Children Living in a Grown-Up World

children emotionally unavailable parentsWhen I was about 14, a friend and I went to a classmate’s house during a break in school exams. I can’t remember why we had so much time between classes, but we did. At any rate, we were killing time and “Eugene” asked if we wanted to watch a movie. He specifically mentioned The Call of the Wild, which I had read. So we agreed. As it happens, the movie that began to play did not feature Clark Gable, and there were no dogs to be seen. What was to be seen was a naked woman, a dumb guy with muscles, and a banana being used in ways that had never occurred to me. Yes, it was a porn film. “Eugene” found my inevitable reaction hilarious. I was appalled that he had access to a large (and it was large) library of porn.

Alas, little has changed since then. I think we need to rethink the phrase “growing up too fast,” because some of the things that very young children are being exposed to shouldn’t really have a place even in the grown-up world. The bit of the old ultraviolence held up for satire in A Clockwork Orange, which was shocking in its day, is tame now.

Last year, a third grader at our bus stop told me that he had watched The Hangover 2 the night before. His comment was, “Completely inappropriate, I know.” But his father was in the room, and he apparently didn’t find it inappropriate for an 8-year-old to watch. This same child once mentioned that his father had taken him out to shoot crows for the hell of it, and that it was fun to watch their guts coming out. I looked at this beautiful child, wondering what on earth I could say to that, and then I said, “That makes me sad.”

Today I was a chaperon on a field trip with my daughter’s first-grade class. We went downtown to see a live play. One of the boys who had been assigned to my supervision, who is a real sweetheart, volunteered to me, “I watch R-rated movies all the time, and my parents don’t care. I also play M-rated games, that only 17-year-olds are supposed to play.” When a child offers this information out of the blue to a near stranger, you have a problem. Here was a child who needed his parents to notice him and set some boundaries for him. He was begging for them. I wondered if he would one day up the ante and stick a needle in his arm to get them to notice. I hope not, but I fear for him.

One of the other parent chaperons on today’s trip spent the entire time with her nose stuck in her iPhone. I didn’t even bring my phone with me. Her child sat beside her, but she was completely checked out and self-absorbed.

It is true that emotional relationships are intense, and there is no relationship more intense than that of a parent and their child. No one will ever ask more of you than your child, and some people have a hard time dealing with this intensity. So they check out. A parent may be physically present and completely unavailable emotionally and spiritually. Very likely, such parents are products of parents who were also unavailable, and they unknowingly continue this destructive pattern. Passive parents are just as toxic and abusive as tyrannical parents. It just looks different.

I think one of the main reasons I like to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom is because I get to know the other kids. They are a microcosm of the world outside the doors. I can tell which kids come from a happy, loving home. I can tell which kids have parents who are checked out, either emotionally or otherwise (some have parents who are physically unavailable because they have to work several jobs to make ends meet). I can tell which kids get help with schoolwork at night, and which don’t. And when a kid walks up to me out of the blue and wraps their arms around me for a hug, I give it back to them with all that I have. You never know what they’re going through.

And occasionally, you run into a kid who remembers you from before. “Katie” would smother me in hugs if she could. “I remember you,” she says to me. Yes, I’ll bet you do. We have known each other before. How lovely to see you again in this time and place.

Every child has a story, and every child has challenges. Some are physical. “Lottie” is autistic and has medical challenges. She is precious in her own way. Some challenges are environmental; hunger is a problem in some families. Some challenges are emotional. And some challenges are the worst kind. I always hope that if an abused child in need were to cross my path that I would have the capacity to see it and then do something about it.

It has become a cliché to say “a child needs a Village,” but it’s still true. We are all one tribe, one community, one being. We do bear responsibility for the health and well being of the whole. And every child is going to come in contact with a large number of adults over the course of their young life, all of whom have the opportunity to impact that child for their good or for their detriment.

It is a quick and easy thing to lay all blame for a child at the feet of the parents, and of course, they do bear a tremendous responsibility. But we all have the capacity to help and to have an impact. If the parents are tired and overwhelmed, or struggling in poverty, we can provide assistance. If a child crosses your path and makes a cry for help, consciously or unconsciously, then we can reach out to them.

Our society has become too complex for us to handle, and our kids are the canaries in the coal mine. The requirements for merely existing on this earth, sleeping, eating, and breathing, are extraordinary. You cannot simply go catch your dinner and pitch your tent where you like. We are trapped by an arcane economic framework that benefit the few clever ones who have gamed the system and poisoned much of the planet, leaving many to struggle. No wonder that people can’t cope and the children are left to veg in front of inappropriate television shows. We are desensitized because our own pain is so great, and becoming immune to it is easier than addressing the brokenness in our way of life.

