Remember to Laugh, Otherwise it’s Ashes to Ashes

David Bowie - Ashes to AshesI am amazed by the insights my children often share with me. One afternoon, as we drove to a local nature reserve tucked in among a city suburb, my son Owen observed of the scattered mansions dotting the road we traveled “Why do people need such big houses? It’s such a waste of natural habitat.” I had never coached him in the environmentalist’s creed, largely because I am a carbon-sucking sloth like everyone else in North America. We were driving in my compact SUV to the nature reserve, after all. The observation was his alone, which made me proud.

Another time, he had a fascination with supernovas, piqued by the Ray LaMontagne song by that name. He seemed awed by the idea such energies exist in the universe, that there was nothing we could do to influence them in any way. For weeks he would ask me about the prospects of a supernova jeopardizing earth’s existence. I said “nah,” without having a clue. He consulted Wikipedia on the subject, and learned there is geological evidence of gamma rays from supernovas, a belief the effects on the ozone layer may have caused massive extinctions of oceanic life. No matter the risks to earth, a supernova definitely obliterated my son’s faith in his learned father as a source of edification, which was all that mattered to me. I hate supernovas now.

These are just a couple of examples that scream to me in the starkest terms possible that my child is no longer really a child; that he’s reflecting deeply about things in his experience. It’s a harrowing prospect if he’s anywhere near as skeptical, self-critical, and emotionally mistrusting as I was at his age. Innocently, out of the blue the other day, he said “I notice I don’t laugh uncontrollably at certain funny things like I used to when I was a kid. Why is that?”

My first thought was ‘I think that makes me want to curl up and die, son.’ It is disheartening to realize he’s lost some of his childhood bliss, but it’s to be expected, to a degree. My second thought was I should say something like “It’s sad you’re thinking this way, but don’t worry, the sun will come out tomorrow.” I refrained, but it was not easy. I just said “Maybe you’re applying a little more opinion than feeling to certain things as you grow older. I don’t know. What do you think?”

Owen just turned thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the living room without me noticing, curious about the not kid-friendly movie he’s overhearing from his bedroom. I continue to forget – or am still in denial – about the fact my kids aren’t nine; that, at ten o’clock they probably aren’t fast asleep dreaming of dancing in lollipop fields. Inevitably, a scene with nudity or violence propels him to reveal his presence “I guess I shouldn’t be watching this, hey Dad?”

After a few instances of this, it strikes me that he is genuinely interested in these movies. It’s not just the sensation of flesh and gore that piques his imagination, it’s the existence of social dynamics so utterly foreign to him that fascinates. He’s curious; the situations are so much more emotionally nuanced, the characters not so one-dimensional in their psychological métier, unlike the cardboard cut-out characters he’s been exposed to in kids’ movies. There are no clear good guys and bad guys; there are good people doing bad things and vice versa. There is no easy fix, no clearly self-interested aims to see through. The world is not flat, and its problems are bigger than who will become king.

Supernova. Obliterated my son's faith in his father's as a learned figure in his life.

Supernova. Obliterated my son’s faith in his father as a learned figure in his life.

I can see his mind swirling with questions about what he sees in the movies I’m watching, or what he sees and hears on the news of the world. People are dying all over the place. Bombs are going off with intent to kill and maim. There is rampant, abject poverty and crass wealth. The polar ice-cap is shrinking every year. Things aren’t turning out peachy in the world, at least not for most of us. These create conflicts in a young mind cradled in simple, easy-to-digest fictions, who is possessed of a body reeling with hormones and exploding from clothes he fit just yesterday. It’s all a bit unsettling.

It’s unfortunate he’s no longer laughing with the same uninhibited abandon he once did, and I wonder if there’s a sadness or trepidation at what he is learning about the world that is partly responsible. I will never forget the sheer force of that laugh several years ago; a laugh which energized a theatre of movie-goers as we watched Kung Fu Panda. By the end of the movie I could feel the entire audience watching Owen watch the movie. His amusement at what was unfolding on screen was infectious and intensified others’ delight in the experience.

Since then, I assume it’s been an increasing sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Things may be funny, but they’re not that funny. As we watch movie after movie specifically made for kids his age, he displays a growing weariness about the lack of imagination, depth, and substance in the characters and situations that typify these stories. I wonder if he detects how little they challenge convention. He has been saying repeatedly for about a year now, ‘filled with clichés,’ which suggests he does. He prefers to watch the enormous selection of nature documentaries available on Netflix, which suits me fine. At least there are no questions about gratuitous drugs, sex, or violence I have to dance around, and I get to make fun of David Attenborough’s aristocratic British accent.

It’s clear my son is really beginning to filter his experience via his emerging sense of judgement. For most teenagers there are two crude dimensions of this faculty: “Suck” and “Does not suck.” In my son’s case, I worry he will inherit a yardstick with the taint of my own skeptical, idealist bent; one that is quick to detect, denounce, and despair of the cruelty, duplicity, and corruption that defile humanity. Thus far, he’s only gone so far as casting aspersions at the preponderance of clichés we seem to live by, but it’s a slippery slope.

I’ve tried to raise my son without over-indulging him with my opinions about everything under the sun to spare him the perils of my own cynicism. I was raised that way by well-meaning, ideologically zealous family members. The approach robs a child of trust in their own instincts and renders them emotionally rudderless. Despite my struggle to exercise ideological forbearance in his life, my son sees certain things critically in his own right. I swear, there have only been a few minor slips from his father’s stadium-sized, navel-gazing peanut gallery, hardly enough to have prod him unwillingly along that path. At least that is my hope.

I am glad my son is intellectually curious and takes the time to follow up on the big questions in a conscientious way. It’s encouraging to see him chasing after his own sophisticated view of things. I respect his brains and ideas about the world he sees, and am relieved he isn’t applying the “Sucks/Does not suck” dichotomy to that world. That will be his salvation from the neurosis that began to imprison me at his age.

Most of all, I am relieved he expends the energy to frame his world without relying on others to do it for him. The habit of looking outward turns a potentially infinite mind into an intellectually lazy, ignorant, dull mind; one that merely parrots whatever has been served for mass consumption. It also cultivates a strong affinity for axioms that appease fear and anxiety, no matter how false they may be, which as a consequence blunts the mind’s capacity to perceive wisdom.

