2011-06-05

Keeping Children In Their Place

Marianne Williamson
For some of us, there is no greater terror than the prospect of an hour or more of taking care of a small child. Nothing seems more clearly able to make clear our inadequacies. The real issue, though, as Unity minister Marianne Williamson tells us, is something else:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Deferring parenthood – into the 30s or even 40s for the first child – has become the middle-class norm. So I was unusually young for my socio-economic class when my first-born, my daughter Morgen, was born. I was 21. When my son John was born I was 23. And I can tell you from my own experience, that all these people putting off children “until they feel ready” . . . are so right. Twenty-one! I had no idea who I was, or where I was headed, or how to decide. I was a philosophy major, for gosh sakes! I was so not ready.

The clearest proof that I was not ready? I thought I was. Seriously! I was like: "How hard can this be?" Well, is anybody really ready to enter parenthood? Maybe a few new parents would say they were. Not many.

When my daughter was born – at 6:18 in the morning, after a sleepless night for me. Not long after, she was placed in my arms. And I was stunned. Twenty-one years of frustrations with my mistakes and with other people’s mistakes had not prepared me to be in the presence of a perfect being. She was perfect. Two years later, John was born, and there it was again. Not only is there perfection right in the midst of this vale of tears – but it’s repeatable!

As the years went by, I did not always have that awareness foremost in my mind. There were times when they didn’t want to read out loud a verse from the Dao De Jing on the way to school in the morning, but I insisted, in a very undaoist manner. Still, somewhere in the back of my mind was the lingering effect of their stunning birthes – and that dim unsconscious sense that their perfection had never gone away helped smooth a bit my rougher edges.

As parents, as teachers: we like to think that we’re in charge, but in fact it’s a kind of dialog, a continuous renegotiation. While I thought I was trying to teach my kids everything that they’d need to know, they were teaching me how to be their Dad. They didn’t have a planned strategy for that – they just showed me by their being what things worked and what didn’t. In that way, parent and child define each other, each molds the other, like the two sides of the yin-yang, each takes its shape from the other – each defines its space and thereby defines the other’s space – in a fluid, shifting swirl.

Perfect, yes – and at the same time there is this growing thing to do. Our joy and wonder at an infant comes from loving what they are right then, while also aware that they are headed somewhere else – and we adults who are part of their lives are along for a ride of our own. Going where? We have no idea. We sense limitless horizons of possibility.

There are also risks. The challenge is for our children and the adults they are in relation with to grow together toward liberation, and away from the various snares that trap and diminish. We are engaged in liberating our kids, and in being liberated by them. How do we do that? Ann Beattie writes:
Ann Beattie
Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper.
It’s as simple as that.
Except for fate, luck, heredity, chance,
the astrological sign under which the child was born,
his order of birth,
his first encounter with evil,
the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities,
the war that is being fought when he is a young man,
the drugs he may try once or too many times,
the friends he makes,
how he scores on tests,
how well he endures kidding about his shortcomings,
how ambitious he becomes,
how far he falls behind,
circumstantial evidence,
ironic perspective,
danger when it is least expected,
difficulty in triumphing over circumstance,
people with hidden agendas,
and animals with rabies.
Simple, eh?

Liberation means that our capacities are engaged – neither bored from insufficient challenge nor frustrated from challenges too great – engaged creatively with others in a way that helps to bring forth new capacities, which call again for new engagement. Liberation is a certain kind of relation to our world: the world provides new experience – we are open to them, and receive them as unique – and we respond creatively – which leads to further openness to new experience. When experiences merely repeat – either because our world has been limited or because we are not open to the variety presented -- and the responses are the same and stale, that’s stuck, not liberated. Liberation fails when a child or adult is cut off from fully and vividly receiving the world – for then our ideas about the world are not challenged, and we can only dwell in the trap of our own unchanging ideas of how we think things are. Liberation also fails when a child or adult loses her capacity to make an engaged response to the world, or surrenders to passivity.

