Chapter 4 – Basic truths of childhood and adulthood

Childhood issues and vital concerns

My parents divorced when I was seven years old, which really wasn’t an age when I could make full sense of what had happened and what was happening. As you might know, seven is the supposed age of reasoning ability in Catholicism, denoting moral responsibility and therefore the capacity to experience subjective guilt from “sinning.” On many levels in religion, understanding of child psychology and child development remains in The Dark Ages.

From my emotional standpoint I had a sense of relief from the divorce, but also felt confusion and sadness. I felt relief that my parents’ antagonism, which usually took the form of raised angry voices, would finally cease (other than subsequent acrimonious telephone conversations between them). Unfortunately, as with most divorces, my parents did not spend much time really empathizing with their own hurt and each other’s hurt, and much of it went unprocessed and unhealed. Thus, they were at a loss to provide such compassionate understanding to me.

I was left to figure out why two individuals who were able to bring another person into the world (albeit accidentally) could not maintain at least friendly relations, even if romantic feelings faded. Finding myself somewhat unable to decipher the nature of humans, I took partial refuge in books, which was my way of finding some comprehensibility in the world, first mostly via fantasy fiction (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, etc.) and then later mostly non-fiction. Reading Atlas Shrugged many years later at twenty-three, after my first college degree, definitely brought a whole lot more philosophical clarity to things.

My father was raised Catholic and, even though he rebelled against many of its tenets in his formative years, he still believed in them during his last days, when he died of cirrhosis and kidney failure at age fifty. Tragically, alcohol was a substance he used on a daily basis to cope with troubling subconscious thoughts and emotions, including the contradictions that were imposed on his mind from an early age—notions like self-sacrifice and original sin. My mother, an atheist, had parents who mostly renounced the religiosity of the church by the time she and her siblings were born. Her mother (my grandmother) drank alcohol in excess too, viewing it as the elixir to deal with an emotionally disconnected marriage to a man seemingly more wedded to his machine-tool business, my grandfather.

Of course, like most persons, I could say that I had a normal childhood, middle class normal perhaps. Yet this would do a disservice to our need for authenticity. In our culture the harmful aspects of one’s upbringing tend not to be the focus, unless you’re engaged in psychotherapeutic exercises or you’re having an empathetic conversation about such things with friends or family (or simply watching YouTube videos of John Bradshaw seminars and the like). Recognition and exploration of early trauma and its effects tend to be avoided when we want to maintain a somewhat comfortable psychological status quo. Higher quality relationships with self and others are put in jeopardy as a result.

Exploring the nature of childhood provides us with much-needed comprehensibility about humans, and especially about human conflict. When we recognize our needs that didn’t get met early on, we can begin to reconnect with the emotions we had and understand the behaviors we adopted. Thus, we can begin to process them in a healthy, integrative way. In turn we can discover new and enriching ways of being in the world and interacting with others, so those needs can finally get met.

Around the time my parents divorced, I literally searched for the elusive four-leaf clover on my grandparents’ expansive lawn in suburban Minneapolis. I did find a few of them, to my delight. Being an “only child,” I devised many ways to spend time alone. Swinging from the drooping vines of a giant willow tree in the summertime was another fun activity, in addition to the amazing smell of lilacs in full bloom. Crawling through snow-covered cattails in the wintertime on a frozen pond behind the house was yet another. Since Minneapolis winters provided snow in abundance, I built snow forts. I also built couch-cushion forts indoors (likely reflecting the issue of self-protection from the sometimes incomprehensible and unpredictable adult world). I enjoyed taking care of and riding my pony named Shamrock too, which years later in the mountains of central Idaho morphed into a horse named Joe, and then a dirt bike named Yamaha IT175. These things reflected my strong connection with nature and free exploration of the outdoors, things that all children tend to cherish.

As we look deeper into our early experiences, we can see more clearly what drives us as children, as well as what can hinder us. While I was subjected to physical punishment only on a few occasions (I tended to be more compliant than rebellious), I definitely experienced the predominant authoritarian-oriented behaviors that we’ve been exploring about parenting. Especially as a toddler, I was also subjected to teasing, sarcasm, and love withdrawal. These of course were combined with times of affection, nurturing, and understanding. As we’ve covered, family life for most individuals can be quite a mixed bag of meeting needs and sacrificing them among children and parents alike. This is mainly because self-knowledge isn’t made a priority for living well, and this reflects a fragmented emotional world for most adults. The subconscious mind contains various beliefs and assessments about oneself that are mostly generated during childhood in the midst of many potentially traumatizing experiences, which sacrificed vital needs.

