I wanted to shelter my son from the world. I prayed away my foul mouth, hid my tears and played happy family with gusto. I wanted his world to be flowery, fun and fantastically clean. I didn’t tell him about my childhood unless I was telling a funny anecdote about a pet or a friend. I socialized him, took art classes with him and enrolled him in a co-op preschool where I could play perfect with other perfect mothers. Right out of preschool we enrolled in a perfect private school where I was sure he would bloom into the perfect prep school boy. In my search for perfection I lost something integrally important to the development of a well-rounded human. That important missing element was a well-developed sense of reality.
As time passed I began to see the holes in the world I’d worked so hard to create. I wasn’t being myself, my friends were drearily superficial and my son was unhappy in his school. Desperate for answers I turned to a book I stole from my high school, an ancient, dog eared copy of Herman Hesse’s, Siddhartha. I love this book for so many reasons. Like many other great inspirational books I can just open it to any page and find a piece of wisdom that will help me with whatever it is I’m facing. That day I opened the book at the beginning. I read of Siddhartha’s mother, her love for her child and her tragic early death. I read about the prophesy, proclaiming Siddhartha to be the greatest teacher of the age. Then I read his father’s reaction to this prophesy. Having just lost his wife and then faced with the loss of his son to a religious life, Siddhartha’s father created a perfect world in which pain, suffering and old age had no place. He imprisoned Siddhartha in a false utopia and robbed him of reality in order to keep him safe. How did Siddhartha react? He ran away in search of answers to the questions his father could neither pose nor answer.
Setting down the book I began to see the holes I’d identified in my parenting open into rather worrying chasms. I remembered the perfect children I’d known growing up, the ones who’d summered at the country club, vacationed in the tropics with their perfect families only to go slumming as drug using collage kids. I started remembering other sheltered kids who’d gone wild with sex and drugs the moment they’d found freedom from the suffocating control of their perfect worlds. Slowly I began to think that maybe by keeping our children in ignorance of pain and suffering we create a vacuum in their experience which will only propel them into a deeper need to experience the very things we try to protect them from. We cannot limit our children’s experience on this earth by sheltering them from a world they will someday have to live in.
So what is a frightened conscientious parent to do? I still only have a vague idea. In my heart I think a parent’s job is to guide a child through the world but not to shelter them from it. I feel that we must discuss even the small details of their day and how their different interactions made them feel. Most importantly we must validate their emotions with empathy, compassion and a willingness to hear while we admit our own feelings, failings and frustrations within the discourse. In other words it is very important that our children see us as loving, fallible humans whom they can trust with their secrets. We live in a tumultuous world of opposites. As much as we hate to admit it good lives in balance with evil and both must be experienced in order to be understood. We cannot end suffering any more then Siddhartha the Buddha did because suffering is a necessary part of experience and experience is the only true teacher. No matter how hard we try, we cannot recreate heaven on earth because that isn’t why we’re here.