Your Child IS Perfect
As a parent we have great dreams and hopes for our children. We hope that they will be great in what they do, that they will be successful, that they will be a source of pride and perhaps we’d like them to follow in our footsteps. It feels good to have this little person look up to us and sponge up every bit of knowledge we have. But what if our child isn’t perfect, they have no ambition, they have no interest in following in our footsteps, they don’t look up to us, and in fact they seem to despise us. “Really!?! That’s the thanks we get after all that we have done for them!”
What is difficult to understand is our children are responding to their environment in an absolutely perfect way. What may be imperfect is their environment or situation. Environment includes everything from their experiences in school to the food they eat. In this article I am going to explore the differences of childrearing and how we view our children by exploring the differences of what humanity used to do and what we do today.
In American culture there is a psychological phenomenon called the “fundamental attribution error.” What this means, is we as Americans are more inclined to attribute the cause of someone’s behavior to be from them personally and we fail to acknowledge the influence of their circumstances or situation.
Our children are often faced with adults accusing them of being imperfect or a bad child. We often fail to realize these children’s situations or circumstances. Much of these situations, our children keep to themselves and we have no idea because they feel ashamed or embarrassed. One of the most common situations that adults are unaware of is the teasing and bullying our children often experience in and out of school. The acting out could be the direct result of our children trying to cope with some brutal teasing and ridicule.
Our minds and bodies are highly adaptive and built to survive even the most difficult of situations. Strange or abnormal behavior is often because of a strange or abnormal environment.
There is more than one way to raise a healthy child. There is no one correct and only way. If there were, there would be a simple guidebook that everyone would follow. I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve read lots of scientific research that confirms, there are many great ways to raise a child. By looking at other cultures we can gain some insights into our cultural beliefs and our shortcomings as a parent.
What we may not realize is our Euro-American cultural view on child rearing is rather new. This new cultural worldview began with early peoples in the Mediterranean area. This cultural perspective spread with Romans colonizing Europe. This then continued to spread when European countries began to colonize the rest of the world. As time went on, this cultural worldview morphed and changed as societal innovations advanced and humans adapted to the current social norms. However, we can look to the recent indigenous cultures of our time to get a glimpse of how humans approached childrearing since the beginning of time. By looking at these indigenous cultures we can gain insight into how normal child rearing was done since the beginning of time.
Lets consider a particular tribe in West Africa referred to as the Beng People. We’ve all heard the expression, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ For the Beng tribe this is a fundamental aspect of childrearing. According to cultural researcher Gotlieb (2003), while mom is out tending to the crops, she has a small army of daughters, sons, cousins, neighbors, friends, aunts, and uncles that are taking care of her children. They are playing with them and teaching them. When it comes to feeding time, the child is brought to mom where she straps them in a sheet and nurses them while she continues to work. The young child may continue to take a nap while strapped to mom’s back. Unlike Euro-American cultures, the child is rarely left alone to nap or play on their own (Gotlieb, 2003).
As the children grow up and learn more skills, they take care of their younger siblings or other neighboring children in the tribe. Or they are with their elders learning and helping with the chores and work (Gotlieb, 2003). In Euro-American culture the child is often left to play alone, nap alone, and we send them off to a school to be taught by a teacher. These children do not go to work with mom or dad. A babysitter, that usually has little connection to the family is hired to take care of the child or they are sent to a daycare. In our contemporary world there is a lot more disconnect with our children and their daily lives.
In many Native American cultures, the grandparents and elders were considered the teachers of the community. They taught the children the necessary skills to hunt, preserve foods, collect edible and medicinal plants, perform ceremony, make clothing, and the like. Elders where highly respected because they were the keepers of the wisdom. This is in stark contrast to our contemporary Euro-American culture, which tends to, pardon the lack of a better term but discard our elders into rest homes or nursing facilities.
We live in a society that values humans that can contribute. Retirees are no longer contributing to our economy and become financial burdens. This can be seen in the meager financial reimbursement of social security, limited benefits of Medicare, the lack of businesses hiring our elderly, and the constant scraping away of benefits available to our elderly. In the Euro-American’s defense, we live in a society that values innovation. If our elderly are not up on the current innovations and consistently re-educating themselves, they don’t have much to offer our current society based on these values. But I digress.
Another, perspective that is vastly different from the Euro-American cultural worldview is the function of children. In most Native American cultures, the child is seen as a unique and integral part of the community. Each child is born with a unique path or purpose in life that will manifest through time and benefit the community. A child is considered sacred and it is the elder’s responsibility to nurture this unique path without hindering it. This means that the child is perfect before they are even born. This means the child could be deformed, mentally slow, homosexual, transgendered, absent-minded, mute, deaf, disobedient, reckless, timid, shy, or anxious; and the parents will see these aspects as perfect and necessary for this child’s life purpose. These things are often seen as imperfections in Euro-American culture. These features often take away from the things that Euro-American’s value in life as a society of ‘doers’ and innovation.
