Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Response to Comments on The Invisible Suffering of Children

by Miki Kashtan

Since I wrote my piece on The Invisible Suffering of Children, I have received a fair amount of commentary, both on the blog and off it. I am not surprised, as I knew I was walking into charged territory. In this response, I want to address some of the threads of what came.

I want to reflect, in particular, about three comments I got from father, mother, and late teen son from the same family, Rick, Sarah, and Leo, all of whom I know personally and love. What a treasure that has been. What most surprised me is that it was Leo, the son, who is the oldest of three, not his parents, who raised the issue of boundaries and the question of children’s need for security. Rick and Sarah, on the other hand, were speaking, in different ways, for the excruciating struggle of what it’s like to want to parent in the ways I describe and to run against obstacles – both external and internal. The external obstacles take the form of inability to manage it all alone in a society that leaves parents without clear support structures and makes their children their own problems. This is contrasted with societies in which the village that it proverbially takes to raise a child is actually there, and children are tended to by everyone. How can one parent, even two, handle three or more children with challenges, and provide the level of presence, engagement, creative thinking, and flexibility that are required for living a collaborative life? This echoes, also, the comment by another person that invited me to think and reflect more prominently about the role of the systems and structures within which parents raise their children. It’s a pioneering act to parent children in the ways I allude to in our kind of culture. Pioneering anything means, by necessity, not having sufficient support structures, and therefore being called to task more than is sometimes humanly possible.

This is where the external and the internal meet. All of us are the products of millennia of authority-based thinking, as well as our own personal upbringings. In order to parent in a way that’s different from what’s out there, from what our own parents did, from what the vast majority of books and advice columns continue to say, we need to be able to take on the internalized version of it and work with it to regain our own freedom of choice. In any area this is challenging. In parenting more than anywhere. It requires making friends with our own wounded childhood, accepting the vulnerability inherent in life, recognizing wholeness and brokenness as coexisting in each of us, and being humble enough to not know. It takes letting go of the idea that we are responsible for what our children become, and that they reflect on us. That we are supposed to be able to control their behavior. That they are different, immature, incapable just because they are, like all of us ultimately, dependent and in need. I bow to you all, the parents who try. I mourn with you for your shortcomings, and I pray that your children can recognize that you tried.

As I was reading the comments and reflecting in conversation with others, I came to a place of clarity about myself: it’s far easier for me to have compassion for the parents who try, who want to live the relationship of trust and collaboration with their children and run into obstacles, than for the parents who believe that controlling children is the right thing to do. I know these are not entirely distinct, either. Somewhere, I would like to believe that every parent, even the most philosophically authoritarian, would be open to collaborative approaches if they trusted the results and the feasibility. In this moment it seems likely to me that the initial collective descent into the attempt to control – nature, children, ourselves – may well have started from overwhelm and desperation about how to maintain life, how to survive, in the face of obstacles. I hope so very much to keep growing in my empathy towards parents and everyone who believes in controlling. I fully recognize it as my limitation that I am not there – in that sense I am like the parents… I want to, and am running into internal obstacles in the form of my own anguish about the world, especially as it relates to children.

I haven’t yet addressed Leo’s concern about children’s need for security, and the conclusion that he draws from it that some amount of willingness to choose against the child’s wishes is essential for their child’s well-being. I cannot improve on what my sister Inbal articulates in her writings on the topic of limits, I can only try to capture it in a few words here, and hope that her full article will be available soon through the NVCMarketplace. There is no question in my mind that part of the process of learning about life and the world involves facing limits. Where I differ is in what constitutes limits. Just as much as we have natural consequences and enforced consequences, we can have natural limits or arbitrary limits. The latter are imposed by parents – bedtime, rules, and the like. The former are created by life itself, most often in the form of the adults in the picture attending to their own needs. In this way, the limits that the child encounters are relational and real, and working them out is an interdependent process rather than an arbitrary rule. I see such limits as the best chance we have of raising children who have awareness of others’ needs instead of acting out of fear of punishment without deeply understanding and integrating the significance of things.

This is not to say that there won’t be moments of extreme anguish for both parents and children in trying to sort things out. Each interaction in which the parents are able to step into the willingness to surf the intensities with their children builds trust over time. I remember, for example, a time when my sister experienced alarm at something her son wanted to do that was clearly dangerous, perhaps it was something about poking his fingers into an electric outlet. He was, perhaps, 18 months old at the time. What she said to him was something like this: “You know that I never say “no” to you without reason. I don’t know how to explain to you why this is dangerous. Can you trust me and stop doing it?” Because of that trust, because at that age he already knew that his needs mattered and were part of the picture, including his need for autonomy, he could relax and let go without any need for restraint. If you watch the video interview I made with him on YouTube, you will hear him describe one of the very few instances in which force was being used, when it was a matter or potential life and death. I recognize, to loop back to the compassion for parents, that having one child and being able to homeschool is a different story that has a lot of privilege in it compared to having several children and navigating the exigencies of work and schools.

