How to be the perfect parent – rewrite 975

May 5, 2006

I’ve been way too busy over the last couple of months and consequently have a lot that is waiting to go onto the blog. Some time back Tom sent me a chapter out of a book called “Tribal Epistemologies: Essays of Anthropologies”. The chapter is “Preconquest Consciousness” by E Richard Sorenson and although I’ve barely had time to dip into it it’s already given a lot of food for thought. You can probably tell from the title that it’s an academic text – it is hoever pretty readable and certainly well worth it.

The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff completely altered my expectations about parenting. Her observations of the Yequana tribe showed the possibilities for human life and childhood and it no longer seemed a mere pipe-dream to raise emotionally healthy children. I think I unwittingly assumed that if we parented our children Yequana-style we would get Yequana-like children and for a time this seemed to actually be happening. The ‘terrible-twos’ passed with relative ease and we were feeling pretty smug about our parenting choices.

It was after that however that the wheels seemed to fall off and I realise now that what conventional child-rearing does with the terrible-wos is essentially break the child in. This means that this period is a bit of a war zone but things settle down soon after because the child’s spirit has been broken and they have sort of ‘given up’. What we elected to do was to allow our child to determine her own agenda, which she does, it’s just that the immediate consequences of that choice are not as easy to live with as the beat-them-down approach.

Aside from the fact that the western world has all sorts of one-off, precious and not-to-be broken items that are not available to a child living a stone-age life (always plenty of sticks and stones to go around in any village) our children are still more likely to be prone to fits of jealous rage and other forms of kicking and screaming because they’re being raised by, well, us.

Thus I came to the conclusion that the major impediment to a healthy childhood in civilisation was the civilised people. Or more pointedly; the major impediment to my child having a healthy childhood was me.

This sounds a bit demoralising but I eventually became relatively comfortable with it. It seemed to fit in with the old seven generation curse concept. If my generation starts working on the problem now then each successive generation will get stronger until eventually there comes a generation that has completely shaken off the psychoses that we all suffer from. Although I’m well aware that we might have to leave civilisation behind to fully achieve this I was pleased to be at least starting the process and was looking forward to making things, if not perfect, then at least better for my kids.

‘Preconquest Consciousness’ has however pushed me to reconsider things slightly. I now realise that my feelings of failure were a result of a cultural expectation that children should always be content and joyful (but quiet!) and that my job was to make sure they were that way at all times. I was kind of aware that children should be allowed to express their negative emotions but I was still working on the assumption that the level of upset in my child was a gauge of my failure as a parent.

In actual fact civilisation is a pretty insane environment to be raising children and we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised when these undeveloped humans indulge in a bit of kicking and screaming at the way life is treating them. More to the point childhood is the place where we help them learn to cope with world they will eventually have to live in unaided. Needless to say suppressing their feelings about that world is exactly the wrong way to go about it .

I found it very sad when I first noticed that my eldest daughter was becoming watchful and wary – no longer living in that joyous moment to moment way that infants and toddlers do and I miss that little person – especially, as Sorensen, points out, living totally in the moment seems to be the way that truly happy stone age people exist – it seemed like another sign of my failure as a parent.

But something Sorensen writes on his way to analysing un-civilised life has altered that;

Any form of subjugation, even those barriers to freedom imposed by private property, are the kiss of death to this type of life. Though durable and self-repairing in isolation, the unconditional open trust this way of life requires shrivels with alarming speed when faced with harsh emotions or coercion. Deceit, hostility, and selfishness when only episodic temporarily benumb intuitive rapport. When such conditions come to stay and no escape is possible, intuitive rapport disintegrates within a brutally disorienting period of existential trauma and anomie. With no other models about except those of conquerors, a `savage-savage’ emerges from the wreckage of a once ‘noble-savage’.

He also writes;

Preconquest regions were often fringed by intervening zones of mayhem and disorder, induding warfare, piracy, extravagant sexuality, and brigandage. Getting through to them was often dangerous.


Where preconquest populations were unrelentingly besieged by harsh conquistadorial demands, intuitive rapport sometimes suddenly give way en masse, precipitating a period of acute existential crisis. Arising from such crises was the `savage-savage’ who caused much of the mayhem and disorder seen in those disturbed and dangerous zones that so often barricaded entrance to remnant preconquest areas.

This is the passage that has caused my rethink about how parenting should work out. If for arguments sake I was to actually succeed in providing a Yeuana style childhood for my kids (the littlest of which has just banged me on the head with a pole btw) I would actually be doing them a massive disservice. They would be totally unprepared for coping with adult life in civilisation – I would in effect be laying the ground work for the emergence of a ‘savage-savage’.

A little wariness is required for civilised life and an element of self control, which is made hard to acheive by having long-buried grievances from childhood, is also required. Realising that is not enough though. We have to take it a step further and help our children learn appropriate ways of dealing with negative experiences otherwise they will turn out as exactly the foot-soldiers that civilisation is looking for. It can’t be prescriptive help though quite often out kids just need to be given the space to learn to deal with these things by themselves. This, it turns out somewhat ironically, is what the Yequana do when faced with a civilised individual in need of therapy.

This then is probably the key thing for me to take away from all this, that my job as a father is to help my kids deal appropriately with their negative experiences and emotions – something I’m not terribly good at to tell the truth. In this context a bit of kicking and screaming in someone who is not yet fully developed should be seen as a perfectly normal aspect of child development – even if slightly embarrassing at the supermarket.


One comment

  1. I appreciated your post – I too read the Continuum Concepts with the idea that I would raise my children to be outside of the cultural oppression that we live in (and I was rasied in).

    I am lucky that my wife is a behavioral therapist working with the families of developmentally disabled children – so I have been learning the very things you listed above. She tells me that disabled children don’t have the “social filters” that we normally develop at a young age, so they are more likely to do the kicking and screaming thing at the supermarket.

    I would suggest you look at books on Positive Behavioral Support, which is what she teaches her parents. PBS teaches that to have emotionally healthy children, we have to empathize with their difficulties, yet give them encouragement to want to act in “appropriate ways”. The biggest lesson is that behavior is communication, and most children are very communicative when something is bothering them. This should communication should be encouraged, but they just need to learn how to do that. Finally, she always tells me that the hardest thing for kids are transitions. Our culture moves so fast, and we move from location to location and from activity to activity that children can get overwhelmed and frustrated. She teaches her parents to do social scripting, picture schedules and notification before transitions to make the changes easier to process for those young minds.

    Posted by: Purplesage | 05/08/2006

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