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

The habit of looking beyond ourselves for truth is tragic, because it severs the connection with our inner source of freedom and intensifies feelings of powerlessness. It is ironic the vast freedom to pursue and transmit knowledge in our societies has failed to free our minds from the sway of cultural media extolling idealizations of reality that are compelling less by their moral force than by the intensity of their appeal to our crudest emotions. I am glad my son already shows signs of seeing through such demagoguery; that he is inclined to reflect inward and explore sources of wisdom outside the traditional cultural bellwethers.

The day after my son asked me that question I was sitting in my living room when David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes” came on the radio. I remember vividly when I first heard it in the summer of 1981. My best friend’s older brother, who had exquisite taste in music, filled their home with the elegiac yearning of that song. I was instantly overwhelmed with wonder in the experience; that something so simple as a song could be so strange and wonderful at the same time; that it could penetrate my bones with its true meaning, if not in a way that I could understand intellectually.

I fought back tears as the song ended. It reaffirmed my adoration for Bowie, who so transcendently encapsulates the indescribable repercussions of loss; lost childhood, or lost youth, at least. To me, the song is wistful about how our spirit smoulders under the emotional weight of adult lives too often tilled from the ashes of forsaken youth. The drugs and excess of so many successful people are a failed attempt to prop up perpetually wilting egos heavy from the artifice. It seems to me the better solution would be to exhume the child buried beneath the ashes. The notion gave me pause; I think of children my son’s age crafting their identities, one judgement at a time, stoking the flames that engulf their true essence to fit the cultural mold of adulthood.

What dies in the process is the wonder that keeps the spirit yearning for more of the simple graces this life has to offer – that fuels the curiosity and energy to see it fulfilled in authentic ways. The richness of life can’t be experienced fully by those entangled in the spiritless life of most adults. It is essential to leave the confines of that existence to cultivate a connection to the feeling in our bodies telling us what the world reveals in our experience, and to trust the wisdom arising from that.

Uncontrollable laughter is as all-consuming within our bodies as crippling sadness. The truth in those experiences is undeniable, despite the qualification our minds impart to temper our psyches. I want to say to my son ‘If something’s really not funny don’t laugh; if it is, do so fully. Let go to how it feels in your heart, not your mind.’ Trust is maintained in that purity of feeling by holding up the mirror to ourselves daily, with spiritual intention, to ensure what is reflected remains the person we knew intimately as children; that the view isn’t dulled by the ashes and dust of abandonment to adulthood.

Let’s Dress It Up Clean, For a Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween BannerTo be fair, I was only a teenager when I went to a Halloween party in black face. What did I know about it? All I knew of black face were grainy clips of a white guy in dark makeup crooning “Mammy” and “Toot Toot Tootsie” with sparkling, white-gloved ‘jazz-hands.’ I didn’t know what to make of the minstrel show clips I saw as a child, but I observed everyone having a good ‘ole time. All the banjos and slap-happy dancing folks didn’t seem oppressed to my childish eyes.

I could have chosen to caricature a multitude of races and creeds for my Halloween enjoyment. In the late 70s and early 80s when I was trick-or-treating, Mexicans, Arabs, Chinamen, and Indian Chiefs were neighbourhood favourites. A costume choice to lampoon any of these other groups would have been far less utterly self-disparaging.

At this point, it’s probably relevant to mention that I am black. A black kid in black face. Sadly, I was not dressed as an “ironic” Al Jolson. At the time, my understanding of irony was as ill-formed as the lyrics of an Alanis Morrisette song.

Not to defend such self-abnegating ignorance, but I did grow up in one of the WASP-iest white families on earth. All of my best friends were white, my local television celebrities were white, everyone at the country club was white. The Beatles best album was white. Cripes, even the food I ate was white – potatoes, cauliflower, butter and crumpets, turnips, cucumber sandwiches with cream cheese and the unsightly brown crusts cut off. With the exception of the inconvenient fact of the skin-colour thing, I was a white dude, inside and out.

I saw other ethnic groups and creeds with the eyes of any other teenaged white kid at the time: in narrow racist terms. The various peoples of the world offered a buffet of stereotypes and parodies to nourish my insatiable appetite for small-minded, xenophobic amusement. It was the culturally insensitive prerogative we white folks thrive on.

Life is Too ShortI don’t want to be a party pooper about this stuff. Hey, I’m pointing the finger as much at yours truly as anyone else. The skin on that finger may be slightly dark-ish, but the bones inside are as white as Tommy Hilfiger and the people he makes clothes for; which fill my own closet.

Halloween is all about the fun; about kids dressing up, trick-or-treating and running like banshees on a sugar-rush. Adults young and old will head off to Halloween parties and engage in the ritual of binge-drinking, serial groping, dry humping, and projectile vomiting. The combination of alcohol and anonymity afforded by costumes will embolden party-goers in their quest to end the evening screwing like the werewolves and trolls they purport to be. Let’s hope the legions who slither out of their mystery date’s bed for the “walk of shame” the next morning will have done nothing more than picked up an easily treatable itch and a fleeting tinge of regret; that all will have been done in good, clean fun.

But amidst all the good-natured Halloween shenanigans is a shadowy side that brings out of the woodwork the latent racism, intolerance, and insensitivity lingering in our midst. It’s time the knuckle-dragging apparition was chased away from the festivities, once and for all. Here’s how: peel yourself away from the social media feed before you head out, look in the mirror, and think.

Thinking. That shit is hard, I know. It’ll only take a few seconds, I promise.

There. Now you can put that stuffy, dusty intellect back in the attic with the other relics of humanity’s evolutionary pre-eminence and get back to being the best debauching troglodyte you can be!

Who can forget, just a few years ago, Prince Harry going to a Halloween party dressed as Hitler? On his way, the Prince would have breezed past dozens of people at Buckingham Palace camped out in his SS regalia. The flurry of panic as Her Majesty’s Royal PR machine scurried across Westminster Abbey’s marble floors in damage-control could have been avoided if only those at Court had seen fit to point out the oversight, “Pray Hal, good chap, do forgive the presumption, but wouldn’t Napoleon be a trifle more a propos as choice of amusing rogue than the mad man who exterminated Jews, reduced the world to bedlam, and nearly demolished your family’s kingdom for kicks?” Loyal establishment friends are dreadfully hard to find.

