From Chapter 1, A World of Connections
THE CHILD AT THE CENTER
In anticipation and wonder humankind approaches the new millennium and begins to look at our old world with new eyes. Everywhere there is evidence that we are seeing our lives differently. We are now thinking in terms of what connects one thing to another rather than what separates them. We talk excitedly about the "in-between," the interactive energy between different things that helps define and shape each element. Our experience is described in interconnecting circles and the long lines of continuum, rather than in distinct and separate dots. We find our understanding deepened when we are drawn, by imagination and observation, to patterns of interaction and connection.
This way of reviewing the world has been gathering force throughout this century. As physicists became more knowledgeable about the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles, their language of connection has helped those of us who are not physicists see the dynamic connections among all things.
This relational perspective has been instrumental in shaping our personal view of parenting as a dynamic relationship and of the parent, and child as changeable, evolving beings who constantly influence each other. And this same predisposition to think in terms of connections helps explain our enduring interest in children.
Children are very much part of everything we do. Whenever we think through a social problem or help people re-create their relationships or simply live our own lives deeply, we always come back to the center and encounter again our concern for children. When we read about violent crime, we imagine the child who fires the gun. When we visit the local health clinic, we worry about the child whose parents can't afford professional care. When we hear about the destruction of old-growth forests, we wonder what happens to a child who grows up without trees. Our work as therapists led us to the subject of marriage, and marriage leads us to parenting, and parenting leads us back again to children.
At home the pattern is the same. Our lives center on our six children, two at home and four now off on their own. They are with us even when we shut the door and resolve firmly to work. We talk with friends and end up trading news of which child is doing what. We travel, and our internal clocks are still tuned to the children we left. We talk together about our plans for the future, and our attention is drawn to where our children will be in this unfamiliar landscape.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN CHILDHOOD AND PARENTHOOD
Over the years our in-depth investigation of marriage kept leading us to observations about parenting. We found we couldn't decipher the behavior of marriage partners without understanding something of their childhood experiences.
These observations helped establish the conceptual framework for the book. They gave us insight into the complexities of family relationships and eventually led to the development of the concept of conscious parenting. They help us see that, indeed, everything is connected to everything else. We will explore these observations briefly here and discuss them further throughout the book.
We observed that wounding gets passed on as a legacy. When we asked people about their early experiences, we began to understand how poor parenting is passed down from one generation to the next in patterns that repeat. If a father has received either too much parental attention or not enough during a particular stage of his own development, he will have trouble knowing how to facilitate his own child's growth through that stage. His parents didn't handle him well when he was thirteen, let's say, so he doesn't know what to do to meet his child's particular needs at that stage. It follows that his son will also be stymied by the challenge of helping his children at that point in their development. And so it goes. The observation that parents wound their children in the same stage of development in which they were wounded told us a lot about the problems that parents themselves had a hard time understanding.
We observed that people have innate impulses to get married and become parents, but there is no built-in program for how to do either. We learned that people get married for survival reasons, in the hope that their partners will be able to meet their unmet childhood needs. But they have no innate knowledge of how to get their needs met. People become parents to meet the survival needs of their children and to have the joy of raising them. But they have no innate knowledge of how to meet their children's needs. We found that both partners and parents welcomed guidance on how to achieve their goals.
We observed that where people get stuck in parenting is an indication of where they are stunted psychologically. People exhibit the same patterns of difficulty in both marriage and parenting, because these difficulties arise from the same initial psychological problem. If a woman cannot meet a particular need in her husband, she will most likely not be able to meet it in her child. What she can't give to her partner, she can't give to her child. It was important for us to understand why. We learned that the reason she can't meet the need has more to do with her and her childhood history than it has to do with her husband or child or what they are asking for. She can't give what she didn't get. In order for her to be able to see and meet the legitimate needs of her child (or partner), she must understand what she didn't get from her own parents and must find a way to make up the deficit. When she begins this process of self-healing, she will be freed from the constraints of always having to defend herself. This in turn frees her to really see and respond to the people around her.
We observed that the process of becoming a conscious marriage partner is similar to the process of becoming a conscious parent. We were immediately struck by the carryover of skills. For example, a woman who wants to become a conscious marriage partner must change certain things about herself: her tendency to react negatively, to criticize, to judge, and to become defensive. She will need to learn to use intentional dialogue, to stretch to meet her partner's needs even when it feels uncomfortable, to create an environment of physical and emotional safety, and to maintain boundaries that allow for connection but also separation. These same changes must be made by a parent who wants to become a conscious parent. In both relationships, the parent/partner learns how to participate in creating the safety, support, and structure that maintain the emotional and spiritual health of the connection between herself and the people she loves.
