Most would agree that the best gift you can give children is raising them as balanced and wisely as possible. This has become more daunting in civilization’s post Agricultural Revolution environment. Gone are the tribal elder’s moderating influences on young adults raising children. (See The Tradeoff, p.549, for background). Fortunately, I had three things in my favor:
First, I was wiser becoming a father in my 40’s than I would have been in my 20’s. Next, the Tao Te Ching and Buddha’s Four Noble Truths helped reinforce and further inform my parenting wisdom. Finally, I had lived for years in developing countries, which helped me keep perspective. I could more easily avoid cultural myopia.
A few weeks ago, I turned seventy. Coincidently, I received the gift of being personally thanked for my Taoist views on parenting. I’ll take this opportunity to re-post these views. It is rather long, but a lot shorter than the book I could write on this subject! 😉
Also by coincidence, NPR had a short audio book-review on The Secrets Of Happy Families. Google [Control The Chaos With ‘Secrets Of Happy Families’ NPR]. These excerpts stood out as particularly true, at least according to my experience:
“Parents are in this straitjacket almost that the only ideas we can implement in our homes have to come from what I call from the family improvement industry… shrinks, self-help gurus, and family experts. And to be honest, I found their ideas stale. Like, I kept hearing the same things over and over again.
Let your kids pick their punishments. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It’s easier, and we’re usually right! But it rarely works. The number one lesson we’ve learned is to let our kids pick their own rewards and punishments. Research backs this up: Kids who set their own goals, make their own schedules, and evaluate their own work, build up their prefrontal cortex and take greater control over their lives.
Before reading the following A Guide to Taoist Parenting, google [Bringing Up Baby – Hidden Brain] and listen to this research on raising children, especially the last half, where it summarized the natural approach to parenting I discuss here.
A Guide to Taoist Parenting
When my old friend Andy first started coming around our family, he was struck by how bright and well behaved our boys were, and by the absence of any apparent discord in our family. He thought that if I could detail how I achieved that, we could use the technique to help other families or children in group home situations.
At first, he was sure that the secret lay in the particular activities we did. For example, we garden together, play music together, cook together, study together, and so forth. I convinced him that the secret wasn’t in the activities. In fact, the harmony apparent to him in our activities was only possible because of something much deeper and more subtle. He finally accepted the possibility that it was in the Taoist approach to raising kids that was the secret. This, along with some disillusion with his western paradigm prompted him to try to understand this deeper. Centertao.org’s Letters to Andy skim the surface of our back and forth on this.
The catalyst for this essay was the showing of our reality TV adventure (google [Trading Spouses Santa Cruz]). When the surrogate mother saw how harmonious our family was, it baffled her. She couldn’t understand how people could walk barefoot, love the forest, river, mountain, ocean, bugs, birds,… in short love nature. She was bewildered by how we happily work together and live in a house without furniture, i.e., Japanese style. On top of that, my boys are cooperative, respectful, gentle, honest, and enjoy working. Moreover, they weren’t rebellious teenagers so she “knew” something must be wrong with the Abbott family. Because my family is not typical of the American norm, she could only conclude that I somehow brain washed them.
Now, her conclusions are understandable considering that she jumped to them within a day of meeting us, and only needed the few remaining days of her visit to prove to herself that her assumptions were correct. That should be enough time to get to know another family intimately, right? Okay, I’m indulging in some sarcasm. It’s irresistible.
The baffling part of this “Trading Spouses” episode is the fact that when my mother saw the show, she agreed with Vickie, the surrogate mom. After talking it over with my mom, she had to acknowledge that Vickie’s brain washing assessment might stem from the fact that my family was so outside the American norm. Yet, she still felt that I must be brain washing them — what else could it be? I realize that is reasonable from her point of view. Still, curiosity drives me to dig deeper.