Since 9-11 the profound dearth of creativity and imagination in our culture inevitably spawns countless variations on a theme of Osama bin Laden at Halloween. Scores of frat boys wield toy AK-47s, brandish any garment on their head as a turban, flub crappy hindu accents, and pretend to extol jihad. Apparently, they are dressed up as “terrorists,” a parody which, in their mind, shouldn’t warrant outrage from anyone.

Except, the bong-soaked performances of “the terrorist” are robbed of their poignancy by the sheer magnitude of ignorance and stupidity these morons bring to bear upon it. They end up mocking whatever they think passes for an Arab or Muslim – typically a South Asian – and half-heartedly parrot the lie they’re being a “terrorist.” In reality they’re projecting the pea-brained idea that every Muslim is either a terrorist or a sleeper-cell supporter.

It’s rare to see anyone idiotic enough to dress up as an “Indian” for Halloween. But it still happens, especially among little kids whose parents obviously need sensitivity training. In Canada, where I live, the plan to obliterate aboriginals was executed by stealing children away from their families and placing them in residential schools where they were abused by servants of God in the hopes of making good white folks out of them. Acts and policies were promulgated to passive aggressively deny and paper-over their existence in the nicest, typically ineffectual Canadian way possible. The US was more honest in its approach, setting about the task of obliterating American Indians as Americans do best: with armed possies and a shitload of guns.

Given this sordid history, it’s more than politically incorrect for the would-be exterminators to misrepresent a cute “Indian” simply because a few US professional sports franchises and their millions of oblivious, adoring fans can’t imagine something less offensive as a moniker. Imagine if some rich douchebag called his baseball team the “Atlanta Honkies” and fashioned as the team mascot a bland dip-shit with a mullet, who eats Spam sandwiches on white Wonder Bread, dances like a moron with a sparkling, toothy overbite, and berates fans with racial epithets.

Well, maybe that would be funny. Can someone, anyone, come up with a slur that actually offends a white person? In any case, being an “Indian” for Halloween is offensive and lame.

Well, unless you’re trying to be a “sexy Indian”, that is, at least if this flyer in my newspaper today is to be believed. Okay, so if the costume is basically two strips of faux-leather cotton just large enough to cover the nipples and girly parts down below, you have a headband with one feather in the back, and your hair in pigtails, then you’re a “sexy Indian,” which is apparently fine because it is more slutty than racist.

But not really. The point of this costume is to brag about your body by revealing as much of it as possible without being arrested for indecency. The costume will be a testament to just how little food and how much time at the gym the person wearing it has indulged in lately.Slutty Halloween Card

We should applaud a woman who is confident, proud of her body, and uninhibited enough to go virtually naked in public. She should not be concerned that men will interpret the costume as an invitation, or fear that when drunk, they will feel entitled to act on the alleged invite. Those men will have to impart a little more civilization into their rape-acculturated minds so they don’t assume a woman’s titillating choice of attire is a substitute for consent. But hey, svelte ladies, if you want to strut your stuff on Halloween, do so as cat-woman, wonder woman, or Pebbles instead of Pocahontas or Sacajaweah. Deal?

The slutty genre of Halloween costume should be off the table for young girls. Girls should not be encouraged to objectify and sexualize themselves until they’re old enough to be that self-effacing. It’s appalling how many parents seem willing to tout the alleged sex appeal of their young daughters. Only the pedophiles out there appreciate the effort. Parents who send their little girls into the world looking like pole dancers and pin-up girls ought to be ashamed for the deviant sexual appetites they whet.

So here’s a challenge, avid Halloweeners: choose something fictional, tasteful, and age-appropriate as a costume. Be creative. Be a Muppet, a pirate, a character from Dr Who. Be a superhero, a gorilla, or a rooster. Just don’t be a Zulu tribesman, a Sherpa, a Geisha, a prostitute, or a slutty version of any specific creed of human being.

If your costume depicts another group of existing people you are not among, refrain. If you’re a knucklehead like me, it’s not okay to mock your own kind. It’s like extending a hall pass to bigots, who’ll feel uninhibited as they roam the cultural landscape freely airing their racist views, thanks to your active hand in reinforcing them.

Bad taste may not be illegal, but it is not in the realm of exercising your right to free speech if you choose to be a racist dip-shit in your Halloween costume. It’s actually closer to hate speech, depending on how you play it. The everyday look of people in other parts of the world isn’t the makings of a Halloween costume; it’s their clothes. The differences we exaggerate for our entertainment are rooted in traditions, cultures, and religious beliefs whose nature we can’t fully understand. These are facets of human beings not rightly lampooned just because they appear foreign, exotic, or silly to us.

A little thought will go a long way to making sure you’re not being an insensitive jackass in your choice of attire for Halloween festivities. Your presence will add to the fun and enjoyment of others this year and increase the odds the little kids watching you won’t become Archie Bunker adults, like me and my white homies of generations past.

So get out there and dress up for a brighter future!

Happy Haunting End Banner

Those Little Hands

Three angels, three red balloons 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.

Joyous BubbleIt is the guile we each possess in our minds that has unleashed this state of affairs.

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.

Happy MeadowsThere 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.

Street SoccerChildren 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.”

Playing in the rain in Bangladesh

Remember These Open Arms As You Grow Old, My Sons

I was sitting in a coffee shop the other morning when I was swept away by the blissful energy of a woman and her four-year old girl as they breezed past. The girl danced circles around her mother’s legs, clutching two teddy bears that outsized her tiny arms. The sweetness of her pink rubber boots and twee voice doused the shop of bleary-eyed, earnest suits with candy-coating.

I watched enviously as she lapped up her mother’s words “whaddya want kiddo?” I jumped earnestly along with her as she screamed ‘muffins, juice, cake pops, banana bread!’ My temporary refuge from e-mails and five-alarm fires at the office seemed a sad existence in relation to the unrestrained joy of mother and young child.

The thought was bittersweet. Momentarily I was transported in time when my boys had their first taste of apple pie and ice cream, making humming noises ‘mmm,mmm,mmm’ as they stuffed their faces. I remembered falling asleep with them on my chest; each of us drifting off to the sound of the other’s heart beating.

I sat in stillness with my coffee half-raised to my mouth as I tried to siphon whatever droplets of glee I could from the mother-daughter exchange. It occurred to me my eyes were welling up.

