We’ve all witnessed a spectacle of a screaming child at a grocery store clamoring for food or candy that he doesn’t really need or wants—triggering an argument with the parent that seems almost staged because it’s so familiar. To appear in control, the parent, on cue, tries to reason with the child as though he were an adult. Or perhaps the parent gives a child a sharp verbal rebuke, sending him into an Edvard Munch-like scream! Or out of desperation, the parent threatens with a time-worn threat: “If you don’t stop this instant, I’ll . . . .” Of course, these ploys don’t work. As Albert Einstein once quipped, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
We must give credit to the parents that teach appropriate public behavior, when the consequence for a child’s frustration or public gaffe is not punishment but a knowing nudge in a better direction. Successful parenting consistently expresses expectations and sets boundaries without turning the learning process into a battle of wills. As a parent, I know this is sometimes easier said than done.
But the dynamics between an ill-mannered child and a resource-poor parent reveal something important about our adult world. After all, it is not just the petulant tot and touchy adult who make us cringe. We are just as familiar with the bad behavior and tantrums of adults. We need look no further than the public commons of hyped-ip sporting venues, jammed highways, crammed airplanes crowded restaurants, and even on the evening news. I realize it’s easy to point a finger. But let’s not forget it’s not always the other guy or gal that is guilty. Sometimes it is us.
Streaming to us through the generations is the belief that “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Hence, many families, and society as a whole, sag heavily with the weight of myriad rules, policies, laws, and regulations on the bet that social order and personal control can be achieved more by the stick than the carrot. Yet the United States bears the highest rate of incarceration in the world. 1.6 million of our youth run away from home each year. As of 2016, 19 states still permitted corporal punishment. 3-4 million children between the ages of 3-17 are at risk of exposure to domestic violence each year. Annually, 1.2 million students drop out of school. These tragic statistics clearly prove how well our rule-and-punishment system works. Right?
Not one, not two, nor dozens of small remedies will add up to a lasting solution for this crisis of blind brutality. But the complaints I’ve often heard from adults about (other people’s) uncontrollable children and their ineffectual parents are frequently followed by calls for even stricter rules and more punitive prohibitions. When will this myopic, hardline thinking ever end?
I am reminded of one simple, counterintuitive approach to how we better “control” our children, and perhaps ourselves. The idea comes from Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginners’ Mind.
To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him.
I interpret the “large spacious meadow” as a dimension of emotional and psychic space that can inspire shape healthier attitudes, encourage more forgiving dispositions, and nurture more understanding of ourselves and our fellow companions on this tiny planet. By refusing to threaten others with the cudgel of our fear, and to let go of the belief that harsh punishment is the most effective way to teach others to behave, we remove a huge barrier. We invite connection. We affirm our humanity.