Children Are Born Happy
In an insulated world of liquid, the sounds are muted and every bodily need is cared for by the interconnected order of this universe. A regular melodic rhythm formed by the natural cadence of the heart fills the cavern with soft music created by the echoing of its percussion statement. The womb: a galaxy of life unto itself, the seat of creation and the genesis of man. It houses within its walls a growing embryo which develops each day in millions of ways until it begins to shape itself into the form of a person. The head, the arms, the feet and the hands begin to project from their own mass as if molded out of the very soup of the mother’s energy. As it graduates into fetal form, it begins to ready itself for the great birth out of the universe.
Unlike visions of a clouded yesterday, man is not born so much into the universe, as if a stranger, but from the very fabric of the universe. The elements of which he is composed, the fertilization which begins his great thrust and generates new life within a woman are essential fibers of the world into which he will step. In birth, man moves from the enclosure of a gentle and controlled environment into a more random and unpredictable one. On a schedule determined by his biological and physiological formation, which is precisely inscribed into his genetic foundation, he creates a harmonious thrust with his mother and is propelled into the open air.
Each child thus becomes a pronouncement of nature … its movement and its beauty. After traveling through the tunnel of the uterus, the child greets his existence wide-eyed and draws his first breath. In this way, he becomes a living participant in our communal atmosphere and in taking that breath he makes the world his.
The child is simple, uncomplicated and uncluttered. His rather complex biological systems, involuntary reflexes and automatic processes seem to operate with their own ease. The new little man or woman seems to contemplate the universe without effort. Their wants are simple and in the fabric of society and family units, their biological needs are usually satisfied.
Communication on a primary level is often centered around the act of crying. When the child first cries, he is responding to the changes in his perception of his internal environment as his system moves from its own equilibrium. The shout or cry is merely the infant responding to himself, which we as adults interpret to mean “I am hungry” or “I am wet” or “I have a pain.” It is our way of keeping in touch with the child’s needs (biological) and monitoring his state of affairs. As we listen and react, the child also begins now to experience our pattern of responses to his gestures. So far, there is no such thing as unhappiness.
The child’s cry now becomes his way of calling us within the confines of his present capability. We have taught him how to use his shouting as a means of communication to get what he wants. He is not making a statement about his unhappiness or indicting the world. It is when we say, “Ah, the poor child is hungry,” that we assign a judgment to the activity. The cry is just a registration that the body is out of harmony and seeking to return (with food, relief from wetness, etc.). By judging the child’s hunger or wetness as bad, we are then projecting our beliefs onto the child, beliefs he has not as yet acquired. When we assume the crying child is unhappy, we are really making a statement about our beliefs and saying nothing about the infant . . . for him there is no question of being unhappy, just the desire to reestablish his own homeostasis.
At this point, in a style consistent with his development, the child begins to create communication bridges with his mother and the outside environment. When his balance is reestablished, he moves with awe in his world … dazzled by a fascinating sensory collage of color and sound. His ears perk; his eyes dance in his head; his mouth tastes the flavors as his tiny hands explore the textures of himself and the things around him.
The child is continually and spontaneously curious. Searching. Open. Welcoming and happy. He moves unencumbered by judgments and reflection. His world simply just is. There are no decisions about what is good or bad, no lengthy consideration of wanting and not wanting. The child just finds himself moving in the direction of his desires and fancy. There are no questions, just the wondrous exploration. The movement of his arms, the impulses and enjoyment of food, the sucking at the breast of his mother or the nipple of a bottle, the voiding of his bladder are just a few movements in his natural propensity just to be.
These activities are not considered or judged by the child. Possibly they are not even contemplated. Perhaps they just follow. What am I wanting to illustrate? That the child is born into this world happy. Isn’t that always part of our fascination in watching an infant as he moves and explores?
The crying does not signal feeling bad, but is simply a biological response with sound to the changes in his balance. Crying only becomes “unhappy” when we give it that meaning.
The primary social interaction of the infant is with his mother and centers on food. Eating and the giving of nourishment begins the overture. The cries, the signs, the food offerings, the holding and the stroking are all aspects of this basic interaction. Excretory functions are also part of his world . . . another avenue of experience, another source of pleasure and satisfaction. Even when the child’s face cringes and becomes red while he is defecating, he is not signaling discomfort or disapproval but is summoning his system and concentrating on the activity at hand. Touching and being touched during these early months of life are also joyful experiences with no sexual overtones … no connotations; the array of physical and genital receptors are just aspects of his sensory encounter. For the child, there is merely the intake, the digestion and interaction with the universe.
His world is okay for him and he lives in it spontaneously, an awestruck sponge without judgments.
It sounds beautiful. . . . Incredible! What happens? Why and when do we stop being ourselves, hesitate and question who we are? There are many reasons, all of which relate to our experiences as infants and children and the beliefs we adopt.
Thus far, we have an organism who is adjusting to and absorbing his new surroundings by following his own impulses and desires. All natural movements to him. He realizes his natural self: happy and loving. The child is grateful for being alive through his curiosity. Still no questions, just gliding from thing to thing . . . enjoying the people and the objects in his world. Enjoying himself.
There are no hesitations about whether or not he should stop playing with this object in order to start playing with another. Simply, when he finishes, he puts one toy down and picks up another. No activity is more valued than another . . . it is just what he finds himself doing at any given time. No thoughts of “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?,” just free-flowing movement toward wants. The infant is always acting from his own natural flow; he is not diverted by attending to his fears or unhappiness. In his world, he only finds himself wanting to crawl, wanting food, wanting to be dry, wanting to be warm. As he becomes more sophisticated through interaction during that primary stage, he develops a heightened sense of communication as a function of getting what he wants and moving others in his environment toward his own goals . . . like giving him food or a new diaper or a blanket.
If learning, enjoying, being tickled, playing with a ball are all equal and there aren’t any “nos,” what happens to change this idyllic process? Since the child is an absorbing sponge … as he ingests his environment, he begins to ingest the beliefs of the people in that environment.
He, too, becomes a believing animal and falls subject to all the ramifications and results of having those beliefs.
The feeding programs created by parents for their children are varied and have different consequences. Some feed their infants on a demand schedule, which the child creates and enforces. Others design scheduled eating programs more consistent with the eating and sleeping habits of the parents. For that child, wanting and communication are sporadically functional. He comprehends that, at times, there are definite responses to his shouts, while, at other times, there is no response at all. The inconsistency usually will stimulate him to cry even more in an effort to explore and test his communications effectiveness, never really knowing when to stop since he never knows whether this is the time he will get the response. If he generates a reaction after incessant screeching, it usually comes from an unwilling parent or one thrown off balance by the child’s intensity. Thus, the ensuing feeding situation might be infected with anger or anxiety . . . communicated to the child in the form of altered skin odor, a changed heartbeat, and different patterns of touching and holding. The child senses the tension, experiences the dissonance and adjusts.
Later, in other areas, an exhausted and well-meaning parent might start to train the child through disapproval. “Don’t cry. Be a good little boy and Mommy will feed you.” Or the more implicit schooling that comes as a result of the parents reacting to their own discomfort while with the child. “Stop that right now – you’re ruining Mommy’s curtains; you’re a bad boy.” The child reacts to the scolding and disapproval with confusion and then begins to acquire the beliefs of the reprimanding adult. Herein begins the process of teaching unhappiness.
