On the Care and Feeding of Humans

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June 7, 2007

Like my fellow anarchists, I bristle at the notion of the coercive state. But there is no state, really, just people. So in my quiet, reflective moments, I must ask myself whether or not I am doing better than the average untamed bureaucrat. Do I resist using the power over others that is available for the taking in my relationships, especially parenting? It is the question that must be asked in order for the anarchist life view to have integrity and ring true.

Anyone who has read or seen the 'The Lord of the Rings' understands the idea of the draw, nee, the seduction of having power at one's fingertips. It is brought into sharp focus in Tolkien's story. Power over another is almost always irresistible. A Bell curve would look like this: a few with the power, the masses, who either wish they had it or wish someone who favored them had it, and the few at the other end who are not interested in power except over themselves.

When we exert power over another, in our arrogance we say that we are acting in another's best interest; our implied superiority is never spoken of. We may even deceive ourselves into believing that we act for others, too. To believe this we must ignore the fact which is as plain as the nose on your face--that people exercising power over others do so for their own benefit. Period.

Anarchist Parenting

So much of what I see that is considered 'parenting' these days is nothing more than a bizarre game in which children are tortured into 'doing the right thing,' according to the status quo, all in a disguised effort to make parents look proper or feel good about themselves. To use a child in this way is to deny the most vital element of being human--individuality. Even though many mistake this treatment for love, it is anything but. It is actually fear. If it weren't for the 'terrible twos' and rebellious teens, we'd all be zombies conforming to the nanny state.

Today most children are forced away from home and family to be schooled--something very different from education. Schooling is teaching one what to do and think, when to eat, play or use the restroom, and most of all, to deny one's own heart and mind, to relinquish freedom to choose. It is to conform. Most significantly, schooled children are taught by example (the most powerful form of teaching) how to bully weaker beings into conforming to the will of those more powerful. This is considered a good education--Abu Ghraib right here at home in America 's heartland.

When we torture our children this way, we are creating the environment that allows them to torture their children and on an on, and to go abroad and torture people who don't conform to our religious or other beliefs. Playground bullies are just imitating what school authorities teach them by example: how to prey on those weaker than you, who, for whatever reason, find themselves under your heel. Like the violent pecking order of that other infamous government institution--prisons--we allow government schools to murder everything innocent and innovative about our children and we call it 'socialization.' Are we that much different from those who assault women for not covering their heads in public in the name of Islam? Time to stop pointing fingers at the brown skinned man across the ocean, because every time you do there are three more pointing back at you.

I believe children have a right to liberty and happiness--their own happiness. Is the human desire for freedom in a child less valid because they are younger and closer to their core? To force conformity on a child by going to day prison (school) for 12 years in hopes that they will get into a good college, and then into a good job so that someday they'll be happy, is insane. A free child with enough to eat and a nurturing home is already as happy as anyone can get. If they should become unhappy, they make adjustments until they become happy once again.

I'm not saying that education is bad or that doing what you need to do to get where you want to go doesn't work. When something is force fed to you, even if it is medicine, it becomes poison. What I am saying is that coercion cannot produce happiness. It is not life affirming, but useless and destructive. It is torture. Here's a simple example:

I have a dear friend with an incredible voice whose father insisted on her going to college. He was a hard worker, but couldn't really get ahead until he went to school and got a degree. He was self-correcting in this way, but instead of allowing her to find her way in her own time, he insisted she follow his path, and she indeed earned herself a degree in music. She said she always knew she wanted to sing until she went to college, where she learned that she wasn't good enough.

Would she be singing today if she hadn't learned to be unsuccessful in college? It's impossible to say, but it's doubtful she'll have one now. If she had been left to listen to her own heart, she may have gone to college anyway, but our own hearts have integrity and when we listen to them, it matters less and less what other people say or do.

A Little Trust Goes a Long Way

People who think children will do nothing if left to their own devices are just fearful and ignorant. My children are truly free, and no one works harder or with more joy than they do at things they are interested in. It's true, some days they do absolutely nothing. (What a luxury!) That used to frighten me. It doesn't anymore. I've learned to value the art of reflection. Original creation comes only from an empty, fertile environment such as a womb or a clear mind. Schools are the polar opposite of this.

Nothing real blooms 24/7/365. There are days, weeks and months of simple 'root work' for me in which things appear to be lifeless, or actually moving in reverse. Doing nothing can be very constructive, like perennials doing their root work down in the dark depths of winter. Regardless of how it looks or what you think, they will bloom again when their time comes. Do humans have any less wisdom and depth?

Rest can help you avoid getting sick, find shapes in a cloud or a four-leafed clover in the grass, or remember yourself as love and forgiveness. It might help you find a solution to a problem that had been incubating inside. We can't know what it might accomplish, we can only trust life itself. We are living, dynamic, unfolding, unplanned miracles. In a schooling system, there is simply no way to honor natural rhythms which can change moment by moment.

My children and I have dialogues about our concerns for each other. I have a bottom line about things that I need from them, but it's not because I assume some authority as their mother, it's because I am responsible for the management of our home. It's because we all need privacy, support and love. It's also because we're all just human beings rather than one or two dominating the rest.

For instance, I insist that they clean up after themselves because it's not fair to me or anyone else to be a personal servant. I couldn't care less if they wish to leave their bedrooms a total disaster. When I expect company or get tired of looking at it, I shut their bedroom door. When they expect company, they usually clean their room. If they don't, I really don't care. It means nothing about me.

