Friday, January 18, 2013

The Invisible Suffering of Children

by Miki Kashtan

Intense and terrible, I think, must be the loneliness
Of infants… 
– Edna St. Vincent Millay (untitled) the time [the infant] is taken to his [sic] mother’s home (surely it cannot be called his) he is well versed in the character of life. On the preconscious level plane that will qualify all his further impressions, as it is qualified by them, he knows life to be unspeakably lonely, unresponsive to his signals, and full of pain.
 – Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept


I am not a parent, and I cannot speak with the authority of a parent. I closely followed one child’s upbringing, which has been one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had, convincing me, despite being a sample of one, of what’s possible. Sadly, I am limited in my ability to talk about the glorious vision of that possibility of parenting without alienating at least some parents. I am quite concerned that this piece, in which I talk about my own pain about how children are raised, can do exactly this instead of inviting reflection, dialogue, and mutual exploration to find ways of supporting both parents and children to find meaning, peace, and joy in their shared lives.

Before completing this piece, I spoke with a few people, including two parents, about this limitation of mine. I deeply long to find full, vibrant compassion for the extraordinary challenges that parents face, especially in today’s world, where the support systems for parents are so limited, where the harshness of the life we have created is reaching intense proportions, where the entire future of our species is uncertain. I hope very much that these conversations helped me move closer to embodying this understanding, and am explicitly inviting you, the readers of this piece, to give me feedback, especially if you disagree with me.

Turning off Feelings in Order to Parent

I was visiting some friends for an extended dinner and evening plans that included friends of theirs from out of town who had two daughters, ages two and four. At some inevitable point, the younger girl was told it was her bed time, and was sent off to another room. When left alone in that room, she started crying, and continued for quite some time. I was completely unable to focus on anything else, my heart clenching in distress at her agony. Her father, who was sitting in front of me, looked entirely unperturbed. Eventually, I didn’t find a way to contain my discomfort, and asked him how he could hear her cry and not suffer as a result. I realize, in retrospect, this is a loaded question, and I hope that were this to happen today I would know how to handle the situation with a whole lot more empathy for him than I was able to muster at the time. Regardless, his response continues to reverberate in my mind, more than fifteen years later. He looked me in the eye, and explained to me that in order to be able to give children what they need, parents simply must learn to turn off their emotions, so they can hear their children cry and not be disturbed by it. I almost started crying myself when I heard him. He was telling me that in order to parent, an act of love if any there is, he had to turn off his emotions. Even while writing this, I feel helpless, knowing that many who may read these words will see the world in the same way that he does, and not knowing how to make the plight of children visible and understood, how to help all of us see that this father’s emotions are the most reliable indicators of his own heart’s well-being, and that I wish so much that he listened to his heart instead of shutting it off to do what he fervently believed was the right thing to do. It’s clear to me that he suffered, too, not only his daughter. 

The challenge is quite enormous, in part, because what I see as the routine mistreatment of children is not motivated by hatred, social distance, the misguided quest for power, or economic benefit and exploitation, which is what has motivated some more pernicious systems of oppression. The tragedy I perceive is that the vast majority of parents genuinely act on the basis of love and their best and deepest understanding of what would most serve their children, and yet they engage in reward and punishment, nowadays referred to as “consequences,” use their superior physical strength and access to resources to impose their will on children, and are often unable to provide the kind of supportive ear, mirroring presence, and relaxed acceptance that are so essential to every child’s thriving. 

Learning, Consequences, and Love

I’m not talking here about people who harm their children, either in desperation or in active intent. I am talking about the experience of loss of choice that comes from within because so much of what children do they do because of fear of consequences. I am talking about being in public places and seeing parents interacting with their children and most of what I hear is “do this” or “don’t do that.” I am talking about children being deprived of the possibility of knowing inside what they want because everything is determined for them. 

