I am the director of The Natural Child Project , a psychologist, and author of The Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart. I envision a world where all children are treated with dignity, understanding, and compassion.
When asked about the notorious teen years I am often interrupted midway through my statement, "My son is 15 and has brought me nothing but …"
No, my son is 15 and has brought me nothing but joy!
"You’re kidding! How did you do that?"
I am proud of my son but I really can’t take all the credit. His father and I were simply fortunate enough, after some missteps at the start, to read insightful parenting books and magazines, and be able to network with knowledgeable and compassionate parents. Today he is the most caring, thoughtful, and generous person I know.
"Tell me, please! What did you do?"
Well, we did everything we were told by society not to do … He was never punished, threatened, bullied, or teased, and was allowed to express anger as well as happiness.
"Oh, you spoiled him?"
Well, let’s examine that word. The dictionary defines "spoil" as "to cause to demand or expect too much by overindulgence." In my dictionary, this is the third definition. It mirrors the common usage of this word in our society. This definition denotes a cause and effect: overindulgence, it says, causes spoiling. But is this belief true? Or does this definition merely represent a widespread misunderstanding of the true nature of children’s behavior? A definition that would be accurate in terms of the way children actually learn and react is the first one listed: "to damage or injure, to destroy."
What actually spoils a child, what actually damages, injures, and destroys vital qualities in the child are the other choices of parental behavior: punishment, separation, and rejection. These experiences spoil a child’s inborn sense of trust, capacity to love, creativity, and potential for joy. Robbing a child of these treasures is surely one of the most harmful acts a human can perform.
"So the proof is in the pudding?"
Exactly. Adolf Hitler was frequently and severely abused in childhood. As an adult, he expressed the anguish and pain of those years in ways that brought about misery and suffering for millions. By comparison, Albert Einstein was cherished by his parents. His mother was accused of "spoiling" him. Yet Einstein became not only one of the world’s greatest scientists, but a most gentle, caring man, deeply concerned about social issues.
"Where do I find the kind of information that helped you?"
Read Compleat Mother, Empathic Parenting, or Mothering magazines. Talk with midwives. Meet with caring mothers in La Leche League and other breastfeeding support groups. Read books by Alice Miller, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Tine Thevenin, and John Holt, and especially Raising a Free Child, by Rue Kream. Meditate and listen to what your heart tells you. Truly believe that your baby will let you know what is right … and what is wrong.
"How can a baby tell me this?"
Babies come into the world with perfect love and trust. They do not suspect, mistrust, play mind games, doubt motives, or in any way cloud communication unless and until this trust is betrayed by such painful experiences as punishment, rejection, and separation. A baby’s smiles and tears are the most potent form of communication on this planet.
"What about the mistakes I’ve already made?"
There are no perfect parents. While we have all made mistakes, punishing ourselves is no more effective or reasonable than punishing our children. Loving ourselves and understanding that we have done as well as we could have with the information and inner strength we had at that moment, is as important as loving and understanding our children. All we can do is put forth the love that we feel, recognize the critical importance of parenting, and continue to discover compassionate ways of relating to the children we are blessed with.
"What are the most important things a parent should know?"
Two things: First, in our society, it is assumed that children and adults, for some unexplained reason, operate on two separate and distinct principles of behavior. We adults know that we behave at our best toward those who treat us with kindness, patience, and understanding. Yet children are presumed to behave in the opposite way; that is, behave best toward those who threaten, punish, and humiliate them. If we try to pinpoint the age at which this mysterious transformation from "children’s principles of behavior" to "adult principles of behavior" occurs, we are at a loss, because there is no such transformation. There is no difference between the "operating principles" of children and adults: we all behave as well as we are treated.
The second important consideration is that so-called "bad behavior" is really a blessing in disguise, as it affords the best opportunity for learning about life. If punishment is introduced at that point, this golden opportunity is lost, because the child’s attention is taken away from the matter at hand, and drawn into feelings of humiliation, anger and revenge. Further, superficial "good behavior" obtained through threats and punishment can only take place until the child is old enough to fight back; angry teenagers do not fall from the sky. But trust, kindness and empathy, kept intact within the child from birth, and strengthened by parental examples of those qualities, will last a lifetime.
"I see. It’s a matter of trusting children, of recognizing that children may be less experienced and smaller than we are, but that they are equally deserving of being treated with dignity and respect?
Precisely. From newborns to centenarians, all human beings behave as well as they are treated. In parenting, as in all human relationships, let us give only love and love is all we will receive.
Jan Hunt, director of the Natural Child Project, is also the B.C. Coordinator for the CSPCC (Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), and Editorial Assistant of the Society’s quarterly journal Empathic Parenting. Her columns, including, "Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Kids" have been widely published. Jan is the parent of a 25-year-old son who has homeschooled from the beginning with a learner-directed approach.