Let Freedom Ring

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February 7, 2007

After reading Jim Amrhein's article 'Alpha Dog' in 'Whiskey and Gunpowder' and Glen Allport's 'Womb, Birth, Infancy and Childhood,' I've been doing a lot of thinking about children in our culture.

I'm always leery of reading opinions about children and parenting when they come from people who have no children of their own. Most of the time one can dismiss out of hand comments made by non-parents. Glenn Allport is a brilliant exception. The jury is still out on Amrhein.

I suspected Amrhein had no children before he declared it so, because like most such people, he thinks the ills of the world would be solved if we would only raise our children with discipline the way childless people think we should. Their limited hands-on experience allows them to think of children as pets, necessary nuisances, interactive software or short adults. Before I had my own children, I had misconceptions too. Fortunately Mother Nature makes us fall in love when we become parents. The key is to stay in love.

Parenting is not the main thrust of Amrhein's column; it is a movie review. Amrhein describes a painful, realistic and disturbing slice of pop culture. I admit that his observations about today's youth and the film 'Alpha Dog' are accurate. If today's 'dogs' are at tomorrow's political helm, we're in worse trouble than I thought.

Kids Today

Children today are in crisis. 'Alpha Dog' depicts the boys who would be pimps and young women who happily vie to be their 'ho's.' None seem to have any inkling that the universe does not revolve around their lusts. They have no regard at all for things like compassion, charity or wisdom. They consider licentiousness synonymous with freedom and have enough money or credit cards to explore the outer limits.

What is the solution? It is not punishing children, as Amrhein seems to imply by the word 'discipline.' Punishing teaches arbitrariness, bullying, and harshness. There are plenty of real life consequences to go around without parents dreaming them up in attempt to teach children something useful.

Nor is it possible to try to raise your children in a vacuum. At one point or another they will find out what the rest of the world is up to and likely resent you for sheltering them, just as I resented my mother for doing so. So, we can't punish children into compassion. Few are willing to become Amish themselves and we can't change the rest of the world. What does that leave?

From time immemorial, children have listened very little to what their parents say and listened well to what they do. Amrhein makes an excellent point when he says, 'a lot of parents nowadays share the same addictions with their kids: drugs (illicit and prescription), alcohol, sex, you name it.' If you would raise healthy children, anytime you find yourself trying to escape reality, you are required to examine that temptation. It has never worked to tell a child, 'Do as I say and not as I do,' and yet people keep trying it anyway. This is not the cosmic agreement we have with our offspring. The place to begin in solving the problems of this world lies in scrutinizing ourselves.

Parenting is the greatest challenge facing humanity today because it requires us to meet reality every raw moment. I believe we choose to come here to earth to unmask ourselves and transform mankind back to the loving beings, which we have forgotten that we truly are. Sadly, most of us get so caught up in illusions of the significance of possessions, money and power that we forget why we came here, we forget who we really are. By the time they have children, most people have been seduced by the visible world hook, line and sinker. Many parents today identify with their position or their possessions. They don't get the message their children work so very hard to communicate by acting out: to get honest. Honesty is the only way to be free. Each time we fail to meet the challenges our children present us, we demonstrate erroneously the significance of power and money to important men and women and the insignificance of real men and women.

Each time we enroll them in daycare for ten to twelve hours a day beginning at age six weeks, we show children that money is important and people are not. Each time we vote to turn the guns of government against our neighbors in hopes of achieving a social goal, or wage war on some 'other' country for whatever reason du jour, we show our children that power is important and people are not. After a lifetime of such conditioning, is it such a stretch that boys wish only to be pimps and girls their 'ho's?' With handouts, subsidies, vote pandering and war mongering, are we much more than a nation of pimps and ho's? Can we realistically expect this generation to do as we say and not as we do?

That's the Way We Always Did It

Human beings come in to life with open hearts, but most parents insist on indoctrinating them as soon as possible. They have their reasons. Some do this in order to make themselves look like good parents, while some do it because they've never questioned how it was done to them. Some simply try to do the opposite of what was done to them, resulting in more of the same because it is driven just as clearly by some unconscious fear. Some really believe they are just doing what they are supposed to do. Our parents had been conditioned by their parents, and they in turn, often unwittingly, conditioned us and on and on through generations.

Acting without thinking is how we wind up with torture as a military tool. It's how we wind up with countless children dead from war. It's how we wound up with a nation full of people who want nothing more than a little security and are willing to sacrifice everyone's most basic rights and freedoms in hopes of getting some--just don't ask them to challenge the status quo. (No! Anything but that!) Sadly, they can't see until it's too late that this road to Hell does not deliver the goods they were expecting from politicians.

The solution is simple but not easy: to stop this generational insanity, one must be willing to bear life as it is, the whole disaster. We must bear the horror of the conditioning our parents imposed upon us and at the same time resist the ease with which we could use it on our children. Imagine one who has power and refuses to use it against another even though they are smaller and weaker. This is big magic. This is the change we wish to see in the world and the very same which we must exhibit.