L-O-V-EMy kids were young like that once, they hung off me like a jungle gym. They danced around my legs, clamouring for nothing more than my undivided attention. For the most part they got it, but now I wish I’d been less annoyed by the constancy of it at times. Back then I couldn’t imagine how emotional I would feel as I do today, seeing this mother and her child.

I could never have known how insufficient memories are as a surrogate for the experience. I wish I’d made more efforts to soak it up, especially now that their mother and I are divorced; the time I have to amass more wonderful glimpses of their childhood before they grow old, halved.

My kids are twelve this year. In no time their mother and I will lose the honour of having exclusive reign over their heartstrings. What an honour it’s been. I know I shouldn’t cling to the idea of their childhood; they’re still my children, no matter how old they get.

But I can’t help it. They’re not little children anymore. They don’t dance around my feet. It’ll never be the same. A part of me wishes that phase could have lasted forever, but the deepening voices, soaring heights and hair in places only adults possess it mocks my selfish fantasies.

As teenagers they will look to the outside world in friends, achievements, and experiences for feelings of efficacy, security, and validation. It fills me with trepidation for them as I recall how often in my teenage years I wanted to curl up in a ball to avoid the tyranny of days overflowing with lessons in humility. I also remember feeling a strong urge to look away from the tether of parents and family to figure out on my own how to keep my chin up, even with egg all over my face and my fly undone.

The view of that arduous journey into their own lives is heart-wrenching from where I stand as a parent. I want to be their biggest booster as they run into the murky world to carve out their niche. It feels somewhat forced.

Yay. Yaaay! YAAAAAY!

They’ll be teenagers soon!

Meh.

I feel like the head cheerleader rooting on a band of thugs shaving off my arms with a pocket-knife to steal my watch. I don’t really want teenagers. No offense, but I am no fool. I know they’re just not going to be ‘into me’ – their parent.

Well, metal has nearly hit bone. The glistening, unconditional twinkle of my little boys is already sometimes tinged with traces of skepticism. They’ve found things to interest them that have nothing to do with me. On days I drop them at school my kids turn and run at the sight of my lower lip quivering. ‘Rotten, good-for-nothing zit-faced friends drawing them in,’ I think to myself. ‘Who needs friends? Friends are unreliable,’ I quip, half-heartedly under my breath.

When did my kids become such turncoats? What a couple of ungrateful jerks! Then I catch myself being a childish ass, punching air, kicking dirt in a futile bout of frustration. My twenty-three year-old self mocks me for having become a soccer mom, and a wallowing idiot.

I have my reasons for being disconsolate at times: when it’s not my weekend with them and I can’t tuck them into bed for another five days. I can’t laugh them to sleep with armpit farts or tummy zurrberts. They barely fit in my arms any more – and soon I will fit better in theirs. They don’t get jazzed about movie night like they used to.

Just today I said “HEY KIDS WANT ICE CREAM!” and they both said, ‘nah, it’s too early.’ Too early?! It was noon! Three years ago I’d have had to hire a cowboy to lasso my kids so they wouldn’t run in front of semi-trailers and city buses to get to the ice cream store.

Now, there’s things on YouTube they’d rather watch. Alone. In their room. Without dad around. I’ll bet they’ve already discovered porn, probably by accident. But still. Girls. A formidable foe who lurks, who will steal the affections of my homies away from the one who matters most. Me.

My babies' not-so-little feet.

My babies’ not-so-little feet.

The sparkle in their eyes as they looked up to me has, at times, turned to an exasperated roll of the eyes. They don’t have to look up, either. Part of me wonders if their respect for me wanes as they watch me struggle with their drift away from childhood. Then I realize, I don’t care, and continue crying because I know I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to just let them frolic into the world of adolescent throngs who crudely mimic the craven, selfish, conformist habits of the adults around them. I worry about their emotional well-being among peers who lack ethical scruples; who can’t temper the cruel excesses of the individualists’ creed rammed down their throats by our culture. It’s in my bones as a parent to believe their emotions will be safeguarded only when shrouded in my arms.

And yet, I am also aware that, for all my good intentions, I may have already left deeper scars than a bully or an unrequited love could ever leave. I didn’t mean it, unlike those rotten kids out there. I was winging the parent thing, for the first while at least, until I realized I needed to educate myself.
I think I’ve come around now. I hope their memories betray them, because there are truckloads of mistakes to hold against me, to tar me as a hypocrite, should I forget myself and over-react to something they’ve done that’s out of line.

The little girl in the coffee shop makes me aware that my children are still on the fringes of a blissful world of childhood innocence, but on the cusp of stepping with both feet into the jungle that kicked the shit out of me. I want to spare them the perils in that journey. I want to keep my lovely limbs right where they are: safe and happy.

Yet I realize they can’t broaden their perspective of the world if their father is clutching them tightly to prevent them stepping in with both feet. They can’t fully savour the wealth of experiences the world has to offer if I’m still taunting them back toward their childhood with ice cream and Sponge Bob re-runs.

My mind is defiant as I am confronted with the reality I have no choice but to let them go a little. The age-old rift between parents and teenagers crystallizes as I consider this. I resent the fact they’ll seek influences elsewhere and won’t automatically see my opinions, tastes or ideas as necessarily authoritative.

They’ll have tastes and preferences that won’t mirror my own. Already my son loves Katy Perry. How did that happen? Doesn’t he know his father hates pop music because it sucks? Then I remember: he’s twelve. Katy Perry to a twelve year old boy is more than just about music, isn’t she?

My children are going to make mistakes and feel chastened by the consequences as they try on various identities to learn what works best for them. As I watch them struggle to succeed or blissfully jump into abject failure it will be hard to stop myself from stepping in and taking over. I’m like any parent, I’d rather avoid seeing them fail, but this sentiment too easily transforms into me trying too hard to manufacture their success. I’ve already had to stop myself doing tough homework assignments and science projects for them. Man, I hate seeing them struggle. 

It is hard to watch from the sidelines as my child slips on easily-spotted banana peels, but I know from my own upbringing in a family of nascent critics how profoundly the hand-wringing undermines a child’s feelings of autonomy. It doesn’t matter that the advice, constructive criticism, or other moral support is well-intended.

