Parenting is really hard. Like REALLY hard.
(Don’t worry, this is not another post about how to parent or me lamenting about some parenting fail on my end…hang with me).
If anything has brought me to the absolute end of my rope, it’s with trying to raise my three boys. As many other parents of littles often bemoan, our children do not enter this world with an instruction manual. And for everyone who says the Bible is God’s instruction manual for raising kids, I argue that crucial chapters must have been lost prior to publication, or canonization, whichever you prefer.
Some days I parent like a boss, am efficient, compassionate, and wise. But who am I kidding, most days it feels like I’ve got nothing and hope at the end of my life I will get graded on a curve. If it weren’t for the objective outsiders who love me and have chosen to do life with me, I’d be an even bigger parenting mess than I am right now.
Thanks to a FB ad from Scientific American, I stumbled across a book called The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. Of course, being the nerdy, desperate parent I am, I stepped up and got it on Audible. I’m about halfway into it, and find it to be a really good read (or listen), along the same lines as work done by Dan Siegel and Susan Stiffleman, for parents out there who are seeking out wise voices in rearing these little creatures of ours.
One of the primary points that the authors of the Self-Driven Child are trying to make is that children in today’s world are lacking a sense of self control and self agency. In fact, they point to studies that have been done showing that when children and young adults don’t have any sense of real control over their lives in any meaningful way, they are prone to developing depression and anxiety that can stick with them throughout adulthood. For children to develop sound mental health, they need to get a good grasp of their identity, which is found by being allowed to make decisions and mistakes, and try new things within fair limits and under the umbrella of their parents’ unconditional love. Basically, NOT helicopter parenting or authoritarian parenting.
When I was listening to the first handful of chapters of the book, I couldn’t help but notice how it correlated well with something Richard Rohr has taught about for years. In his work as a Franciscan priest, he has spent alot of time in prisons working with young men. What he found over time was that many of these men in prisons grew up without fathers, they never gained a solid sense of identity and they never underwent an initiation into manhood. He researched cultures from around the world and found that initiation rites were foundational for men and women, but especially men, to enter adulthood as mature and purpose-driven. Rohr went on to develop a program for men in contemporary Western culture that offer them a chance to experience an initiation of sorts.
Rohr also developed another idea of the first and second halves of life. He argues that during the first half of life, we need a good, strong container – that is, we need a strong foundation with a solid identity. This first half of life container is what helps us learn to be successful in the world, survive, build security and families, hold down jobs. But, he also points out that we must all have a second half of life as well, where we realize that we are powerless and not really in control of anything after all. Rohr argues that everyone will at some point reach the end of themselves; it may be precipitated by a mid-life crisis, or it may be on the death bed, but everyone will eventually realize that the identity they built up in the first half of life was really just an illusion and not the whole point of life after all. This is the stage of life where our true selves can begin to emerge.
It’s paradoxical…why build up an ego and identity, if you must simply have to shed it down the road? Why build a life if you’re just going to have to die to it? I don’t know, I don’t really get it, but the Perennial Tradition makes this clear: you must construct an understanding of life so that you can deconstruct it, so that a true one can finally be reconstructed. Or as the Dalai Lama puts it, we must “Learn and obey the rules very well so that you will know how to break them properly.”
Anyway, back to parenting. I’ve often wondered why we don’t have children when we are older and wiser. Wouldn’t we be better parents by then? I mean, grandparents are always calmer, kinder, and fun than parents.
But now I wonder if life built child-bearing into younger adulthood (for reasons other than the obvious ones like an 80-year woman with osteoporosis probably shouldn’t try to push out a baby from her hips) because it helps to offer part of the crisis we need to help jar us out of our first half of life containers and into the second half of life wisdom.
I mean seriously, what else will drive you into a sense of absolute powerlessness than children? Like, when your six year old barfs on the moving walkway conveyor belt at the Boston airport and you have no freaking clue what to do as you watch vomit slowly move down into the belly of the contraption and you feel the need to apologize profusely to the airport maintenance who have to disable and disembowel the whole thing to clean it out?
Or when one of your children has emotional regulation issues and nothing you can say, do, or offer helps to reduce the massive temper tantrum they’ve been engaging in in an entirely inappropriate public setting?
Or….when you realize that you will have to endure at least 10 more years of non-stop potty humor and fart noises at the dinner table, in the car, at entirely inappropriate public settings, etc?
Parenting in the earlier part of adulthood is the perfect opportunity to ruin the strong identities we’ve built for ourselves, and we’re left with two choices: insist we still have control and try to convince ourselves of this until our children fly the nest…or, hold up the white flag, realize that as Eckhart Tolle says, our children may have passed through us, but they are not ours, and act as consultants more than dictators to help our children build up a strong sense of self and identity with which to launch out into the world.
We help them build up their identity while they help tear ours down. What a tradeoff! Hmph.
Grandparents seem to have learned the lesson. Another reason old people don’t have babies…they wouldn’t have gotten to the wise place of powerlessness and loss of control without having first been aided by their own children. By the time they get to their grandkids, they (generally) know which battles to fight, what really matters, and what doesn’t. Grandparents have learned to let go of the illusion of control over children, embrace reality, and then proceed to pull their grandchildren out of the path of rampaging, frustrated parents and spoil the dickens out of them.
I kind of can’t wait to be a grandparent. But as an Alabama friend of mine used to say, “Now ya’ll know, to get there you’ve got to leave here!” So, I will continue to work to step back and let my children strengthen their self-identities and first half of life containers by not trying to over-control them, while they doggedly and daily point out that any real control I have over their lives is illusory. (And I smile smugly to myself, knowing that one day their own children will sweetly offer them the same courtesies.)