Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
Recently, I became the primary caretaker of my two boys—ages 1 and 3. Though I knew full-time parenting is a demanding job, I now realize that it is more difficult and engaging than most of what I encountered at my day job.
It is not difficult for me to demonstrate love for my children, for I am deeply in love with them. The challenge is in the area of discipline and addressing behavior that is hurtful or inappropriate. On the one hand I see that they are people, requiring all the respect that human beings deserve. On the other hand I see that I am obligated to teach them to be aware of and responsible to the larger worlds—physical, social, spiritual—that they inhabit. And so I am required to guide them with varying degrees of insistence, without violating their fundamental sovereignty.
There are hundreds of practical instances in which this dilemma (though it often feels like a Zen koan) is tested. The other evening, I made notes after a particularly telling conversation:
Asher, please don’t play with the stick in the house.
I have to, daddy.
Asher, go lean the stick in the corner by the door, so you can find it when you go outside again.
[Bang bang with stick.]
Asher, if you don’t put the stick down I am going to take it away from you. Please use your own will.
[He waffles, hesitates, bangs. I take it away. Asher cries while I take off Ezra’s snow clothes; I take Asher on my lap.]
You’re mean, daddy.
I’m not mean Asher. Mean is when you do something to someone without considering them. I am considering you.
I do what my heart tells me to do, daddy. You’re mean if you try to make me do something else.
Asher, I care about what your heart says. I want you to hear what your heart says. But you have to listen to me because I see and know things that you, as a child, don’t yet see and know.
I’m not a child, daddy. I’m a big boy.
You may feel very grown up, and you are, but you are also a child because there are many things you need to learn before you can take care of yourself. I’m not telling you what to do out of preference, but because I see what is needed.
It is your preference, Daddy.
When it is only my preference I don’t make you do something.
Some would suggest that a 3-year old cannot be spoken to in this way; that he needs to be told what to do and made to obey. They would say so much explanation is counterproductive. And this is an open question for me. Am I giving him more context than is useful to his inchoate psyche? But the day after this conversation I received an interesting signal. Asher walked into the house carrying his stick again. He took one look at me, and reoriented his trajectory toward the corner by the door.
“I’m putting the stick in the corner like you told me yesterday, daddy.”
What was notable to me about the event of the stick is that the knowledge of what to express arose in the moment. It was not an instance of me coming to the situation with an agenda or preformed idea. I extended an invitation to Asher to step into a larger world—the world of our home and family, as opposed to his particular “want” of the moment—and he accepted. It was an event of reciprocal education. And I think this is key—we both learned something.
We all inhabit a world within larger worlds, and from the vantage point of a smaller world we cannot fathom the patterns or needs of the larger worlds. It is like the novel about the Flatlanders (Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott), in which the characters live in a two-dimensional world. They experience three-dimensional objects or beings passing through their world as impassable, unpredictable obstacles.
It is the role of a parent to invite a child into a larger world, and patiently await their interest and response. So too, it is our job as human beings to try and fathom the larger worlds we ourselves inhabit.