Being disconnected from the nature of our traumatic childhood experiences is sadly the norm in society. Such disconnection can manifest in many ways, including reliving or reenacting aspects of early traumas, wherein one subconsciously tries to normalize them or somehow resolve them with surrogates. As we attempted to maintain a stable connection with our caregivers, we integrated subconscious thought patterns and behaviors that served to keep us “safe.” In spite of their utility at the time, defense mechanisms such as dissociation, repression, rationalization, and denial hinder the integrative practices of honesty, transparency, and vulnerability. Only such integrative practices can foster intimate inner and outer connections, enriching relationships, and happiness.

Defense mechanisms can be consciously recognized and empathetically understood, so that various subconscious parts of ourselves (fearful, anxious, confused, painful, and angry aspects) are compassionately connected with, instead of disowned and tragically expressed. Authentically connecting with the subconscious aspects of our minds that relate to our self-concept can foster more emotional availability and consideration. Since self-concept shapes our present and future, raising our awareness about developmental experiences and being attuned to our subconscious processes (e.g., “speaking the unspokens”) are foundational to self-knowledge and integrated, healthy functioning.

To explore the nature of childhood is to envision what a world can be like when children’s needs are fully met, which entails parents who are resourceful and empowered regarding getting needs met too. To reiterate, the earlier questions posed by Branden offer a very useful set of guidelines. After all, humanity’s future is basically determined by how children are treated, particularly by how much they are respected, empathized with, and nurtured.

The tragic predicaments in which most children find themselves are primarily due to a world culture of costly intergenerational transfer, rather than one that encourages greater awareness and transformative changes. In this age-old process, the motivation to understand and empathize gets considerably weakened. Since ancient times, in exchange for living in the group, people regularly had to abide by the rules of the group. One rule, perhaps, was to stifle upset and anger and show deference to powerful authority figures. If one disobeyed this rule, one was either punished or ostracized (albeit another form of punishment).

A similar situation exists in domination-oriented or win/lose family environments. Parents possess a substantial ability to foster authoritarian/obedience-oriented relationships, which they tend to enact when they get frustrated, stressed, tired, and angry—in a real sense, when they’re not feeling resourceful, when they’re operating with an empathy tank that’s practically empty. In turn, many children in such family systems are expected to show deference to their seemingly omnipotent, omniscient, and infallible parents.

For those of assumed inferior rank who disagree with this living arrangement, viable options seem scarce. Educator Maria Montessori had a great deal to say about this kind of psychological milieu. She wrote in The Secret Of Childhood about parental practices of ruling over the child as follows:

“Tyranny defies discussion. It surrounds the individual with the impenetrable walls of recognized authority. Adults dominate children by virtue of a recognized natural right. To question this right would be the same as attacking a kind of consecrated sovereignty. If in a primitive community a tyrant represents God, an adult to a child is divinity itself. He is simply beyond discussion. Rather than disobey, a child must keep silent and adjust himself to everything.

“If he does show some resistance, this will rarely be a direct, or even intended reply to an adult’s action. It will rather be a vital defense of his own psychic integrity or an unconscious reaction to oppression…

“…Only with time does a child learn how to react directly against this tyranny. But by then an adult will have learned how to overcome a child by subtler means, convincing him that this tyranny is all for his own good.

“A child owes respect to his elders, but adults claim the right to judge and even offend a child. At their own convenience they direct or even suppress a child’s needs, and his protests are regarded as a dangerous and intolerable lack of submission.

“Adults here adopt the attitude of primitive rulers who exact tribute from their subjects without any right of appeal. Children who believe that they owe everything to adults are like those peoples who think that everything they possess is a gracious gift from their king. But are not adults responsible for this attitude? They have adopted the role of a creator and in their pride have maintained that they are responsible for everything that pertains to a child. They make him good, pious, and intelligent, and enable him to come into contact with his environment, with men, and with God. And to make the picture more complete, they refuse to admit that they are exercising any tyranny. And yet has there ever been a tyrant who has ever admitted that he has preyed upon his subjects?” (p. 152) [34]

Indeed, those who admit to preying on their subjects have a more difficult time maintaining “authority.” We all know how our wills can be weakened or broken in a family system, supposedly for our own good. Long before my time spent with clients in counseling, I had come to similar conclusions as Montessori did many decades ago.