They begin to internalize too much interference as implied criticism. The risk is they’ll come to second-guess themselves. They will lay blame for planting the seeds of doubt about their own instincts squarely on the over-bearing parent. That could come back to haunt me, so I need to learn a little hands off.

A few years ago my son came home from school intimating he was having an issue with a bully at his school. In seconds my mind was filled with ideas of kicking the shit out of the kid, shoving my fist in his father’s face, and enrolling him the next day in the Kung Fu class I taught. The wisdom of non-violence from my Buddhist practice was easily brushed aside by the vision of my child suffering at the hands of another.

The one thing I didn’t do was simply ask him how he felt about the situation and what he wanted to do to resolve it. Thanks to my son, that would-be bully is, five years later, now in his circle of friends, while I still look at the kid with a hairy eyeball.

The experience was the first time I realized the volatility of my emotions where my children were concerned. It gave me extreme insight about how empty the parental invocation of “doing what is best” can be tainted by projections of my own childhood angst onto them.

It’s startling how old wounds you thought had healed burst open as you find yourself reliving some torrid chapter of your childhood through something happening in your child’s life. Next thing you know, you’re reacting as your thirteen year old self in the same situation, not as the parent of a child who may see things totally differently. 

I’ve got to keep my eye on that raging bull. I had a lot of emotional wounds that took a long time to heal. I had a lot of well-deserved “fuck you’s” left unsaid. I don’t want to be the roll of quarters in my child’s fist swinging at MY old ghosts. I don’t want to use my children to become masters of my own failed aspirations.

I also have to assume my children will experience hardships of the nature I faced differently than I did. They aren’t miniature versions of me, after all. I think I’ve done a bit better than was done to me in establishing the foundations for a more balanced emotional reaction to life’s undulations.

I’ve been a warm father. I tell my sons I love them every day. I think it’s etched in their mind. I think they’ll deal better than I did when shit hits fans along whatever path they’re on. It’s quite possible they won’t even see some of the things I perceived as horrible in quite the same terms. I was a bit of a brooding child. My kids aren’t. I hope I had something to do with cultivating that lightness. We will have to wait and see; and hope.

It’s disturbing to me to have to fathom these issues. The first time I can’t fix their mental anguish with a Slurpee or a night of popcorn and Kung Fu Panda my heart will die a little. There have already been some hurts for which there is nothing I can do but listen and lean in with a hug. Things like the divorce of their mother and father, the tearing to pieces of what they understood as a ‘family.’

This is when I am awash in the desire to stop time. To somehow keep them like that little girl in the coffee shop; to see to it they stay forever small enough to remain in my arms where I can protect them. I want to be the ultimate fixer for their problems, which is relatively easy when a child’s biggest problem is that they misplaced their teddy bear.

There are bigger problems ahead, and it scares the living shit out of me. I’ve got to be brave. I’ve caught myself already inadvertently seeding their relatively blue skies with storm clouds of negativity that stem from my childhood, not theirs. I’ve got to buck up.

But I never want them to go so far into the grown up abyss that they no longer feel the warmth of my unconditional love for who they are breathing them forward. I don’t want them to be seduced by ideas about the world being indifferent, harsh, and cruel.

I never want them to be far away from the promise of a parent’s non-judgmental presence when it is needed most. I want them to know there is no place better than my open arms to take refuge, should the need arise. Little children can’t even imagine another place aside from their parents for solace, but as they grow older, the urge to resist that impulse grows out of the need to cultivate independence.  

Shadow Monsters

This idea – independence. The lie our increasingly Social Darwinist culture breeds in young adults; especially young boys like my two sons. We are inter-dependent. Those who are ‘self-made’, who believe they are independent don’t realize how much their self-reliance came on the backs of others. I don’t want those others to be my innocent children.

The rest of us take the idea of independence too literally, trying to deal with life as if we really believed it necessary to do so alone. It’s bollocks.

Everybody needs someone else. That is the beauty and the bane of humanity.

I hope to instill in my sons the innate wisdom of the little child in this regard; to keep them habituated to looking in the right places for warmth and love to ward off life’s rougher edges. It doesn’t have to be me, although I hope it is. It just needs to be someone who genuinely has their best interests at heart.

Children have no qualms about seeking out mommy and daddy when they’re in despair. Adults need that kind of presence in their lives. I want to be that presence in my boys’ adult lives. 

Some parents joke about when their kids will leave the nest. It’s no laughing matter for me. I want my sons to always know there’s a place for them with me, no questions asked.

I don’t want them to forget the feel of my arms around them as they grow old and fly away. So I will go now, and hug them, hoping to make it impossible to forget.

Screw the Rod, Spoil Your Child

I’ve seen a lot of parenting articles posted by ‘friends’ on my facebook newsfeed of this ilk that purport to offer advice on how to raise ‘respectful’ or ‘responsible’ kids by basically being a total jerk to them. With this British nanny’s five reasons as to why we modern parents are destroying our kids I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I feel a strong urge to change the dialogue about this subject because it involves the world’s most vulnerable people. There are so many children victimized by genuinely dire circumstances, and so we here in the fortunate parts of the world should use the luxury afforded by our relative security to raise well-balanced children who desire to change the lot of those who suffer.

It bothers me as a parent of two special needs kids to think they are growing up alongside children being raised by parents and nannies who treat them like they aren’t entitled to have feelings or desires of their own because they are too imposing on the parent. The risk is that children raised in such environments will become adults who lack compassion for the unique challenges my adult children will present. They will be too emotionally damaged themselves to understand or care about the needs of others.

This idea that ‘coddling’ a child will turn them into ‘spoiled brats’ necessitates a hard-ass parenting style to prevent that happening is one I find gravely disturbing. If you take this tack, what you’ve set out to do is wage a systematic campaign of insensitivity against an extremely vulnerable, powerless, and emotionally un-developed human being who depends on you, the parent, to be the one most sensitive to their every need.

You can call it whatever you want – toughening up for the real world, teaching life’s ‘realities’ – whatever. The reality is, to unleash this approach requires that you, the parent, be the blunt instrument your child most frequently encounters in life. And it will suck to be you, as much as it will suck for your child, when he has to face the real life challenges that arrive in adolescence after having been emotionally beaten down by parents intent on “teaching respect” in the years prior.

