We Aren’t Raising Children, We’re Raising Adults

If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.

— MAHATMA GANDHI

I’m sitting in my son’s car with him, hashing out a misunderstanding. In a couple of days he’ll be graduating from college. I have come to notice that these important milestones in his life often trigger some kind of argument between us, probably part of the unconscious process of easing him further out of the nest.

I am trying to explain why something he said pushed a button, and he’s having trouble understanding why that particular thing would be an issue. Finally I say, “You cannot know why that triggers me because you have never visited the planet where I grew up.” And he gets it. His face softens, his posture relaxes, and he offers a simple, “Wow.”

In that moment, I understand that this is the essential ingredient in compassion: recognizing that even if we don’t understand why someone reacts the way she does, her history and truth are as real for her as ours is for us.

This is the essential ingredient in compassion: recognizing that even if we don’t understand why someone reacts the way she does, her history and truth are as real for her as ours is for us.

At six-foot-five, my son, Ari, can seem imposing, but after even the briefest interaction it becomes clear that your heart is safe in his presence. As I consider how he came to be this way, I know that some of his nature is simply what he came with; I think kids are born with certain temperaments and that Ari arrived with a gentle spirit. But I also believe that many if not most kids arrive similarly amiable and undefended, and that we have the chance to help them make their way in the world with strength that doesn’t overpower, compassion that soothes, and gentility that comforts.

I did my best to help my son understand that he had been born into great privilege simply by virtue of the fact that we never had to worry about having a home to live in or food on the table. We traveled to parts of the world where he could get to know people from disadvantaged backgrounds whose happiness was not predicated on wealth or possessions. We volunteered in our community so he could interact with people who might look him in the eye and let him know that his small effort to make their lives better meant something to them. I tried to do the things for our neighbors and friends that human beings do as members of the same tribe or passengers on the same boat, believing that paying lip service to good personhood or writing a check to a charity is not the same as showing up.

I made it a practice to notice the simple pleasures in our lives. The taste of lavender ice cream. Hearing a great joke. Lying in the grass at night, watching the stars. He began pointing things out to me: “Look at how the light is hitting the top of that mountain, Mommy. That’s so pretty, isn’t it?” “It sure is, honey. Thanks for making sure I didn’t miss it!”

I tried to live in a way that helped him understand that carving out time for reflection, meditation, and looking out the window in stillness were elemental to staying authentic and true to myself.

But oh, my — how often I fell short of being the person I wanted to be! Plenty of days saw me edgy, impatient, or lost in my own little world. I was by no means exemplary as a parent or person, slipping into Lawyer or Dictator mode more often than I’d care to admit. But I think I was good enough — an idea that frees us from attempting perfection, allowing us to simply do our best each day to inspire our children to do theirs. From the many late-night conversations Ari and I have had since he has stepped more fully into adulthood, I have discovered that my imperfections — coupled with acknowledgments and the fact that he continues to see me growing through my challenges — helped him develop a greater capacity to accept, forgive, and be imperfect himself.

What follows are some thoughts about what we can do to help our kids head into their adult lives with a head start at being conscious, present, joyful people — keeping in mind, of course, that they will eventually have to develop their own resources through the grit and tumble of their lives.

Picturing Our Children as Adults

When I was working on this book, I sat down to write in an outdoor courtyard with chairs and couches scattered around the shops. I spotted a comfy sofa, but when I sat down, I saw that it was blanketed in crumbs. The table beside it was littered with used coffee cups and crumpled napkins. What a mess! I thought about the people who had left their trash behind. Had their parents demonstrated by their actions that it was okay to leave messes for other people to deal with?

Many ingredients go into raising children to be conscious, resilient, and compassionate adults, including honesty, gratitude, responsibility — the list goes on. But we cannot simply teach these qualities through our words. Lecturing our kids about the importance of cleaning up after themselves or being kind to others means nothing if they watch us leave our cups and napkins behind or hear us insult the waiter when she fails to take down our order correctly. Bringing up children to become people we like and admire requires us to at least try to live the qualities we want them to embody.

Bringing up children to become people we like and admire requires us to at least try to live the qualities we want them to embody.

As I mentioned earlier, when I begin a phone coaching session with a client, I usually start by asking this question: “If you feel better at the end of this call, what would have happened? What insight, strategy, or unresolved conflict would we have addressed? Picture yourself relieved or grateful when our time together is over, and let’s talk about your issue with your desired outcome in mind.” I have found this to be an effective way to stay focused on what most needs to happen during our session.