Striving to be a “good” boy or girl is commonly viewed as a prerequisite for greater connection in the family. Yet what does “good” mean in a context that isn’t focused on meeting the needs of little persons with care and equality, but instead involves trying to live up to expectations of older persons? Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean honoring one’s own feelings, expressing them without fear of punishment (or hope of reward), and experiencing self-esteem. It usually means giving in to demands.

How does this notion of being “good” (and not being “bad”) translate into behaviors in the adult world, once we have matured into grown beings who work to sustain ourselves? It usually means still conforming to what’s expected, obeying sundry “authority” figures who are strangers to us, and abiding by “laws,” despite their nonsensical nature.

Recall our previous explorations of social psychology, of the ways that adults can defer to the judgment of other adults, despite their conscience and intentions. A world of obedience and conformity is a world lacking affirmative belief in people’s efficacy and worth. Welcome to “the real world,” a societal predicament largely viewed as satisfactory, or at least tolerable—because, well, “That’s just the way things are.”

Many of us have heard one or more forms of the following: “You’re to speak only when spoken to!”; “How dare you disobey me!”; “I’ll give you something to really cry about.” Parents who are at wits end often don’t attend to the fact that children have needs for respect and understanding of their context, just like parents do, including when they themselves were children.

Whether it occurs in blatant or in subtle ways, the general theme concerning misuse of power usually prevails in the family system. The later societal manifestations are no great psychological leap, and the whole process tends to be self-perpetuating: The child learns from his or her parents’ behavior (as well as from others); parents teach the child the specific, required ways of dealing with self and others; the child learns what is expected from others and then passes this on (i.e., if he or she accepts it).

Social demands on individuals to conform can be sizable, both within the family and the culture at large. The inherent imbalances of power in the adult/child and so-called State/citizen relationships can invite major exploitation. The key distinction, however, is that the “State/citizen” relationship is always a corrupt one; by definition it’s exploitative. The aggressive policies of statism continually sacrifice justice. In contrast, the adult/child relationship essentially entails fulfillment of a spectrum of needs to maintain its appropriateness and health.

Nonetheless, people who assume the position of ruler—be it of the family, tribe, or State—are not commonly known for encouraging individuality and pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Typically, they uphold the “welfare of the group” more than any particular person (except, of course, the persons ruling the group). In this way many individuals learn to view themselves, albeit falsely, as dependent beings rather than independent beings. We are also social animals, which means respectfully interdependent beings.

We use our own faculties to live and maintain ourselves, to the extent that we are physically able. We often get help from others and we help them as well, both in personal interactions and marketplace ones. As children, we of course look to others for enriching interactions, knowledge, and guidance; we rely on family members for all kinds of assistance. Yet if, as adults, we haven’t cultivated our need for independence, then we might promote, or at least tacitly agree with, obedience and submission, instead of self-assertiveness and self-reliance. Asserting personal values in line with reason and reality is the opposite of demands for compliance, and it doesn’t entail coercively hindering the autonomy of others. Ultimately, the tactics of force and intimidation are terribly tragic methods for getting what one wants; and oftentimes, what one actually wants, such as better relations with self and others, tends to be severely neglected as a result.

Essential psychology of children and adults

To perceive, to think, to feel, to assess, to discover—to rejoice, to ask questions, to be excited—to be scared, to be mad, to be sad—to be happy. These are some of the main characteristics of both our childhood selves and our adult selves. The key to child psychology, then, is to be found within our own experiences of self. Each of us has memories of how we experienced ourselves and others during our youth. We can become intimate with these memories and empathetic with the feelings that arise from them.

To restructure our lives for optimal flourishing as adults, we need to heal the traumas of our past, when tragically we were overpowered and neglected in various ways. The feelings we felt back then, and the beliefs we formed, led us to devising strategies to deal with our unmet needs, for instance to protect the psychologically (and sometimes physically) injured aspects of ourselves. As we reprocess the experiences of being a child in a world of not-so-connected and not-so-integrated adults, we practice the art of self-discovery, which enables us to heal old psychological wounds.

