What are your limits?

Have you ever seen a stone sheep enclosure on a hillside?  When I first moved to this country I lived in Scotland and, driving along country roads, suddenly on a hillside would be a circular stone wall built in a seemingly random location.


I always wondered why anyone would want to build a circle in the middle of ‘nowhere,’ until my husband explained that they are for hill farmers to pen their sheep. (strangely there are no such things in suburban America where I grew up!)

Today I am considering the limits of the mind, and how we pen ourselves in with received wisdom.  Think for a moment about your ideas and beliefs about children and parenting.  Here are some that I’ve thought of– in this post I am not proposing to agree or disagree with any of these.  I am simply hoping to explore how we contain ourselves with our attachment to particular beliefs:

  • Children need to learn independence from a young age.
  • Children should be seen and not heard.
  • Boys are easier to parent than girls.
  • Children who accept problems without making a fuss are ‘brave.’
  • Siblings shouldn’t fight.
  • If you pick her up every time she cries you’ll be making a rod for your own back.
  • Middle children are naturally more ‘difficult.’
  • People who don’t have children simply don’t understand what it’s like.
  • I am the adult and my children must respect and obey me.

You will have your own views on the above ideas– I have tried to include ones I disagree with as well as a couple that I know are my own personal attachments.  Consider for yourself whether one of these resonates with you or perhaps you have some of your own; maybe make a list for yourself.  I would love to hear your comments on this.

Like sheep penned in one of these enclosures, many parents find themselves encircled by ideology.  We may not even be aware of it, and in most cases we do it to ourselves.  With a massive mountainside to explore outside the enclosure, we have little awareness that anything exists outside the stone walls that surround us.

What are these stone walls?  They are the ideas that we have come to accept as ‘truth.’  Take the last example, above, “I am the adult and my children must respect and obey me.”  This is a notion that is particularly bedevilling for me.  My entrenched belief that my children should heed me because I am their mother takes me down the road of ‘power over’ parenting techniques (threats, punishment, coercion) rather than ‘power with’ techniques (sharing of feelings, cooperation, mutual respect).  I have read countless books about loving guidance and communication skills.  But I have come to the realisation that until my idea changes, whatever tools I try to implement will eventually be dropped on the floor as I return to my old ‘power over’ ways.  In essence, I remain attached to the idea, and until I drop that attachment, its influence remains.

Sometimes there may be nothing inherently objectionable about the idea; it’s our attachment to the idea that causes suffering.  In the example, “Siblings shouldn’t fight” there probably isn’t anything wrong with the expectation that siblings will get along some of the time.  But to hang on to this idea with a white-knuckle grasp engenders a view of our children’s fighting as something pathological.  This view can lead us to set up an impossible expectation in our families and prevents us from accepting a different idea: “fighting among siblings is normal.”  Or what if the total opposite were true: “Fighting among siblings is to be desired”?  Remember that I am not presenting a particular opinion about this statement: I am inviting you to question your received notions and look at them with a detached eye.

In his little book The Way to Love, Anthony de Mello SJ says that attachment is “an emotional state of clinging caused by the belief that without some particular thing or some person you cannot be happy.” Sometimes we are aware of our attachments and sometimes we are not.  It takes a great deal of self-awareness and soul-searching to locate our attachments.  De Mello goes on to say,

Now the tragedy of attachment is that if its object is not attained it causes unhappiness.  But if it is attained, it does not cause happiness– it merely causes a flash of pleasure followed by a weariness; and it is always accompanied, of course, by the anxiety that you may lose the object of your attachment….  The nature of attachments is such, that even if you satisfy many of them in the course of a single day, the one attachment that was not satisfied will prey upon your mind and make you unhappy.

But how to drop these attachments?  One way is simply to see them for what they are.  These ideas that we hold dear about parenting– what are they?  Where did they come from?  Let’s interrogate them and ask, “What would it be like if I were wrong about this?”  Seeing these attachments for what they are doesn’t mean that you will make a different choice in your parenting.  What it does mean is that you will be choosing from a place of freedom and authenticity.

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