Friday, October 7, 2011

Musings on Choice and Children

by Miki Kashtan

When I was twelve my family moved from Israel to Mexico for two years. This decision happened immediately following the first year in my young life, and one of the only times in my life overall, that I had a sense of belonging and acceptance in a group of peers. The decision was made by my parents without consulting with any of us: my seventeen-year-old sister, myself, or my younger sister who was then five. More than that: it was made against my vociferous opposition, which was so strong that I was semi-seriously contemplating jumping off the ship and swimming back to Israel.

Not only did my parents have the legal right to take me against my will. That right is enshrined in millennia of social norm. Would I have wanted my parents not to go to Mexico because I didn’t want to go? Not exactly. I would have wanted them to be open to considering not going as a possible outcome once all the needs were on the table. More than anything, I would have wanted them to hear and appreciate the horrible loss I was about to incur, to hear my plight and hold my needs alongside theirs. I would have wanted them to let me know, in full, their needs, their struggles, and their perspective that would lead them to want to go. I would have wanted to be invited into joint holding of all the needs and making the decision together. The experience of having no choice and no say in our lives, endemic and pervasive in almost all children’s lives, many women’s lives, still, around the world, and other groups with little access to resources is acutely painful and traumatic. I wish it on no one, not even people who have done acts of horror against others, and certainly not so many of us on a daily basis.
Giving Children Voice
In reading the above, a friend who is in the process of going back with her family to live in another country was deeply affected and decided to engage in dialogue with her eight-year-old about the decision. Let’s call them Janey and Sam. When she first brought up the topic of going back there, they started to tell her all the things they liked and didn’t like about their experience there. Then she had the following dialogue with Sam:
Janey: After thinking about all of that, would you be willing to go back?
Sam: Do I have a choice?
Janey: If you really didn’t want to go, and since I really do want to go, it might be hard to figure out what to do.
Sam: (after some more conversation): Sure, I'll go.
Janey: (some time later): What if I told you that you and your brother could make the decision about whether we go or not--whatever you say, we'll do. What would you say then?
Sam: I would say yes to going.
Janey: Why?
Sam: Because you're giving me a choice and I don't like to be told what to do.
Children, like the rest of us human beings, want to be able to participate in decisions that affect them. Yes, we tell ourselves that they can’t, they don’t know enough, they can’t be trusted. The very same kinds of arguments that were used in the past to justify denying choice to women, or to blacks, or other groups. Although we are far from full participation of any such group, as I painfully know as a woman, the established norm is one of equal rights under the law. When it comes to children, however, there isn’t even a lip service commitment to equality. Children are still fully “owned” by their parents, and it’s acceptable and customary to restrict their movement, punish them at will, including physically, and make decisions that affect them dramatically without consulting with them first. The only group of humans still held in this way.
This is an extremely tall order. How can any parent in our society, even if they wholeheartedly embrace the full participation of their children, find enough inner capacity to navigate it all and in addition learn how to do it in partnership with children? If we are to create a world in which children experience choice, we would need to restructure life in major ways so that the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the one or two parents to respond to the needs of their children. I think about this a lot, and anticipate coming back to write about this topic more.
Choice and Options
Except in contexts where parents can physically force younger ones to go somewhere, most of the daily experience of life revolves more around attempting to control children’s behavior. Often I hear parents talk about giving or not giving their children choice in certain matters. Just today, for example, at a training I did, I heard one woman talk about her struggle with her 15-year-old who, in her words, “has to be home by 4pm” and who hasn’t been home by 4pm on most days in the last month. This young man was clearly exercising choice every day: the simple choice of whether or not to do what his mother said he “had” to do. It is completely within his power to make the choice not to come home by 4pm, as he has demonstrated repeatedly.
There is nothing anyone can do to take away or give choice to another. Even when physically forced, we still have inner choice in how we respond to a situation. Even when a parent tells a child to go to their room, the child is still choosing whether or not to do so. The power to “make” the child do anything does not exist except when the parent can exercise physical force of some kind.
Do parents have power in relation to their children’s choices? Absolutely! They have the power to restrict their children’s access to resources, and in this way limit their options. They also have another power that is at the heart of why it appears that we can make children, or other people, do what we want: parents have the power to deliver consequences for their children’s actions, backed up by legal and societal norms for doing so. This is no small matter, and every child knows that.
The question I am left with is not whether or not we give children choice. They have it. The question for me is what we can do to support them in making choices that will nourish their lives and their ability to be thoughtful, active, caring participants in life, now and for the rest of their living days. I doubt that having them make choices based on fear of punishment is going to give them the inner strength and clarity of purpose necessary for making wise choices. I have faith in human beings, and I fiercely believe that showing children care and interest in their needs, and presenting clearly what parents need, is a breeding ground of empathic and courageous human beings who can make choices based on their deepest understanding of their own and others’ needs.