Contrary to what our culture trains us to believe, a child’s psychology is not some paradoxical mystery, something that needs outside influences to mold into proper form. Montessori knew this and explained it quite extensively in her books, such as The Secret Of Childhood. [34] Children’s “spontaneous manifestations” she noted are the regular occurrences of autonomous beings learning about and expressing their inner and outer worlds.

To have trust in your natural guidance systems of reasoning and feeling reflects the trust you have in your own capacity to make your life, and others’ lives, more wonderful. After all, there is no such thing as original sin, or any other “sin” for that matter. It’s simply a label to keep individuals in a state of confusion and mixed emotion about themselves and their desires, on account of the conflicting nature of “sin”: On the one hand it’s typically pleasurable in some way, but on the other hand it’s either disliked by others or runs counter to one’s own long-term interests. Adults use the word “sin” (or “vice”) to somehow impugn and try to alter behavior of themselves or others, as well as children, typically because it violates their sense of integrity about self-care. Unfortunately, religious declarations of sin or vice have little to do with helping individuals live freely and flourish. Oftentimes, judgmental thoughts of being “right” or “good” rather than “wrong” or “bad,” according to external standards, seem to follow from them.

To declare something sinful—meaning something to disapprove of and be ashamed of—doesn’t really explain anything. The “why” of religious assertions often relates to disobedience toward “God’s wishes” or scripture. In place of a rational explanation, we encounter arbitrary postulates of something ineffable, or supernatural, which further discourages conceptual clarity. And of course, dogma is yet another form of external injunction that diminishes intrinsic motivation and independent thinking, and thus, authentic self-expression.

Moral codes are supposedly designed to outline the proper course of action for oneself and others. They also seem to go hand in hand with declaring things sinful, or not virtuous, i.e., proclaimed improper behavior. When something is proclaimed improper or “bad,” it’s therefore not what you’re supposed to do. Propriety is typically “goodness” that’s determined according to what others or scripture (still more “others,” albeit deceased ones) declare. Needless to say, this doesn’t foster an understanding of how to formulate life-enriching strategies on one’s own, with one’s own initiative, in order to get needs met.

Lots of strategies have costs, including the one trying to get humans to behave in certain ways, i.e., morality. As I noted in the Complete Liberty Podcast series about morality and nonviolent communication (episodes 178-185), the dynamic of power-over others, with its accompanying shaming, blaming, guilt-tripping, etc., impedes self-understanding and respectful functioning. [35]

Yet we may wonder how such a system developed in the first place, given that children have natural attitudes of empathy, understanding, curiosity, discovery, and joy. Why is it that most parents believe that children must be controlled and disciplined into being better human beings, just as most adults believe that “laws” and their enforcers are necessary for fellow adults to behave properly? This question bears on the nature of adult psychology and how it was formed, in terms of what happens to children as they mature into adults in a domination-oriented culture, which is built on stilts of distrust.

As noted, whether through active guidance or passive acceptance, we might believe that the way things are is the way that things need to be and will always be. Most of us were taught to favor the philosophical and psychological status quo over any sort of substantial inquiry and change. This tends to be the opposite of what children believe, or how children tend to interact with the world. So, somewhere along the path to adulthood, we can develop a fear of change in relation to entrenched perceived “authorities” and systems of domination. As a child, to believe that the adult human world will not offer the same opportunities for enrichment can indeed be foreboding. The worrisome and distressing belief that adults won’t ensure one’s safety and security stems from traumatizing experiences.

What we want is oftentimes based on what we’ve experienced as possible in our lives, and well as what we believe is possible. If, as children, we were sent the (either explicit or implicit) message that many of our needs are unimportant or don’t exist, then how can we ever request fulfillment of them as adults? The systems of rules, methods, and constructs that became familiar and normal to us early in life can simply be taken as “the given” as we mature, and thus viewed as necessary. All this becomes terribly frustrating and perplexing when we desire a dramatically better world for every human being. We need not remain frozen in time philosophically and psychologically, as if the passage of precious years is of no consequence.