We also observed that there is one important difference between parenting and marriage. In a conscious marriage, partners grow when they stretch to meet the needs of the other, and they heal when their needs are met by their partner. The process is mutual. In marriage it is appropriate for a partner to grow by meeting the needs of the other partner, but it is not appropriate for a parent to try to heal by having the child meet his needs. The process for parents and children is not mutual. The parent must heal his childhood wounds in an adult relationship and not in his relationship with his child.
We observed that parenting offers another path for personal healing. The sense in which marriage can be healing is that partners restore their own wholeness when they stretch to meet each other's needs, giving to the other what is often hardest to give. The sense in which parenting can be healing is that parents restore their own wholeness when they stretch to meet the needs of their children at precisely those stages at which their own development has been incomplete. Through marriage and parenting, partners and parents can recover parts of themselves that have been lost. Both marriage and parenting give people the chance to receive for themselves what they give to their partner or child. They get what they give. In this way, both marriage and parenting can be transformational, because the healing experiences these relationships can provide will change the very character of the people involved.
We are distressed by how much grief people experience in trying to repair the damage of childhood. During the thinking and planning for this book our interest has developed into a concern for our whole society. What would life be like for adults who did not have to spend so much time getting over childhood? What would our society be like if it were not filled with wounded adults? In fact, we wonder whether our society can repair itself and solve its problems without the fundamental changes in marriage and parenting that embrace greater consciousness.
OUR POINT OF VIEW
We integrated these observations into a theory of conscious parenting against a particular philosophical background. This is the spiritual context for our understanding of how parents and children interact in relationship with each other.
When we look at parents and children, we see a vision that can be expressed only in poetic, metaphorical terms. We use metaphor to describe the vision because it is a way of pointing to a truth that lies beneath the surface and deals with the essence of things. This does not mean that our vision is useless in the practical world. On the contrary the vision becomes the center of our thoughts and intentions about parenting. We want to parent from this center. We seek to do things that are consistent with our vision.
This is one metaphor we use: The parent and child are held in the same orbit together. Sometimes the space of the orbit is very big, reaching all across the world; sometimes the space of the orbit is as small as the space between two people who hug. But the power of the attraction the bond that holds them in relationship to each other, is powerful regardless of the physical distance or the age of the child.
Another way we express this same understanding is to speak of the tapestry of life. We say that the parent and the child are woven together into a tapestry of living experience by the countless threads and stitches of their interactions with each other. Each of them is part of the design. You can't tell the exact point where the thread that weaves through one becomes the thread that weaves through the other. This does not mean that they don't have boundaries. They do. Respecting boundaries is one of the important ways parents remind themselves that they and their children do not have the same identities. But still there are similar threads that weave through both. And this is true whether we are talking about biological families with newborns or families in which children and parents meet later.
Regardless of which metaphor we use, we are expressing our deep conviction that one of the things we know about the nature of life is that parents and children are profoundly connected. The systems, techniques, and suggestions in this book flow from this conviction. You and your child are bound together in one of the most sacred and intimate relationships it is possible to experience. Be mindful of it, be careful, be reverential. It is possible to tear it.
A TEAR IN THE TAPESTRY
The metaphor of a tapestry is useful partly because the metaphor of tearing is useful. It helps you to be more careful of your child when you interact with him. You recognize tearing when you see other parents do it, and sooner or later you recognize it when you have done it yourself. The mom on the soccer field screams at her son when he misses a kick; the father discounts his daughter's achievement in school; you blame your child for your own loneliness. Some of these tears are small and can be repaired. Some of them are gaping holes that will be passed on again when your children raise their own children.
When do these tears happen? You realize that they are more likely to happen when you're not paying attention to the moment or when you yourself are experiencing emotional pain. In other words, they happen when you are self-absorbed, unaware that you are tired or upset over something else, or simply ignorant of the effects of your words. In that encounter, you are unconscious. It happens even to good parents.
We want to help you do more stitching together and less tearing apart. We want you to strengthen the connections you already have, even when your child is pulling and tugging in another direction. We want you to become more conscious about the way you interact with your child and intentional about what you can do to help your child grow into successful adulthood. The whole process is simple to understand, although we know it is not easy to do.
Copyright © 1997 by Harville Hendrix