In the other arenas of his life, the infant is still just being himself, playing and exploring. Not specifically cognizant of the wishes or the values of his parents’ world, he might play with his juice by spilling it and rubbing it into the living room rug. He might investigate his mother’s school notebook by crumpling and ripping the pages, tearing them, fascinated by the sound. He might examine his wooden blocks by throwing them to see them bounce and listen to their staccato sounds … and, perhaps, watch them causally break a mirror or a window.
He’s Columbus discovering his America … an astronaut exploring his moon. To him, what he does is just part of the beautiful and exciting journey of making contact with his world.
Given any of the above examples, parents, upon discovering their home in disarray, would probably be caught off guard and, perhaps, would respond with anger. Anger as a function of seeing their belongings ruined, anger as a function of trying to show the child disapproval so he knows not to do it again. They might also pull the child from the room, upset with the disorder or damages.
perhaps, would respond with anger. Anger as a function of seeing their belongings ruined, anger as a function of trying to show the child disapproval so he knows not to do it again. They might also pull the child from the room, upset with the disorder or damages.
Perhaps, would respond with anger. Anger as a function of seeing their belongings ruined, anger as a function of trying to show the child disapproval so he knows not to do it again. They might also pull the child from the room, upset with the disorder or damages. But the child, unaware of the mores and regulations of the adult community, gets a very distinct message in the hostility being expressed toward him. When he is happy and just doing what he does, his parents get unhappy. In their disapproval, the child learns something is wrong with his loving and happiness. He is only exploring being himself and meaning no harm, when suddenly his world is invaded and he is explicitly or implicitly told he is being bad.
Most children do not comprehend their quandary. They do not understand the meaning of the anger and scolding. The child is being shown what he does makes others unhappy. In effect, when he is being happy (throwing blocks, ripping paper, making a river on the floor with his juice), others become unhappy. He does not understand that the consequences of his actions are viewed by his parents with discomfort. The belief implicitly communicated to the youngster is: “He causes unhappiness” in others. The ultimate message: “There must be something wrong with me” or “I am bad for being me.” The accusing finger is pointed.
There is an additional, implicit suggestion that the child is somehow not supposed to be happy. If the child cared, he would not have done an inconsiderate act … “If you loved me, you would listen to what Mommy tells you.” There is the selling of another cardinal belief: “If you loved me, you would . . . ”
The confusion heightens. Concluding that something is wrong with him and his happiness, the child develops the superstition that his happiness has unhappy repercussions. “Something is wrong with me if my being me is bad and makes others unhappy.” And a further conclusion . . . “I must be something else and not be me in order to be acceptable.” Therein ties the teaching of acting, the acquisition of facades and learning not to be me.
What seemed to be a simple effort to protect our property and properly train the child has many ramifications. In those very initial situations of judgments and disapproval, we teach our children many beliefs about themselves and about unhappiness. We continually reinforce them in further interaction as the years progress. Unhappiness becomes the lesson that is taught as a result of the “not-wants” of parents, also as a method of protecting the child from danger (believing that unhappiness will be an effective deterrent). In addition, the parent might expect that when he or she is unhappy, the child should be unhappy . . . as a gesture of the little person’s sympathy and humanity. Thus, if we are upset and disapprove of the child’s action, they should in turn be humbled and uncomfortable. If not, the child might not be a human being. Thus, the appropriate reaction is solicited, molded and highly regarded.
Didn’t our parents show their unhappiness when we were hurt, when we cut ourselves or when we were unable to get what we really claimed we wanted? Initially, we are induced to imitate the response. Later, we are “supposed” to and “expected” to return the compliment. Be sympathetic and respond in a discernible way.
Unhappiness is shown to be highly valued. “If you feel sad when I feel sad, then I feel better.” “If you feel good when I am feeling bad, then I feel worse.” The staging is precise. The beliefs are illustrated repeatedly, and concretely translated to the child. He is being prepared to learn, absorb and conform to the values and mores of his culture and his community . . . and one of the primary ones is unhappiness. In effect, the child is a student in a conditioning situation in which he is being taught beliefs as a function of social interaction. Once he makes those beliefs his, he is no longer a recipient, but becomes a spokesman.
Wanting is now converted into a more trained and predictable response. Somehow, many of the child’s untempered wants get bad vibes in reaction. As he moves into and through the years of his childhood, he gets the distinct feeling he is a bother. Questions of self-worth and self-image!
Highlighted in the series of beliefs little people are taught is the one: “you make me unhappy.” The concept is that they are directly responsible for another person’s feeling bad . . . that others aren’t responding to their own beliefs, but the child is by some means mystically manipulating the strings and making them unhappy . . . as if he could, as if he had the power!
Unhappiness in each of us is the product of our own beliefs. Parents unhappy about the broken dish or damaged rug or ripped wallpaper are unhappy for their own reasons. Maybe the child taps their concerns about failing as a parent. In the same circumstances, other parents might not even care. But whatever the reaction to the damage of their possessions, the unruliness of their child and the apparent not caring of their offspring . . . it is all a reflection of their own beliefs, judgments and conclusions. Am I suggesting that you sit passively by while a child rampages through the house and misuses your property? Of course not. What I am suggesting is if we are more aware of the genesis of our feelings and the consequences of our responses, we might want to find a way to curb the child’s activity without seeming to say that we disapprove or dislike him as a person.
The drama continues. Beliefs about interlocking dependency (I cause your unhappiness and you cause mine) are repetitiously and graphically example to the child. As a result, the little person becomes concerned with his power (as he adopts the belief ) and does not allow his wants to flow freely . . . after all, just being himself makes his parents unhappy.
Again, reaffirmation of the concept that there must be something wrong with me … thus, “I am bad when I am me.” Something also must be wrong with his wanting. Even the parent who becomes angry when the child keeps crying for things is implicitly saying to the child: “There is something wrong with you if you are lacking something or pressing me for your wants . . .” the message – “Suppress your wants and who you are. Be what I want and expect you to be and I’ll love you.”
How often have we heard a child scream in frustration: “Hey, I didn’t ask to be born.” He sees his very existence as the cause of pain and suffering . . . being loving causes problems. He now has to listen carefully and very cautiously so he will know what to do because he now believes what he wants is bad.
The parent is working through his own dilemma. He somehow interprets his child’s actions as being statements about not caring and lack of consideration. He sees the child as an unruly, untrained person in need of discipline. The parent often ties his self-worth to his child. “If my child is untrained or undisciplined, then I failed” … so they both find each other’s existence as a possible cause of pain and certainly one of pressure. No one is saying that the parent wants this … that he is not loving the child in the best way he knows how. Only that there is a question: Is there a more effective way to be with our children, a more direct way to help them help themselves to be happier?
“If being me is bad, then I must learn to be not-me, which others say is good. Then, I have much self-doubt and insecurity about who I am. Since I want to be loved and since I want a peaceful environment, there must be something wrong with me if I generate dissonance in others.”
Thus, living becomes a process of learning how to be as if the child did not know … always consulting his private book on acceptable behaviors in order to move. Stop-start. The journey which at one time seemed easy and flowing, now becomes an obstacle course in which he tries to avoid making others unhappy while trying to determine what he wants.
Being human, the child uses others as a source of modeling. He imitates to learn and he copies for acceptance. The rules are laid before him at a very young age. Some children might scream at their parents . . . “Leave me alone” and then become petrified that being left alone might mean being left to die. So, often, he contains the impulse. The dilemma is either go mad or grow up.
But in growing up where judgments, disapproval, conditions for loving and rejection are the order of the day, moving is often intermixed with suppression of wants and anger. Even anger at himself because there is something wrong with him … yet he remains furious that others want and continually ask him to be not-him.
