In my twenties I was extremely disparaging of children. I viewed them as loud, selfish, obnoxious, energy-draining parasites. I’d cast aspersions at families for spoiling my meal by bringing their disruptive children to a restaurant clearly not meant for families. I’d secretly denounce parents who couldn’t stop their kids behaving like baboons in public.
The poorly-dressed, overweight, bleary-eyed dudes sauntering like emasculated eunuchs from their minivans, and frazzled mothers in sweatpants and stained shirts were horrific sights to my decidedly yuppie eyes. There was nothing to recommend having children of my own.
In my early thirties I jumped off a cliff to spite myself and had children. Twins, no less. Like most men, I repressed my ambivalence about the idea of kids and hoped for the best.
Sleepless nights, colic, croup, flu, fevers, diarrhea. Trips to the emergency room. Teething. Crying. Lots of crying, at the most inopportune time – at two, three, and four in the morning – then not at all while I was sleeping at my desk at work.
Everything about being a new parent was an affront, an insurmountable challenge. I was not one of those people seduced by the propaganda that fools would-be parents into believing in the unqualified bliss of children. I had low expectations going in. The reality at times felt worse, which I did not think possible. I chalked it up to the sheer physical exhaustion of caring for new-born twins.
When my children were three they were both diagnosed with autism.
Obviously, I was incredibly distraught. It forced so many changes in our family life, in our careers. Our aspirations for their future were hazy, but feeling grim. Children were beginning to feel like my life’s ruin. I became an impatient, self-absorbed, and sometimes caustic parent.
I was disgusted with myself, especially for how habitually I projected negativity in my mood into the manner I related to my children. I had been subjected to that myself as a child, and I vowed I would not repeat it. Then I found myself unconsciously repeating it.
I expended tons of energy to change, a process begun eight years ago, and continues today. My perspective has fundamentally altered, which in turn has transformed the way I parent my children. This doesn’t make me an amazing parent; I am just better than I was, and trying to get better.
I am more in tune with my own emotions, which makes me less rigid in outlook, more able to deal with adversity. Both are paramount for emotional stability when raising children, and for getting through the challenges in a typical adult existence. It seems flaky, but my consciousness was opened by my efforts.
Some of my old, hardened views about reality are either completely gone or really relaxed. As a result, a broader range of experience is allowed to enter my awareness than before, which is a welcome, if unexpected result. I imagine this to be similar to how a child experiences life as it comes.
Now, as I look into the adult world myself and others have created I can’t so easily ignore how tragic the view is. With my eyes a little more open I see adults who are too often indifferent, cruel, selfish, and greedy.
Guile is the capacity to act with self-serving, often malevolent duplicity. It shouts down the voice in our heart that wakes us to the suffering in our surroundings and compels us to reduce it or, at the very least, to not compound it.
Children lack guile. For a time, at least, they don’t have egos to necessitate its existence. Only when we parents begin to push our children to acquire certain specific identities, to adopt attitudes that are completely foreign to their hearts, do they begin to gain an understanding of its utility in their own lives.
Adults, on the other hand, possess guile in abundance. It is a central feature of the adult ego in an individualistic society; one that sends us all too close to the thin edge of sociopathy. It propels our wants to be craven, our motives self-aggrandizing, our actions toward the detriment of others.
Guile is the narrative the clever among us craft to make our transgressions appear principled and virtuous. We can explain, justify, or brush off ethical lapses, burying the malfeasance in our behaviour beneath layers of high-minded rationalizations. It is a by-product of a society obsessed with economic success to the detriment of our human spirit.
We adults lie, cheat, and steal, but in ways that make what we’re doing appear to be something other. We are “getting elected” or “increasing the bottom line” or “reducing our tax burden.” There is always the shibboleth of a greater good to lend an air of nobility to self-serving, specious motives.
On a day-to-day basis, most of us are not purposely engaged in misconduct. We’re just going about our day, the best we can. As we proceed, we step over the homeless, snicker at the poor, or blame the minorities for their role in being persecuted by those charged with protecting them.
All the denials and obfuscations we entertain allow us to believe the issues vexing our societies are beyond our capacity to influence. Somehow we cling to the delusion their prevalence does not say something contemptible about ourselves, who collectively have the means to address it, but do nothing instead. The lack of awareness ensures we will continue to hone our mastery of ways to exploit fellow human beings to fatten our wallets.