I reminded my mother that, as she knows, I do not force my kids to do anything. I never discipline, punish, yell at, or criticize them, so how is it that I’m controlling them? She said she didn’t know, but nonetheless thought I must be. Next, I asked her how it would be if I made them do what they didn’t want to do. For example, play an instrument like the tuba, study a subject like accounting, learn a language like Polish, do a sport like hockey… or you name it. She said that would also be controlling, but extreme in the other way. In her eye’s I had to make them do at least something they didn’t want to do to develop their character. It didn’t seem to matter that they are, as most people say, remarkably well adjusted responsible honest, blah blah blah, kids. In my mother’s eyes, it is just not right that I bring up my kids in apparently total freedom. Somehow giving them freedom is brain washing them and controlling their lives.
Let me offer an example of how I “brain washed” the kids into learning Chinese as our home schooling foreign language. Some years ago, we met an elderly Chinese couple at a party hosted by another home school family. The next day they visited our home and the father did some beautiful brush calligraphy for us as we looked on. Subsequently, my younger son Kyle (then 10) expressed a desire to learn some Chinese and try brush painting. I gathered the appropriate materials, and he and I began to learn. Not too long after, Luke decided he wanted to learn also, so the three of us proceeded to learn to speak and write Chinese. Eventually, not wanting to be left out I assume, my wife Leslie began to learn. Everyone was, from the get go, free to do what they wanted. In this case, everyone eventually took up Chinese, to one degree or another. It happened naturally. In other areas, it might be just Luke and I, or Kyle and I, or Leslie and I, Kyle and Luke, or well, whatever combination you can imagine depending on what we’re talking about. Each of us is guided by our interest in the activity and our desire to participate.
Is the freedom that exists in our family somehow brain washing and controlling on my part? I suppose that’s true in a sense. By taking a Taoist approach to family life, e.g., “taking the lower position”, “not contending”, “not meddling” (to quote the Tao Te Ching), I’ve not stood in the way of family harmony. I can only say that if this were brain washing and control, the world would be a lot better off with more brain washing. There I go with sarcasm again.
This Without doing, yet not undone (#48), and Using stillness she supports the lower position (#61) approach to family life gives complete freedom, yet also instills complete respect. Respect counterbalances freedom. Without respect, freedom is destructive. I don’t mean an imposed respect as in “Respect your elders”. Simply put, patience and silence instill respect naturally.
It is also important to note that complete freedom does not mean getting all that you desire, or even anything you desire. Complete freedom, in the Taoist sense, is the total freedom to be who you are, your original nature. This also means having the complete freedom to suffer the consequences of your attitude and actions… or lack of action.
The Three Secrets to a Good Taoist Brainwashing
First: Stay out of their way. Patiently wait and allow the flowers to bloom in their own way and in their own time. Look within and watch out for those impulses to get your kids to conform to your image of how they should be. This emotional push that projects your own fears, insecurities, desires, and ideologies (beliefs) onto them is irresistible. Pushing your personal agenda onto them, even in the guise of love, only causes them to rebel. Genuine harmony can’t breathe in such a repressive environment.
Second: Invite them to share in your life as much as possible. Invite them to work with you, learn with you, play with you, talk to you, walk with you, cook and eat with you, make music with you, ponder life with you and notice nature with you, make mistakes with you. All this is only possible if you’re able to calm your own ambitions enough to allow them to keep up and share your journey.
Third: Without a healthy portion of this third secret, the two above won’t work well. It is based on honest self-understanding. In deeply knowing yourself, you know nature. As chapter 47 says, Without going out the door, we can know all under heaven. Without looking out the window, we can see nature’s way. To this end, consider this third secret in light of your own experience. See also these related essays: The Four Noble Truths, (p.604); Understanding Buddhism, (p.608); and Poking a Little Deeper, (p.614).
When we get what we desire without a counterbalancing struggle, we easily become emotionally imbalanced. We lose respect for life because we lose a proper sense of awe that comes spontaneously to creatures living in the wild. I notice this same lack of awe in domesticated animals, especially our pets. The more affluent the circumstances, the more noticeable this will be. One caveat, the degree of imbalance, and how it is expressed, depends largely on an individual’s innate nature. Some of us do well, some of us disastrously, and most of us are somewhere in between.