This is why so many of us, adults, have to work so, so hard to learn again to know what we want so we can truly choose instead of being gripped by “should,” “have to,” or “can’t” on the one hand, and “can’t help myself,” or “what can I get away with” on the other. We so often live in internal submission or rebellion instead of choosing from the deep clarity of knowing what we want and what the effect on others might be.
Of course everyone will want their children to learn deeply the effect of their actions - that’s what the real consequences are. However, what most children experience, because that’s what most adults know, is imposed consequences, stemming from the parent’s intent in teaching a lesson. Whether or not a lesson is learned, all that happens is then wrapped up in fear, which limits the child’s ability to truly learn anything. 

For many, it’s OK for children to be afraid – if that’s what it takes for them to learn the harsh lessons of life, to be prepared for later. From their perspective, the parents are lovingly offering the children the sacrifice of their own willingness to do the hard job of parenting, so the children will understand how life and society work. What a terrible and painful bind for all. I still wonder whether, deep down, parents ultimately wish for a world in which life is not so hard and therefore their children wouldn’t have to be “trained” for it. I imagine it may just be too painful to hold that wish consciously. 

The Norm and an Alternative

Because the only alternative to coercion that we generally know of is permissiveness, even people who are actively engaged in social transformation, who are passionate about social justice and equality for all, often stop short of including the children. Whereas, at least in theory and by law, it is no longer acceptable to view or treat women, people of color, people with disabilities, and other groups as inferior, or to deprive them of choice (though I am aware that these struggles are still very much ongoing and far, far from complete), there isn’t even a pretense of equality with regards to children. Children are still legally the possession of their parents or the state; they are still perceived, using language and scientific proof previously used against blacks or women, as less capable of reason and immature, and denied the vast majority of privileges that are the norm for adults. For the vast majority of adults children are still expected to obey, comply, and adapt to the norms of adult living. 

I, on the other hand, have never ever lost the perspective of the child, looking at the world, looking at what adults do, and feeling absolutely incredulous and heartbroken. I remember, vividly, what it was like to be a child in a world set up for adults. I remember, vividly, believing that there was some kind of conspiracy of everyone above sixteen against the little ones. I remember taking notes to myself, thinking through the many situations, so I would remember, when I would have the children I didn’t yet know then that I wouldn’t choose to have, and treat them differently from how I was treated and how I saw my fellow children being treated. Whenever I see an adult act in coercive, punitive, or harsh way toward a child, I lose some of my capacity to hold that adult with empathy.

I want to name the alternative as I see it, and to provide a pointer for a rich set of resources available for those who are hungry for a vision of parenting that upholds the full dignity and autonomy of children, is committed to sharing power, and is fueled by the passion for attending to everyone’s needs.

Here’s a story that illustrates the alternative for me. This past Sunday, I started a new yearlong program here in the Bay Area called “Leveraging Your Influence Using Nonviolent Communication” (still accepting new people, and there is an East Coast residential retreat version that’s coming up in April). Among the people who joined was a fifteen-year-old girl. As we opened the circle, each person was asked to express what brought them to the program. The girl, wowing all of us with her poise and clarity, explained to us that it wasn’t her first choice to be in this program, and that she chose to do it because she wants to be with her family on Sunday, it would in any event be difficult for her to get to church on her own on a Sunday, she loves Nonviolent Communication and it’s been super helpful for their family, and she wants to support her mother and her partner, who want to be there, because she understands what it means for their work. When I asked to hear more, she went on to explain that it was clear to her that she could say she didn’t want to come, and then they wouldn’t do the program. This is the absolute key to this possibility: because she knows she will not be forced, she could access true generosity. It is generosity we want from our children, not compliance. Compliance will never contribute to a new generation of people able to respond empathically, to act in line with their deepest values, or take a courageous stand despite fear of consequences. Similarly, the antidote to coerciveness is trust, not permissiveness. When we raise children with the trust that their needs matter as much as the adults’ needs, there is simply no reason to submit or rebel; there is nothing to rebel against! By extension, if you have children and they are rebellious, chances are good that even without meaning to you are using coercion. 