Even the very question of loving is cast in doubt. “My parents tell me that they yell at me and punish me for my own good because they love me.” The child naturally becomes ambivalent about being loved. “If my parents’ treating me badly and hitting me comes from their loving, then do I want to be loved? And would I want to love?” Loving, mixed with pain and anger, becomes a double-edged sword. Loving is injected with the serum of discomfort . . . perhaps the child might even come to fear being loved.
Our child’s discomfort or unhappiness is his, but the beliefs he might have are most likely the ones we taught him.
What more could I ever want for myself than to be loved without rules and conditions. What more could I give my children than the Option Attitude: “To love is to be happy with.” In my loving my child, I would be accepting him and wanting him to be comfortable and joyful. If I disapprove of my child, if I create conditions on his behavior in order to be loved, if I make judgments that his actions are a sign something is wrong with him, then I am pushing the child with hostility and aggression. Why wouldn’t I simply be happy if my child was happy?
The immediate response is there are many things I might want for my child which seem to go against his apparent happiness . . . like suppose his way of being happy is destroying my house and I certainly don’t want that. Okay, maybe there is a way to differentiate arenas of freedom. What is part of my child’s world is for him to decide, and what is part of my world is for me to decide. Implications. A parent often makes judgments about what’s best for the child because the parent is believing that the child would not choose what’s best for himself. Yet in doing that, I am saying to my child: “Something is wrong with you . . . you can’t even be good for yourself.” What would any of that matter if I were only in touch with wanting my child to be happy? His exploration, choosing and missing the mark and coming to bat again, is all part of his growth.
When he should eat or not eat, whether to play with this toy or that one, when to sleep and not to sleep are all arenas in which the child moves in his world. If he could choose more freely, without repercussions, if he could know that his inclinations and movements that come from him are okay, he would surely not come to doubt himself and believe something was wrong with him. He would not harbor fears about who he is and anxiety about his actions. In my loving him as he is and being accepting of his choices (even though they are not mine), I would be saying, “My loving you comes from my being happy with you . . . We both know that you’re okay.”
When the child spills into my world and breaks the windows of my house with a rock, then I might intercede if I wanted. That’s my domain for which I have my own requirements. Yet, the tone and implicit commentary in my voice is all important. How I express my feelings is crucial.
If I communicated what I wanted without anger, without fear, without threats . . . just stating that I wanted my possessions respected, my child could not leave my presence believing he was rejected or hated. It is only when I scream and call my child bad that I am telling him something global about himself.
Often a child who has been punished or hit still feels and remembers the trauma of the attack long after he remembers the reasons why and the lesson behind it. In fact, the aggression is usually so frightening in its implications (of rejection and loss of love) that the child hardly hears the message. What he retains is the anger, the disliking, the conclusion he is “bad.”
There are Option alternatives which would grow naturally from the attitude of “to love is to be happy with.”
One evening, Bryn, my ten-year-old feminine whirlwind, decided to use my typewriter without asking permission or guidance on how to operate it. When I returned home, she had managed somehow to short-circuit the electrical mechanism.
I guess I could have made myself upset (since I had intended to use the machine that very evening) and could have expressed my anger by yelling, “You don’t care about anyone except yourself,” and “You’re thoughtless and disrespectful” or “You’re a bad girl.” But if we just briefly explore any of these judgments and accusations, trying to relate them to the situation and what we want, we might see why they would be unproductive and ineffective.
It is one thing to explain to children that you do not want them to do something, but that is altogether different from communicating disapproval of them as people by viewing and calling them insensitive, thoughtless or “bad.” I would not want my daughter to believe or conclude she was bad or inept because she did something contrary to my wants or values. Screaming, verbal assaults and punishment provoked by anger only create resentment and a push against the parent’s request (usually by the child’s repeating the unwanted act). During our discussion, Bryn and I tossed our feelings and thoughts back and forth. I clearly stated my preference always to have her consult me before using my things even though, at the time, she might feel she had the best of reasons. As I carefully noted my respect for her property, I asked her for the same courtesy. As a direct result of being accepted, my daughter was far more open to hearing my wants and honoring my requests than the child polarized and diverted by a barrage of anger and accusations. Bryn responded with caring and concern. Her focus was on helping me find another electric typewriter to replace mine while it was being repaired.
There was no guilt or lingering discomfort she had to feel or display as retribution for her trespasses or in order to “earn” my continued love. By heightening her awareness of my preferences and wishes, I had accomplished what I wanted. Bryn was attentive and sincere, responses not stimulated by fear and discomfort, but born out of an understanding and respect for herself as well as for me.
Why couldn’t both my child and I allow each other freedom without the right of invasion? Each of us could maintain autonomy in our respective arenas, but negotiate with each other when we wanted to cross the line. In such an arrangement, each of us is saying that the other’s wants and choices are okay and valued. And most important … respected.
An effective concept for negotiating with the child is the trade. In trading I neither bribe nor force, both of which have undercurrents of fear, punishment, anger and resentment. Instead, I use a barter system in which both parties are enriched by the transaction. It is the act in which I offer the child something he wants in return for what I want or vice versa. Some might want to insist this technique is still a form of bribery . . . but then all business transactions, deals with friends, and arrangements between lovers would also be bribery. In a trade, two respectful participants would deal with each other by allowing each to choose and suggest alternatives in a transaction without the threat of punishment or reprisal. The child would always have the freedom and the choice to reject (or accept) the offer … as I have the same opportunity.
The parent who has adopted the Option attitude would not be uncomfortable, angry or resentful with the child who decides to refuse the trade. Nor would that parent have reservations or misgivings about maintaining his own position.
I recall a very intense trading session with my son Raun. We were both jointly occupying our den. On this particular occasion, I wanted him to play with his toys in silence while I finished revising an article I had written. Initially, I had considered moving to my studio, but canceled the impulse because I did not want to leave my son alone. Although he most often complies with my requests, as I do with his, this time he was intent on continuing his fantasy games, which included making a cacophony of loud noises . . . his vocal approximations of the sounds of speeding trucks, helicopters and glossy red fire engines. For Raun, his games were certainly as important as my adult “game.” And although I had a publishing deadline to meet and could even tie the delivery of the article to such essentials as buying food and supporting my family, I nevertheless chose to respect my son and what he viewed as the significance of his activities.
I opened negotiations with my first offer in trade: a tumbling session on the bed and an extended piggyback ride in exchange for some uninterrupted quiet. He smiled coyly and shook his head, clearly indicating his “no.” My second offer was a quick swim in his small rubber pool. He seemed to meditate, for several seconds and then rejected this second suggestion. His eyes glittered as be searched the room for ideas that might suggest other items for trade. Finally, he broke into a magnificent smile as he countered my offers with one of his own: two scoops of chocolate ice cream in a cone. I paused for several seconds and considered his counter proposal. I had little or no interest in driving to the store. I explained my lack of enthusiasm to Raun and then reiterated my best offer . . . a swim in the pool.
At first he didn’t respond. But then, he turned and looked directly into my eyes, displaying great determination. He now proposed the tumbling session and the piggyback ride in addition to the swim – all in trade for his silence. Loving our interchange and delighted with the progress and equity of our trade, I told the little man we had a deal. For the next two hours, this free-flowing, three-and-a-half-year-old little boy continued to play elaborate fantasy games with his cars, trucks and little people. Never once did he make a noise . . . never once did he have to be reminded. Raun had only enthusiasm for carrying out his part of a bargain that he himself had helped formulate. It was an easy commitment since he was acutely aware of doing exactly what he wanted.