Symptoms of this imbalance are especially ubiquitous in our affluent culture. Life didn’t evolve to survive the easy way, yet our species has discovered shortcuts to make survival as easy as possible. These shortcuts allow us to avoid many of the struggles we would face in the wild. However, nature cannot be short-circuited, so we end up struggling and suffering in other ways. Civilization is the means with which we’re able to get what we need with less and less struggle. Thus, we first need to realize that civilization is not the solution. Instead, it causes our imbalance. The human quest to gain complete freedom from Nature’s discipline has upset the natural balance of our lives.
Next, by understanding how nature works in principle, we are better able to identify particular ways we can bring balance to our immediate circumstances. You can say we stand in for Nature’s discipline, especially in raising our children. It is up to us to replace some of the balancing influences that civilization circumvents. We need to serve as substitute coaches for some of the wilderness influences absent now. As chapter 14 hints, The ability to know the ancient beginning; this is called the way’s discipline.
How does nature work?
What are the wilderness influences we’ve lost? Much of this site attempts to flush out various aspects of this. It is up to you to decide whether you concur or not. All you need do is observe nature and some wild life. I’m talking about insects, plants, as well as mammals. Come to think of it, also the rain, wind, night and day. Simply notice nature with a curious and open mind. Nature hides nothing … it is all out in the open.
The difficulty seeing nature lies in how we believe nature should work… Should the lions lay down with the lambs? Our ideals — political correctness in the broadest sense — blind us to the way nature actually works. The challenge is to watch and reflect on what you see as impartially as possible. If you succeed, nature will teach you all you need to know. Then what you notice naturally becomes a model for how you approach all aspects of life. It is extremely simple and straightforward. The only snag lies within your own preconceptions and the fears and needs that drive them.
How can we stand in for ‘nature’s discipline’?
There is no particular action to take or avoid vis-à-vis standing in for nature’s discipline… the way’s discipline. The world is full of advice on what to do, and yet what really works? Actions are neither wise nor foolish by themselves. The wisest action is that which conforms to the circumstances and to the unique nature of the individuals involved. On the other hand, actions can never be wiser than the fool who is performing them. That is why it’s vital to know thyself.
Self-honesty lowers the chance of projecting your own deeply held set of needs and fears onto others. This projection — living through others — is an especially easy trap to fall into with young children because they are utterly dependant on you. Knowing yourself enables you to know others more deeply too. Your actions will naturally reflect this intuitive sense, which helps insure your actions result in a decent, albeit imperfect, substitute for Nature’s discipline. I realize this doesn’t offer a firm answer. That is because, there is none! Meaning, the wiser you are, the wiser your response to current circumstances.
Note: It is important to begin standing in for Nature’s discipline as close to the birth of the child as possible. It is during those first years after birth that the nervous system is organizing itself. That is the time your influence is most deeply effective. Don’t miss the opportunity. The years fly by. Although, adopting this approach at any age would undoubtedly improve relationships. Much in the Tao Te Ching points to the way nature works, and to its discipline. If you haven’t guessed by now, discipline is so much more far-reaching and subtle in the Taoist sense than the common definition of the word. It is weakness more than strength, female more than male, stillness more than action, mysterious more than clear. Consider these examples:
The middle of Chapter 10 reads: (Here, simply translate people as children and nation as family).
The beginning of Chapter 16 reads: (Here, simply translate Everything ‘out there’ as children — and anything else that comes to mind as well).
The beginning of Chapter 40 reads: (Here, simply translate way as a model for how you can approach life, flowing with the current instead of against it).
The end of Chapter 51 reads: (Here, simply translate It as referring to parent).
The beginning of Chapter 61 reads: (Here, simply translate larger and female as parent, and smaller and male as child.)
The Social Connection
Much of what we are talking about here can be difficult to do alone, depending upon one’s nature obviously. Most people have strong social instincts and so working together as a group works best. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous and religious groups have considerable success in helping people turn their life around. Certainly, parenting is different in many ways, yet it can be a struggle just the same and so should respond to group effort.
Maybe it is time for a SPA—Struggling Parents Anonymous — association. The village and extended family ways of our ancestors is long gone, so the need is real. As a culture, we are just at the beginning of realizing the underlying causes of family dysfunction in civilized society. See the Who are you? series of posts (p.504 to 535) for more on this. Then, for the big picture, see The Tradeoff, p.549.