A child subjected to this parenting approach won’t be emotionally capable of facing the hard knocks of reality. They will most likely be thin skinned adults with a big chip on their shoulder who handle adversity poorly and lash out at others for their feelings of insufficiency. They will feel at a deep level that the world is unfair and cruel – which it can be, at times – because the lesson was given harshly at a tender age when they weren’t able to integrate their emotions into a more established, confident, self-concept. They learned it at an age when they were still really on the fence about whether Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were real.

A parent should not be the one to ‘toughen up’ their child who is possessed of these emotional sensibilities. The lesson in toughness should come later when there’s a more solid identity to ensure the child’s psyche isn’t de-stabilized by the infinite number of threats it faces in adolescence. The tough lesson should not be given at the home, at least to the young child, because there are so many of those lessons in the playground of life.

The home should be the place where the landing is soft at all times. If the home is also tough, the child learns there is no escape from things that cause emotional trauma. That lays the foundation for serious emotional insecurity. It is absolutely horrifying to think there are legions of parents out there who don’t see what is, to me, an obvious reality. We parents need to go back to our childhoods for insights on how to raise our own children to be certain we don’t sub-consciously repeat parenting tactics that were most damaging to our own emotional development.

Think about it, where did your philosophy of parenting come from? If you don’t believe you have a parenting philosophy, think again. You do. It is that of your parents because that is what you learned, even if, at a conscious level you disavowed it. When faced with the immense emotional burden of raising a child without a manual, your parent’s methods will be your default. That is, unless you’ve taken specific steps to educate yourself on the subject of parenting and child psychology; or have done a shitload of therapy or other self-exploration aimed at gaining insight – and control – over your own emotionally unintelligent behaviours.

My insights on this come from my own adulthood meditations on growing up as a child in a family of adults who took the approach hailed by nanny and applied it too often indelicately from the time my sentient memory began. It was an emotionally cold, distant family possessed of two deplorable British inventions: the stiff upper lip and a belief in the sacrosanct nature of ‘manners’ rooted in aristocratic, ethnocentric ideas of ‘propriety.’

I am here to tell you fans in the peanut gallery today that this approach can irreparably damage a parent-child relationship. At the very least it can keep it strained for a really long time. This, in addition to putting a stake in the heart of an adolescent’s budding, non-existent self-esteem and leaving it in tatters well into adulthood.

If the stern approach is not implemented with utmost caution and insight – and at the appropriate time in a child’s life, it will backfire and turn a child into a resentful, insecure adult teeming with ill-will. This accounts for the stunted, posturing, repressed emotionality of most men in male-dominated cultures; those who had the ‘toughen up’ lesson applied way earlier than it should have been in their lives.

Most parents, most adults, don’t seem to possess the degree of self-reflectiveness to get the ‘hard knocks’ approach to teaching the art of living right. That is the nuance which is missing in the nanny blog, and which I find most disturbing. The damning logic in all of these “spare the rod, spoil the child” approaches is the unqualified belief that any given parent – one assumes, because they are an adult – is emotionally equipped to raise a child. Most adults genuinely believe they have their bigger emotional problems licked, which is sad on a human level, but also a contemptible farce when such delusions are the springboard for parents who aim to whip their children into “respectful” adults.

It is my observation that many adults in our culture are profoundly emotionally stunted, psychologically unaware beings. This is through no fault of their own. They probably had shitty parents. And that is why, as a rule, I believe it’s better for today’s parents to err on the side of being more lenient when confronted with their child’s emotional excesses (ie misbehaviour) until they’ve got a good grip on their own emotional hot buttons. This reduces the chances, although only slightly for some of us, of being a total asshole to our children.

The process of becoming a better parent has to start with a little bit of honesty about where we’re stuck emotionally. It’s my observation that most adult egos have a difficult time doing this kind of soul-searching. It requires a loosening of the certainty our egos have fashioned to get our psychological selves through all the shitty things that belie the craven world of adulthood. It also gives the lie to the firmness in the ground from which the heavy handed parent imposes his worldview upon his children.

In my family, to the degree my ass was spared the rod, which I am grateful for, heaps of verbal lashes criticising my conduct, grammar, clothes, hairstyle or any choices that were actually mine were dished out in its place. And the problem with this approach, which I detect in the nanny’s article, is the absolute and total disregard for viewing any of the parent-child situations from the child’s perspective. Why might a child have a tantrum? According to the nanny and all the parents who solemnify the tactic of hectoring children, it’s because they are an insolent shit who needs to be put in their place.

This reinforces what I consider to be an illegitimate and profoundly disrespectful philosophy of parenting; one that totally dismisses the individuality of a child, the likely reality that the world they see is vastly different than the one their parent, or any adult for that matter, sees. No matter what we wish as parents, we cannot ever expect our children to be miniature versions of ourselves and then set about a parenting campaign to effect that outcome.

The ‘sippy cup test’ the nanny outlines is pretty pedestrian in illustrating the doomed parenting of the times but is symptomatic of a deeply disturbing logic. For example, what if my teenaged child is gay? What if his best friend commits suicide? What if he has mental illness? Has been experimenting with drugs? These real-life dilemmas in an adolescent’s life may in fact raise emotions that are equal in scale to the “sippy cup” or to any number of other “whimsical” emotions in the early years.

I wonder how the child whose parent has been telling them “no” to their every “whim” from a very early age is going to feel about approaching their parents in these situations later in life. The “whim” of a child is in the eye of the beholder. Constantly referring to a child’s expressions as a “whim” is problematic because the child doesn’t see it as whimsical, especially if they are three. To frame every “childish” complaint in this way says something daming about the parent making the inference. It says, ‘I AM A DICK.’

In my mind the nanny is just basically telling parents to take the stand “fuck you for wanting something different than what I decide you want, you little Queen of Sheba.” It’s extremely demeaning to a child’s self esteem to immediately dismiss their wants in this way. Every bloody adult in existence has similar preferences, which in many cases are equally whimsical. To immediately deny a child their wants in a punitive way all the time is to teach the adolescent and adult of tomorrow that they aren’t entitled to the things they want; things like success, happiness, or a good career. It is the basis for extremely low self-esteem.

The nanny, and all the “don’t coddle your child” fans are suggesting parents are being slaves when they accommodate what are, in the eyes of an adult, “whimsical” needs. But a child’s expression of a “need,” even if small, may be something to take seriously. It warrants investigation, negotiation and patience to discover, not immediate dismissal simply because of how the need was conveyed.