The essence of my behavior in the trade was dealing with my son as a peer, honoring him with respect and offering him the opportunity to choose.
The more skillful we each become in assessing each other’s values and pleasures, the more effective we become as traders. And thus, whenever my child complies with my requests because he likes the activity offered him in the trade, he asserts his own will and gets what he wants. Ultimately, the child freely exploring his world is a happy and free-flowing individual … and isn’t that what I was wanting for him in the first place?
Of course, there is no suggestion here that everything must be predicated on a one-for-one bargain. Often, we might choose to do things without asking or wanting anything in return. But when there is a question of differing interests or intentions between parents and children, the trade becomes an arrangement by which we can respectfully and lovingly motivate each other.
“It sounds like such a time-consuming process,” some have suggested. Well, if I consider how often I have to tell and retell a child to do what he doesn’t want, and then how often I have to reprimand him for doing it poorly or ineffectively, I can see how the “command” technique of child rearing is also very time-consuming. In addition, it creates negative by-products such as insecurity, hostility, discomfort, fear and resentment. The child who sees it in his best interest to do something as the result of a trade or understanding will require no enforcement or policing. In all probability, he will also perform his tasks and pursue his interests with a much greater degree of perfection than another child who sees himself as being forced. Ultimately, he will become the originator and initiator of his own trades.
When I see my child pushing, tumbling, throwing and making noise, I could know this is a child being happy with himself … sounds and visions of his being alive. If I allow him that freedom, that acceptance, I am allowing him to find in himself his wanting, his strength, his reasons to be. If not, then I am doing battle with him, cutting the juices of his flow and selling him beliefs that he is no good when he is himself. In setting up no conditions and no expectations, I am communicating to the child that he is okay and that I love him without judging, without requiring him to perform in a prescribed manner in order to maintain my affection and caring.
No child’s behavior was bad until someone judged it so. His acts were not the cause of unhappiness, until someone believed them so. His existence was not a nuisance until someone made it so. In effect, from our wanting us and our children to be happy, some of us have also utilized the tools of unhappiness.
How often have I heard, “When I hit my son, it hurts me more than it hurts him,” “I punished my daughter for her own good” or “If I don’t get angry, he’ll just keep doing it.” All these reasons, all the rationality, all the pushing in service to the belief that I must act or be a certain way to help guide my children in reaching their potential or at least, to help them become “good” individuals in the framework of the community. I can have my children molded by my pressures and coercing, or I can pursue an alternative method of child rearing in which I foster an environment to allow my children the freedom to find their own reasons to be. Allow them to find their own wanting from within and their own avenues of expression as to what they feel and who they are. Encourage them to be and express themselves, even create avenues to help them draw water from their own wells.
Often, with children who are labeled as unruly and deviant, people use force and disapproval as a method of teaching and training them. The results are usually devastating because the child pushes against being pushed. Believing he “has to” or “must” or “should” in order to win approval he rebels against that confinement of his choice and sometimes goes directly against it, even if it means hurting himself.
Take the child who is hungry and as he arrives at the dining room table, his father shouts, “Now sit down right there and eat . . . and you’d better eat every morsel of food.” Either the child will shrink into the chair unhappily or go away from the table even though he is hungry. Pushing, no matter how good the intentions, usually creates the opposite resistance. On the other hand, if I could help the child come to know that the food is good for him, help him get in touch with his hunger and go with his wanting, he will probably do just what I want for him . . . he would take care of himself and if he chose to do so, he would do it happily.
Another liability of pushing is the apparent possibility of robotizing the child … having him perform out of the pressure to perform, having him react in a certain way to avoid disapproval or punishment, having him speak respectfully not out of love but out of fear of loss. What would I be doing when I coerce my children to live in accordance with my expectations and accept my mores? The implicit statement is “be my way rather than your way.” But if I love someone, then I am happy with them. I know they always do the best they can, the best they know how. If I accept them, if I do not judge the actions as having all sorts of meanings, if I love them without conditions, then they can be themselves and feel free to love themselves and me. In turn, they could listen and accept my wants and input I would not want my son or daughter to be nice to me because they believe they “had to” (and probably as a result really didn’t want to), but would rather have them love me because they wanted to.
In accepting the wants of loved ones, I am giving them the freedom to love me … the freedom to nurture and fertilize their wants. In such an environment, happiness blossoms because people are moving with themselves.
All the games the child learns to play are eventually used on the parents and experimented with during peer interaction. The child might now say to the parent, “If you loved me or want me to be happy, then you would buy me ice cream. He knows the beliefs of his parents and in turn, exploits them. Being taught that wanting is not enough they fake needing (I’ll be miserable if you don’t get it for me) in order to motivate their parents to acquiesce. “I must have that ice cream or else I am going to be unhappy.” This taps the parents belief system and creates in the parents their own threat of unhappiness and guilt. This will possibly then motivate them to do the child’s bidding, because the threat of the child’s rejection might mean they are bad parents. Rather than face their own recrimination, they turn to a policy of appeasement, which reinforces the child’s behavior.
In fact, this is the key to turning wanting into needing. Since wanting is not enough, it is the threat of unhappiness and the “must have” that is his way of moving his parent. In fact, it is his way of also pushing himself to pursue and nag his parents. A double-purpose function. In the end, if he does not get what he says he needs, he then fulfills his prophecy and becomes bitterly unhappy.
Thus, as the child grows, he also becomes an expert in using unhappiness, but what he does not know is that the anger, fear, anxiety, threats and discomforts bring with them their own liabilities. All he is taught is that being happy or acting happy is not particularly rewarding. “If I act happy when asked if it is okay that I did not get a new bicycle, then my parents would not be motivated to spend their money on it. If my happiness was not at stake, they wouldn’t bother. So, I show them that it is.”
The incredibly beautiful phenomenon is that all children are aware their unhappiness is an act, a performance, a fabricated technique to help them get more of what they want. A favorite example in my fife involves a specific interaction one Sunday afternoon with my daughter, Thea, who was then just three years old. As my wife and I were in the midst of mounting a piece of sculpture, our impish little girl approached us asking for candy. Since this was certainly not a staple in our home and since the health food store was closed on Sunday, we could not satisfy her desire. My wife responded casually. She would buy Thea some candy the next time she went shopping for our supply of organic foods. The answer was unsatisfactory for our single-minded dynamo. As was consistent with the nature of her personality, she refused to give up so easily. Her polite initial request became a symphony of pleas. Her eyes narrowed as her voice became sharp and piercing. She even stamped her foot on the floor.
Escalating her approach, she supported what now had become demand with several fanciful arguments. We listened patiently and again explained the nature of our involvement. I redirected her back to her mother’s willingness to buy candy for her during the week. For a moment, the clouds parted and Thea seemed satisfied. Then, her body tensed as she decided to use her most dramatic technique in a last-ditch effort to achieve her goal. Thea, quite suddenly, but with great intensity, began to cry. Her energy level was amazing as we watched the systematic escalation of her efforts.
Trying to counter her commitment and wanting to neutralize her “developed” unhappiness, I sat beside my daughter and tickled her belly. For a moment, she allowed herself to smile, but then quickly pulled her body away. As I persisted, she finally removed herself from my grasp and walked to the opposite side of the room. Again, she looked at me from beneath brooding eyebrows and flashed another quick smile through her tears. Turning away as if to purposely avoid my gaze and concentrate on the activity at hand, she started to cry again. I could feel her sending me nonverbal cues: “Daddy, please go away and don’t ruin my act. I’m just crying as a way to get you and Mommy to buy me candy now.”