Applying Principles to Practice
Rules play a major role in society’s need for constancy and order. On the surface, we normally regard this need for constancy and order as a virtue. Conversely, a Taoist view regards these as symptomatic of deeper forces within us. Our fear of change, fluidity, and disorder drives the need to run a tight ship of life, and rightfully so — to a degree. Life requires a degree of constancy and order to survive. Too much entropy ends in death, and our fear of this is instinctive. However, civilized circumstances have removed much of the counterbalancing influences of Nature’s discipline. As a result, the pendulum of action-reaction swings to extremes compelling the creation of ever more regulations. Simply put, laws are a symptom of social dysfunction.
Let me briefly describe how I approach the issue of rules and constancy from a Taoist model, especially in raising my children. I am deliberately inconsistent with most family rules. Of course, it depends on how we define rules. That’s not to say I flip-flop all the time. It is really a matter of now and— unpredictably—then. Breaking the patterns, at least superficial ones, is how nature works. I simply strive to model nature.
Of course, at the deepest level, nature obeys its rules consistently, such as water always boiling at 100c at sea level. I model that deeper level in matters of personal integrity, such as honesty for example. I make no exceptions, theoretically anyway. Here, stillness and silence permit me to remain honest, not disturb and contend, and yet communicate. The beginning of chapter 16, Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness highlights the way.
The weather is nature at its surface level. Winter is cold as a rule, except for a surprising hot spell that surprises us. I model this surface level. For example, in matters relating to food, the rule is we eat dinner before dessert. Then unexpectedly, we’ll have cake for dinner. Another rule is that we have lunch around noon. However, if we’re doing garden work, or are away, then we don’t eat until… whenever. No problem, no whining, for we are accustomed to allowing life to flow naturally. After all, wildlife does not follow a clock or tight routine, and neither can it indulge itself. Nature’s discipline keeps wildlife non-attached and living fluidly.
Modeling nature — constancy at the deepest levels, yet change and spontaneity at the surface levels — gives children the deep stability they need to develop emotional security, yet keeps them alive to the unpredictable reality of life. They need to sense the unpredictable side of nature to maintain a sense of awe. Awe engenders a sense of respect in us all, regardless of our age. Lacking awe eventually comes back to bite us, as chapter 72 warns us, When the people don’t fear power, normally great power arrives. A meddling and over protective family environment thwarts a healthy exposure to nature’s wild side. Of course, going to far the other way is definitely worse! Balance is essential.
How do we know when there’s balance?
First: Modeling nature is contingent on stillness, which deepens with self-security. Self-security enables you to be more spontaneous—suddenly now and gradually then—and yet consistent and still most of the time. This makes it impossible for children to read you like a book, as it were. They remain in awe, and with awe, they innately feel respect.
Second: With sufficient sincerity, you should be able to watch yourself rather honestly, especially your emotions: need, fear, pleasure, and pain. When these influence you strongly, you have a realistic chance to realize your emotional balance is waning and rash actions are sure to follow. It is time to devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness, (#16) which helps you reverse course. As chapter 40 notes, In the opposite direction, of the way moves.
Third: Words speak illusion; actions shout reality. Put chapter 1 at the forefront of awareness, The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way. The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name. Do you have enough self-security for this? Believe it or not, whatever you have now is enough! Ten years from now your self-security will be deeper… and that will be enough then too!
Relax, for we have no true choice in the matter. We can only do the best we can for who we truly are currently. The first hurdle is to begin seeing what is happening and how nature works. Practicing what we see and preach is another matter, as we know. Emotions and the actions they instigate can never match our wisest nature, which is felt during our calmest moments. Realizing and remembering this can help avoid frustration and the rash actions that ensue. Conversely, forgetting this we just tread water, repeating previous missteps on life’s path.
Emotional insecurity drives our ideals, and our ensuing expectations create self-fulfilling prophecies of their opposite. In other words, our greatest disappointments arise from what we cherish most. So, should we let go of what we cherish? No… and besides, that is impossible. Simply acknowledging reality helps manage it best! As Buddha’s Four Noble Truths point out, it all begins with Right Comprehension… and then to remember continually what we comprehend — that’s living comprehension.
