Humans have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. That’s unfortunate, of course, but by itself it’s not deeply problematic. What’s problematic is failing to identify and address them.
It’s important to understand that our species has already overcome plenty of vulnerabilities and thrived in spite of them. If this were not true, we’d be living like chimpanzees.
My point today is that we need to teach children about our vulnerabilities. Evading the subject keeps them ignorant and leaves them open to damages. Not only does it delay them from overcoming their vulnerabilities, but it inculcates a belief that they’re not supposed to have vulnerabilities in the first place… and that since they do, something is wrong with them.
It’s important to understand that everything we do occurs within a status-mad world. We learn very early that the high places in life (as they are portrayed perhaps 90 percent of the time) are attainable only to those who appear invulnerable. Leaders become leaders, after all, because they seem very certain of something appealing.
Bear in mind, please, that we’re born with brain circuitry that recognizes status, and does so both unbidden and within 40 milliseconds. (See FMP #107 for details.)
And so even children will be very sensitive to this, and will feel low-status because they are small, weak and ignorant. They very often think, even if partially and dimly, “I’m supposed to be strong, and I’m not.”
Such things are damaging to children, especially because they come so early in life, before perspectives and defenses can be formed.
Making the problem worse is the fact that adults don’t want to talk about vulnerabilities for more or less the same reason: During their lifetimes (beginning with similar child experiences) they learned that showing a vulnerability diminishes one’s status. This, of course, becomes a habit for them, and so talking about such things, even with a child, becomes uncomfortable.
In this we see a cycle of damage and discomfort afflicting generation after generation. But beyond the direct pain involved, this carries a far greater cost, since it routes around addressing and healing our vulnerabilities, or at least patching them over.
By addressing this subject thoughtfully, we find ourselves with an opportunity to do better, and to do better for our children.
Now, having explained some basics, let’s move on to some specifics. I’m listing these in more or less chronological order, starting with those than can and need to be addressed in the earliest years and moving forward from there.
This chronology is short, and based entirely on my personal experience. Your experiences may vary. As parents soon learn, all children are different and all circumstances are different. Parenting is impossible to do perfectly, and so we do our best and fix our mistakes as we recognize them. Parenting is more demanding than any other job I can think of.
Here’s my current list:
“I want it.” The child sees a toy they want (or whatever) and seizes it from someone else. The parent, of course says “No, you may not take someone else’s things,” but if the child is old enough to comprehend, we can go on to say, “I know you feel like you want it and want to take it, but that’s not an idea we should listen to. We have to say no to it, and share.”
By this, we’re acknowledging the self-generated error, and while not condemning the child for it, we tell them to defy it.
We want our children to develop internal depth and strength, and it begins with being able to recognize and regulate their own impulses. Don’t worry that this lesson and others like it take time to root, just keep teaching and gently requiring. (“An iron hand in a velvet glove” is a bit dramatic, but it makes a nice illustration for this balancing act.)
“You will do it!” Saying this, the child is trying to force its will upon others. They want something, are fixated upon it, and are ignoring the equal personhood of others. Even though this seems unkind, it’s more often just the child being overcome by their desires.
In this case, we need to teach the child that their own impulses aren’t essentially wrong (to want the toy or whatever), but they go too far. The child has to stop their desire from overflowing, and treat others are equals, even though they don’t feel like doing so.
A useful response would run something like this:
“Yes, I know you feel like that; we’ve all felt like that. But we don’t allow ourselves to behave that way, because if we did, life would get very bad for all of us.”
Then, once the child pauses or ask why, something like this:
“When we force people to do things, they stop playing with us, and stop working with us. What would happen if we were that pushy with grownups?” (pause) “They wouldn’t build houses and cars for us, they wouldn’t grow food for us, or deliver it to the grocery stores. Things would get very bad for us. So, we can’t try to force people, or they’ll stop doing things for us.”
That, of course, would run directly into a conversation on the wisdom of the golden rule, at least for children who are old enough.
Hurt feelings. There are a lot of ways kids have their feelings hurt: by other children, but purely internal comparisons with others, and so on. And while every situation is different, there’s one response that works for most of them:
“I’m very sorry you feel that way… but I know you’re good. I will always love you, and we can fix anything that needs to be fixed… But I want you to remember that we feel bad things too strongly. When something makes us feel bad, we feel more bad than we should. It’s just a problem that people have.”
From there you can add (“We have to stop listening to it”) or modify as required. This is something that you should remember for yourself as well: When we feel bad, we almost always feel worse than the situation actually warrants. It’s an old human problem and it’s still with us. But if you can get this message into your children at an early age, it’s hold over the future may diminish.
Status. At some point you’ll have to deal with children’s observations (usually honest, even if fully inconsiderate) about who has a bigger house, better car, and so on. The best answer I know runs about like this:
“I don’t want you to talk about such things, because they don’t matter, and because they make people feel bad.”
From there you can say that yes, people do have varying amounts of possessions, but we buy things because they are useful for us, not to show to others… that trying to be better than others wastes our time and means that we’re being controlled by what other people do – trying to make ourselves look better – instead of what actually improves us.
It also makes people feel bad, which is a big problem too. Injuring someone’s feelings makes almost everything worse.
Other cases. There could, obviously, be many more issues of this type. For more or less all of them, the model holds:
- Don’t condemn the child for having a vulnerability.
- Point out the vulnerability or error.
- Insist that the child act contrary to the vulnerability or error.
In practice, you can be very forthright and direct, saying things like this:
“Sometimes we feel like _______. That’s not a good thing, but sometimes we do feel it. We have to force ourselves not to do it. Instead, we make ourselves ________, and after a while we stop feeling like doing it.”
The Purpose of It All
By doing these things, we teach our children that our species has weak points, but that we’re also well able to overcome them.
The base-level understanding we instill in them will undermine a hundred forms of confusion and negative self-judgment. It will also support an honest and generally positive self-estimation for the rest of their lives: Sure, we have things to fix, but if we work at it, we are able to fix them.