Many Native American parents also allow their children more freedom than the typical Euro-American parent. There is an unsaid cultural ethic of non-interference (Ross, 1997). To interfere and control a child is to hinder their path and purpose in life. There is a belief that the child needs to make mistakes and have successes to fully understand their purpose and path in life. It is considered very disrespectful for an elder to step in and decide what they child should do or how they should be. An elder is there to teach and support but never control.
Interference or coercion of our kids has also been linked to increased prevalence of mental illness when comparing cultures (Levine, 2013). Levine (2013) is a psychologist who explains a common occurrence when he works with children and teenagers that have behavioral problems.
"Here’s one situation that I’ve seen hundreds of times. An intelligent young child or teenager has been underachieving in standard school, and has begun to have emotional and/or behavioral problems. Such a child often feels coerced by standard schooling to pay attention to that which is boring for them, to do homework for which they see no value, and to stay inside a building that feels sterile and suffocating. Depending on the child’s temperament, this coercion results in different outcomes — none of them good."
"Other inattentive kids are unworried. They don’t take seriously either their schooling or admonitions from authorities, and they feel justified in resisting coercion. Their rebellion is routinely labeled by mental health professionals as “acting out,” and they are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Their parents often attempt punishments, which rarely work to break these kids’ resistance. Parents become frustrated and resentful that their child is causing them stress. Their child feels this parental frustration and resentment, and often experiences it as their parents not liking them. And so these kids stop liking their parents, stop caring about their parents’ feelings, and seek peers whom they believe do like them, even if these peers are engaged in criminal behaviors."
This is a perfect example of perfect children responding to an imperfect environment. In this case the imperfections to environment pertain to the coerciveness of American society and culture.
There is a tribe in Thailand where people are envious of parents who have a child with Down Syndrome. In this culture they highly value happiness and positivity. If you have ever been around someone with Down Syndrome, you know that these are prominent personality features. This is a great example of accepting our children for who they are as perfect from the beginning.
How are you teaching your child? Children are like giant sponges. They are watching every move we make. When things get difficult and arguments arise, how do we as adults respond to this challenge? Are we yelling at people? Are we mean? Are we abusing our power? Are we completely consumed by our emotions? Or are we retreating and avoiding the problem? Our children learn how to deal with their emotions by observing adults. Imagine if a child observes mom and dad having an argument where they talk calmly, respectfully, and try hard to listen and understand the other person. When emotions run high, the adult acknowledges this and says, they need to take a break and come back to this discussion in a couple of hours.
Divorces, death, moving schools, an addict for a parent, abuse, bullying, and so forth are all common difficult situations kids face. It is up to us as elders and parents to teach them how to respond to these difficult situations. The first way to teach is to walk the talk. Remember, our children are always watching.
It is also important to consider what shows our children are watching. In indigenous tribal cultures, stories were commonly shared with children. These stories provided great lessons to assist the child in their growth and maturation. The abundant violence in TV shows is teaching our kids to use aggression to resolve their problems. I rarely see conflict resolution with the goal of harmony on a TV show or movie.
So what are your cultural values? Are these values important and why? How connected and involved are we with our child’s life and experiences? Have we handed these responsibilities over to strangers, babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers? Does your child feel they are part of a well-connected community that supports them and one another? Are we respecting our children’s natural path and purpose in life? Or are we taking control, considering them incompetent, and making all their decisions for them? Are we letting our children make mistakes? Are we purposefully making them feel bad for making these mistakes? Or are we seeing these mistakes as important features guiding them on their path to being the great person they were meant to be? How do we respond to issues in life? Perhaps we need to practice what we preach.
Raising a child should be considered an honor and a grand responsibility. We should give ourselves the grace that we will never be a perfect parent. Parents need to make mistakes too. Our children can learn a great deal from this. Experiment with seeing your child as perfect in all their “greatness” and “shortcomings.” Be there to support and teach. Control over a child is ultimately an illusion and only causes resentment and disharmony. Let them find their own path in life and honor and respect them, whatever their decision may be. Sometimes, we need to let them make some big mistakes. Allowing them to make these mistakes is a sign of respect and love. They know they can come to you for support, guidance, and help when they fall.
Next time their behavior seems inappropriate, consider their situation. And know, that your child is responding perfectly to an imperfect environment.
Gotlieb, A. (2003). The afterlife is where we come from: The culture of infancy in West Africa. University of Chicago Press. Chapter 6-7: pages 136-184.
Levine, B. (2013). Societies with little coercion have little mental illness. Blog Post: Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry, and Community. Retrieved April 27, 2015. http://www.madinamerica.com/2013/08/societies-little-coercion-little-mental-illness/
Ross, R. (1997). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinenmann.