One of the most strenuous and difficult jobs on the planet is that of raising children. If you have no dependents of your own and you happen to make your living as an air-traffic controller or hostage negotiator, you may not believe me. Even blue-collar types might scoff at the idea, thinking, “Changing a diaper ain’t nothin’ compared to sucking out porta-potties all day long." But I assure you that molding a young person into a healthy, confident, self-supporting member of society is far more difficult than, if not nearly as disgusting as, say, cleaning the rotting detritus from animal skulls or picking up roadkill.
The reason for this is that the most demanding challenges of child-rearing are seldom physical ones. The occasional piggy-back rides don’t start really wearing us down until the children are in their teens and by then we’ve hopefully moved them on to a bicycle or blade scooter or, if we’re particularly fond of emergency rooms, a skateboard. (Yes, hefting a teenager with a broken leg into the back of a minivan is definitely a taxing chore, but that's getting off track).
By way of comparison, the intellectual aspects are also not where the difficulties lie. I am far more knowledgeable and experienced than my kids and therefore have no huge problem besting them on a scholarly level. My son might be able to stump me with a detailed question on computer networking because it is his decided specialty, but with regard to the accumulation of general life-knowledge, I am the hands-down favorite. Plus, I know my state capitals.
See, fact is, the toughest tasks we parents must accomplish have nothing to do with our physical prowess or intellectual superiority. The most difficult task a parent must be capable of when raising a child is accepting the fact that no matter what parenting methods are employed, no matter what instructional advice is given, the child is simply going to do certain things the hard way. The physical and intellectual trials are really nothing compared the emotional trials that come from watching your beloved daughter or son ignore your warnings and do something dangerously stupid or arrogantly ignorant.
It’s a time-honored tradition, after all. I didn’t listen to my parents and they didn’t listen to theirs. When my grandfather told my father that smoking cigarettes wasn’t going to help him attract girls, my father took up smoking anyway and my grandfather had to deal with the fact his sage advice went unheeded. When my father told me that I wasn’t doing my search for a lucrative career any favors by wearing long hair, eyeliner, and an earring, I roundly ignored him. I can safely say this caused him a lot more grief than did teaching me how to split firewood or answering my questions about dinosaurs and backhoes.
It is horrifically difficult to give your kids advice you are sure can spare them anguish while fully knowing they will fail to recognize its value and end up suffering many of the same lessons from the School of Hard Knocks you had to endure. You want so badly to save them from those trials – why allow them to go through it all if your own suffering can suffice? – and yet they walk right into them time and time again, your admonitions notwithstanding.
The Pain is a Gift You Can Choose to Refuse
One of the lessons each of our parents taught us which most of us absolutely refused to acknowledge was the old ‘sticks-and-stones’ meme. Your mom or dad, upon hearing of the incessant schoolyard teasing which left you crying and humiliated, probably instructed you, rightly, not to let the words of others get to you. They likely told you that the opinions of loudmouthed bullies should be of no concern to someone with your qualities and that if you just ignored them, they would realize you were unflappable and eventually leave you alone.
I never believed it. I always felt that if I didn’t stand up for myself and give a ration of crap right back, the bully would simply have extra time to get in more of his own insults. So I got pretty good at being a smartass. And fist-fighting. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I stumbled across a Zen story that put things into perspective better than anyone had ever done. It went something like this:
One day, the Buddha was sitting upon some steps meditating when a group of boys came by and began insulting and taunting him, attempting to make him angry. After some time, one of the boys observed that the insults were having no affect upon the Buddha, who remained sitting quietly on the steps. The boy finally asked the Buddha how he could just sit there and not become enraged at the terrible treatment he was receiving. The Buddha answered the question with a question of his own, saying, “If someone offers you a gift and you refuse to accept it, to whom does the gift belong?”
The boy thought for a moment and then replied, “Why, it continues to belong to the one offering the gift.”
The Buddha then told him, “Likewise, I am refusing to accept your insults, therefore they remain with you.”
This little story made something quite clear I hadn’t realized before: that ignoring the insults not only keeps them from affecting me, but actually increases the burden of the assailant. It leaves the aggressor ‘holding the bag’, if you will. It forces them to deal with their own hate. It turns their act into their own punishment.
It’s remarkably effective, too. Have you ever succumbed to road-rage long enough to give someone the finger only to have that person simply smile and wave back to you as if you were old friends? If you have, then you have experienced first hand what the Buddha did to those boys in the story. It made you even more angry, didn’t it? How dare they just wave back as if nothing was wrong! Aaaaaaghhh!
The story doesn’t indicate whether the boys actually understood the lesson. I know that the addition of the Buddha’s words to the advice I give my kids has been unsuccessful in convincing them that the opinions of others are irrelevant, which only further convinces me that there are some things everyone has to learn on their own. I now fully accept that my kids are going to make the same painful mistakes I did and that there’s nothing to be done about it.
Of course, that acceptance doesn’t make it any easier to cope with. I’d much rather clean up roadkill.