The Personalist Project

I’ve been a mother for almost 9 years, and I’ve been discussing motherhood and parenting for longer still. When you’re a mother, parenting is both the easiest and most perilous topic to broach. Easy, because parenting can create a common bond between people who otherwise would have nothing in common—and if you’re as inept at small talk as I am, it is always a relief to have a common interest to discuss! Perilous, because parenting decisions are inevitably personal and often emotionally charged.

This vulnerability drives people to seek out those with similar approaches to parenting—with similar parenting philosophies—simplified by identification with particular parenting experts, writers, methods, or movements. The array of acronyms, labels, and names can be dizzying: AP, GP, CIO, TTUA, Ferber, Continuum, Authoritarian, Authoritative, Child-centered, and so on. The communities that form around these labels are self-policing and self-reinforcing, and it doesn’t take long for a parenting method to form sub-cultures of rigid adherents.

This morning a Facebook friend posted a link to an article I first read over a year ago. In it, a homeschooling father who had been very active in his particular subculture examines nine ‘blind spots’ in his parenting, and warns others of these blind spots. Four of the blind spots the writer, Reb Bradley, identified in the article jumped out at me:

 Having Self-Centered Dreams
 Raising Family as an Idol
 Emphasizing Outward Form
 Depending on Formulas

 Re-reading it, I realized that very few of those blind spots are unique to the authoritarian and sheltering parenting style he means to address—and they all have their roots in treating our children as the means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves. The parent who co-sleeps to ensure a securely attached child despite the child’s restlessness and parental fatigue and the father who steels himself to discipline his rebellious son with a length of rubber tubing to instill submission to authority are both driven by the same motivation: fear.

Fear of their child’s autonomy, of their potential as acting persons.

Look again at the items from Reb Bradley’s list: having self-centered dreams—fear that my child will disrupt my dreams; raising family as an idol—fear that my children will not fulfill me; emphasizing outward form—fear that my child will make choices that embarrass or shame me. The last point I pulled hits even closer to the root of the matter: dependence on formulas has roots in our fear of our own judgment and autonomy.

We are afraid our children will disappoint us. We are afraid they will make bad choices, suffer unnecessary pain, reject us, or embarrass us. We are afraid that our happiness will be injured by these things. Christian parents have, on top of all of these, the fear that our children will fall from grace and be lost because of our choices or failures. All of these fears weigh on us, imbuing each decision with a kind of paralyzing gravity. No wonder we are so attracted to guarantees, to air-tight explanations of how children’s brains can be wired and rewired by our parenting, how we can ‘raise children God’s way’ or ‘ground your child’s emotional well-being with secure attachment.’ We want to believe we can discipline our children into righteousness, or that we can fill their lives so full of love that they will become loving themselves; loving and good children who will be sources of pride and joy, not shame or sorrow.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of parenting, or suggest that all parenting practices are equal. I want to suggest that we do our children an injustice when we habitually view our daily interactions and choices as a means to an end. We run the risk of making the child we have take the back seat to the adult we hope or fear she might become.

Is there a Personalist Parenting? I’m not sure I would want to define one if I could. I still discuss parenting whenever I get the chance, and I appreciate all that I’ve learned from different parents and parenting methods. What I cannot escape is the truth that I cannot make parenting a matter of a single choice—this is the kind of parent I am, and that’s that. Every day, every interaction with my children has a moral dimension: I choose, I act.

Do I choose to react to my fears for my child?

Or do I choose to respond to the child before me?

My children will choose for themselves. They will act, morally or otherwise. I cannot choose for them. I can, however, choose again and again to love them in their autonomy; to love—and parent—them for their own sakes.

What that means, in practice, changes from day to day and from season to season. I suspect it always will.

Comments (6)

Sam Roeble

#1, Dec 13, 2013 10:50am

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Dec 13, 2013 11:04am

Samwise, are you familiar with the second half of that prayer? It's wonderful (and applicable):

"God grant me the serenity 
To accept the things I cannot change; 
Courage to change the things I can; 
And wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking, as He did, this sinful world 
As it is, not as I would have it; 
Trusting that He will make all things right 
If I surrender to His Will; 
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life 
And supremely happy with Him 
Forever and ever in the next."


Katie van Schaijik

#3, Dec 14, 2013 6:08am

Another thing that's apropos: a recent homily of Pope Francis'.

“The people of that time preferred to take refuge in a more elaborate religion: in the moral precepts, such as the group of Pharisees; in political compromise, as the Sadducees; in social revolution, as the zealots; in gnostic spirituality, such as Essenes. They were [happy] with their clean, well-polished system. The preacher, however, was not [so pleased]. Jesus reminded them: ‘Your fathers did the same with the prophets.’ ...

"These Christians are closed, they are trapped, sad ... these Christians are not free. Why? Because they are afraid of the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which comes through preaching. This, then, is the scandal of preaching, of which St. Paul spoke: the scandal of preaching that ends in the scandal of the Cross. That God should speak to us through men with limits , sinful men, scandalizes: and what scandalizes even more is that that God should speak to us and save us by way of a man who says he is the Son of God but ends [his life] as a criminal. That scandalizes.”

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Dec 14, 2013 6:10am

It's especially that part of being "afraid of the freedom of the Holy Spirit" that strikes me. Like the Galations, we are always hankering after the law. It's easier than freedom. 

Devra Torres

#5, Dec 14, 2013 3:39pm

Twenty-three years later, trying to find the balance!  

Of course we don't want to be led by fear--but we need to be clear-eyed about danger and evil.  

Of course we don't want to raise our children in a generic, one-size-fits-all, impersonal manner (this was something that struck me in the original article--the need to realize that, yes, by coaching and mentoring our children, we're expressing our love and our concern for how they turn out--but it doesn't replace a relationship with them that acknowledges them as subjects, not as "products" which, for many reasons, we want to turn out a certain way).  On the other hand, we want to be in harmony with the truths about human nature, about good and evil--so there will be certain norms that really aren't flexible or malleable.

Of course we want to respect their freedom and autonomy, and not let our own self-interested motives creep in--but we need to take into account their immaturity and their unreadiness for certain areas to be left up to their freedom.

Lots more to discuss here!  Thank you, Kate!

Marie Meaney

#6, Dec 15, 2013 6:28am

Great points about the self-policing sub-cultures which form around educational theories and the fear which drives us as parents to adopt some methods rigidly (even if they aren't inherently rigid). A fruit of this attitude is judging other parents who's children "fail" because the parents hadn't got A, B or C right. If only they'd followed method X, Y, Z, then this wouldn't have happened.  

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