Friday, May 9, 2014

Casual thoughts about parents and adults

I’m sure that one of the more objectionable parts of my being, manifest in my work, is a lack of pro forma respect for parents.  Another is my lack of pro forma respect for adults.  I do not assume that parents are ipso facto more right and rational and wise than their children; I do not assume that adults have some elevated status – prestige or droit du seigneur over children.  They do not deserve to sit in the front of the bus and relegate the kids to the back.

My reason for both convictions began as experience and attitude and later became considered.  While writing an autobiographical paper for a family counseling class, I discovered that over the course of my childhood I had grown a felt sense that adults are powerful but incompetent.  Years of watching adults being impotent to see or help me had crystallized this impression.  Later, looking at hundreds of parents and children and at my own largely incompetent rearing of my step- and adopted daughters, corroborated the sense.  Reading Gordon’s classic Parent Effectiveness Training, which states that “parents are persons not gods” and are not always wiser* than their children, added fuel.

Even ditching the attitude, I believe it is provable that all mental processes – grown-up and child – are equal.  A healthy adult consciousness – one that can consider factors intelligently and objectively and not through a warping agenda – must evolve from a child mind that is free to consider and reconsider, make mistakes without shame, be heard with respect.  Ages ago I read some historical passage opining that it is right for a man to “stammer” when describing his qualities.  If a child stammers while describing why he wants a pet tarantula not a dog, or why he dislikes his teacher, shouldn’t that be as respectable?

I am certain that adults would not like to feel that they are not special.  They do assume they are: It’s in the ether, much more adamantine and explicit than male superiority once was and still is to some degree.  Picture it: What would we have left if we are not the governors of our world, Caesars over the plebeians?  We’d be more Montessori-like, giving children great freedom.  We’d ask with deference their opinions, considering them as meaningful as our own, and would educate them without patronizing when they don’t have enough information to form an opinion.  We’d learn from them, and realize there’s a lot more ignorance in the world than we had thought – our own ignorance.

Imagine the atmosphere, the different tone of the world, where children have weight, equality.  You wouldn’t bark at your son for failing to turn in a school project any more than you’d slap your friend for failing a lunch date.  You’d inquire, be flustered, concerned.  The landscape would be crowded with more possibilities, much less grass we'd be allowed to step on.  But most of all, children would grow up to be very, very different, in an atmosphere of safety and respect, where they were equal participants in feeling and thinking and were the “central actor” in their own lives.**

Adults – I believe this is obvious – are the bullies, the entitled, because they are still embattled children pulled down beneath the waves and fighting – pushing other heads out of the way – for air.  Their needs were not met and they still need the goods, the respect, the power.  As hurt kids are jealous of others’ fun, psychologically dysfunctional teens see normal peers as “superficial” and have contempt for their immaturity or frivolity, so parents see the child’s mind as less, her feelings as childish, her wants as competition or as impertinent.  This is why I often try to help the parent feel heard, to cry for herself, though it’s her little son or daughter who is being tortured in the warped atmosphere of home.  If she can finally unload her grief impacted from a lifetime, finally be loved, then she has arrived, can “be there” for her child.

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* “How can anyone refute the idea that parents are wiser and more experienced than children?  It seems to be such a self-evident truth.  Yet, when we ask parents in our classes, whether their own parents made unwise Method I [authoritarian] decisions, they all say ‘Yes.’  How easy it is for parents to forget their own experience as children!  How easy to forget that children sometimes know better than parents when they are sleepy or hungry; know better the qualities of their friends, their own aspirations and goals, how their various teachers treat them; know better the urges and needs within their bodies, whom they love and whom they don’t, what they value and what they don’t.”  (Parent Effectiveness Training, pp. 253-254; Three Rivers Press, 1970, 1975, 2000.)

** Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, p. 7, earlier edition on-line facsimile: “The child has a primary need to be regarded and respected as the person he really is at any given time, and as the center – the central actor – in his own activity.  In contradistinction to drive wishes, we are speaking here of a need that is narcissistic, but nevertheless legitimate, and whose fulfillment is essential for the development of a healthy self-esteem.”  Basic Books, 1981.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.