When we're afraid, we cannot attempt to coerce others into changing their thinking or actions in hopes that we can stop feeling afraid. We must be completely responsible. We must stop in that moment that fear has shown up and make an examination, asking ourselves what is really happening. If we do this successfully, we come to a place of insight, and only then can we have an intelligent, honest dialogue with another.

I'll give you an example. When my son was 14, he tried out the gothic look. He grew his hair long, wore enormous black trousers with large pins and zippers all over them. His favorite shirt was a see-through, black, fishnet with a skull and crossbones the front. He wore black eye makeup and black fingernail polish. None of these things changed who he was inside, but it was triggering for his father and me. At the time we were very busy managing life and our growth as human beings. We were taken by complete surprise by this alien style. We felt afraid and thought this must mean something bad.

We worried that people would think he was weird, and that therefore we must be weird too. We worried that his clothing meant he would get into trouble with drinking and drugs or that he would be targeted by police or aggressive strangers who didn't like his appearance. (I do not excuse this irrational thinking on my part.) The easiest thing to have done would be to forbid him to dress that way. Yes, there would have been fights, but it would have temporarily relieved that unpleasant fear for me.

I realized that I could choose whether to use this situation to build a wall between us or to build a bridge. I knew that instead of dressing to please himself, he'd be forced to abandon his own desires, at least on their face, and would have had to sneak out of the house to dress this way, as I did when I was young. I did not want to jeopardize the friendship I had enjoyed with my son since his birth over clothing. I stopped and examined my reaction.

I had to take the problem away from the realm of reasons why his actions had to be changed, to finding out what was really driving my reaction. As usual, it was simply fear.

It was a long, long time ago, but eventually I remembered what it was like for me when I was his age. Ironically, I hated when my mother tried to limit my life because of her fear! I hated that she attached irrational meaning to things that had none. I hated when she tried to control me. I was simply replaying history, naturally only the ugliest parts. I began to see that I cannot expect my children to exhibit maturity if I haven't yet learned the kindergarten lesson of cleaning up my own emotional messes.

Take a moment yourself to really think about what it was you wanted from your parents. I wanted dignity as an individual. I wanted support and respect for the things in which I was interested. I wanted to be nurtured. This might seem simplistic because this is what we do for our small children--we feed them when they're hungry, we stop what we are doing to care for them when they are tired or hurt. The challenge is to maintain this kind of conscious, organic, interactive relationship with children as they grow older. It becomes more difficult as their interests challenge our notions of what 'should' be taking place.

The time frame for the end of the nurturing environment for most children and the beginning of demands varies. Often this cut-off point for meeting the child where they are is with potty training. Until then, life is generally a safe learning environment. These tiny beings learn to talk and walk, the two most difficult things a human being can undertake, all without specific instruction whatsoever other than our model. All they do is watch us and imitate. Suddenly one day something puzzling is demanded of them. We can stop wondering why a two year-olds' favorite word is 'no.' They are big enough to start getting into things and suddenly the world is no longer their matrix of nurture, but a demanding force that they learn to use a toilet. It's no surprise that they respond in kind.

In truth, some parents are relaxed about potty training, so the home as a nurturing environment continues until the child is older, but it almost always ends by school age. For instance, my husband distinctly recalls his father's abuse coming alive when he was seven years old. Until then, he was clearly under his mother's domain, where he was cared for and somewhat free. There's no saying exactly why this is so, but for whatever reason, his Dad had probably been conditioned to believe that at that age, a boy is no longer a child but an extension of his father and should behave in a way that makes father look good. War was declared on his childhood and suffering ensued.

Not surprisingly, my husband began a painful struggle with our son when he turned seven. It was a tumultuous few years between my husband and I, because it was easy for me to see that sudden demands and controls were unnecessary and I simply couldn't allow it. My husband was forced to face these demons of conditioning that had been handed him. I'm happy to report that he was successful and their relationship is intact.

I remember a friend telling me that in the Seventies his father had declared war on his long hair. Anyone can see now how ridiculous that is, but at the time it was serious business. The thing is, if we declare war on our children, they will acquiesce and they are guerillas. They're the weaker underdogs who will fight any way they must for emotional survival, just like the Irish fought and the Iraqis fight for their own sovereignty. We must be the peacemakers, the mature adults. If we're waiting for our children to do the job, it will never happen.

At whatever time, almost all of us come to a point as parents where we think that the home should cease to be a place of nurture and begin to initiate force on the child 'for his own good.' It is vital to examine the reasoning behind this action of ours. It is also vital to hold our own feet to the fire in regards to the method we employ when we deal with older children. If we attempt to use power as leverage, we succeed in creating bullies. You can bet they will be using leverage on us. Is this really the kind of person you want looking out for you when you're old or running the world after you're gone? This is the nanny state we have now, and it doesn't feel so good. Why would anyone think it would work better in the home and not impact the wider world as well?