We are not all directly responsible for creating this reality. Yet we easily allow ourselves to be bribed, sweet-talked, or distracted away from applying our moral compass to determine our standing and change course if we don’t like where we’ve come. As we are lured further into the the gutter by the pursuit of greater wealth, each of us becomes less able to deny our agency in perpetuating the misery of so many others in our midst.
We are compelled by guile to defend the direction we are heading against appeals to change, perhaps spurred on by guilt for having ignored so much suffering to get where we are. It smothers our imagination with the notion that it is too late, or too naive to turn away from the only path we know.
There is no greater exemplar for the place of guile in our collective hearts than the countless self-preserving reasons we postulate to justify the hoarding and concentration of our society’s wealth. Guile clings vigorously to ideas that legitimize the moral failings in organizing principles that countenance gross inequalities, and softens our judgement of the wanton acts that established this state of affairs.
We see those destroyed by addiction and mental illness left untreated and abandoned to wander the streets to fend for themselves. We possess enough to feed all the hungry mouths around the world, enough money to provide food and shelter for all the poor in our communities, and enough medicine to treat diseases we’ve licked for years. In spite of this, we choose not to share the fruits of our subsistence, allowing our wealth to be hoarded and withheld instead of used to alleviate the suffering of countless fellow human beings.
We act as though there’s nothing we can do to compel changes in corporate behaviours that too often undermine society’s non-economic imperatives: health-care, education, the environment, and human rights. By not including corporations in progressive tax systems, we effectively condone theft of society’s dividend for its investment in an educated, healthy, politically stable environment. Without any of these factors, which cost an extraordinary amount of money for society to secure, there would be no wealth to earn or to hoard.
Our withdrawal of compassion in helping the disadvantaged reflects a widespread belief their lot in life is entirely attributed to their own missteps and nothing else. This allows us to admonish the disenfranchised by touting punitive laws and policies directed at them. We criminalize, imprison, or withdraw economic supports for the underclass, addicted, marginalized, and downtrodden. The disenfranchised simply “slip through the cracks” of our collective consciousness, leaving us free to acquire more wealth and spend it feeding insatiable consumptive drives.
We focus on our careers to the neglect of our families and children; to the detriment of cultivating interesting, multi-faceted lives that include pursuits of passion as much as work. We do it because the personal wealth and status we enjoy with career achievements fulfils a deep-rooted, often emotionally pathological, ego-need. Guile makes it possible for those who put countless hours at work in demanding jobs to really believe it when they say “I am sorry I don’t spend any time with you, son, I am too busy working to support you” and not understand how readily a child sees through such duplicity.
We engage in small talk revealing nothing meaningful about ourselves or demonstrating that our range of concerns is very deep; that it genuinely encompasses the well-being of others. We embellish our successes, hide our failures, self-consciously conceal the breadth of our true humanity from others. We employ shrewdness, charm, and inauthenticity to gain the good graces of those instrumental to our aims and dismiss the rest.
Our apprehension to reveal more than the shallow surface of our lives collectively sustains the impression we are all happy and thriving, a facade that further alienates the legions who suffer; who feel ashamed, foolish, and flawed for their inability to create their own happiness. It compounds their desire to isolate and detach from others, and prevents them from reaching out for help. A society that disdains the unfortunate, singles them out for scorn as the authors of their misfortune, and ignores their concerns because they are powerless to compel our attention is an uninviting place to turn for those in the struggle.
These observations make me ashamed of the adult world many of us go about raising our children to become a part of. If this is adulthood, I say “No thanks.” I want out. This place is brimming over with guile. We grown-ups are way more rotten and misbehaved than children but worse: we have convinced ourselves we’re acting on principle.
I want a seat at the kids’ table, please. They know how to own-up when they’ve misbehaved, and say “I’m sorry.” They may be untamed, but they still lead with their hearts, which leaves them free to behave as genuine human beings.
Children know the intrinsic value of fun and actively seek it out. The intention behind this motive is pure and honest. It adds something tangible to the human condition because it is energy expended in search of joy, a pursuit that does not purposely detract from anyone else’s experience of life and more often seeks to include others in the search.
A child’s emotions are raw, and they connect to them without the filtering we adults too often employ to temper the fear of confronting our feelings honestly. A child cries heartily when they feel pain, anger, frustration or indignity.
