Oh, these days. These enraging, difficult days where women are reminded how little (many of) those in power care about our humanity; where we are reminded that our bodies are so often seen as the playthings of men (“the laughter is indelible in the hippocampus”), and where the pain caused by being treated with such disrespect is dismissed. These difficult days.
One way those of us who are outraged are trying to effect change is by making sure that the children we have a hand in raising won’t grow up to behave in the ways we are seeing in so many “adults”. This is an understandable and constructive place to channel some of the frustration so many of us are feeling.
“Let’s address things at the root!” we might be thinking because we’re not quite sure how else things will possibly change. And, following from this, there are endless facebook posts and newspaper articles devoted to the idea of “teaching consent” in schools, “teaching girls to keep themselves safe” and, probably the biggest category of these articles: “how to raise boys who will respect women.” Now, I am all for consent, safety and respecting women; ALL FOR, *and*, I am worried that we are aiming towards the right end goal but that our attempts to get there may land us somewhere else completely.
In fact, I am afraid that the way we are dealing with our frustrations might end up backfiring and adding more numbers to the scores of immature adults in the world: adults in name only–devoid of empathy, lacking in consideration and maturity and unable to abide by shades of gray.
In my work as a parent consultant and in my life in general I view the world through the lens of a developmentalist. What this means is that (hard to believe though it may be these days) I have a sense of faith in human development; in the ability of children to develop into adults who are “good people” when provided with the conditions conducive to healthy growth. Like plants, who need healthy soil, water and sunlight in order to grow well, children too need the right conditions in order to grow into mature adults. As my teacher Dr. Gordon Neufeld is fond of saying, “We all get older but we don’t all grow up.”
From a developmental perspective problematic behavior can be seen as stemming from “stuckness,” a failure to develop into one’s full human potential, a failure to grow up. A developmentalist does not look at Brett Kavanaugh (random example!) and see the issue as being that he was not “taught” correctly about: consent, consideration, proper job interview behavior or moderation in drinking. Rather, we see this behavior as evidence of the ways in which his development is arrested; the ways in which he failed to develop the humane qualities that are part and parcel of maturation.
Now, when we are dealing with children teaching, or scripting, behavior is useful, just as when we visit a foreign country a guidebook of common phrases and cultural norms is helpful. So when we teach children to ask if a classmate wants to play before tackling them on the playground, we are, in effect, offering them a guidebook, a script, a lesson in “this is what we do.” And if they are attached to us (this is key), they will listen to our advice and will try to abide by it. Given that they are immature and thus, by definition, impulsive, they will not always be able to do things the way we have taught them, but at least we’ve got them aimed in the right direction and some of the time they will get it right.
Just as we can’t rely on our guidebook anymore once we want to move beyond asking the rote tourist questions to having more meaningful conversations, we also can’t expect that teaching the language of consent (“You must say this and get this answer before proceeding”) does anything to insure that the values of respect and consideration are actually authentic. In other words, true caring and consideration don’t come from being taught what to say or do, they are the fruits of healthy development. Maturity, as Dr. Neufeld says, “is an inside job.” With maturity comes the embodiment of these qualities and thus the ability to go “off script” and to bring consideration with us regardless of the situation, or culture, we find ourselves in.
I am concerned that we are focusing on teaching and scripting at the expense of remembering the ultimate goal, and also that in our urgency to create the (necessary!) societal change we might be inadvertently contributing to the problem of rampant immaturity. Stick with me here…
In order to grow into mature adults, the crucial elements a child needs are: a soft heart and a trusted relationship with a caring adult (more is better but one is enough). A “soft heart” is the metaphor that Dr. Neufeld uses to convey the idea of a person who is able to be moved by their emotions and to feel their vulnerable feelings (caring, missing, loneliness, sadness, futility, hurt, shame, guilt, sorrow, embarrassment); in other words, a person who is not heavily defended. Feeling vulnerable feelings are actually what turn the gears of maturation and development; an inability to feel those feelings leads to stuckness or developmental arrest (remember our case study example’s behavior on the Senate floor–vulnerable emotions were not part of the repertoire).
There are many reasons a child’s heart can become hardened, but the ones I am concerned about in this climate are those that result from: feeling like adults do not believe in their essential goodness (a risk we run when we conflate our sons with frat boys and respond to their actions through that futurizing lens), becoming too overwhelmed by alarm (when we tell our children too much about the dark ways of the world and all the measures they must take to protect themselves or those around them), or experiencing too much separation (if they perceive us as being unavailable to them due to our “big feelings” about all this). Hearts are very tender and sensitivity is more common than we might think; it takes great care, shielding, restraint and clear-sightedness to keep our children’s hearts soft.
So, yes, we can script for the immature, as we do in all sorts of situations–”we wash our hands before we eat”, “we greet people in this way”, “we wait in line like this”– but we can’t forget that these are merely interim measures, things to get them by until they can move beyond parroting the words in the visitors’ guidebook. The most important thing we can do to bring more humanity and goodness into our troubled world is to support our children in growing into adults who are fluent in kindness, consideration and regard for others; let’s be sure we are mindful of cultivating the conditions they need in order to get there.
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