Fantastic. The unhappiness seemed to be controlled by a simple on-and-off mechanism – tears were easily traded for laughter and laughter easily replaced by tears. Our daughter was using unhappiness as a way to motivate us as a way to get what she wanted.
The same evening, we engaged Thea in a discussion about the episode with the candy. It was awesome to listen to our little girl candidly explain to us her precise awareness of what she had been doing. Speaking without hesitation or misgiving, she said, “you know, before, when I was crying and everything . . . well, I was really just making believe so you would buy me candy.”
In similar circumstances, another child might have been more successful using such a method. Pretending unhappiness would be the technique displayed each time she wanted something. And each time she achieved her goal, it would reinforce continued use of the tool. Resentment can also flourish in a child who sees herself motivating her parent because she is miserable rather than because she is loved. After innumerable occurrences of pretending unhappiness, the activity becomes so real that the child may actually no longer remember she is pretending . . . and at that moment, she graduates and becomes an adult.
The most effective means to successfully play a game – especially the unhappiness game – is to envision it as real. That commitment insures us of not becoming easily confused or forgetting the rules. And thus in establishing our unhappiness as real, it indeed becomes a significant and supercharged reality in the delicate and vulnerable chambers of our mind.
The child-rearing visions and techniques born from the Option Attitude, “To love is to be happy with,” can also apply to later education and to more formal educational environments.
Teaching is not just a process of shoveling all the information we can into young people’s heads; it is the art of drawing them out and helping them come to know what there is for them to know . . . and that varies from person to person. Teaching is not infusing another with data, but instilling motivation. A teacher teaches by helping the child generate his own impetus to learn and satisfy his own natural curiosity . . . facilitating and allowing him to go with his interests and being with him as a guide and partner.
If I accept a child without expectations, respecting his dignity and his capabilities, then there is no reason to judge his achievements in learning and absorbing. Whatever he accomplishes is the best he can do for this moment. Calling it poor or inadequate does little except intimidate and communicate disapproval.
Some professionals, in an effort to neutralize such adverse impact, use different labels that they believe are helpful in designating capabilities and functional in dealing with their classes and students. But they are also merely disguised judgments, to which are attached expectations and conditions . . . they are the beliefs which can often become self-fulfilling prophesies.
In a unique experiment performed in a Midwestern school system, four classes of children diagnosed and tested as minimally “mentally retarded” were graduated to the next grade level. Two teachers were informed their students were retarded, while the other teachers were told nothing . . . they believed they each had a class of average students. At the end of two semesters, the teachers who believed they had average students had their classes performing almost on grade level and in some areas, performing on grade level. The two teachers who thought they had retarded children had very different results by year-end. Their classes had slipped behind dramatically and the children were functionally more retarded and behind their age level than before. There is a beautiful lesson here . . . in our haste and need to judge and categorize, we create unstated limits and adjust our input to conform to those limits. Call a child stupid, believe a child is stupid and we help create in him the appearance of stupidity.
People give accolades to the child at the head of his class and disapproval to the one at the bottom. But why is there a top and bottom? Probably because many professionals and parents believe by judging the child, they can best determine their progress and then use approval or disapproval to motivate him to continue to achieve or to do better. The major belief here is that disapproval or the threat of disapproval is an effective way “to move” our children. Even when that is not communicated directly, it is effectively stated with grades and comments on papers. The child, bombarded with these beliefs about good and bad students, tries to move through a potentially threatening environment where competition and comparison with peers is a basic tenet.
There is no difference between the child who learns slowly and the one who learns quickly except their rate of absorption and someone’s judgment. The judgment is that one is better than the other. But such assessments have devastating effects. For the so-called slow or average learner, it is a commentary on his self-worth and does more to keep him where he is . . . first, because of the teacher’s expectation that he had limited capabilities (which is subtly communicated to him and which he begins to believe about himself), and second, because of his own anxiety and fears of continued disapproval. Even the fast learner or honor student does not escape the pressures. He must continually maintain his “exceptionality” or otherwise face the repercussions of failing (getting a B instead of an A). In that game, he too is distracted by the anxiety of having continually to perform in order to be accepted and applauded. Unhappiness or the threat of unhappiness is used as a motivator by a system that believes its children “must” and “should” conform to ideals and expectations in education, rather than accepting the child with his talents, comforts, or discomforts and trying to help him, as an individual, to be the most he can for himself.
Even the unruly and disruptive child, whose attentiveness and learning is limited, does the best he can from his beliefs and unhappiness. Yet look at how we view him. Interesting that our culture is permissive with the mentally retarded child (who we say is doing the best he can) and not with the underachieving or unruly child (who we assume is not doing the best he can). But here again, is there really that difference? Many believe that because the unruly child has the aptitude intellectually to do better, the whip will straighten him out.
Just as the underachiever is trying or not trying in accordance with his beliefs and resulting feelings (perhaps he is trying to cope with fears of failure, anxiety about rejection, anger at being unloved, etc.) . . . so our disapproving and stem reactions come from our beliefs (unhappiness and harsh words motivate people, we have to teach him a lesson, etc.). Yet, in our severity, we are emphatically saying to the child that something is wrong with him … thus, pushing him away from us and learning, and motivating him to repeat his behavior as a function of not wanting our “conditional” approval.
Maybe, just like any of us, the unruly and different child is just wanting people to accept him for what he is. Maybe his cries for attention in the classroom, although apparently negative and negatively reinforced, are just his way of saying, “Can you please love me?” His actions are not an affront to us personally or a vicious statement against our mores. When a child or anyone is unhappy and self-defeating, they are saying many things about themselves and nothing about us. They can never be saying anything about us.
And thus in the process of becoming “educated,” the mechanism of unhappiness becomes fortified by supportive experiences, by defenses and projections. The effort to disconnect them later is more difficult. Children, less sophisticated and still open, are more easily reached. Just as they learned to use unhappiness to motivate themselves and may have learned to fear their own wants in order to be cautious so they did not hurt themselves, they can change their beliefs, alter the system and learn to trust themselves again.
The place to begin with them and with ourselves is “to love is to be happy with,” the Attitude of acceptance with no judgments and no conditions. The child could then try to learn and grow without limits or pressures. In allowing himself to go with his own curiosity and explore the world at his own pace, his contact with the environment is free and joyful . . . like the baby who laughed and giggled his way across the living room floor in search of his next adventure.
The Attitude “to love is to be happy with” cannot be simply portrayed as if on a stage nor can it even be effectively mimicked. Although I might have a surface response of “apparent” approval and acceptance, if I really disapprove, the negative judgment will ultimately be communicated. Whether through tone, facial expression, body language or general tenseness, my point of view and feelings surface. These cues are easily recognized by the child who then becomes confused by the double messages. Overt gestures of acceptance are belied by underlying tones of rejection.
What’s the question here? Can I learn child rearing techniques as a function of a memorized process? I don’t think so. All the faddish courses on becoming an effective parent suggest changes through mechanics. They describe specific tactics and strategies which they call their method. In Option, if I have the Attitude, I create my own method of child rearing and develop my own style of interaction. There would be no need to learn or study “effectiveness” techniques (as if I didn’t know them). My actions and responses would merely flow naturally from me as I loved and was happy with my children.
As a parent, the happier I become, the more effective and more loving I am with my children. The place to begin is with myself. As I change, the whole world changes. If I approach my children with the Option Attitude, I would allow them . . . want them to have their explorations and be accepting of the tone and content of their problems. My desire would be to help them come to their own awareness, rather than preach, scold, demand, or threaten them. I would want this, not as the result of some carefully planned tactic, but from my loving and caring for them. I also would come to know this is a beautifully effective way to deal with someone, as opposed to anger, fear, hostility and resentment that only create more of the same.