In that spirit, I invite you to participate in an exercise to help infuse more intentionality and awareness into your daily interactions with your children. Think about the person you want your youngster to be when he is a full-fledged grown-up. Picture him at twenty-five, forty-five, or sixty-five years old. Imagine him surrounded by a loving cadre of friends, passionately pursuing a career, delighting in creative pursuits, and/or enjoying his role as a partner, spouse, or parent.

Consider the qualities your child possesses that make this rich, satisfying adult life within her reach. What attributes do you hope to instill within her that will ensure that she is excited to wake up every morning to greet a new day, equipped with the resilience she will need to survive life’s disappointments?

If you need ideas, call to mind a person you greatly admire. It may be someone you know personally, or it could be a celebrated individual whose life exemplifies the characteristics you most value. This person can be living or deceased; he or she can even be a fictional character.

Make a list of the attributes embodied by this person. Perhaps you are touched by the fact that he treats all those he encounters with respect and thoughtfulness, regardless of their status or stature. Or maybe you find yourself inspired by his tenacity and willingness to push through obstacles. Maybe you love his energy — he brings a certain joie de vivre and lightness of spirit to everything he does. Or maybe, after interacting with this person, you always feel better about yourself, or about life in general. Use these ideas to help formulate a list of the traits you want to nurture that will help your child lead a wonderful life, long after she has flown the coop.

Essential Ingredients for Raising a Caring, Confident Child

How a child turns out is a function of an infinite number of variables — temperament; genetics; the parenting they received; their physical, emotional, and psychological health; their opportunities for education; sibling relationships; the network of supportive people in their tribe. In other words, there are no formulas that guarantee a youngster will become a conscious, confident, caring adult. Many factors are out of our control. But what follows are some of the ways that we can influence our children to become fulfilled and joyful grownups.

Keep in mind that even the most spiritually evolved people have been known to have had significant parenting problems, even while advising their followers on how to be more conscious and compassionate. There is no certificate or credential that ensures we’ll show up as our most enlightened self every day or that we’ll have kids who don’t have problems. It’s a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute undertaking.

We each carry with us the influence of our own upbringing and the often unhealthy strategies we developed to protect our tender hearts.

We each carry with us the influence of our own upbringing and the often unhealthy strategies we developed to protect our tender hearts. Each of us has blind spots, regardless of how much personal work we have done. But it is never too late to grow and to change. And from what I have seen, nothing propels our evolution quite like raising children.

When we consider the characteristics that are important to instill in our children, we might say that we want them to be confident and respectful, resourceful and kind, resilient and responsible; the list is long, and we will discuss some of these traits in the pages that follow. But when most parents are asked what they want most for their children in preparation for their adulthood, they begin by saying, “I just want them to be happy.” And here is where things get interesting. While there are many qualities that we can and should nurture in our children, there is one without which all other attributes become significantly less important: we need to raise our children to know they are inherently worthy of love and happiness so that they will be able to absorb all the good that comes their way.

We need to raise our children to know they are inherently worthy of love and happiness so that they will be able to absorb all the good that comes their way.

We live in a time of unprecedented options for enjoyment and amusement: movies, music, video games, shopping malls, and of course diversions such as Facebook and other online worlds. The array of possibilities for “having fun” are only as limited as one’s imagination.

And yet more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Every day, more than 5,400 suicide attempts are made by young people in grades seven through twelve. And the suicide rate for middle-aged Americans has risen sharply; according to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1999 to 2010, the number of Americans ages thirty-five to sixty-four who committed suicide rose by nearly 30 percent.

Clearly, the dots aren’t connecting. If we have greater-than-ever access to enjoyment, why aren’t more of us feeling good? Unless an individual has created space internally to experience love and joy each day, she will move through life Teflon coated, unable to be touched by the gifts attempting to come her way. It’s sort of like owning a helicopter but not having a landing pad for it. We need to help our children develop the capacity to feel they are worthy of love and happiness so that they will be capable of receiving it, in all its forms, when they grow up. Helping our children become accustomed to being loved and enjoying the sweetness of life is the greatest contribution we can make to their future happiness.