I want my child to know, without any doubt in their mind, that I, their parent, am one person in this entire world who respects them absolutely, will give them unconditional love, and be there to support their emotional needs. To a two year old, that sippy cup could be a real emotional need, not just some phlegmatic outburst for a capricious reason. Until I take the time to figure out exactly, it’s not right to assume it is what I think it is and shut it down.

Later on in their life, when they begin to see the world coming at them with knives from all angles, maybe it’s important for a child’s self esteem to know there’s one corner of the world where someone has their emotional back. They will be secure in this feeling because, as a child they were showed support consistently when it was called upon and not immediately dismissed as “whimsical.” If my kid wants an aubergine sippy cup with dancing bears on it because bears make him feel happy, fuck it, they’ll get it from me. And I’ll make sure over time they learn to ask nicely for things they want without believing it’s necessary to apply the lesson in a single stroke.

This is what we should tell our kids: they are awesome, even if they screw up or are screaming banshees from time to time.

This is what we should tell our kids: they are awesome, even if they screw up or are screaming banshees from time to time. As they grow to be adults, there will be fewer people in the world willing to do so. Be their best friend, but also be their kind, constructive, and generous teacher as you impart them as best you can with the skills needed to survive the many undulations in life, good and bad.

The nanny’s point about manners and respect raises my ire to an extreme degree. When I was a kid I’d say to myself “why does my grandmother think it’s okay to be an asshole just because she believes it’s important to hold my fork properly.” That’s the problem with manners or respect. The stuff of these principles, again, is in the eye of the beholder. Except the approach to teaching is determinately less flexible, and too often expects a child to immediatly apply the lesson, as if they were a mini-adult. This actually creates and reinforces feelings of disrespect and resentment, which undermines the project of creating respect and virtue.

The lesson may be learned, but it comes at a high emotional cost on many levels. Consistently kind, unceasing repetition of the basic message is my sense of what it takes to effectively teach a child something they’re having difficulty learning. To an adult ‘manners’ is fairly concrete. To a child it is extremely abstract. Punishment is not the way to imprint the desired behaviour in a lasting way, even if it works in the immediate sense. It breeds contempt for the way adults can be absolutist in their beliefs in what are, to a child, a bunch of very arbitrary ideas.

The flawed way nanny and her drill-sergeants address the issue of teaching manners will undermine efforts to have children internalize far more important lessons required of well-socialized adults. For example basic ethics of conduct and relating to other human beings. The message will lose its legitimacy not because of its content, but because of an emotional aversion to who delivers it.

Children have eyes, ears, and brains. Unless the kid is a vegetable, they will see a majority of the adults who harshly impart these lessons failing to conduct themselves above the same bar they’ve set for their children. Any parent who gets drunk in front of their child loses a serious credibility test in this area. Any parent who has said anything to their child of the variety “do as I say, not as I do” or whose actions contradict the messages of propriety that are brow beaten into their children will also lose their credibility.

When my grandmother slurred her words as she lambasted me for having my arms on the table like a barn animal the words “fucking hypocrite” were swishing in my mind. In addition, seeds of resentment were planted and would blossom an internal rebellion against all putative authority figures who appeared later in my life. In this one respect, I’ll agree with the nanny. Kids aren’t stupid, and they will instantly sniff out the hypocrisy in how their parents or any other adults approach the fine art of dealing with their “misbehaviour.” The harder the lesson is given, the harder the child will be in adjudging the parent who gives it.

I could write a book about how insidious this ‘teach manners and respect at all costs’ approach is. As a child I’d sidle up to fucking trees and random strangers just to fill the vast void of feeling and affection withheld from me because the adults treated giving a hug like it was giving away a kidney. At the same time they dished out criticism and hectoring like they had orchards of the shit growing in their back yard. A child learns some profoundly dysfunctional ways of coping when subjected to that kind of insensitivity from those who he looks to for feelings of emotional security.

This and the many similar articles of this variety that celebrate spanking and have stained my newsfeed tout a parenting style totally discredited by the massive scale of maladjusted adults today. These are the adults who are being prescribed anti-depressants in record numbers, who are drug/gambling/shopping addicted, craven, greedy, dog-eat-dog individualists that are very nearly bankrupting the world because of their pathological need for validation and self-worth in transient external achievements.

This is the generation raised by baby boomers who were busy climbing their ladder and immediately saw the extraordinary, time and energy-saving benefits in relinquishing the agony in assuming the role as patient, forebearing parents and assuming the role of benevolent dictator instead. For them the edict ‘I am the parent, you are the child, I am the boss’ was the rule of the day and that lack of patience made their mode of relating to their children often caustic, capricious, reactive and inconsistent.

The nanny’s point about the village raising my child is idiotic in today’s world. If a bus driver wants to kick my child off his bus for misbehaviour, fair enough. However, it’ll be a frosty day in Sudan before I give carte blanche to random strangers to impart “life lessons” to my kid.

You know why? Because some of them will be dipshits who apply the nanny logic in their dipshit way. Or, it will be some bitchy tiger mom treating everyone like they’re a piece of shit if they don’t do what it takes to get into Harvard. Or it will be some posturing, sabre-rattling drill-sergeant trying to create mindless drones who march in formation to any old wank who’s higher in the pecking order. I cherish my child’s well-being enough to assert that it is not okay to allow them to be subjected to the reams of adult neurosis posing as principled admonishments of their ‘misbehaviour.’

I do not trust the legions of emotionally imbalanced adults out there to make that call. I barely trust myself, but at least I am their parent. If my kids are out of line, which because they are human beings, they will be, I will punish them. But you, random-adult-in-the-village-purporting-to-raise-my-child will not. If you do, I will punish you.

I’d rather teach my child to know what it’s like to be given respect by an adult so they know it when they see it and know disrespect when they’ve been subjected to it. If they’ve been respected by their parents, they won’t over-react to being disrespected in the world. Teaching a child to be obedient to any schlub adult who enters their life is teaching them a lesson in the antithesis of self-respect. It teaches them that they don’t have a right to draw a line in the sand that represents their self-respect.

The point is to withhold the knee jerk tendency to allow yourself as a parent or a village of random strangers to punish whatever you believe is misbehaviour in a child. It’s important to take the time to uncover what is really beneath their conduct. Yes, this is true even when the outburst is in a public place, and yes, even when it’s probably embarassing to you.