How casual we are about the words we use and yet how often they convey disapproval and unhappiness to our children. Our style of communication, which reflects our attitude, is so loaded with connotations of rejection and judgment that we seldom realize the tone and ultimate force of our comments.
If we consider some of the more typical parental statements, the underlying beliefs and disapproval are dramatically apparent: “Do what I say – Now!”
“By this time, you should know how to do it right!”
“Who do you think you are talking to?”
“Be quiet while I’m talking.”
“Clean up your room or else you will go to bed early.”
“Don’t force me to say it again, or else.”
“You should act like a young lady, not an immature baby.”
“People will think you were brought up in a pigpen.”
“I know what’s best for you … you’re too young to understand.”
“Please leave the room, we’re talking big people talk.”
“If you don’t do your homework, I will cut your allowance.”
“For God’s sake, you look awful! Why don’t you get a haircut?”
Each of the above statements contains implicit or explicit disapproval. Even the “questions” are really only disguised accusations. There are other questions, some of which could have the appearance of neutrality, which are also criticisms: “Why are you acting like a child?” (behavior is judged inappropriate), “Why can’t you work harder in school?” (implies that you’re not working hard), “What is so important about a little party?” (belittles the activity as insignificant), “Who would put up with you besides your parents?” (suggests you are outrageous, difficult) and “How come you can’t understand simple rules?” (a judgment made on intelligence and attention).
If I were feeling good about myself and my child (knowing both of us are doing the best we can, the best we know how, based on our current beliefs), there would be no reason to pass judgments. My desire would be to help him become happier and more effective in getting what he wants.
When I listen and hear children, I find them saying many wondrous things. When I respond as a loving and concerned person, I help them see themselves as okay and valued. Although I might want them (for my own reasons) to behave or choose differently, I could still show them that the expression of all feelings and thoughts (happy or unhappy) is okay. I can do this merely by listening without judging or reprimanding. As the child sees himself as more accepted, he becomes more willing to explore his wants and his problems. In that exploration, supported by my allowing, he begins to find his own answers and unravel his own labyrinths.
If my daughter says she dislikes her homework and does not want to do it, instead of scolding or threatening her, I let her speak and vent her feelings. Then, I try to help her clarify her thoughts, but this is just a minimal first step. Afterwards I would ask her an Option question as I would with any person I was helping to be happier. In regard to her homework, my question would be “Why do you get upset (unhappy) when you have homework?” This is crucial in helping her uncover the “whys” or beliefs beneath her feelings. It also implicitly communicates I care and am interested … that my goal is to share and help, not to judge and disapprove.
In effect, when I am feeling good about my child, I am happy with her and want to help her. I know that only she can solve her own discomforts and find the answers that are correct for her . . . she is her own mover and teacher.
Children are born from us, but they are not owned by us. They are not possessions. They can be a beautiful experience . . . doorways into our humanity. Children are free spirits for us to love and enjoy. We share the world with them … but their thoughts and wishes are theirs in the very same fashion in which our thoughts and wishes are ours.
Think Page (Children are born happy)
Questions to ask yourself
- Can you cause unhappiness in others?
- Are you afraid to be you?
- Do you “get” things by being unhappy?
Option concepts to consider
- We are born into this world happy.
- My unhappiness is a product of my beliefs.
- To love is to be happy with.
- I do not cause my child’s unhappiness; he does not cause mine.
- What my child does is not a statement about me.
- I will allow my child freedom in his own arenas (playing, eating, dressing).
- Trading with my child helps him to develop his capacity to choose, assert his will and trust himself.
- I can get what i want without needing it.
- A child pushes against being pushed.
- Teaching is helping a child generate and satisfy his or her own natural curiosity.
Beliefs to consider discarding
- Newborn infants who cry are unhappy.
- I cause unhappiness in others.
- There is something wrong with me.
- I hit and punished my daughter for her own good.
- Unhappiness proves I’m sensitive and human.
Second Dialogue … motherhood
Q. What are you unhappy about
A. My kids, they drive me crazy.
Q. What do you mean?
A. When I’m trying to relax, to read or even chat with a friend, in they come bouncing around with all their demands. No matter how often I tell them to leave us alone, they just keep coming back. Finally, I just scream at them … and then they leave. And not immediately. Sometimes, I have to keep yelling to get any reaction. By that time, I’m usually so upset, I can’t enjoy myself any longer.
Q. Why do you get so upset?
A. They just don’t listen and it makes me furious.
Q. Why, when they don’t listen, does that make you furious?
A. Then I become a victim of my own children.
Q. What do you mean?
A. They just do what they damn please and make demands. I can’t stand it.
Q. Why does that make you unhappy?
A. Because I want my privacy … time for myself.
Q. Okay, that’s what you want … but why are you unhappy if you don’t get it?
A. Because I’m a waste (starts to cry). I just can’t help it. I love my kids, but all I am is their cook and maid. Maybe that’s all I am for my husband too. I want time for me.
Q. Could you clarify what you mean?
A. I want time so I can do things for my own enjoyment. Maybe take up the piano or learn to play tennis. Anything! I’m so busy all day, there’s nothing left for me, except of course, screaming and acting like some sort of a witch. They make me be someone I don’t want to be.
Q. How do they make you do that?
A. How? Well, by interrupting me so much, by nagging . . . they get me angry.
Q. But how do they GET you angry?
A. I get upset when they annoy me. (pause) I feel like I’m going in a circle.
Q. Okay, maybe if we go back to the question. If your children get you angry, if they somehow do it to you . . . how would you see it being done? How do they MAKE you angry?
A. Let me describe the scene. It’s all there. My little “darlings” come skipping into the room, stand right in front of my face and just start talking. When I’m interrupted like that . . . I’m being abused, used, whatever. So, naturally, I get furious.
Q. They did what they did, placed themselves in front of you and began speaking. But how did that “naturally’ trigger your anger?
A. Well (very long pause), when I see myself as being abused, I guess I get myself angry. I don’t know anymore … sometimes I think it’s the only way to defend myself. The trick is how can I not get angry when they make their demands.
Q. How do you think you’d go about it?
A. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m back to feeling angry.
Q. Okay then, what about their requests makes you angry?
A. I don’t want to be a ranting and raving mother. Even though I may be doing it to myself, I just can’t seem to help it.
Q. What do you mean?
A. There’s nothing else I can do … that’s my only way to control them.
Q. Do you believe that?
A. I guess. If I just stated myself nicely and calmly, they would never listen.
Q. And if they chose still to ignore you, why would that make you unhappy?
A. (Her face begins to cringe as she cries. A minute passes.) I guess it would prove they really don’t give a damn.
Q. Why do you believe that?
A. If they loved me, they would respect my wishes and leave me alone.
Q. Okay, but it they didn’t … why do you believe that would mean they don’t care?
A. How could someone love you and drive you crazy at the same time?
Q. What do you think?
A. Okay. Can someone love you and care, yet still do things that upset you? I guess its possible. Every time I serve a TV dinner, Fred gets upset. But I love him … I’m just too busy that day to fuss over a meal. Yet, even though I know he doesn’t like it, I still give it to him sometimes. The answer is yes.
Q. Yes what?
A. You can drive someone crazy and still love them.
Q. Okay … so what you are saying is that if someone does things you don’t like, that doesn’t mean they don’t love you or care.
