slow to realize that the things which had made me a perfectly compliant child had also damaged me greatly. And it was only then that I could start to question how I had been disciplined and had my compliance shaped.
If you had asked me 15 years ago about the discipline I had grown up with, I would have defended it as necessary to producing an obedient and socially impressive child. I was still proud of the fact that I had been a perfect little gentleman who performed like a robot for adults.
It’s taken me many years to understand that the parenting which made me perfectly compliant also made me terrified of life — that it crushed something at my core and left me afraid of having needs of my own.
I’m not an expert, but my study of this subject leads me to believe you can either have completely compliant children with perfect behavior or you can have children who grow up without emotional damage — but you can’t have both.
A month or so ago, I read Swiss psychologist Alice Miller’s book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” but it didn’t prepare me for reading another of her books, “For Your Own Good,” which I started this weekend.
Early in this book, Miller shares passages from a number of books over the last couple of centuries in which experts gave advice about parenting. I was sickened as the pattern emerged. Every one of these experts had the same message: “As the parent, you are the master and your task is to force obedience by the child — and this compliance which you attain by force is for his own good.”
The bulk of the book is about the hidden results of this eagerness to gain compliance. Miller says that parents unconsciously feel like controlling their own children as a way to express their repressed rage at the control which was inflicted on them. (They have no idea about this, of course.) She also lays out the evidence that these patterns are responsible for violence, both at the individual level and the societal level.
(For instance, she argues that Adolph Hitler could not have become what he was except as a result of the control exerted by his father — and she says a country which wasn’t conditioned to obey at all costs would never have followed him.)
But for me, I can’t get past the most basic realization that the parenting methods which most people teach — and which I spent most of my life believing in — are based on the root concept that the parent is the unquestioned master and the child is the unquestioned slave in the relationship.
I don’t pretend to have parenting figured out. As far as I know, there are no easy solutions to allowing a family to live together in peace which also lets the children grow up without having their spirits crushed. Anybody who tells you that he has a perfect plan is lying to you — and to himself — as far as I can tell.
But I am convinced that a child who is completely compliant — in the ways that I was as a child — is being damaged by his parenting. When parents gain obedience by hitting a child and by emotionally terrorizing a child, they’re doing long-term damage, even if they have the best of intentions — and even if the child grows up defending those parenting methods as much as I did.
If you spank your child and if you achieve complete emotional dominance, you can gain perfect obedience. I have no doubt about that. If you set aside those methods and try to allow your child to be himself or herself, you will often have a willful, disobedient child. That child will sometimes cause problems. He or she will embarrass you in public by acting in ways that will humiliate you.
I don’t know of a perfect solution. I’m just certain that if you choose to bring a child into this world, you have an obligation to take this understanding into account — that research has proven that compliance comes at the cost of damaging a child.
I can’t tell you why any of us want children. There are all sorts of theories, but most of us have an in-born desire to reproduce ourselves — not just to raise any children, but to create and raise children which send our genes into the future.
Whatever the scientific reason might be, I feel a burning need to create children and to raise them well. Something in me wants to create children who are partly me and partly a woman who I love. I accept that as a normal thing.
But I also accept it as a normal and healthy thing to want to make up for what happened to me. It’s taken me many years, but I finally understand what not to do. This means my parenting life is going to be more difficult, because I’m accepting that I shouldn’t wield the most popular (and most powerful) weapon in the parenting tool kit.
Parenting is the most difficult job in the world. Nobody is ever going to be happy with exactly how you do it. But if the evidence says that one direction creates serious long-term damage to your children — no matter how good your intentions are — reason and empathy both suggest you must listen and find another direction instead.
There will be times when I want to blow up and scream at my future children — when I will want nothing more than their short-term compliance, when I’m humiliated that other parents disapprove because I don’t fully control my children. I know all this.
But I also know I have a responsibility to the adults who my children will become one day. I can’t do to them what was done to me, even though it was done to me with the best of intentions.
Note: I have also started reading the ideas of Alfie Kohn about parenting and education. He’s not popular with conservatives or with educators, because he calls into question things such as competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling. I’ll be reading more of his books, even though I would have hated his ideas 20 years ago.