In conclusion: the intentionality matters, and it is far from sufficient. Without radical changes in the way our society is structured such that parents have more support, children have more support, and overall we live in ways that honor all of our needs, it is highly unlikely that most parents would be able to make the huge shifts on their own.

I feel grateful to everyone who responded, and look forward to continued engagement into the future.


  1. Hi Miki. I wanted to leave a comment on the original article but didn't have the chance, so i'm glad i can do it here. As a mother i too strugle sometimes to deal with my 21 month old son. I stand in the principles of non-violence (nvc included) and they bring much joy and fulfilment to my relationships whenever i can truly grasp them. But i do resonate a bit with that father you mentioned in the article. It's very difficult for me sometimes not to let my son cry for a while before i go to him. At times, i'm so tired and exhasperated that i just want peace and relaxation. I know that if i enter his room, i'm likely to yell at him and make matters even worse. So, in a way, my intention is not to punish his crying but rather to protect us both from a non-peaceful interaction. Even so, when i do decide to go to him, my heart isn't always at the place where i wish it was. I guess i'm work in progress as far as non-violence is concerned. But... aren't we all?

  2. Hi Shona! (It's a pleasure to read something by you).

    You say:

    I think you are pointing to this and I want to make it more explicit because I have seen nvc used as way to try and protect the child from pain- anohter path to suffering for parents and child aloke... because I dont believe we can do this- life is painful- and I want parents to find the skills to be with their children and show them how to navigate life in this way.

    For me, my vision of parenting has two pieces - to create connection and love between the parent and the child, and also to model for the child how to navigate feelings, pain, unmet needs etc. A big part of the second piece, I sense, is for parents to reveal their needs to the children and for the parent to model that how to relate to pain with compassion. Is that the vision that you are outlining?

  3. in reading this post again i feel so deeply supported by many things you have said. this line...

    Pioneering anything means, by necessity, not having sufficient support structures, and therefore being called to task more than is sometimes humanly possible.

    is particularly supportive. this is the story and frustration of my life. remembering this and the fact that i am by nature someone who challenges everything can definitely help me have more compassion for myself, in parenting as well as in life.

    and what follows about inner freedom and accepting what life offers, including what our children do and choose and become i am taking to heart.

    i have a lot to learn about working collaboratively with the immature beings that my children are and want to bring that into my choices more and more consciously. its a pretty foreign concept in general and must be applied in a way that works for children specifically because of what leo brought up about children}{s need for security. the relationship of caregiver to child is not the same as adult to adult. its a special situation but absolutely worth continuing to investigate and practice collaboration.

    last, i have been reflecting a lot over the years and recently, how heavy the burden is put on parents in our culture, to be entirely responsible for their children. its such a hard topic to bring up because there is so much judgement and shame around parenting. if children don{t turn out the way society prefers, there is an inherent prevalent assumption that the parents <read the mother< screwed up somehow. rarely does anyone talk about the failure of the society as a whole to support the needs of mothers let alone children. fathers don{t usually even figure in. i know for myself when i have managed to gather support i have much more patience, creativity, and resilience than when i am alone in my parenting dilemmas. ideally i would like to have more loving adults in my childrens lives who hold their needs and their development as dear and precious as i do, i would love to have more financial and structural support for their education and health <public education and medicaid don{t actually support their education and health unfortunately<, and i would love to have a variety of public places where my children are not only welcome but where they are invited and encouraged to come and interact with the society they live in. i feel this one with a lot of pain when i think of all the times i wanted to take my kids out somewhere and do something with them and there is no place to go other than in nature, which we do and that is worth a lot, or someplace where they would consume something, which i avoid. we have a long long way to go on this front.

    i am so happy to be engaged in this conversation. even the dialogue feels like movement for me. thank you miki.

  4. Dear Shona,

    It has taken me some time to respond, and I hope this is still relevant for you.

    1. in the example you quote I am very doubtful that an 18 month old would understand this language.. having never met your nephew i dont know this for sure. i speak with years of study of the development of human communication in children. I know you speak of intentionality and I trust that he got the intention in inbal's words.. yet I worry that other parents reading this will attribute the power to the words that inbal has said rather than the amount of trust built between them and the deep connected place she was in within herself because of her practise.

    Re #1: while I don’t know if these were the exact words, I know for sure that the language used with him was clear, full, explicit, and transparent, similar to the words I used in this example. I know that a huge part of it was the trust already built between them, and the words served, for sure, as a reminder to him of that trust. They are not inconsequential

    Re #2: to the extend I am confident that I understand what you mean, I make two distinctions: one is between pain (which I, with you, believe is part of life and inevitable) and suffering (which I believe is caused by how we relate to pain). The other is between pain that emerges from the natural unfolding of attending to needs, and pain that is caused by lack of care for the possible suffering of the child. I absolutely want parents to grow, in part, in their capacity to be present and relaxed when their children are in pain instead of seeing their role as preventing pain.