This is no small task. It is a lifelong journey to carve out room within ourselves to receive all the goodness of life. In his beautiful book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, John Welwood writes of the core wound we each carry within our hearts — the lack of belief in our inherent lovability or our right to be seen and cherished as we are. “Not knowing, in our blood and bones, that we are truly loved or lovable undermines our capacity to give and receive love freely. This is the core wound that generates interpersonal conflict and a whole range of familiar relationship tangles. Difficulty trusting, fear of being misused or rejected, harboring jealousy and then vindictiveness, defensively stone-walling, having to argue and prove we’re right, feeling easily hurt or offended and blaming others for our pain — these are just a few of the ways that our insecurity about being loved or lovable shows up.”

It is a lifelong journey to carve out room within ourselves to receive all the goodness of life.

So it is our challenge and opportunity to foster in our children the living, breathing knowledge that they are worthy — as is — of being loved.

No parent remains consistently attuned to his child. We cannot always know what she needs or muster the energy to respond in a satisfying way. We get tired and impatient. We find ourselves distracted, stressed, or out of sorts. We may have an especially difficult child who wears us out with unreasonable demands. We are, alas, merely human, struggling with our own challenges and destined to fail in meeting our children’s needs again and again.

It is our challenge and opportunity to foster in our children the living, breathing knowledge that they are worthy — as is — of being loved.

Frankly, it wouldn’t even be good for our kids if we were perfectly tuned in to them. Imagine the expectations they would bring to their later-in-life friendships or marriages if our children expected every desire or need to be fulfilled by others. Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, talked about the importance of simply being a “good enough mother” after realizing that babies and children actually benefited when their caregivers periodically failed to meet their needs, allowing them to develop resilience.

Starting in infancy, children do their best to make sense of the world in order to feel safe in it. They imagine their caregivers to be infallible so that they can trust in their ability to provide for and protect them. If a little one is being raised by a parent who rarely responds lovingly and appropriately to his physical or emotional needs, he will not think to himself, “Oh, Mommy is probably stressed from her long day at work. I know she loves me but she is just tired or distant because she has unresolved emotional issues.”

Instead, the child concludes that Mommy isn’t responding to his needs either because he is unworthy or because there is something inherently wrong with him. Thus begins a pattern of longing to be “met” by an attuned parent, handling disappointment when it doesn’t happen by creating a belief structure that he, the child, doesn’t deserve to have his needs met. He heads into adulthood guarded, less trusting, disconnected from his heart, and therefore less available to receive all of life’s goodness.

Like the child with his nose pressed against the window of the candy shop, this kind of person may yearn for all the delectable things inside, believing at his core that they are meant to be enjoyed by others but not him. He might blame his wife, his boss, or his unfair life circumstances for not delivering what he longs to have, when in fact even if everything he dreamed of landed in his lap, he would still be unable to enjoy it.

Our kids deserve to know that even if we can’t always meet their needs or offer them the validation they long for, they are still wholly lovable and uniquely brilliant just as they are. This instills in them the consciousness that they are worthy of being loved and happy, positioning them to receive the wonderful things life has in store for them rather than conditioning them to push those things away.

What can we do? It’s not complicated. When we aren’t able to be there for our child in the way she wants, we can minimize the harm by simply acknowledging her disappointment. “You were really hoping I could spend time with you, and here I am again with the baby.” “I am sorry I was cranky — I had a tough day at work today, and I guess I got really tired — it was not your fault.” “It’s hard having to go to bed when we were having so much fun together.” This helps prevent the possibility that she will come away from disappointment believing she is unworthy of attention because of an inherent defect.

Our kids deserve to know that even if we can’t always meet their needs or offer them the validation they long for, they are still wholly lovable and uniquely brilliant just as they are.

When we engage with our children with presence as a good-enough parent, they come to know that they are worthy of love, kindness, and the infinite blessings of life. It is not a matter of telling our kids how terrific they are, nor is it about becoming a paragon of parental virtue — a robotic Stepford parent who never loses her temper or wishes she could escape the chaos and craziness of life with kids. Rather, it is through the overall quality of our engagement with our children that they come to understand how precious they are. In this way, they come to develop what Thupten Jinpa, longtime English translator of His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes as “self-liking, or an easy-going peace” with themselves.

When we engage with our children with presence as a good-enough parent, they come to know that they are worthy of love, kindness, and the infinite blessings of life.

The following chapters offer suggestions on ways that we can support our children’s success in life, in every meaning of the word.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN

Think about the qualities you want to encourage in your children (respect, honesty, accountability and so on).

Which of these qualities would you say you exemplify? In other words, which characteristics are predictable elements of how you lead your life?

Which of these qualities would you like to develop in yourself while fostering them in your children? In other words, which attributes do you aspire to weave into your life, even if they don’t yet come naturally to you?