In the realm of material innovation, of course, a great deal of progress is happening for adults, especially in the technology sector, in hardware and software development. This also happens to be the freest realm economically in which to innovate—although a labyrinth of false “intellectual property” restrictions continue to be upheld by the statist system (see chapter six in Complete Liberty for a detailed explanation of this). The inside job of freedom can rely on this innovative realm via the relatively decentralized system of the Internet. Many helpful insights by many people can get widely distributed quickly. Such voluntary interaction can work to unshackle everyone from the severe constraints of domination systems. As we grasp the importance of moving beyond the frustration and conflict that typically happens in families and, hence, in society, we can begin to truly free ourselves.

Parenting issues and moralistic judgment

There are so many books about parenting. Of course, humans are the only creatures on the planet that can read about parenting. We can also attend or view workshops on parenting, and we can follow the advisements gleaned from such sources. Other animals “just do it,” as the Nike ad instructs. Yet parenting for humans entails conceptual understanding and psychological integration—thus, the books and workshops to try to make sense of things. Additionally, as we’ve already covered extensively, adults’ own experiences of childhood reflect the need for empathetic understanding, among other important things, which can be cultivated with psychotherapeutic exercises as well as family therapy.

Looking across the landscape of parenting books and workshops, one sees a mixture of things that are accurate and helpful, coupled with remnants of the domination culture. Intergenerational transfer issues still have a grip on even most experts in the field, as they offer various strategies in response to the question, “How do I get my child to do x, y, and z?” The message embedded in this question is that children are supposed to do the bidding of adults, and when they don’t cooperate, parents (and other “authorities”) must get them back on track.

Ultimately, everyone makes choices, even if they’re only to avoid punishments. When children comply with parents to avoid punishments (or to gain rewards), everyone pays a steep psychological price: Authentic connection is lost, because so many needs are sacrificed, such as respect, trust, empathy, understanding, fairness, equality, and self-esteem. This generates the typical frustrating and overwhelming aspects of conditional parenting. Such a parenting stance can involve rules for going to bed at a prescribed (even “agreed upon”) time, rules for brushing teeth and other personal hygiene practices, rules for arising in the morning in order to complete various unchosen tasks of the day, such as going to school and “getting good grades,” and so on. (We’ll be exploring the nature of education and grades in the next chapter, including the helpful alternatives.) Notice that all these things involve the distrustful power-over premise, which involves extrinsic motivation instead of intrinsic. They also tragically don’t consider the most important aspect of how persons can meet each other’s needs in families without sacrifice: by attending to and improving the quality of their relationship.

Since parents who grew up in families that used power-over strategies didn’t have mutually respectful relationships modeled for them, they tend to almost reflexively re-implement the same tired and tiring strategies. These strategies greatly obscure the primary reason for family interaction in the first place, which is to make life more wonderful for everyone.

So, as we’ve noted, the family environment commonly is a place of transfer of intergenerational issues that are hardly ever addressed, yet involve such feelings as fear, anxiety, and pain, coupled with ingrained patterns of disregarding their significance. Once the power-over model is present in the family system, psychological and behavioral stances tend to rigidify and tolerance for deviating from the norm drops markedly. “Discipline” (called “behavior management” in school) then becomes favored in an attempt to ensure that everything is as it’s supposed to be, according to adults’ rules.

To deal with the feelings triggered by one’s conscience in these matters, which concerns the need to respect others, the phrase “disciplining in a loving way” is sometimes used, as mentioned previously. The thought is that parents’ love for their children can somehow counteract hurtful disciplinary measures. Indeed, rationalizations tend to seriously dampen one’s conscience over time within a domination system. While we lose connection with our sense of remorse about using power-over tactics, moralistic judgment can thwart our healing process as well.

The realm of moralistic judgment typically takes us away from building quality relationships, because its focus is elsewhere. Moralistic judgment is based on what you “should have done” or “should not have done,” which directly calls into question your mental efficacy and worth. Its mission is to determine what you supposedly knew versus what you did not know, and then to judge your decision-making ability and character (your efficacy and worth) accordingly.

Ayn Rand, being a moral philosopher par excellence, noted that there are “errors of knowledge” and “breaches of morality,” and the latter are deserving of moralistic judgment. To quote John Galt from Atlas Shrugged, again, this time in moralizing mode:

“Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept any breach of morality. Give the benefit of the doubt to those who seek to know; but treat as potential killers those specimens of insolent depravity who make demands upon you, announcing that they have and seek no reasons, proclaiming, as a license, that they ‘just feel it’—or those who reject an irrefutable argument by saying: ‘It’s only logic,’ which means: ‘It’s only reality.’ The only realm opposed to reality is the realm and premise of death.” (p. 1059) [19]

Assuredly this is a paragraph of strong sentiments, with some religious overtones. It appears that Rand was wanting people to do more than ferret out contradictions in their thinking, to meet their needs for clarity and consistency. She wanted persons to be judged unfavorably if they didn’t do so, thus revealing their alleged “depravity.” Unfortunately, this attempt to get individuals to change through condemnation tends to put them on the defensive, since it sacrifices their needs for efficacy and worth, i.e., for self-esteem.