    Re #3: I personally don’t find the word boundary useful, and I see it as different from limits. It is a semantic difference, so I want to attend to the essence of what I mean, not to the definitions. I want to make sure, like you, that I attend to my needs with as much care as is humanly possible for others while doing so. I am totally comfortable with the actions you describe in trying to protect yourself (even though I don’t like calling that a boundary or a limit). I am concerned about the idea that parents are supposed to provide limits in order to meet needs for their children, that’s the main thing I was hoping to convey. I believe the needs of the child will best be met if people do exactly what you propose, which I see as attending to their own needs with full awareness of their choice.

    Re #4: I felt a whole lot of kinship with you when I read this. Like you, I don’t see children through any particular lens. This may be because I still have absolutely vivid memories of my own thoughts and experiences as a very small child, and all the way through. It’s not foreign to me. This enables me to understand and respect children deeply, however I don’t easily relate to children because I generally don’t enjoy doing the things they like doing…

    I enjoyed thinking about this!


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  6. Dear Shona,

    I would like to start by restating your concerns as I understand them based on our offline email exchanges:

    1. You are doubting that an 18-month old could have truly understood and processed the words that I roughly quoted in the original post – “You know that I never say “no” to you without reason. I don’t know how to explain to you why this is dangerous. Can you trust me and stop doing it?”

    2. Whether or not it worked for that particular child, you are concerned that parents would imagine that the power of that interaction is in the words rather than in the intention.

    3. You want understanding for the reality of so many parents’ lives in which the space for these kinds of exchanges may just not exist.

    4. You are concerned that this kind of interaction – for this age and about a dangerous moment –talked about in a public space, would take away from the credibility of Nonviolent Communication.

    Because your concerns are all important to me, and because I want the full range of possibilities to be held in as many moments as possible, I discussed this with Inbal, who is both the mother in question, and the person with the true expertise about parenting with Nonviolent Communication, having contributed a booklet, a CD (both of them available on www.baynvc.org), and many other resources and trainings for parents.

    The rest of this response goes in a separate comment, because this response is too long for Blogger!


  7. Dear Shona,

    Here's the rest of my response...

    Based on my conversation with Inbal, the first thing I want to say is that what was missing from my original post is context. One part of the context is that Yannai was (and still is, at 14) unusually verbal. At that age he was already communicating with complex sentences, even when they were not grammatically always correct. More to the point, he clearly responded with understanding for what was said to him even beyond his capacity for verbal expression. More on this later.

    One other important piece of the context that I didn’t clarify sufficiently is that the level of danger was quite minimal. He wanted to touch the outlet, he wasn’t actually touching it. There is no question that if danger is already happening, something brief and clear is essential, more likely, at that age, action rather than words, literally removing the child from the danger.

    The only purpose of using words is if they connect and make sense – whether it’s a baby, toddler, or adult. In this case, with this child, it did. As far as my memory of this incident goes, there was a pause after the first part, when Yannai acknowledged what was being said, before Inbal said the 2nd part. Connection was already made. Though keep in mind that neither Inbal nor I remember the precise words she used; what I wrote is an approximation of the idea she was after, and she may have found a simpler way to say that idea. For us, what matters is the same as for you: not the words, but the intention. Even if he had not understood her words, speaking them is a way to convey intention, and based on her experience with him, she had reason to think he would understand that.

    So we are fully aligned with you that the words are only carriers of meaning, not the meaning itself. In this case, what was being conveyed was more about trust than about getting him to stop his actions, because the danger was not as imminent, and because Inbal’s awareness was, in large measure, also on the question of what happens when she is out of the room – how can she create sufficient trust that would maintain the safety beyond the moment she is there?

    Whether or not parents have the space or capacity to focus in the same way that Inbal did in that moment, whether or not this or that child has the capacity (and experience) to understand the words, I want to reiterate the importance of finding ways of attending to everyone’s needs, not just getting the child to do something. Focusing on the quality of the relationship more so than the specific outcome in specific moments (barring, again, imminent danger) is what this kind of parenting is about. This was the moral of the story, and I am concerned that will be lost in this discussion.

    That said, I am appreciating very much your persistence in communicating your concerns to me, because I learned something invaluable as a result. This is not a new lesson, and one that is still hard for me to integrate. It’s about providing sufficient context and acknowledgment when I talk about controversial notions or unusual experiences. Without it, I can see clearly how my words could have the opposite effect from my intention: instead of inspiration they contribute to alienation.

    Before ending, a word about child development. My own experience of children who grow up in an environment of true partnership – which is small and yet is beyond just Yannai’s life – is that it’s common for them to defy theories of child development. Even those who didn’t grow up this way have regularly astonished me with their capacity for understanding, for empathy, and for expression of ideas and experiences that they are simply not “supposed” to have. With all of my respect for the theoreticians and clinicians, I want the diverse lived experiences of children and those who prioritize respect and trust in interacting with children to be honored, too.