7 comments:

  1. yes when a family moves on during a persons formative age it tends to impact on that persons psyche.......i have seen many of cousins and friends whose parents work
    in jobs with lots of transfer tends to develop a sense of mistrust and insecurity and they seem to be more mature than their age

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  2. I believe I need to restrict my children's choices for various reasons. One is that I believe (and it's socially expected) that my husband and I are solely responsible for our children's wellbeing. I remember living in a remote Mayan village in Guatemala for a short time when one of my children was an infant. Everywhere I went, friends and strangers alike would interact with my baby and even reach out for a chance to hold or carry him. I had the sense of carrying a precious gift for the world and also being seen and held as a mother. I didn't realize how accustomed I had become to the experience until I landed in the U.S. and it suddenly stopped. I suddenly had the experience of being a bit of a burden because of the extra needs I had with caring for an infant. The contrast was dramatic and raised my awareness of how lonely raising a child can be in this country. Without the sense of a larger social safety net for the children I have less imagination about the choices they have to get their needs met other than through me and my husband.

    Overall I want to have compassion for parents as well as children and work to change things in the social structure at the same time as fine tuning our individual lives. How to do that?

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  3. gundip- read your comment not all children whose family shifts are insecure or psychotic. true it hurts the child and may become little concerned but they are all normal

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  4. Yes to Sarah: increase compassion for parents, because the conditions of parenting in North America, as she points out, leave them overworked and solely responsible for their children. i do plan to come back to these challenging questions. i want to keep reaching for more and more wisdom and capacity in having compassion for our challenges, strength to overcome our conditions and conditioning so that we can act differently even when the conditions remain the same, and vision and courage and wisdom to work to transform the those same larger social conditions.

    tall order indeed.

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  5. Thank you Miki.
    Your words touch the child in me.
    It gives hope.

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  6. Wow, very well said. I especially like the notion that children always have the choice, and it is our job to help them understand that choice. I am currently writing a thesis about the role of the lawyer for the child in custody cases. The tide is shifting toward giving children more voice, and there are long debates about choice vs. voice, and harming children vs. helping them. Once again, your wisdom brings a new light to this for me, and as I meet with my advisor tomorrow to decide how best to finish my thesis, I will definitely be thinking of this post. Thank you!

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  7. These ideas about relating to one’s offspring that you have presented are excellent. I heartily recommend, should they ring true with parents, one take them up and start experimenting right away. This could be so helpful toward ending the endless cycles of treating our children as inferiors or slaves.

    When my daughter was a senior in high school (She’s now 29), there arose two issues that we were in conflict about. One had to do with the way she was dressing and the other about her boyfriend being with her unchaperoned in our home after school let out. I let her know that I was open to hearing her point of view, and that it would be considered when her mother (my wife) and I made the final decision as to what we deemed acceptable behavior, which we took to be our responsibility. However, I also told her that she was free to do otherwise but not while she lived in our home and in our care, where we need to maintain the authority. I recollect that this attitude, which had a degree of risk, worked out well for all concerned.

    Here are two other things I ran across in the past couple of days on the theme.

    A low self-love in the parent desires that his child should repeat his character and fortune. I suffer whenever I see that common sight of a parent or senior imposing his opinion and way of thinking and being on a young soul to which he is totally unfit. Cannot we let people be themselves, and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make another you. One’s enough. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

    A hillbilly had been courting a mountain gal. At last her father spoke up: “You’ve been seeing Nellie for nigh onto a year. What are your intentions--honorable or dishonorable?”
    The startled young blood replied: “You mean I got a choice?” --Harry Hershfield

    Ron

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