Do we willingly harbor contradictions and turn away from known truths? Perhaps at times we do, but the answer is more complex and contextual. Certainly, we can deny and disassociate from what’s really happening and formulate rationalizations for doing all kinds of things that harm ourselves and others. Like the Milgram experiments, these mental formulations help us achieve some peace of mind, which can enable us to continue our behavior and especially not condemn ourselves, or impugn our self-esteem. As we’ve explored, conceptual minds that have been subjected to power-over strategies in a domination system can become adept at finding ways to seem consistent with opposing beliefs and behaviors. This compartmentalization makes integration next to impossible, of course. In addition to forgoing logical clarity and integration, this oftentimes means sacrificing many other needs, such as autonomy, choice, authenticity, self-respect, respect for others, and justice.

And to sacrifice these needs doesn’t meet our need for consistency either. Yet this is where thoughts and evaluations tend to arise in defense of status-quo thinking and behaviors, to protect oneself from the danger of not thinking well of oneself and one’s actions. The big question then becomes this: How do we best help ourselves and others come to terms with the things that are actually harming us in terms of sacrificing needs?

We know from personal experience that moralistic judgment of a person’s mental efficacy and worth doesn’t increase the quality of the relationship. So, why does Rand (and many others) advise it? Because she also grew up in a domination culture that distrusts humans to do things that benefit themselves rather than harm themselves. If we’re not trusted, and even harmed or abused, it understandably becomes much harder to trust others. In such an environment, each of us can easily get in the mode of judgmental thinking—trying to ensure that people, including ourselves, do the “right” thing instead of the “wrong” thing, which supposedly warrants being shamed and punished via condemnation or violence.

Perhaps the most frustrating difficulty with the “moral” perspective is that we tend to get defensive, dismissive, and even counterattack when our beliefs and behaviors are judged as “wrong” or “bad,” i.e., “immoral.” As a methodology for living well, this puts us in conflict and keeps us at war with ourselves. Essentially, moralistic judgment does not foster the degree of empathy, understanding, and curiosity about new insights necessary to really honor ourselves and others. In contrast, nonviolent or compassionate communication is another process that can sufficiently honor ourselves and others so that helpful changes can occur more readily (more on this in chapter seven).

Therefore, what if we view all human behavior as being a result of the knowledge and strategies presently possessed, including knowledge of alternative strategies that might seem either more difficult at present (or simply impossible) or even detrimental to the comfort of the status quo, including one’s present self-concept? Then, what otherwise would be considered “breaches of morality” can prompt a sincere and empathetic investigation into what, in terms of knowledge, including self-knowledge (i.e., personal context), led to those decisions and how to repair, heal, and grow from them.

We have no real need to pass moralistic judgment and consider people guilty of various breaches and deserving of various kinds of punishment. Each person can be seen simply as doing what he or she determines is best for him or her under particular cognitive, emotional, and social circumstances. After all, if persons knew of a more beneficial way and, especially, knew how to implement it effectively—as well as knew that it would benefit them in ways they previously thought were impossible—then of course they would do that very thing. Isn’t this what all of us most want to do anyway, as we seek to enrich our lives? When we encounter new methods of being in the world that work better for us and our relationships, we usually adopt them, especially when we feel comfortable, confident, and eager about doing so—i.e., when we’re intrinsically motivated.

Yet domination systems can train us to do otherwise. They keep us stuck in traumatic ruts. They train us to become entrenched in thoughts and behaviors that lead us in dire emotional directions. These emotions are signals for us to pause, to introspect, to empathize, and to change course, essentially to adopt new, beneficial strategies. We can see how this relates to parenting.