At the end of the rich day, the girl came to me and thanked me for being so flexible about money, which enabled her family to come. She wouldn’t have been comfortable to come if her presence meant that they would be asked to pay more than they can. I thanked her and told her how much of a gift she was to me, and she smiled, saying it was a pleasure to contribute to me. The flow was exquisite, all day long (and continued in our interactions about getting her permission to write about this). This girl is not unique, either. I have had exactly similar experiences with quite a number of children and teenagers who have been raised in partnership. Even very young ones have a true sense of their own power, and a complete interest in the other’s well being, quite beyond what theories of child development would predict. 

I feel profoundly passionate about this topic for two reasons. One is personal, because of my own personal feelings, the vividly remembered anguish of my own childhood, and the ongoing agony of children I see around me, anonymous to me in most cases and intensely poignant. The other is because I know that unless we change the ways of parenting and teaching, the next generation will have just as much trouble finding their inner sense of meaning, choice, dignity, and self-acceptance as the many, many people I have seen in many countries who struggle. I cannot see how we can change the systems of power in the world without changing the foundational relationship in which we get imprinted and imprint others with an understanding of how power works. This is important to me because I also cannot imagine how we can transform our relationship with nature and with consumption so we can turn the tide of destruction raging on the planet. 

Resources for You

I said I wanted to point to some little known resources, and that’s next. If you are curious, if you are a parent, if you are a teacher, or know parents, I want to take this opportunity to invite you to a unique upcoming online and phone parenting conference offered by the NVC Academy: a “virtual conference packed with world renowned parenting speakers and … the latest cutting-edge parenting information on brain science, healthy brain development in children, and practical tips for parenting from your heart even when feeling stress.”
In addition, I am excited to point you to a set of written resources and a CD created by my sister Inbal Kashtan, who has pioneered this approach to parenting in her family with her partner, and who has theorized, practiced, and trained hundreds of other parent trainers. These materials are available through the NVC Academy’s newly launched NVC Marketplace. Inbal addresses in her materials all the tough questions about limits, power, and the realities of daily living among others. She will also be one of the featured speakers at the parenting conference above. I truly hope, for your benefit, for your children, and for the future of humanity, that you explore these opportunities.

I also want to let you know about the new way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. Each Tuesday at 5:30pm Pacific time, starting February 5th, you will have an opportunity to participate in a teleconference to discuss the previous week’s post, usually posted by Thursday. Almost all weeks the teleconference will be facilitated by me, except when I am on a teaching tour, in which case a trusted colleague will be facilitating instead. Those who sign up will also have an additional set of reflection questions available to them in preparation for the conference call. For more information, click here.


  1. I think that it is important to realize, when discussing child-rearing, that while children do want choice and autonomy, they are also preoccupied with security. As Maslow said, in A Theory of Human Motivation, "Young children seem to thrive better under a system which has at least a skeletal outline of rigidity." I think that while it is important for parents to treat their children with respect, and honor their children's needs, it is also important to for them to take responsibility for their children's needs. I don't think that children are ready to make all the decisions that adults make. You seem to err on the side of treating children like adults, and not making them do anything. The value I see in this is that the children are treated with equal respect as, and as having equal value to, the parents. But I suspect that if parents were to not set boundaries or make decisions against the desires of their children, the children would feel insecure.