We can simplify our world, though. We can reconnect emotionally to each other. We can reconnect spiritually to each other. We can care. We can have compassion. We can hug that child, look into his or her eyes, and say, “I will help you.” We can all make a difference. And as we learn to connect and feel again, we will lose our need for such drugs as unhealthy sex, violence, and sedation in the form of hours of TV or emotion-numbing drink or pills. Our own souls can provide fulfillment enough, and we can remember this. We can teach it to our children.

“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
—Dalai Lama

Superman’s Soft Underbelly

men expressing emotions articlesI have always been interested in the emotional lives of men because it seems that so many suffer quite terribly in our society. The more obvious results of this suffering include domestic violence, rape, and male rage, to name a few. Less obvious, but more common, results of this suffering include depression, dissatisfaction with life, and lack of purpose. Because most men are not encouraged to experience themselves as emotional beings, they do not know how to address the basic issue of their unhappiness, and frustration builds. This is bad for them and bad for their families, so this issue interests me a lot. My son, who is nearly 5, is already teaching me how to understand and (hopefully) help men.

We watched “Free Willy” on Family Movie Night recently. Neither my daughter nor my son had seen it before, so it was a new experience for them. In the film, a young foster boy, whose mother abandoned him to the social services system, is struggling to find meaning and resists forming a bond with his foster parents. He gets in a lot of trouble and ends up having to do community work at the local sea park, where he meets Willy, a captive killer whale who seemingly cannot be trained. The whale and the boy form a bond in their loneliness and desire to be reunited with their family, and healing takes place for the boy. The whale becomes endangered by typical Hollywood bad guys, but everything works out in the end.

My son started the movie in my lap. After 20 minutes, he had to go get his lovie. A few minutes later, he had retreated to another chair to chew on his lovie. He cried several times and was visibly moved by the story. I know my son as a tender-hearted mush who needs—not just craves, but needs—to be close and loved. As a newborn infant, he would not allow me to put him to sleep in the nearby bassinet, which the hospital nurses insisted I do. He just cried. I worked out a solution that satisfied everyone:  he slept partially inclined on a pillow between my knees, and my legs acted as guardrails to prevent him from falling. Only then, next to me, would he fall asleep. Given all that, it was interesting to me that Harry chose to isolate himself when the movie became difficult for him emotionally. What was he afraid of?

Why Do Men Not Show Emotion?

I experience my son as a compassionate, loving, kissy, and highly sensitive young man who cries if we are angry with him. I see this same softness and emotionality in most of the men I know or have known, even when it is long buried. It seems to me that most men are actually more sensitive than most women are, which is the opposite of the beliefs that we have about men. More to the point, I think that most men are so incredibly emotionally sensitive that they tend to build walls and shut down at a young age because they don’t know how else to deal with it. And when the men (or women) in their lives tell them to “suck it up,” the problem is magnified.

Of course, women are sensitive and build walls to keep away the pain, too. I’m not trying to belittle that experience at all. I have certainly lived it. I shut down at an early age because it was too painful to be open. My poor toxic parents didn’t help by making fun of my feelings (and then disregarding them). But I have always felt a kinship with my male peers, and most of my friends were boys. I understood them in ways that I did not understand the other girls. A number of years ago, when I was still searching, a psychic told me that my spiritual energy was about 75% masculine and 25% feminine. This made perfect sense to me. I have always felt like a highly masculine being in a female body (and I have no problem with that). So undoubtedly part of my quest to understand men is about understanding myself.

Nevertheless, my spirit inhabits a female body, and we make different social demands on females than on males. Our emotional nature is tolerated more—and derided more. But the scope of what is considered “manly” is narrow, indeed. Often, the only emotion that is “approved” for men is anger. That’s pretty messed up. Where are the tears of grief and joy? Where is the glint of sadness? Where is the warmth of contentment and happiness? Where is the light of love and compassion?

Fear of Failure

My son, like most little boys, loves superheroes. It’s an interesting thing, because he began to love them before he even knew what they were. Before he had ever read a comic book, seen a TV show, or even discussed it with us in any way, he suddenly began to seek out all things Superman, Batman, Spiderman… The passion was ignited by his peers, who may have experienced those things first. But I wondered, what is it about these hypermasculine caricatures (hey, I read comics, and I love them, too, but let’s be honest) that is so appealing to him?

I think that Superman and others like him embody the hard turtle’s shell that protects the sensitive man from the pain of judgment, perceived failure, and being seen emotionally. And if Superman cries for Lois Lane, who’s going to ridicule him? The man of steel is impervious to the criticism of others, and his soft, sensitive, emotional underbelly is safe as houses.