A. Yes, that’s really clear now. I feel like I just got rid of a load. I guess I was believing my children were somehow saying they didn’t love me. But that’s just not so. They can drive me nuts and still love me.
Q. What do you mean ‘drive you nuts’?
A. Do things I don’t want them to do.
Q. And how does that drive you nuts?
A. I guess we’re back to the angry bit … they don’t drive me nuts, that’s my response. Understanding that really changes things. If I do it to myself, then I can undo it. I always saw people as MAKING me angry and unhappy, but that’s simply not so. Let me just go over it for myself. (laughing) I feel better about my kids already. When they are playing their games and wanting me to do something, it really says nothing about their loving me … only that they want what they want. I guess I never stopped long enough to see that before. Somehow, that’s a whole lot easier to live with. Great, but it still doesn’t solve my problem.
Q. What problem?
A. Being the victim of all this nonsense. That’s still the problem.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I’m still uncomfortable about being subject to my children’s whims and demands.
Q. How are you “subject” to them?
A. I might be feeling better, but that’s not going to stop them from intruding continually in my life. There’s still something to be unhappy about.
Q. What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t unhappy about their intruding?
A. I’d love that. It would be great, just fantastic. But it’s impossible.
A. How can I be happy living with all that?
Q. What do you mean?
A. If I don’t get unhappy, it’ll go on forever … it won’t change.
Q. Are you saying you’re unhappy so that you can get the situation to change?
A. Yes, I guess so. But that’s ridiculous.
Q. Could you change the situation without getting upset?
A. (laughs) Sure. I could change it without getting upset. It seems so obvious, yet I never realized that before. (pause) That’s really nice. Really nice! Now I want to consider changing my responses to them, but somehow I just can’t see speaking in a soft, pleasant voice.
Q. Why not?
A. Because they won’t believe me. (more laughter) They don’t believe me when I scream anyway, so why not try the alternative. I’m a little afraid to try.
Q. Why are you afraid?
A. If it doesn’t work, l’ll really be stuck.
Q. What do you mean?
A. Every time I answer a question, I think I know what I’m saying. Then, when I consider “what do I mean,” I find I’m not half as clear as I thought. (long pause) I think I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. Oh yes, I remember. I’ll be stuck because there will be nothing left to try . . . but that’s not true either. I can figure out another strategy. I can even just leave the house for a couple of hours. I’m sure they’ll survive an afternoon without me waiting on them hand and foot.
Q. What do you want?
A. I want to try. I want to let my children make all the requests and demands they want and just be accepting … but then I still want to give my answer even if it’s “no.” I just want to say it nicely, quietly without anger and all that disapproval.
Q. And do you think you’ll do that?
A. Yes, but …
Q. What is the but?
A. I was thinking if it doesn’t work, what will I do?
Q. What do you think?
A. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I can deal with that when and if it happens. I’m beginning to see there are other possibilities. In a way, my kids and I train each other. I’m just as much part of their nagging as they are . . they know if they keep at me, I’ll give in. (long silence) I feel better now. Before I felt like I had no choices … but I see I do. (another long pause and smile) You know, some of that anger is really at myself for the compromise, for allowing myself to be in this position. You know what I mean – being little more than cook and bottle washer.
Q. What about that makes you angry?
A. That I want more … for me. I love my family; I love helping everyone, but there’s a limit. It’s okay as long as I don’t go over that limit. All I want to be is happy.
Q. What’s preventing you?
A. Me. Me not doing what I want, which I’m going to start to correct. I guess there is also a part of me that disapproves of me being unhappy or angry.
A. It shows I failed.
Q. What do you mean “failed”?
A. What kind of life do I lead if I’m always angry or upset all the time. I guess I call that pretty unsuccessful wouldn’t you?
Q. Well, if I did, I would have my reasons just as you have yours. Why would you call it unsuccessful?
A. I guess because it’s not what I want and if I don’t have what I want, how can I be happy?
Q. Not having or getting what you want is one thing; being unhappy about it is another. Why are you unhappy if you don’t get what you want?
A. Because maybe I’ll never get it.
Q. What do you mean?
A. If I wasn’t unhappy, maybe I’d just live with it and then it would never change.
Q. Do you believe that?
A. (laughing) No, not really. It always changes, whether I’m unhappy or happy. I guess being unhappy just hurts a lot more. I still feel boxed in . . . by my family. I can see Billy’s face as clear as day. I can hear his voice: “Mom, please drive me to Richard’s; Mommy, you promised to get me a new glove today; Mom, what’s for dinner.” He just keeps asking like some sort of machine. But I see it clearer now. He just asks and then I do the angry scene.
Q. What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t get angry?
A. He might continue to ask from now to doomsday.
Q. Are you saying you get angry in order to discourage him?
A. Yes, in a way. There it is again. Trying to get what I want with anger but the funny thing is it doesn’t work. Sometimes I should say yes to them when I want to say no.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I’m talking about my good mother image. I believe I’m supposed to be responsive to my children. Maybe that’s what gets me.
Q. In what way?
A. I really want to be a good mother, but not by sacrificing myself. I feel forced to put myself second all the time.
Q. What do you mean forced?
A. Good parents should be responsive to their kids.
Q. Okay, that’s what you believe . . . but how are you forced?
A. I’m not. I’m just fulfilling my own personal expectation about being mother of the year. I love to do things for my family when I feel it’s my choice. When its not, that’s when I feel forced.
Q. You mean you’re doing things you’re not choosing to do?
A. Yes, sort of.
Q. Is someone forcing you to do it?
A. No . . but I wouldn’t be living up to my image of a good mother. Then I guess since that’s my image, it’s also my choice to be or not to be that way. Maybe all I mean by forced is doing what I think I don’t want to do.
Q. How’s that?
A. Here we go again. As you asked me that, I felt so fogged. I say I do things that I don’t want to do . . . but if I’m doing them, I guess I have a reason to. So, you know what that means?
A. That if I have a reason, then I must be deciding, choosing to do what I do. Essentially, I guess I’m doing what I want, although I don’t usually see it that way. Even when I’m waiting on my children, I guess I do it because it seems easier for me than facing the alternative.
Q. What alternative?
A. Being a bad mother by not being responsive.
Q. How does that make you a bad mother?
A. I don’t know. My friend Allison manages to do all sorts of activities for herself and yet, I think she’s a great mother. Vivacious, happy … doing what she enjoys, but still attentive and loving to her children. Maybe if I was less available and giving myself more time for me, I’d be a better parent. Right now, I’m no joy for anyone . . . including me.
Q. What do you mean?
A. My angry and abrupt reactions … that’s not the way I want to be.
Q. Do you believe you would be that way?
A. I really don’t believe I would . . . but just suppose the very next time my children confront me, I explode. That would really unnerve me.
A. Then we’ve wasted all this time and I haven’t gotten anywhere.
Q. How do you know that?
A. If I get upset, then nothing has changed. That’s proof, isn’t it?
Q. Do you believe that?
A. It’s funny, but I really don’t. Something has definitely changed. I feel released from my own bondage. I guess I’m afraid if I still was angry, it means there is more.
Q. And if there were more reasons to be uncovered, why would you be unhappy about that?
A. I wouldn’t as long as I knew I could solve them.
Q. And what do you know?
A. If I solved some of my unhappiness today, here and now … even just a little, then I can solve tomorrow, tomorrow. You know, when I’m not feeling trapped or angry at my kids, I’m really aware of how much I love them (begins to cry.) You don’t have to ask me why I am unhappy. I feel really good.