Rebecca Parker
Too much chaos, and we can’t engage and receive a coherent meaningful experience, nor can we respond effectively because the chaos swallows all responses. Too much control, too much attempt by parents and teachers to make things happen in a precisely predetermined way, also shuts off liberation: for children need to encounter wonder along with their adult guides – they need to stand together in wonder, which can’t happen if the adults are too busy predetermining everything. When there is too much control, writes Rebecca Parker, then:
Education seeks to determine the shape of people’s lives within a horizon of despair. We begin to believe that without the educator people will never become what we want them to be. This is a form of faithlessness. There is little confidence, trust, or respect for what is in people.(Essex Conversations, 208)
We adults must let the children surprise us, and take delight in that surprise. We each learn best when we each are learning from the other. Robert Fulghum told us: All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. And who is “in” kindergarten, learning what they need to know? Kids and also adults are “in” kindergarten: teachers, aids, the visiting parents, or adult volunteers. Both child and adult in kindergarten are learning what they need to know. Robert Fulghum, you may recall, was a Unitarian Universalist minister. His book includes this story about the day he had charge of his church’s combined 2nd- through 5th-graders:
Robert Fulghum
Giants, wizards and dwarfs was the game to play. Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game. It's a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision-making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won. Organizing a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus or group identity -- this all is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go. The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass.
I yelled out, "You have to decide now which you are--a giant, a wizard, or a dwarf!" While groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg.
A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?" Where do the Mermaids stand? A long pause. A very long pause.
"Where do the Mermaids stand?" says I.
"Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid."
"There are no such things as Mermaids."
"Oh, yes, I am one!" She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category. Mermaid. And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where do the Mermaids stand? All the "Mermaids"-- all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes? Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it.
What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. "The Mermaids stand right here, by the King of the Sea!" says I. (Yes, right here by the King's Fool, I thought to myself.)
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.
It is not true, by the way, that mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.
So who in that story was learning what he or she needed to know? The girl in Fulghum’s story learns she can trust her inner promptings about who she is, and trust the people of her world to respect them. She can be who she is – whoever that may be at any given stage of her life – and there is a place for her. The fact that she was able to insist on her mermaidness already is evidence of good religious education. For his part, Fulghum learned that there are mermaids.
Those who educate with a sense of the abiding presence of grace
– that is, those who are ready to be surprised, and who will go where the surprise leads – adds Rebecca Parker:
know that to teach is to cooperate with forces of growth, transformation, healing, change, discovery, creativity, and revolution that are not of the teacher’s making. This makes education a religious activity. At the heart of this approach to education is trust in the intrinsic goodness of life, respect for the powers of human life, and care for souls – care that the soul of each person born into this world have its chance at life. (Parker 208-09)
We are here to be liberated and help liberate others from everything in life that diminishes us. That’s our role with each other, and as parents, teachers, and any and every adult member of a community in which a kids’ place is everywhere.

We’re up against a lot that is outside our control. That’s good – because if we were in control of everything, we probably wouldn’t have room for mermaids. In particular, we are up against a dominant economic system that defines us as merely self-interested consumers.
In this smallness we have lost the public world and have been domesticated into a narrow sphere of interest in which we are numb to the fullness of our own being and hungry for the bread of an engaged and meaningful life. (Parker 212)
We have to be counter-cultural, and faith communities are essential to countering that kind of culture.

We know our kids are bombarded with commercials.
Researchers estimate that children see 40,000 ads a year.
Make you sure tell them, early and repeatedly, what a commercial is. If you don’t tell them, they’ll think commercials are divine revelations of the promised land. Four-year-olds can understand if you tell them:
The people who made this commercial and put it on TV are trying to make you want to buy [name of product]. They want us to pay for [name of product], because they want to get our money. That’s the only reason this commercial is on.
Simple, obvious – but if we’re not telling our preschoolers, how are they going to know?

We’re up against a lot. To allow a child out into the world today without some kind of serious moral grounding under their feet is unconscionable. There are a thousand ways that a child – or an adult – today can get lost, pulled apart, presented with choices they aren’t ready to make, induced into things that "seemed OK at the time."

How do we equip our children to navigate their way through such a world? It’s important that we not only know that it takes a village to raise a child, but that we are clear on why and how that is so. It isn’t because of your inadequacies as a parent that you need others.

True, there are skills of parenting to hone, and knowledge about child development and psychology to know. After that, just let go. It’s like this: Your children will be able to fly because they can push off from the ground you and they have built for them together. In other words, even if you are the ideal parent in every way, your children have to take off from that and define for themselves who they will be. They absolutely have to. Their flourishing requires taking what you have given, and making something new with it, and that means some separation from Mom and Dad.

The sky into which they mount, however, they need not occupy alone. There must be other geese up there honking them into the formation they are called to be a part of. Indeed, even from the younger ages: It’s not enough that Mom and Dad know that Susie is a Mermaid. Susie needs to see herself being seen for who she is by a wider world beyond the home. That’s why it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s helpful to be clear on the basis of that cliché.

Villages aren’t automatic features of family life these days. It takes deliberate intention and energy to get out of the house and be a part of a community like this Fellowship.

Anne LaMott, in her book, Traveling Mercies, explains why she brings her young son to church every week despite his protests that he would much rather be somewhere else on Sunday morning.
Anne LaMott
First of all, I outweigh him. But the main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want - which is to say purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy - are people with a deep sense of spirit. They are people in community, who pray or practice their faith. They are Buddhists, Jews, Christians, [Unitarians] - people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful....When I was at the end of my rope, the people in my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home - that it's where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said you come back now.... (p.100)
We need this community where our children can be helped in their growth and liberation by a hundred wise adults. We need this community where our adults can be helped in their growth and liberation by a hundred – well 40 or 50, for now – wise children. Every adult here, every one, can have -- needs for their own liberation -- regular interaction, and development of relationships, with kids. If you aren’t a part of that in this Fellowship, please do make an appointment with Rev. Leah Hart-Landsberg, our Minister of Lifespan Faith Development, to talk about ways you can best connect.

As Marianne Williamson said,
Our deepest fear is not that we inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure....Playing small does not serve the World...As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
May we grow our children toward liberation. May our children grow us toward liberation.