Breeding, and the parenting that follows, are the most significant things we do in life; without this, none of us would be here.
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 the modern world, i.e., the post Agricultural Revolution world. Gone are a tribal elder’s moderating influences on children raising children. (See The Tradeoff for in depth background).
Fortunately, I had three things in my favor for parenting. First, I was wiser becoming a father at 43 than I would have been at 23. Indeed, I shudder to think what kind of parent I would have been in my early twenties. Next, the Tao Te Ching and Buddha’s Four Truths helped reinforce and/or further inform parenting wisdom. Finally, I had lived for years in various developing countries, which helped me keep perspective. I could more easily avoid cultural myopia.
Before reading the following A Guide to Taoist Parenting, consider listening to this NPR research on raising children, The Carpenter Vs. The Gardener: Two Models Of Modern Parenting. It summarized the natural approach to parenting I discuss here. Bringing Up Baby is a repeat of this episode with an extra 28 min section at the beginning where it summarizes the natural approach to parenting.
NPR also had a 5-minute audio book-review on The Secrets Of Happy Families, Control The Chaos With ‘Secrets Of Happy Families’. 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 – right – shrinks and 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.
A Guide to Taoist Parenting
When Andy (see Letters to Andy) first started coming around our family, he was struck by how bright and well behaved the boys were, and by the absence of any apparent discord in our family. He thought that if I could detail how I did it, we could use the ‘technique’ to help other families or children in group home situations find harmony.
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… an awful lot of togetherness, eh? I convinced him that it wasn’t the activities that did it. 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 my ‘Taoist approach’ to raising my kids that was the ‘secret’. This, along with some disillusion with his western paradigm prompted him to try to understand this ‘secret’. The letters to Andy skim the surface of our back and forth on this.
The catalyst for this essay was the showing of our “Trading Spouses” adventure. 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, enjoy working, etc. This is just not in accord with the American norm, I guess. Moreover, they weren’t rebellious teenagers so something must be wrong with the Abbott family. She could only conclude that I somehow ‘brain washed’ them or had some mysterious ‘control’ over 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, so 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 ‘controlling’ or ‘brain washing’ them — what else could it be? I know that is ‘reasonable’ from her point of view. Still, I needed to dig deeper. I’m unrelentingly curious.
I reminded her 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 never the less I was. Then, I asked her what would I be doing if I made them do what they didn’t want to do. For example, play an instrument like the tuba, study as 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 complete freedom. Somehow giving them complete freedom is ‘brain washing’ them and controlling their lives. Note: My mother’s views here can give anyone who deeply ponders them profound insight into human nature. Take your time.
Now, 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 facilitated family harmony. I can only say that if this is ‘brain washing’ and ‘control’, the world would be a lot better off with more ‘brain washing’. There I go with sarcasm again.
This ‘not meddling, not controlling, taking the lower position’ approach to family life gives complete freedom, yet also instills complete respect. Respect counterbalances freedom. Without respect, freedom is profoundly destructive. I’m not implying imposed respect as in “Respect your elders”. I found that ‘not meddling, not controlling, taking the lower position’ instills respect naturally.
It is also important to note that complete freedom does not mean getting all 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 in-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 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. Family 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 slow down your own ambitiousness 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 the following in light of your own experience. See also these related essays: The Four Noble Truths, Understanding Buddhism, and Poking a Little Deeper.
When we get what we want, desire, and need 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. This loss of balance and respect occurs in most mammals to some degree that live under such similar circumstances; pets come to mind. 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’… 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 teachers’ for some of the vital wilderness influences we’ve lost.
How does Nature work?
What are the wilderness influences we’ve lost? Much of this site is dedicated to point out various features of that ‘elephant in the room’. 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. Nothing is hidden; it is all out in the open.
The difficulty with that 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 ways 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.
Exactly How Can We Stand in For ‘Nature’s Discipline’?
There is no particular action to take or avoid. 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 doing them.