    1. I am in agreement with what you say here, Leo. While a sincere and loving parent must be responsible for the safety and welfare of their children, there is usually some scope for offering the children choices and and listening to their observations and sharing your own with them. Wanting is the root source of disappointment and misery, and something all must pass through, rise above, or unburden ourselves of identification with it. When what the child is wanting to do or have places them in dangerous or unwholesome circumstances, it is the parent's duty to restrict or set boundaries, again leaving scope for choice. One then must be prepared to suffer in the suffering of their children's disappointment, anger, or tantrum. The problem is in trying to avoid this by seeking to control the child with the reward/punishment scheme. By trying to avoid the "natural" suffering, we create more perverse type of suffering. Check out this short video, which is a good intro into the thinking of Alfie Kohn:

  2. God bless you. What moves me in reading this is the sense that, in freeing our children, we free ourselves, and in freeing ourselves, we free our children. We all want to be free of the tyranny of right/wrong thinking, we all want to have a sense of mattering and being able to trust and value our instincts, little people and big people alike. When we tell a child, "You matter, you get to be seen, you get to have a voice," we essentially tell ourselves the same, taking a stand for removing one link of conditioning at a time. Thank you, Miki.

  3. I agree with everything in this blog. I love the ideal and want to work towards a society that treats children this way, but I want a little more empathy for the huge challenges of parenting in this society. As you mentioned "the challenge is quite enormous". I'll go even further and say it is almost impossible for many parents to offer this kind of choice for there children. With multiple children, trauma all around, financial burdens, lack of community support, many strategies used by parents may not be the healthiest in the long run but serve a purpose of basic survival. Dulling ones emotions may be a useful survival strategy for a parent overwhelmed with emotional stress. Not giving your child choice can often be a necessity so a parent can financialy support a family. In other words the needs for survival may trump other needs in this case.

  4. Hi Miki,
    I love this post. I detect shades of Alice Miller everywhere here and I believe you've mentioned some of her books in other posts. I love that! The Drama of the Gifted Child has been really meaningful to me and describes how I grew up. And I'm young. I'm 25. I love NVC and I know what it's like to struggle with internal "shoulds" and a harsh inner critic that comes largely from my mother, who learned it largely from her demanding vascular surgeon father. I am so amazed at the power of the punitive parenting we grow up with. My mother was so hurt in childhood with two incredibly unresponsive parents (one who committed suicide when my mom was still in high school) and she continues to hurt me. She loves me very much and does not know how she badly she hurts me, but she is not open to hearing my feelings because I am still "the child," even at 25. She creates a particular vision of reality (one where I don't come out so favorably) and gives me no opportunity to respond to it, to present my own experience, for that to be valid.

    The sadness and anger are huge for me, and I'm glad and relieved that my practices of NVC and Buddhist meditation, and my amazing fiancé, give me healthier alternatives. It was so nice to read this today because I'm struggling right now with assumptions my mother made in recent communications to me. I am so happy I have NVC because I can get empathy around this. It never used to be an option for me. I have a phone session scheduled with one of my favorite empathy buddies for tonight, after I get back from a show. And I have other empathy buddies I can call, and a weekly practice group. I love having something that healing in my life.

    1. Dear Gaby, I feel moved to say (not necessarily according to NVC Hoyle; I’m just learning):
      (1) What heavy multi-generational Critical Parent Ego States you’ve been up against all your life, externally and internally. My heart goes out to you.
      (2) How incredibly wonderful: Only 25-- and already you have discovered powerful avenues of healing: (a) NVC, (b) an NVC group to belong to/be supported by, and (c) empathy buddies you can call! (d) a boyfriend who seems loving and appreciative. Bravo!
      (3) How wonderful you know your mother loves you.
      (A.) The I Hear You Saying Technique is: Each person is free to say anything (AFTER S/HE HAS REPEATED BACK W-H-A-T WAS SAID U-N-T-I-L THE PARTNER INDICATES, "YOU GOT IT!” It not only helps people truly hear and understand, it also helps persons to be WITH each other.
      (B)I want to give you hope and encouragement. My own life story and experience, says, “Even with the bad, relationships can be good sometimes. and get better and better; and sometimes real break-throughs can happen! Resolutions sometimes can take place.”
      A wonderful insight is that every “don’t like” can be flipped into a preference, an “I would like,” with significantly less hurt feelings and negative dynamics, more likely to get you what you want. The Law of Attraction: whatever we focus on tends to MAGNIFY, TO GROW LARGER, TO EXPAND.
      (C) After much pain and suffering , my Mother story had beautiful endings, and Love (God’s Love, our love) if it didn’t conquer all, feels as if it did and it certainly did pull off some wonderful Miracles that continue to bless).
      I want to wish you Happier Endings than the trip has been heretofore. You are already finding beautiful healing avenues, and I send good wishes and prayers that your days get sunnier, happier, lighter and brighter, as you find increasingly wonderful causes for gratitude!
      I wish, somehow, I could keep up with you my remaining years. Gotta go. The very Best to you! Rev. J. Roland Cole, [Had to cut letter drastically.]

  5. There is a difference between controlling the child and controlling the environment. And there is a difference in "turning off" emotions and sitting in that ugly spot listening to a child cry as you hold boundaries around their environment.

  6. Here is a link to a delightful and inspiring anecdote that depicts parenting in an unconventional manner. This mom is my hero!

    This Alfie Kohn interview is rich with reasonable explanations and scientific observations of how so much of conventional parenting methods works against what is universally longed for by loving parents: to see their children grow up to be happy, healthy, loving, critically-thinking, ethical adults.

  7. Miki,
    I know it can be hard for parents to hear what you are saying, especially if there is truth in it. Yes, we are up against HUGE social and other obstacles to creating the best for our kids. Still, I deeply appreciate your wanting to bring to light the experience that children have of this often unfriendly world. It's really important.

    It is easy to see how other people mistreat children. I could write my own book of complaints about how people deal with their infants and children and teens. It is more painful to see in myself how I fail to give my own children the dignity of their own humanity, separate from me as their mother and other ways that I fail to live up to my own ideals. I am working on humbly witnessing my shortcomings so that I can better serve these beautiful beings in their growth and development.

    I'm seeing that my children can teach me about this if I have the "giraffe ears" to listen.

    Recently I was in a heated discussion with one child about having friends over to play. I was saying things like, "you really don't understand how challenging it is for me to be responsible for a bunch of kids who are all fighting with each other!" My dear son said something that stopped me in my tracks and I have been pondering since: He said through his angry tears, "you say the word 'kids' as if we are THINGS! and don't have any FEELINGS!" In that I heard a cry for being seen as a full human being, and not as a job or a responsibility, or a problem to solve.

    This child has been testing me in painful ways but I can also see him as a teacher that is helping me to exact my professed commitment to nonviolence.

  8. HI Miki,
    I am with you. I am also not a parent, but have been intimately involved in the lives of many children and their families and have very few illusions about the challenges and struggles of parents. I feel grateful to have your companionship in this perspective and vision of how children can be treated. Many of your words are uncannily familiar to words that I have written. (
    What stands out for me most strongly as the challenges parents face in finding a different way with their children, is (at least in the USA) the incredible lack of cultural support. Even the parents I know that are aware and wanting to choose a different way, struggle with the stresses and pressure of daily life to such a degree that they often have limited internal resources to respond to their children with the kind of presence, patients and attentiveness they would ideally like. Even with my deep desire and commitment to engage with children in a totally honoring, respectful and caring way, when I have reached certain limits and tolerance within myself, when my nerves feel totally shot I have responded at moments with something quite different than that. For me, if we wish to change the way children are treated, there must of course be awareness consciousness and desire for something different, but there must also be a collective and cultural shit that eases pressure and stress on families and which there can be plenty of support for both parents and children.
    I'm not quite sure how to put the last part I want to say, but it's something like this: how could we move from or include with the individual parental choices and behavior the creation of systems structures and social organizations that support and make it easy and natural for parents to have different quality relationships with their children than the coercive, stressful and authoritarian ones they so often have?

    1. I think you meant cultural "shift," not "shit." :)

  9. Invisible suffering children amount is very high in the world. I pray for fostering children.
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