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by Lynne Forrest

Often we tend to think that, as parents, our job is to protect our offspring from experiencing pain. Naturally we want them to have only positive life experiences. However, this is often not realistic. Even if we were able to micro-manage our children's lives and so prevent them from hardship, we wouldn't be doing them any favors. As a matter of fact, we most likely would be hindering their growth!

As a friend of mine once replied to his mother in response to her profuse apology for having failed him, "But mom, you're implying you don't like the way I've turned out! We both know it took everything I've been through to be who I am today and I happen to like the me I've become! Don't you?"

Of course we should do everything possible to learn how to be the best parents we can be! Reading how-to books about healthier communication with our children and exchanging ideas with other parents is important. Seeking family counseling when it's indicated can be essential for proper healing. But it's also important that we as parents understand that our job is not about preventing our children's pain. We can't! We do and say things to our children that feel and in fact are abusive in spite of our best efforts. There's no preventing it. Children do not get through childhood unscathed. And, more important ... perhaps they're not supposed to!

What if childhood was designed by nature to be an initiation? Could it be that the wounds of childhood are part of the necessary journey towards becoming mature and capable adults? We certainly know that how children respond to adverse circumstances will influence them for the rest of their life.

Many third world cultures premeditate rites of passage for their youth. If you were to study some of these initiation rites for African or Aboriginal tribes, you might be disturbed at the severity of the trials set in place. Adolescent boys, for instance, might be sent out, naked and hungry, into the jungle and not allowed to return until they killed a predatory animal. A hardship of some type must be endured by each youth in order to be accepted as a worthy adult member of the tribe.

It is easy for us to judge such rites as uncivilized and cruel. We might even describe them as abusive behavior, unjustly wrought against the youth of a people who don't know any better. We tend to think that we are "too civilized" to indulge in such painfully primal practices. But it doesn't take listening to many of our own peoples horrendous childhood histories to see how rampant incivility is in this country.

Whereas initiations are performed with deliberate intention among tribal peoples, we leave it to accident or happenstance. Theirs are rites which have been designed by tribal elders for centuries. Their practices originate out of an ancient understanding that people are shaped and strengthened by what they go through. There is an acknowledgement that strong character is built from struggle ... that victory is hard earned. They understand that self mastery and fulfillment results from overcoming hardship.

Everyone of us has endured some type of initiation through childhood. Unfortunately, it was probably performed without intention, or even awareness . A rite of passage gone awry, we are too often kicked through the doorway of life by parents who were themselves mindlessly initiated. As a result we grew up embittered and distrustful. We fail to glean the possibilities that might have come from our adversities. No one ever shared with us that strength comes from pain endured. That patience and tenacity is earned through long standing tribulation. That compassion, and a sense of otherness is gained from heartbreak. Instead, we saw nothing beyond cruelty as the reason for some of the things we endured. We balked at the idea that anything positive could have possibly come from such horrendous treatment.

Rather than being able to see strength of character or resilience as attributes we have earned through hard times, we learn instead to shrink away from life, avoiding pain at all costs. Out of this aversion to internal duress, we tend to either repeat what was done to us, or swing to the opposite extreme, vowing never to do to our children what was done to us.

But, we too are destined to become the unwitting initiators of our children. Our own unhealed childhoods prompt us to unconsciously react in ways which end up wounding them. Even our attempts to protect them can be hurtful. There was Jenna's father, who had witnessed his own father sexually abuse his sisters. He went to great extremes in order to prevent the possibility that he might ever demonstrate such untoward behavior with his own daughter. He acted in the only way he knew to avert such a thing from happening. He avoided her. She took his shun as rejection. His attempt to protect left her with an abandonment wound she struggled with throughout her life.

Sometimes through our efforts to cushion our children from struggle we end up depriving them of important, albeit painful lessons. Children need to experience some hardship in order to learn how to deal with the inevitable blows of real life. If ones early years are too easy, then one does not acquire the necessary skills for dealing with life. Besides, childhood hardship may very well be a rite of passage designed to direct us towards finding our very purpose for being here.

Childhood is not supposed to be a protected environment, free from all tribulation! Nature designed children to be tough and resilient so that they can withstand the falling down and knocking about that inevitably goes with the business of growing up. This is how they find out what works and what doesn't. They must learn through experience the survival skills they will much need later in life.

Children are not supposed to be treated as fragile, delicate pieces of breakable stuff! And if we treat them so then we risk instilling in them a lack of confidence towards being able to handle life. We have become so worried that we are going to be seen as abusers, that we are afraid to do anything that might cause our children discomfort! It's as if we think it's somehow wrong to discipline or set restrictions.

We are beginning to see a backlash as a result of such over-therapied thinking. Our children are turning on us. With self-will run riot, these undisciplined children have never known appropriate boundaries. When we become afraid of our children they become that which is to be feared.

Our children need to sense that we are in charge. They need freedom within structure. This gives them an assurance of safety from which they can create, express, and explore. It's necessary for us as parents to provide a balance between limitation and liberty which is age-appropriate. Instead, parents tend to go to extremes. Neither being too demanding and authoritarian, nor being wishy-washy pushovers work well. Having more "yes's" than "no's" in a child's life does work. But the "no's" need to be final! Every child deserves to know what his or her bottom lines are! Dealing with limits is one of the important tasks of childhood. It is part of the preparation for life.

Also our job, as parents, is to let our children know that life is not fair, or painless. That it is not designed to be. That, in fact, they will be better prepared to handle life as a result of the deprivations they must endure. We help them understand that childhood can be a rite of passage designed to direct them towards finding their very purpose. Their most painful times can actually strengthen and refine them into being the best they can be, especially with a little guidance. But we must let them face their ordeals without running interference for them. We neither attempt to push them into hardship through unrelenting demands, nor do we, in our attempts to ensure them an easy life, make our own a sacrificial hell.

The greatest truth that we can arrive at regarding our children is to understand that they are not ours. We do not own them. We are given a very beautiful and sacred tryst with them. That is all. This blood connection we have with them assigns us the responsibility and the right to come into real, authentic relationship with them. A relationship fraught with tears and anger, distance and rebuff, as well as joy and love.

Neither are they extensions of us. They will probably see the world very differently than we do. We cannot predict or manage how that will be. Accepting these truths can free us. We are not responsible for how they turn out ... we are responsible for how we turn out. Their respond-ability is up to them. We cannot govern that. It is their choice. Like them, we can only decide what we will do with what life hands us.

If we had been given to understand that childhood is an initiation, how might we be different? If our parents had understood that their job was to take us through often painful rites of passage, how differently might we have turned out? What if we had been given a framework of understanding such as tribal people provide their children through rites of passage? A framework that said, "Yes, this is going to be hard ... you may not even live through it ... but there is purpose to it. Through this ordeal you will find new meaning. You will come away better prepared to deal with your life. Your ability to handle these hard times will determine your very success. You will be stronger. You may even find your life's purpose."

We have the opportunity to make conscious our roles as initiators for our children. It's up to us to do the best we can to treat our children with respect without standing in the way of their life experiences. Allow them the refinement which their struggles can bring. This is our challenge.

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Last updated: 07/11/09

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