Obviously, seeking to honestly know yourself is crucial. 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 children for you are their ‘boss’. Knowing yourself also helps you know others and understand life more deeply. Your actions will reflect that intuitive sense, and you will know ‘exactly’ how to stand in for ‘Nature’s discipline’. I realize, this doesn’t offer a firm answer to the problem. That is because, there is none! Meaning, the wiser you are, the wiser your response to immediate 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 configuring itself; it is then that your parenting influence is most deeply effective. Don’t miss the opportunity. The years fly by. Although, adopting it at any age would improve relationships I suppose. 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 view’. 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).
Loving the nation, can you govern the people without acting?
When Heaven’s gate opens wide, can your action be female?
When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing?
Give birth to, nurture, give birth and yet not have;
Act and yet not depend on;
Be in charge and yet not rule;
This is called profound moral character.
The beginning of Chapter 16 reads: (Here, simply translate Everything ‘out there’ as children — and anything else that comes to mind as well).
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness; this means answering to one’s destiny.
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant; knowing the constant is called honest.
The beginning of Chapter 40 reads: (Here, simply translate way as a model for how you can approach life, flowing with its 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 your nature of course. Most people have strong social instincts and so working together as a group works best. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous and religious groups have remarkable success in helping people turn their life around. Granted parenting is different in many regards, but it can become a struggle just the same and so should respond to group effort.
Maybe it is time for a SPA—Struggling Parents Anonymous—self help organization. The village and the extended family of our ancestors is long gone, so the need is very much there. As a culture, I imagine we are just at the beginning, or pre-beginning, of realizing the underlying causes of family dysfunction in modern society. See the Who are you? series of six posts for more on this (Links: way-I, way-II, way-III, way-IV, way-V ).
Applying Principles to Practice
Rules obviously play a major role in society’s need for constancy and order. On the surface, we normally see this need for constancy and order as virtuous strengths. A Taoist view sees these as symptomatic of deeper forces within us. Our fear of change, fluidity, and chaos 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 the counterbalancing influences of ‘Nature’s discipline’. Thus, the pendulum swings too far… back and forth.
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 the rules. Most of them anyway; it depends on how we define ‘rule’. That’s not saying I flip-flop all the time; it is really a matter of ‘now and unpredictably then’, so to speak. 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, yet not disturb and contend, and yet communicate in the deepest sense of that word. The beginning of chapter 16, Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness shows the way.
Weather is Nature at its surface level. Winter is cold… except for that surprising hot spell that surprises us. I model this surface level in matters relating to food, for example. Usually, the ‘rule’ is we eat dinner before dessert. Then out of the blue, we’ll have cake for dessert… much to my wife’s distress. Another ‘rule’ is that we usually have lunch around noon. However, if we’re doing garden work, or we 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, in nature, wildlife does not follow a clock or tight routine, and neither can it indulge itself. Nature’s discipline helps keep wildlife non-attached and living fluidly.
Mimicking how Nature works — 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 keep them ‘alive’ to the unpredictable reality of life. They need to sense that hairy unpredictable side to 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. An over meddling and over protective family environment thwarts a healthy exposure to nature’s wild side. Of course, going to far the other way is probably worse! Balance is essential.
How do we know when there’s balance?
First: Modeling Nature well requires one to be grounded and self-secure. The stillness that comes with self-security enables you to be spontaneous on the surface — suddenly now and gradually then — yet be consistent and still most of the time. This makes it impossible for children to ‘read you’ like a book, so to speak. They remain in awe, and with awe they feel respect naturally.
Second: To the extent you are self-secure, you can watch yourself, your emotions — especially the deepest fears and needs. When you sense you are being moved strongly in any direction by your needs or fears, pleasure or pain, alarm bells go off in your psyche. You know you have left the middle path and balance is waning. It is time to devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness, which helps you reverse course. After all, In the opposite direction, of the way moves. Loss through death, of the way uses.
Third: One’s words ‘speak’ illusion; one’s actions ‘shout’ reality. Place 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. The weak link here is self-security. Do you have enough? Fortunately, what you have right 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 choice in the matter, no free will, so we can only end up doing the best we can for who we are at the moment. The first hurdle is simply beginning to comprehend what is happening and how Nature works. Putting this into practice is another matter, as we all know. Knowledge and ideals always exceed application. The mind’s eye allows us to see life in moments of calm reflection, which our daily emotions, needs and fears, have difficulty matching. Frustrated, we cling even tighter to our ideals of perfection, and this only blocks our way further. It can become a vicious circle.
