Your Children Are Not Your Children

June 1, 2020
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Khalil Gibran self-portrait

Khalil Gibran self-portrait

In a Dhamma talk yesterday, Ajahn Amaro mentioned the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote about parenting in his 1923 book, The Prophet. This is the kind of the advice Gibram offers to parents:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

Society teaches us that being a parent can be a complicated adventure, requiring lots of knowledge and work. And yet Kahlil Gibran makes it sounds almost simple.

Many parents seek out ideas and advice about parenting. For instance, dads can attend a Boot Camp for New Dads and learn "real-world advice." The University of Wisconsin system (Wisconsin Public Radio, where I used to work, is part of that system) used to offer parenting seminars available to any member of the faculty or staff. Those monthly seminars included a free lunch, free massage, and a free lecture presented by a variety of parenting "experts." Certainly many attendees would show up just for the free lunch and massage, but they would also get to hear smart people offer ideas about parenting. Every month provided new areas to explore.

So how is Gibran able to uncomplicate the complicated? He claims that we parents need to do little more than offer children our love. He advises that we can't control them because they are not ours to control. Should we believe him?

Ajahn Brahm would probably agree with Gibran's assessment. In his Dhamma talks, Ajahn Brahm — a celibate monk with no children of his own — often talks about parenting. He claims parents can do little more than offer their kids unconditional support. Sure, he says we have to keep them out of harm's way — running into the street and other rather simplistic sounding examples — but our primary responsibility is to give boundless love and support. No matter what. This seems nice in theory, but isn't parenting much more complicated?

What might happen if we heeded Ajahn Brahm's advice? What if we are a parent who gets upset by a dirty room or chores not completed and we find ourselves in confrontational situations that led to yelling? Few parents want to raise their voice with their kids, so what might happen if we stopped trying to force our kids to behave like we want? What might happen if we stop making threats about turning off WiFi, loss of privileges, and other related "punishments"? People like Gibran and Brahm don't say we should never ask kids to do their chores, sometimes repeatedly. They don't say we can start eating dinner before everyone is seated at the dinner table. They don't tell parents to condone hurtful words or actions. Rather, they advise to cultivate conditions that grow from a place of kindness, not anger.

A significant amount of effort would be required to test their advice with scientific accuracy. It's tough to imagine families participating in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial where one family does not offer their children unconditional love. However, what convincing argument could we make that our children really are our children to control, and that we really can make them to act in certain way? Certainly we must try to "keep them from doing bad" and "support them in doing good," as the Buddha suggests to Sigālaka. But we also must trust our children are resilient without needing a scientific study.

In parenting, as in meditation, we all deviate from the noble path to some degree or another. If our high school child only registers for three AP classes their next semester, we still might subtly suggest they register for a fourth if their teacher had recommended four AP classes. The temptation to take away WiFi can be strong when chores don't get completed on our timelines. But for the most part we benefit when we resist those urges and instead focus our attention primarily on offering our children our love. Family life lived according to Kahlil Gibran's worldview may not be pure bliss, but such an approach sounds simpler, easier, and probably more beneficial to our children.

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