We must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we would know peace and freedom, we must offer those things, provided, of course, that freedom is recognized as the assumption of responsibility.

We must offer our children the dignity we wanted from our own parents. When I honestly and humbly ask for help from my children as I would any friend, their response is a beautiful thing. If I act with coercive force in our relationship, I alienate them as I would any friend. Drawing a line in the sand creates an equal and opposite reaction every single, stinking time.

When it comes to our children, we truly live in glass houses. There isn't anything hidden from them, no matter how we may try to fool ourselves. We must behave consciously and ethically acknowledge when we fail because we are our children's models for getting on in the world. We have to tell the truth to our children about our own weaknesses if we expect them to own up to their own, because they already know the truth about us anyway. We all have weaknesses, there's no getting around it. If you try to pretend that you don't have them, you're teaching your children to lie and you're dead in the water.

Parenting is the greatest challenge. There is no way out of these problems that confront us. There's only diving in straight on, dead ahead. I'm convinced we have an agreement with our children. We agree to provide for them and it is their job to challenge us at every turn, to stretch us to our egoic limit and into something far greater--love. I can only describe this work our children do in grasping the unpleasant aspects of human behavior as 'open heart' surgery for parents. I have many times observed a child go directly to the one thing on which the parent is fixated. It's as if the parent has taken that painful seed and planted right into the heart of the child, the child then goes directly to the heart of the matter.

Here's a brief example. I had a brother-in-law who was extremely homophobic. Guess who managed to produce the only gay member of the family?

Old Dogs and New Tricks

Many of our ancestors actually lived in fear for their very survival, and that is not an easy mentality to escape. For instance, my parents grew up in the Great Depression. My Mom's mother came to the U.S. from Poland in the 19th Century, penniless and not speaking English. My Mom was a young teen during the Depression when her father died of lung disease from working in coal mines. My Mom quit school in 8th grade to go to work. They ate onion sandwiches, which she had provided for her family. She grew up and got better jobs before she married my Dad. My parents were never affluent, but Dad always put food on the table and few dollars in a savings account. Even so, Mom was never able to escape that poverty mentality. She didn't believe in snacks. She served us three meals a day and doled out the servings to us as if any meal might be our last.

After I had left home, I couldn't visit Mom without her offering me half a loaf of bread to take home. If I hadn't grown up with her and understood her prior conditioning, I would have considered her mentally deficient, as some people did. There was never enough for her when she was a child, and she came to believe that life was precarious and dangerous. She lived in fear of almost everything. The fight or flight response is very useful if one is actually in danger, but my Mom lived her whole life in that mode, creating the neural pathways of a nervous bird or squirrel. She died fearful and grasping.

My parents were authoritarian and puritanical. They believed in slapping and spanking and teaching obedience, because in their eyes, we were nothing but extensions of them. I learned to be obedient out of fear, but this didn't stop me from acting out once I was away from my parent's grasp or drinking too much in an attempt to squelch the gnawing sense of inadequacy inside me. My husband's mother was a depressed, codependent, compulsive overeater. His Dad a grouchy, hard-drinking womanizer. They believed in licentiousness for themselves but the torture of government schools and forced church attendance for children, never recognizing the damage, hypocrisy and futility inherent in such a parenting program, or how it had failed when used on them.

When you see a neurotic or out-of-control child, and we all have, you can bet they have a neurotic or out-of-control parent, I don't care how upstanding they may seem. Children do not need discipline. They need adults who are willing to be completely responsible. If we cannot display complete responsibility for ourselves, we cannot expect it of our children.

Today my husband and I assume complete responsibility for our happiness and offer our own children the love and respect that we had craved as children. I'm not bragging. I've hurt my children lots of times and managed to lay a lot emotional baggage on them that wasn't theirs to bear. Cleaning up those messes was terribly humbling. The pain of it keeps me honest so that I don't have to keep putting us both through it again and again. I also don't mean to imply that my mistakes are expunged. Sometimes I still feel very bad about myself and wonder if that will ever change. I say these things to reassure other parents out there who wonder whether or not it's possible to be completely honest and responsible and if there are other people out there working at it too.

My husband and I have come a long way and I humbly say that have made remarkable progress for two people who were not properly nurtured as children. We have our own children to thank for it. They challenged us at every turn. I think we also have our parents to thank--if our lives weren't as unhappy as they were, we might not have been motivated enough to attempt remarkable change and come to know true happiness.

If we simply go through the motions of living by acting out conditioned responses from the past, there is no limit to the suffering that is possible and probable. We must never forget that our children are here specifically to challenge our conditioning, to set us free. Even though this is an extremely painful process, it is of the utmost benefit. To live crisply in the present moment, rather than reliving the past conditioning over and over is the challenge, love and freedom its reward. Let freedom ring.

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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.