Superman comes in other forms as well. The science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, made an entire career out of writing about the “Competent Man.” His heroes (and heroines, who were thinly disguised men with vaginas) were superhuman in their ability to perform a wide variety of tasks and ultimately win the day. Failure was impossible, and if anyone fails, it’s surely their own stupid fault, and they should know better. Because a Competent Man can fix or solve any problem.

I fear that we have left our men with an abundance of black-and-white thinking. You are either a success, or you are a failure (conveniently undefined). You are either aggressive, or you’re a wimp. You are either strong, or you are weak. Given that failure, wimpdom, and weakness are “bad things” in our society, we haven’t provided men with a lot of alternatives. Women are complicit; we prefer the high school jock over the nerd—until the nerd is in a position to hire the jock, and then we readjust our definition of “success.”

It’s no wonder that some men act out. What are they to do? How can they succeed? Do we even agree on what we mean by “success?” How can we avoid stigmatizing our men with labels like “failure,” “wimp,” or “passive?” Is the Dalai Lama passive, or is he at peace? Do we have to choose one label or the other? Why?

The Hidden Truth

Joan Didion once said in an interview that she loved to type the words of Ernest Hemingway, over and over again. The magic, she said, was in what he withheld. I have to agree. You can read Hemingway and come away with the idea that not much is happening. Or you can read Hemingway and find a deep, deep well of powerful, unexpressed emotionality. If you don’t see and understand the withheld feelings in the story, then you don’t understand what is actually happening in the story at all. And this is the truth about men’s inner landscapes. It is deep, complex, and rich, but if you can’t see the below the surface, then you can’t understand them at all. The challenge for women is to look deeper. The challenge for men is to let others see it.

Wonder Woman Turns the Other Cheek

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, my seven-year-old (1st-grade) daughter was clearly in a bad place when she came home from school. She was cranky, quick to cry, and complained that her stomach hurt. I know my kid, and I know when she’s upset about something. I asked her if anything had happened at school, or if someone had done something to upset her. She shook her head no. I let it be.

As the afternoon progressed, she complained of stomach cramps from being so hungry, so I gave her a couple of options for a snack. She refused both. Her behavior deteriorated further, and I knew something was up. Later at dinner, after bursting into tears over what she perceived as a slight, she finally opened up. The good thing about our darling is she can’t really bear to keep her pain in too long.

As it happens, she had been a little late for lunch (due to a potty break), and she ended up lined up with the 2nd-graders, who, from her young perspective, were intimidating. Two of these bigger kids cut in front of her. She said nothing to them, and she reasoned that she would still get to the counter and get her lunch anyway. And this is perfectly correct.

So I asked her why she was upset. If she was at peace with allowing the two kids to cut in front of her, then why had it weighed so heavily on her heart? “It was just that I thought…” She couldn’t finish, so I added, “You thought that mommies would be disappointed that you didn’t stand up for yourself?” She nodded.

What followed was a discussion of some of the choices she had in that moment, and I pointed out that none of her choices were wrong. One family member noted that hitting them would have been wrong, but as it happens, our daughter knew perfectly well what the consequence of hitting them would have been (being sent to the principal’s office). So, from her perspective she could, 1) stand up for herself and make her mommies proud, or 2) say nothing, get her lunch anyway, and avoid conflict. Neither of these is a bad choice.

I was struck with the peaceful knowledge of her choice, that she would get her lunch anyway, so why worry? But I also get that she is being raised by not one, but two very strong women who have always encouraged her to stand up for herself and her needs. Apparently, we put more pressure on her than we realized, because she was upset all afternoon at the thought of letting us down somehow.

We reassured her that we were proud of her and her decision, and that of course it may not always feel safe to stand up for yourself. You just do what you have to do, or at least pretend to. As Robert Downey, Jr. has famously said, “Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the fuck you were gonna do anyway.” That, too, is a method of standing up for yourself.

Primarily, though, what struck me about her choice is that it seems to me exactly the sort of choice that Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, or Mahatma Gandhi might have made. They would have turned the other cheek. If real harm had been done, they may have spoken gentle words, but they would not have reciprocated in kind. My kid just…let it go.

…Until she couldn’t. Her worries about our judgment are what upset her all afternoon. So yes, we have some work to do to let her know that standing up for herself means being at peace with her choices, even if they aren’t the same choices that mommies would make. Of course, as much as I like to joke about being Wonder Woman, the truth is that I’m very proud of my daughter’s choice, and I think that Diana Prince would also turn the other cheek. Gentleness is strength. Wisdom is peace. I wonder what my daughter will teach me next.