What kids are
Like an acorn, which has within it the capacity to become a towering oak, a child has great potential. All children are born with all the virtues, the gifts within, waiting to grow. You may have noticed sometime or other a plant sprouting up through the concrete of a city street. The urge for growth is one of the strongest needs of any living thing.
What a child becomes is a result of four things: nature, nurturance, opportunity, and effort. Nature is a child’s natural giftedness or virtues “profile.” Although each child has all the virtues within them in potential to one degree or another, the potential for the development of certain virtues is greater in a particular child, just as a rose has different attributes than a chrysanthemum. Nurturance is how a child is educated, how his gifts are recognized and supported, the difference between watering a plant and letting it wilt. The opportunities children have to act on their virtues give them the possibility to become who they are. A great musician of world-class creativity without an instrument may never learn of the special music she has within her. Effort is a child’s responsibility, his ability to respond to the opportunities to practice the virtues.
Ultimately it is the choice of a child to act on her own potential. It is said that God provides nature and a parent provides nurture. The child himself must choose to respond to the opportunities in his life. Choice is at the core of moral will.
We have such a short but critical time in which to have a fundamental impact on the development of the character of our children, which is the greatest asset for their happiness. Much of their character development is complete by the time they turn seven.
What kids are not
We are used to thinking of children as psychological beings who need good physical care and also affection, respect, and a healthy balance between dependence and independence. The idea of a parent as a spiritual educator builds on yet goes beyond the notion of the child as a psychological being.
The book offers a frame of reference in which a child’s need for character education is primary. A parent, as spiritual mentor, focuses first of all on facilitating the child’s moral readiness. In order to make the shift from caretaker to educator, it is helpful to let go of notions about children which are not true to their spiritual nature.
Your child is not born a blank slate upon which you will write. There is no such thing as a generic baby. True, a child’s personality and character are not fully formed. But they are “in there.” Just as an oak is in an acorn—not a spruce or a palm but an oak—each child is born with a special bundle of potential. In that bundle are three things:
- Inherited traits
- Individual temperament
- Innate capacities: gifts, talents, abilities, limitations, and virtues
Spiritual parenting involves a focus on a child’s gifts and possibilities, a readiness to support them to develop all they can be—to give life their best effort.
A child is not a prince(ss) which parents warp into a frog. This is a modern notion which implies that if we left them to their own devices, children would be pure, undefiled, whole, and perfect. It contends that we are the ones who mess them up and “dethrone” them. This is a half truth. Parents do have enormous influence on children and can shape the script a child carries through life. But it is also true that left to their own devices, children are likely to take the path of least resistance, resorting to survival instincts, the animal side of their nature as material/spiritual beings. It is easier to develop the lower side of their nature, which doesn’t require them to engage their will. So children very much need a guiding hand to lead them. They are not inherently “pure.” They have the potential for both goodness and for destructiveness. Every quality they possess, every virtue, can be directed or misdirected. That’s why your role is so vital to their success.
There are many virtues that thrive only under conditions of challenge. How can one learn patience without having to wait? How would a child ever develop determination if life did not provide frustrations? How could we learn forgiveness without being hurt? If we don’t use our virtues, we lose them, just like muscle tone in the physical body. Protecting children from their challenges is running interference with the Creator. As moral champions, our children deserve more respect.
Some of the best parents have children who make very bad choices or are born with a particularly difficult temperament. How you parent is your responsibility, how they turn out is a complex and mysterious process, with many influences other than yours.
The opposititis trap
We often unconsciously project onto our children the unmet needs we had as children. If something in our childhood caused us pain—usually a lack of love—we tend to go one of two ways. Either we unconsciously repeat our parents’ behavior with our own children, or we go to the opposite extreme.
We are far more aware of wanting to correct the sins of our parents when they emerge in our behavior than to catch the more insidious habit of opposititis. For example, if our parents were very judgmental and made their affection conditional on our performance, we want to give unconditional love to our children. What that may look like, unfortunately, is giving them carte blanche acceptance no matter what they do, whether they are being rude or courteous, kind or cruel. In doing so, we are ignoring their true needs for mastery and meaning. If our parents tended to be too affectionate and sloppily sentimental, we may hold our children at arm’s length, giving them the respect and space we always craved. Meanwhile, they may be longing for more hugs.
The problem is that either way we are “reacting” to our own story rather than truly seeing our children. Our parenting becomes dictated by our needs and experiences rather than what is going on for our children. Rather than consciously treating our children as they need to be treated, we are treating them as we wish we had been treated by our parents.
The “chip off the old block” syndrome
Seeing a child for who she is, a unique individual, calls for us to detach ourselves from any expectations we may have of what the basic nature or “virtues profile” a child of ours “should” have, especially in the service of our egos. If she seems to be a quiet child who likes to read and has only one or two friends, it is not our place to try to shape her personality into that of an outgoing socialite. If we happen to be shy and have some painful memories of social awkwardness, we may feel the need to push this gentle little soul in a direction that is not hers.
Many people spend years feeling they are not enough no matter what they do. The disappointment of a parent is devastating to a child. When our children disappoint us—and they will—it is for one of several reasons. Some of these are:
- We may not be setting clear boundaries about the specific virtues we feel are called for in a situation.
- We have unreasonable expectations.
- We are failing to see the individual that our child is.
- We are reacting to some lack we feel in ourselves.
- They are having an off day—and need a little tolerance.
Of course, we have a desire to pass on what we have learned to our children, but the truth is that they meet life with a fresh perspective. It is far more empowering to focus on the virtue of excellence or purposefulness and then to discover, with great curiosity and openness, how your child will uniquely express these virtues in his life.