Children don’t desire objects or experiences to “get ahead.” They are moved to action by their intuition which quickly apprehends the genuine appeal of something they’ve come into contact with. A child knows when she is in the presence of beauty and truth, and does not consider reasons why she should not indulge the experience to the fullest. Their intentions arise as they apprehend reality through unadulterated eyes. Their actions to seize experiences that touch their heart is the most pure demonstration of love we witness in the world.
Because children do not repress their feelings, they are free from the cynicism we often employ to narrow the intensity of our experiences – good or bad. They don’t minimize or belittle their disappointments to guard their self-esteem, because they do not possess a concept of self. They immerse themselves in joy, and are not too embarrassed to express their delight in the moment.
When a child is angry at something you’ve done they let you know. They’ll repeat their displeasure again and again until they are certain you understand. You will know where you stand in their eyes at that moment and then, the issue will be done with. Your fundamental character will not be castigated, you will not be subjected to a passive aggressive campaign of sabotage fed by resentment over a grievance that was felt but not aired.
A child doesn’t turn sublimated feelings into rationalizations that harden their heart, foment ill-will in the mind, and steal away mental energy required to face certain hardships. They inherently know, as they endure something that brings immense pain, that it will end and be balanced by something equally joyous later on. They will not be deterred from bringing the shift about themselves, nor will they diminish their gratitude if serendipity delivers it to them. Their innate ability to be fully immersed in the intensity of feeling, without rationalizations to qualify their experience of it, is what makes them resilient.
A child doesn’t pretend to be something they aren’t and is not afraid of who they are. If a child wants to dance, they’ll dance without concern for how well or poorly they do it. If they want to be silly, they are silly without self-consciousness. When they’re excited, they fill the world with their enthusiasm and could care less if others share it.
When a child sees another cry, they can’t help from feeling disturbed, which doesn’t make them turn away. They naturally enquire to learn what has gone wrong. They try to console or comfort the aggrieved, without being limited in their compassion by the idea “there’s nothing I can do, I’m just a kid.” They know intuitively that doing nothing is to tolerate the suffering of another being, which is why they always intervene. The gesture itself goes a long way to minimize the insult because it alleviates the isolation we sometimes feel as we suffer.
Children are amazing human beings, raw and unvarnished as they may be. We adults should be so lucky to possess a shred of the innate wisdom of a child. If you filled up a theatre with five year-olds from around the world, there would be no better proof that we human beings are one and the same regardless of creed, race, or economic status. If we cared to look, we would be immediately disabused of the falsehoods we’ve relied upon to divide, rank, and organize our adult lives.
It is this insight, this perspective, that I am grateful for. I would never have learned to see the world with less atavistic eyes, had my love for my children not possessed me with the energy and will to find a way to change my view. For this reason, I am forever indebted to them; to all children. We should worship them for the infinite human potential they embody.
It occurs to me now I’m not just a parent to my children. I’m their biggest fan, and most eager student. I am here to guide them away from practical dangers and to sustain their lives until they can do so on their own. I am not here to shape them in my world view.
My children have taught me the shameful mess we have made from the gift of human life. The emotional damage we parents inflict on our children can reveal deep fissures in our own psyches. Their sensitivity to the ways we relate to them holds a mirror to the remnants of cruelty, anger, or fear in our hearts that escaped our notice. The reflection of our worst selves unwittingly trampling on their innocent spirits is nearly impossible to ignore. For me, the lesson was a watershed in my emotional development, and profoundly humbling.
If we still care about humanity, we would apologize to our children for all the indignities the guile we’ve allowed to grow in our minds has unleashed, and we would set about to make amends. Since we are unskilled in behaving with basic goodness, we must pay close attention to the standing of the world’s children. Their collective well-being is the most reliable measure of success we possess.
We adults had our moment as avatars for the human race, and we got it dreadfully wrong. It is time for our children to plot the course from here on out. Humanity’s tainted virtue on earth is redeemed when our hearts and minds are guided in their actions by the wisdom in those little hands.
I sometimes receive heart-felt apologies from beleaguered parents when their children are being difficult in a public place. I remember that feeling when my children were small – embarrassment and anxiety that my kids were ruining someone’s day. How things have changed since my days as an obnoxious upstart adult.
More than once I’ve replied to the parent “don’t be silly, and do not fret at your child on my account. They’re honest and real about how they feel, and I don’t mind.”