If they have no clean clothing, they learn how to get some and to think ahead for clean clothes for tomorrow. They are free to learn from their own trial and error that a clean room saves you time because you don't have to keep looking for things. They often report to me on their learning process in our casual conversations. I do the same. I've tried telling them what to do and, bless them, they never listened! If, however, I tell them about my experience, then they're all ears.

If there's anything I hate, it's other people trying to run my life. My son came to me with a problem once. He explained it and asked me if I had any advice for him. I said, 'No, I really don't. But I did have a friend once with a similar problem.' I explained what that friend did to try to solve the problem and how it worked out for him.

It wasn't easy for me to learn to trust my children and to trust life. Through a lot of soul searching, I've come to the conclusion that I have no rights over their lives. I'm fortunate to be given front row seats to the development and unfolding of two amazing beings. I had to learn to trust in their integrity as people, take complete responsibility for the choices I've made (to have a family) and offer as much love as one heart can. I tell them about what is happening for me and object when I feel I am not being treated the way I like to be treated, the way I try to treat them. This is a healthy model. The only time they don't 'get' the lesson is when I'm not teaching it well enough.

I used to think that they should do chores around the house and help out. I had to think waaay back to when I was a teenager to realize that they don't want to work at the life that I have chosen and built for myself. They want their own lives. So I must take complete responsibility, and when I do, they learn responsibility. Sometimes I ask them for help as one human being to another. They are free to decline, but knowing they are truly free, they are more inclined to acquiesce. Their acting responsibly can't happen by torturing them to do a bunch of things they don't want to do. That only teaches torture and entrenches resistance.

I choose to live this way because I've learned that if I don't trust my children, then they have nothing else to lose. My parents didn't trust me and that was painful. It made me feel bad about myself. I lost trust for my own perceptions and desires. I think humans start out very, very trustworthy, but too much of what people consider 'parenting' destroys the potential.

People often tell me how brilliant my children are. I wonder if they are any smarter than anyone else. I think what they are is truly alive within themselves. They're conscious, self-correcting human beings. The delicate sensibility that gives them reliable information about the world and other people has not been squashed. Because they are not forced into anything, they needn't waste their life energy getting wrapped up in resisting life and so have the opportunity to live fully. They are invited to experiment with life in whatever way appeals to them. This is brilliance. It's what I want for myself. How can I not offer it to my children?

It's a rare child who is truly free to experiment with life, to move towards what has vitality and away from what doesn't (no matter how important someone else thinks it may be at that moment), to make mistakes and learn from them without being judged, measured, tested, categorized or drugged. Who decided children were meant to sit on hard seats for seven hours a day? Torture is useless. One thing liberals do well is to decry torture abroad. The problem is, here at home they call it 'education,' build an entire bureaucracy and promote it.

Everyone knows that children are very honest. They won't pretend they like something or someone awful. They cry when they hurt, they laugh when something is funny no matter who goes red in the face, and they experiment endlessly to see how things work. They have tremendous genuine integrity until they 'know better.' They have natural intelligence and an innate love of learning, which is all but extinguished when too much 'schooling' is forced upon them.

It's heady stuff to have power over other people. You're like a god! Sadly, most people search for some benevolent 'other' in whose hands may be placed the responsibility for their own happiness. (Then you have someone to blame when it doesn't work out.) They spend a lifetime searching for that one person who can truly 'make them happy.' The problem is that power carries with it tremendous responsibility; usually, in the end, not bearable responsibility unless it's for one's own self. (Could this be why 50% of all marriages end in divorce?)

When we exercise coercion over others because we think we know what is best, we are entering an unspoken agreement with someone who is being bullied. When we dance the dance of coercion, our happiness is then tied to the consent of someone who is being coerced. ('If everyone would only do as we say, everything would be fine!') Besides the fact that no one yet has ever secured the happiness of another person, the real question is, can one's own life, liberty or happiness be secured in such a way? If it were possible, would it be satisfying? Dysfunctional relationships are a squirrel's cage going round and round, taking us nowhere, except perhaps farther away from our objective.

The ability to resist exercising power over another that is available to us as parents is very rare. I believe this is why liberty does not appeal to the masses. It requires the courage to be completely responsible for one's self, a courage unknown and terrifying to most people. It requires a conscious level of reasoning and a ruthless commitment to integrity unimaginable in our immature, addictive, 'give-me-what-I-want-when I-want-it' culture.

In my utter refusal to use coercion against people weaker than me, I model for my children how to truly live free. The responsibility for my own happiness (or demise) lies firmly in my own hands, not in what the neighbors might think of my children's behavior. This has always been true. Thinking that the state or anyone else can ever be responsible for me is an illusion and only serves to keep me in the role of victim. Trying to be responsible for another's happiness, when it is based on coercion, only perpetuates the victim mentality of our culture.

I don't know what happens after this. When my children become adults, what will they do? Will they attend college? Will they find their way in this crazy world? Can they ever hope to find mates who can tolerate freedom? I have no answers, only hope that they will remain free and find others like themselves. Experimenting can be scary--you never know what might happen. However, what government is doing to children in schools across America is an experiment too, a sick one, and we already know that this particular experiment doesn't work. Order spontaneously emerges from chaos, not from controls imposed from without.

If you love liberty, pass it on. Don't expect your children to somehow go from your control to suddenly living free and making good decisions the day they leave for college. If you do, they will have built up too much resistance and to life and how it really works. They'll be missing an inner guidance system.

Take complete responsibility for your own happiness and leave others free to do the same, whether they like the idea or not. It's easier than you think, and much healthier and easier than the experiment in control tyrants have been doing for millennia for their own benefit.

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Retta Fontana's picture
Columns on STR: 53

Retta Fontana is an atheist, anarchist, baker, potter and parenting teacher.  Children are her favorite people.