And Now, a Few ‘Tools’ for Discipline
Here are two tools I used raising my sons. They worked well and were all I really needed. I imagine they’ll work for other parents to some degree, depending on the parent and the child. Try them out and modify them to fit the circumstances.
♦ My main tool for maintaining daily discipline was taking off ‘bites’… You’ll see what I mean. While straightforward on the surface, some unexpected and charming twists and turns occurred. Some of the surprising power of this method may rest on the fact that the child knows his reward is certain and that any losses are in the child’s hands. This models nature. If hunter-gatherers of any species hunt and gather diligently, they find their food reward. If they goof off, they will go hungry. Here is how I applied this model in our family.
We would each have a big cinnamon sweet roll for breakfast on Saturday. During the preceding week, I’d mark on a chart a bite every time the boys got out of line. Not every time was truly every time. In practice, I marked off 2 to 5 bites on the chart for each boy, each week.
On Saturday, I’d place a roll on each boy’s plate, unroll a few inches of it, and deduct the bites they had lost during the week. Each bite was one inch removed from the roll, which if unrolled fully was 20” long. I would then eat those bites.
This was truly effective beyond what you’d imagine. Consider these other factors: (1) They couldn’t finish the whole bun even with the bites removed, yet they really hated to lose bites. (2) They understood that I was only taking a small fraction of the ‘bites’ I could take if I was expecting them to be perfect. They realized it was kind of an arbitrary game, and that they would never ever lose more than 2 to 5 bites. Yet, they took it very seriously. I assume that losing bites was a personal disgrace in their eyes. Using a person’s sense of pride and shame as a tool taps right into the social instinct, which accounts for its effectiveness.
During the week, when a behavioral issue popped up, I would ask them if it was worth losing a bite. Invariably they’d say no. At other times, I’d just tell them after the fact when, for instance, they’d leave the toys out overnight, or bath towel lying on the floor. Asking them if it was worth losing a bite helped them pause and reflect on the broader picture. Better yet, using leverage like this avoids descending into a pernicious cycle of ineffective nagging.
♦ My next tool, shunning, is based on deeply rooted human social instinct. All things being equal we want to feel we belong to the tribe. This generally makes us want to please others, to be liked and to be heard. Shunning takes advantage of this primal social need. Of course, it hurts the shunner as much as the shunnee. That price is high, but the reward is greater. It engenders long-term respect without coercion — as long as you’re self-honest and sincere.
In my case, when a boy would be dishonest, I would behave for several days as though the boy was not there — did not even exist. Afterward we’d sit down and review the situation that led up to the shunning. Shunning anyone who is dishonest is a natural consequence of broken trust. Other social animals practice a form of shunning, even banishment. Happily, I only needed to resort to shunning a few times over their whole childhood, which shows how effective it is. Note: Frequent shunning would intuitively come across to the child as the parent’s problem, and thus quickly loose effectiveness. Yet, I imagine this doesn’t apply to mini shuns of a few minutes or even a few hours. Such silent times just help unwind situations and can be a way to deliver a message without nagging. Silence and stillness are extremely powerful, as any Taoist knows!
You cannot fail if you sincerely care about your life and your family. It depends on what you truly want for your short time on Earth, and even shorter time raising children! So did I follow my own advice here perfectly? No, nor should I. Not expecting perfection has helped me and served my family more than anything else — period!
I’ll admit, I thankfully waited until I was 45 before I began a family. It took me that long to mature enough to follow nature instead of trying to control it. Had I begun a family in my 20’s, fool that I was, I would have failed terribly. I believed I was in control and nothing was going to stand in my way. Alas, I would not have had the mature and counterbalancing influence of a live-in extended family or tribe to guide me. Such benefits enjoyed by our hunter-gatherer ancestor are largely unknown, unappreciated, and usually impossible in the circumstances of civilization. Alas, it is up to the individual parent to pioneer their way through the parenting wilderness. In this regard, the Tao Te Ching and Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are invaluable assets.