Resourceful parenting basics

We’ve explored the topic of resourceful parenting as we’ve discussed the nature of childhood and how parents typically interact with their kids. Resourceful in this context means being psychologically attuned (intellectually, emotionally, motivationally, and behaviorally) to engage in win/win interactions with children, in which needs get met mutually without sacrifice.

When children are in an emotional and behavioral state that’s seemingly impeding what one wants as a parent, it’s most helpful to empathize with their experience, to understand it from the child’s point of view—based on his or her history, context of knowledge, and emotions. Even though we adults have a thing called maturity on our side, we’ve also spent years in domination systems; after all, they’re what we grew up in. Again, this is the time to pause, to introspect, to begin building a sturdy bridge of empathy specifically to one’s own child-self as well as to other children.

Coming to terms with our childhood trauma means healing these wounds of the past in terms of their present influence on our psychology. This entails bringing compassionate awareness to the situations in which our unprocessed trauma can be triggered by persons close to us, particularly children—since we were first traumatized as children, rendered powerless and helpless through abuse and neglect, which triggered overwhelming physical and emotional distress within us. Essentially, being triggered as a parent entails being in a much less resourceful psychological condition, one in which we likely feel overwhelmed and subjectively helpless. [80] So, as we probably know from lots of experience, a much less desirable situation for everyone involved happens when we aren’t mindful of trauma and empathetic toward the child within and, in turn, children in general.

Whether or not we are parents, we were all children once, and we remember what it felt like (barring substantial repression) when our emotional perspectives weren’t considered and understood. We likely felt anger, resentment, impatience, confusion, and upset, as well as sadness, disappointment, and dread about future encounters. This of course relates directly back to the twenty-four questions that Branden posed for us, which take into account the personal context of the child as a family member who possesses equal worth and respectability.

As I read Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting on the Complete Liberty Podcast, [35] I explored the various footnotes as well, which referred to numerous studies about the beneficial results of an intrinsically motivated and thus respectful model of interaction with little people. Also referenced were many studies demonstrating the substantial drawbacks of conditional parenting, or the “carrots and sticks” model, in which children’s needs aren’t fully considered and honored, and parents’ needs are expressed in costly ways.

Below are some titles of other books largely oriented around the premise of win/win, collaborative, “power-with” relationships (rather than a premise of win/lose, or lose/lose (compromise) and power-over relationships):

Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing The Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice by Inbal Kashtan [36]

Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys To Turn Family Conflict Into Cooperation by Sura Hart [37]

Heart To Heart Parenting: Empower Your Child Empower Yourself by Robin Grille [38]

Parenting From The Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell [39]

Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves: Transforming Parent-Child Relationships From Reaction And Struggle To Freedom, Power And Joy by Naomi Aldort [40]

Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program For Raising Responsible Children by Thomas Gordon [81]

While such books tend to vary in their extent of philosophical clarity and their amount of focus on healing childhood trauma, they still seek to help us transition into a realm of interaction that greatly improves the quality of emotional connection between parents and children. This is in place of remaining mired in the realm of “getting children to do things,” with its accompanying rewards-and-punishments approach. Ultimately, making this shift entails breaking free from some sizable shackles of the past that we’ve managed to carry with us into adulthood. Authoritarianism and obedience represent the ball and chain of our domination culture that keep us from moving to a place of love and reason. My friend Roslyn Ross discusses these and other aspects in her book A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting [84] and in the following two videos, which inform us that more connected and resourceful parenting can be achieved, yielding high-quality relationships:

Raising Children is an Act of Philosophy, Lecture 1

Raising Children is an Act of Philosophy, Lecture 2

As nonviolent communication founder Marshall Rosenberg noted extensively, when we live with a consciousness about needs—our own needs and the needs of others—typical power-over tactics are seen for what they are: quite costly expressions of unmet needs, or tragic ways of saying “Please!” and “Thank you.” [20] It’s vital to realize that honoring your own needs as adults and/or parents is just as vital as honoring the needs of children. Humans, by virtue of reason and the process of empathy (including self-empathy), have a unique interaction capacity of win/win negotiation. When we focus on the ways we can make life more wonderful for ourselves and others, we realize that sacrifice is both unnecessary and detrimental to our lives and well-being.

A couple chapters later, we’ll delve into more explicit aspects of the nonviolent communication process. Let’s next examine the nature of the learning process and how we can find a most life-enriching path. Needless to say, education is a realm that closely mimics the conditional parenting model, due to its shared premises.