Should-free Parenting

We have been discussing how the word ‘should’ and its fellow scolders like ‘must’ and ‘ought’ crop up repeatedly in the way we talk to ourselves and often to others as well. The ‘others’ we are most likely to use them on are our children. Thus we perpetuate this very shallow-rooted motivation into the next generation.

So what then? Are parents just supposed to let their children do whatever they want? Of course not. But the alternative to ‘should’ is not ‘Whatever!’ That is just abdicating parental responsibility.

‘Should’ is a tool of unskillful parenting. It is quite a different kind of word than ‘no’ when used wisely. We could not parent effectively without the word ‘no.’ When we don’t overuse it, thus diffusing its power and numbing our children’s ears to it, a ‘no’ said firmly but not harshly with a clear reason attached, is effective.

If we use ‘no’ only to protect the child or others from harm, it is powerful. Parents who overuse words like ‘no’ or ‘be careful’ have no effective words for when they really mean it. In less serious situations, simply modeling behavior works very well because most children are natural born imitators. They observe the world around them and replicate it. All we need to do is recognize that and be conscious of our own way of being in the world. What are we modeling?

Children’s business is to learn how to function in this finite world and they have undeveloped brains in the area of judgment (until the age of 30!! Yikes!!) We who take for granted how the world works need to remember this fact. It can’t be easy to learn how to navigate within the confines of this recently acquired singular physical body. Have some consideration for the challenges they face! Can we patiently show them the ropes of functioning safely in a complex seemingly-finite world? Can we do this lovingly and respectfully, but with confidence and authority?

If you landed on a strange new planet, you would probably want a knowledgeable guide to show you around, teach you the language and the customs. Being a knowledgeable guide is the role of the parent. But some parents don’t see it like that. For whatever reason, they choose other roles. Perhaps they see themselves as dictators of a small but powerful nation called ‘home.’ Children in this context fill the role of feudal serfs or soldiers in the family’s army — us against the world.

Then there are parents who see themselves as personal assistants to their children. They are not guiding from a position of knowledge and wisdom, but from a desire to be the object of their children’s affections. 

Yesterday I was in the park with my granddaughter and I heard a mother tell her child they needed to leave to get to a class, and
then she amended that statement with the question, “So can we leave?” 

The child, given that invitation to be the decider naturally said no. “Oh please?” the mother cajoled. He just kept playing. 
Then the father came over and the two parents put their heads together to think of what would be the best bribe to get their child to go. They came up with a stop at Jamba Juice. And even with that on offer it took them 20 minutes to gingerly lure the boy away from the park. This poor child is probably terrified to have so much power at the age of four and acts out his fear in all sorts of unskillful ways. Where are the skilled knowledgeable planet guides? he might wonder. How did he have the misfortune to end up with these very nice but useless ones who just follow him around as if
HE’s the one who knows the lay of the land, knows what’s best, when to go, and
what to do.


Then there are people who are operate primarily out of fear of what others think. As parents their main concern is that the children reflect well on them, make them proud or at least not embarrass them. Children can be treated as tokens, totems, awards of merit, lackeys, punching bags, and all manner of inappropriate things that have nothing to do with guiding a new being into this world’s ways without losing that deep sense of knowing who they are.

Being a parent is acknowledged to be the toughest job, but it’s also the most rewarding — not at some later date, but in the process, because it’s an exchange of vital information. The parent is the guide to this complex new planet. In payment the noticing parent receives fresh insight into the nature of infinite open playful existence. Chances are somewhere along the way, to some degree or another, he or she lost that wondrous sense of connection to all that is. The child gives a window into that state.

If we value the exchange, fulfill our role as guide, and enjoy awakening to the moment which is where young children live, then parenting is indeed the greatest gift there is.
And if one isn’t a parent, spending time with nieces, nephews, the children of friends, students, etc. can keep us in touch with that sense of infinite joyous nature. And in return we as adults can offer different perspectives and areas of interest.


Letting those shallow useless ‘shoulds’ go lets our children grow deep roots. They will do what they do out of love, compassion, gratitude, joy and informed reasoned understanding of this temporal world, thanks to their competent and caring guide parents.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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