Third Dialogue … fatherhood
Q. What are you unhappy about?
A. My son, I guess I wanted too much of him and nothing worked out. He just doesn’t care about anything … except maybe his flute and sports.
Q. Why does that upset you?
A. He should be in college, trying to make something of himself. I keep telling him I’ll pay for it. But no, not my son, he’s gotta be a big shot . . . he’s not interested.
Q. What about his lack of interest makes you so uncomfortable?
A. Because he’ll be a nothing. Listen, when he gets out of the house and into the real world, it’s not going to be so easy. He’s in for some shock.
Q. And why would that disturb you?
A. I want him to be happy, not miserable.
Q. Are you saying you believe he will be miserable?
A. Yes. Most definitely yes.
Q. Okay. If your worst fears come to pass, why does that seem so painful?
A. I was thinking maybe I did something wrong. If I had been a better father, maybe things would be different.
Q. What do you mean?
A. He’d be in school now, studying instead of wasting his time playing that dumb instrument. Maybe I could have done something else.
Q. Even if you could have, why now are you unhappy about it?
A. I guess to make sure I keep my eyes open and be more aware in the future. Whatever I did wrong, I don’t want to do it again. That would really blow it for me!
A. Hey, the situation is bad enough.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I mean it’s bad because everything I want for him he dismisses.
Q. Are you saying that it’s bad because he did not do the things you expect of him?
A. (long pause without a response)
Q. What are you feeling?
Q. About what?
A. In my house, I’m all alone on this one. My wife thinks our son ought to be free to do what he wants. My son . . . well, he’s having a ball. Listen, he really doesn’t have to be what I want him to be . . . all I want is for him to be all right. I don’t think he’s making the right choices.
Q. Why not?
A. Because every youngster today has to continue their schooling . . . otherwise, they’re out of luck (long pause) I guess I don’t know anymore. Every time I try to talk to him, he pushes me away. Sometimes, I think if I say do this, he’ll do the opposite just for spite. I get this bad feeling deep inside when I think that maybe my kid dislikes me.
Q. Why would you be unhappy if he disliked you?
A. Maybe that goes back to my making mistakes. What kind of father could I have been if my own flesh and blood despises me?
Q. What are you saying?
A. I guess I was a lousy father.
Q. Do you believe that?
A. Well, all the evidence points in that direction. My son is a vagabond musician who dislikes me.
Q. If everything you believe about him was so – i’m not saying it’s good or bad, true or false – if what you see as the worst has come to pass, why does that disturb you so much?
A. It would make anyone unhappy!
Q. But what are your reasons … Why does it make you unhappy?
A. I want him to love and respect me.
Q. That’s what you want, but why should you be unhappy if he didn’t?
A. I just don’t know anymore.
Q. Okay, let’s try it from the other side. What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t unhappy about his disliking you?
A. I’d just walk away. I’d let him do whatever the hell he pleased … I wouldn’t bother with him. (long pause – a sigh) But I don’t want to do that.
Q. Then why do you believe you would?
A. Well, I guess I wouldn’t (laughs). It’s such a foreign thought – not being unhappy about what my son is doing and yet still disagreeing with him (more laughing).
Q. Why are you laughing?
A. I was just thinking that if I let my son be something I didn’t want, doesn’t that mean I didn’t care?
Q. What do you think?
A. I don’t know.
Q. Maybe if we rephrase the question it will be easier to answer. Do you believe you could allow your son his wants, although they’re different than yours, and still be a loving father.
A. Yes, I do. I see that now. It’s funny, like I always believed that the more unhappy you were about something, the more you cared. Like your unhappiness was proof.
Q. Do you believe it now?
A. No. I really see the difference. Yet that was one of the rules I applied to my son. I could be miserable, yet it never seemed to bother him. I assumed that meant he didn’t care.
Q. And now?
A. I don’t think it necessarily means any such thing. Well that certainly changes my perspective.
A. I’m not going to start feeling bad every time he’s feeling good. I’m off that seesaw. Okay, suppose I level off – it still doesn’t change where he’s headed.
Q. What do you mean?
A. He probably will not go back to school.
Q. Okay, that takes us back to what we talked about before. Going to college, you said, was your expectation. If he still decides not to conform to it, why would that make you unhappy?
A. Oh Jesus . . . the only answer I can come up with is I want him to go.
Q. I understand your desire is to have him back in school, but why would you be unhappy if he decided not to go?
A. It comes back to me. I guess I see it as a comment on me and my wishes.
Q. Do you believe that?
A. I guess I do.
Q. Why do you believe that?
A. If he loved me and respected me, he would do what I wanted. But I guess that doesn’t make too much sense. Plenty of times I don’t want what my wife asks, but that has nothing to do with my loving her. I’m getting real confused. I’d like to stop for a while. Okay, I’m ready. We were getting close, weren’t we?
Q. Close to what?
A. (laughing) Close to me seeing what I’m doing. While we stopped, I remembered this movie I had seen many years ago where a father, who had been a career officer in the Navy, wanted his son to join the service also. When the boy wouldn’t, the father became furious and bitterly unhappy. But the boy loved his father; he was just too frightened to join. Maybe that’s the same for my son. I want what’s best for him, but he could see that as awful, I guess. So, he sets different goals – big deal! Maybe it doesn’t mean anything about his loving and respecting me. I don’t know … I’m not sure.
Q. What don’t you know?
A. What the answer is.
Q. Perhaps if we explored it, we might uncover more, it you want.
A. Great . . . let’s go.
Q. What are you confused about?
A. What is my son saying when he rejects what i want for him? Maybe nothing … I really see that! All i ever wanted was for him to be happy. Yet though he seems to be doing what he wants, i suspect sometimes he’s just reacting against me.
Q. And if he were, how would you feel about it?
A. If I thought it meant he didn’t like me, then I’d be uncomfortable.
A. I’m back to what I said before; I want him to like me.
Q. Okay, that’s what you want . . . but why would you be unhappy if he didn’t?
A. I guess I’m worried it’s my fault!
Q. Do you mean you failed?
A. Yes and no.
Q. Let’s take the yes. Why do you believe you failed if your son’s choices differ from what you wanted for him?
A. Somehow, I’m beginning to hear the questions. All right, I see how his choice is not a comment about his loving me and I can understand that HE believes he is doing the best for himself . . . that leaves me without any reasons to believe I failed.
Q. Then, do you believe it?
A. I don’t know. It seems ridiculous to believe something without any reasons. It’s hard to let go.
A. (his voice breaking) You beat yourself up all these years because you believe something . . . then one day you have a discussion, like this one, and you decide you no longer believe it. Look what that says about me . . . what I’ve been doing all these years.
Q. What do you think it says?
A. I kept pushing my son because I thought if I could get him to do what I wanted, it meant he respected and loved me. And, in fact, he’s done the opposite . . probably, in part, just to get away from my pushing.
Q. If that was so, why would you be unhappy to know it?
A. I hear you. I’m not. I’m thankful to know it. Maybe I can change what I’ve been doing, stop nagging my son and politely suggesting he’s a bum. Maybe he would even start to hear me once in awhile. Funny how you have expectations for your children because you think that’s really a good thing. But now I see how it backfires. It’s his life; I can at least try to respect that and keep my hands off. But if he wants my opinion, I’ll tell him the truth. (pause) Well, I can’t say I’m happy about his flute and his not wanting to go to school, but I can say it’s okay now. (smiling) I guess what I mean is I’m okay now. I think I’m even ready to listen to him play his music.