This is one of the great ironies of life. Our emotional insecurity drives our need for ‘perfection’ and our fears of ‘failure’. This expectation of ‘perfection’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We lose what we cling to; we cling to what we feel we’re losing. In other words, our greatest disappointments and sorrows lie in that which we cherish oh so tightly. Naturally, we can’t just ‘let go’ of what we cherish. I find, merely acknowledging this fact helps me greatly. As Buddha’s Four Noble Truths point out at the end, it all begins with Right Comprehension. As comprehension deepens, the other steps on the Middle Path happen easily, gradually and naturally.
And Now, a Few ‘Tools’ for Discipline
Here are two discipline ‘tools’ I used raising my sons — the only two as I recall. They worked extremely well and were all I needed. Will they work for other parents? I imagine so to one degree or another, depending on the parent and the child. Try them out and see; modify them to fit the circumstances.
(1) The first, prolonged shunning, is based on our deeply rooted human social instinct. All things being equal, and not provoked to rebel, we want to feel we belong to the ‘tribe’. This generally drives us into wanting to please, to be liked, and to be heard. Shunning is a potent way to take advantage of this primal social need. Of course, it ‘hurts’ the shunner as much or more as the shunnee. This painful price is great, but the reward is greater. You will engender profound long-term respect, without coercion I might add. Of course, digging into the deepest level of self-honesty of which you are capable is vital.
In my case, when a boy would lie or 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 lies or is dishonest is a natural consequence of broken trust. Other social animals besides humans practice an extreme form of shunning, banishment. Of course, I’m not suggesting banishing family members! I only mention this to show its roots in nature. In addition, please note that I only used shunning a few times over their whole childhood, which shows how effective it is. Actually, shunning more often would be intuitively ‘read’ by the child as the parent’s ‘problem’, and thus quickly loose effectiveness. Of course, I imagine this doesn’t apply to mini shuns of a few minutes or even a few hours. Those 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!
(2) My main ‘tool’ for maintaining daily discipline was taking off ‘bites’. 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.
Each member of the family would have a big cinnamon Cinnabon sweet roll for breakfast on Saturday. That was a real tasty treat. During the preceding week, I’d mark on a chart a ‘bite’ every time the boys got out of line. ‘Every time’ was not truly every time by any means. In practice, I marked off 2 to 5 bites on the chart for each boy, each week.
On Saturday I’d place a big Cinnabon on each boys plate, unroll a few inches of it, and then proceed to deducts the ‘bites’ they had lost during the week. Each ‘bite’ was a 1? long piece removed from the Cinnabon, which if unrolled fully would probably be a 20? long strip. I then would eat those ‘bites’, after which we would all eat our Cinnabons.
This was extremely effective beyond what you would think, even more so when you consider some other factors. For example: (1) They were never able to finish the whole bun even with the ‘bites’ removed, yet they really hated to loose ‘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 loose 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; this accounts for its effectiveness.
During the week, when a behavioral issue popped up, I often would ask them if ‘it’ was worth losing a ‘bite’ over. Invariably the response was no. Otherwise, I’d just tell them when I marked off a ‘bite’, when for instance, they’d leave the toys out overnight, or bath towel lying on the floor. I imagine my asking them if ‘it’ was worth losing a ‘bite’ helped them broaden perspective, and own their moment a little better. Using leverage like this also prevented falling into that horrid cycle of nagging. Anyway, that’s how I remember it from my childhood, and how ineffective it was in the end.
You cannot fail if you take sincere care in how you approach your life and your family. It all depends on what you really, deeply want out of your short time on the planet, and even shorter time raising children! So have I followed the path I laid out above perfectly? Of course not. What do you think I think I am… perfect? Not expecting or chasing perfection has helped me, and served my family, more than anything else I could have done. When I asked my own family how well I followed my own advice here, they rated me at above average. Now, that might just be a C+, but I’ll take it. Thankfully, I 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.