Do not let your own adult fears about the judgements of random strangers sway you from principled parenting, so that you then unleash acts that demean your child. Acknowledge their feelings and teach them to express them in a way that others can understand and appreciate. Use these situations to teach a child that it’s okay to be angry, excited, or bored, but to be constructive in conveying those feelings more effectively to others. This can only be achieved with consistency and time, rather than with an emotional sledge hammer wielded to achieve the  learning objective in a single blow.

For most children, it sucks to be in any number of meaningless places of import in an adult’s life they get dragged to by their parents. As parents we have to take some responsibility for how our children respond to situations we ourselves created that are unpleasant for them. This is not putting my child’s needs before mine, as nanny laments in her blog. It is being a little more self-reflective about the consequences my actions have on my child. It is suggesting that my child gets a say in things too, because I respect his feelings about things, and acknowledge that it is okay if they differ from my own. It is not putting all the responsibility for perfect behaviour on my child, especially in situations that any insightful adult should know a child may not take kindly to.

We have to be respectful to our childrens’ needs by being honest with ourselves as parents about whether our expectations for how they handle things are reasonable. In many cases, our ‘high expectations’ for their behaviour are just high-minded veils for the hope that our kids don’t call us out for the crappy things we invited into their existence. Things that we did, for which they had no choice and pay an emotional price – like divorce, our emotional baggage from our childhoods, our work-a-holism, our bad day at the office, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s not fair to expect a child to approve of all our choices if we don’t let them have a single one of their own. That’s why, as nanny laments, fathers run across the zoo to get their kid the drink. It’s a small gesture to say ‘hey, I was out of town last week ‘providing’ for you, so here I will honour you for making you worry about my absence.’

This is more in tune with what concrete thinkers need for emotional balance. Children cannot relate to the abstract nature of a concept like “toughen up” or “be courteous.” To any adult these are easy to understand because we’ve been through life. But a child hasn’t. They only really can relate to the actual means by which the “lesson” is instilled by the parents in the situation at hand. It requires utmost delicacy and kindness, rather than sternness and shrillness in meting out the lesson, which young kids will often interpret as “why is mommy being unkind to me?”

If I were to punish my child’s reactions because I had unrealistic expectations in these situations I would be a total jerk. I know from my own experiences that a child raised by the jerk parenting style will harbour deep resentments about having been punished for expectations that were absolutely unfairly put upon a child. An emotionally vulnerable person subjected to that kind of treatment risks turning out to be a cynical adult because the most important people in their formative emotional years were the ones constantly treating them unfairly.

The child raised in this environment won’t become a respectful, well-socialized adult with an intrinsic understanding of what should and should not motivate, limit, or justify any extremes in his behaviour. That requires the ability to process strong emotions intelligently in situations where they run high. This isn’t achieved when, as a child, your parent punished or belittled your strongest emotions under the assumption you were being ‘misbehaved’.

It is incredible how so many adults, like this nanny, make the mistake of punishing emotions because they are instantly perceived as ‘misbehaviour.’ It has the result of re-inforcing a child’s belief that emotions are bad, which makes them repressed and stunted in their emotional development. Sadly, it is also a sign of very poor emotional acuity in the adult who repeatedly cannot understand there are raw emotions beneath all misbehaviour, particularly those of a child.

It is a tempting delusion for parents to believe this drill sergeant shit works on emotionally undeveloped, vulnerable human beings, as children are, but we all know deep down that it doesn’t and we should stop. Even though it can be taxing on our energy as parents to give space to our kids to be pissed off, confused, overwhelmed or otherwise out of line at times it’s important they be allowed to feel entitled to their emotions, but that they must learn to process them more constructively.

As parents we have to be honest about our own emotional radars to to this as well. I am sorry fathers, most of us really fall down in this area because we were all trained to repress our emotions. As men, we are not in tune with our own feelings. When I see a father being hard-ass to his kids, I see a projection of his own unresolved emotions about being treated in hard-ass fashion by his own parents. That isn’t a parenting philosophy. That is a rote perpetuation of extremely insensitive behaviour. It’s thoughtless and takes inner work on ourselves as adults – and not on the ‘behaviour’ of our children – to change. It requires a change in your perception of things as a parent.

As a parent I believe it is crucial to win the respect of my children by treating them with respect first, not by asserting my authority over them as I see fit. This starts by not automatically invalidating their emotions with expectations of ‘behaviour’ that are inappropriate for children. Children are never, ever going to rightly be viewed as mini-adults and should not be punished for failing to regulate their emotions effectively as if they were.

In my experience, very few adults are able to effectively regulate their emotions. Ironically, this is most evident in the things parents tend to discipline their children for and the methods they choose to do it. It takes an extreme level of honesty and self-reflection to come to terms with that reality as a parent; the degree our children really do act as a lightning rod for our own emotional blind-spots. I’d recommend parents heed their own dictates and be the tough grown ups they badger their kids to be when they are faced with that fact.

Instead of just letting the chips fall after subjecting your kids to the shitty side effects of your own emotional hang ups, apologize to your kids when you’re out of line. Acknowledge that you are learning how to relate to them as individuals who are evolving every day in their unique way.

But YOU, the parent, have ALL the responsibility for demonstrating exemplary behaviour to them and NOT the other way round. Remember that. If you mete out punishment for an infinite number of random principles your concrete-thinking child cannot fully comprehend, your child will see YOU as ‘misbehaved.’ He will punish you later. Or worse, he will punish the world by being a greedy, bombastic, tyrannical, un-self-reflective douchebag in adulthood.

The badgering approach to child-rearing is extremely irresponsible given the reams of literature for the lay parent on how detrimental it is to a child’s emotional well-being. And it is just plain stupid, mean, and cruel. So cut it out. Do it for the sake of your children and those who will be the leaders of the next generation.

The world demands a change in human conduct, so be a mindful parent who is an agent in promoting beings who are emotionally capable of harmoniously cultivating such change. Start now by abandoning the temptation to be an unkind tormentor to your child on the pretense you’re raising a ‘respectful’ adult. Do not make a principle out of insensitivity towards your child, because it will perpetuate the same brand of pathological, unenlightened, self-serving adults who have put humanity in the sorry state it is today.