Nurturing the Inner Light?
I was a member of the Boy Scouts during my early adolescence. I enjoyed being able to be a part of this group as it allowed me the opportunity to learn a variety of practical life skills I still use now and enjoy passing on to my own children. The Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’ has stuck with me to the degree that I find myself implementing its ethos every single day.
Oh, and we were allowed to play with fire so that was a perk.
Or perhaps it would be better said we were taught how to build and maintain a campfire. A campfire was always central to any scouting outing. The campfire was a place to cook our food, a gathering place around which we could tell stories full of adolescent bravada late into the night, and a place to warm us during the chill of early morning as we sat half-asleep wondering how our fathers could be so awake and ready to go even as the sun had only just barely burnt off the morning fog.
Building a fire and taking care of a fire was an important responsibility. Proud was the scout who was able to get a fire going where others had failed. There was always a competition to see who could start a fire using the least amount of resources or in the most difficult of situations. One match was child’s play, one strike of the flint and steel was considered expert level while none of us had the patience for wizard level (i.e. rubbing two sticks together.)
Two lessons have always stuck with me about building a good campfire.
Lesson one was the importance of building a solid base consisting of some sort of a firestarter material (dryer lint), kindling (small splinters of wood) and no more than two or three logs of wood. The materials were arranged with care to allow for the fire to grow and sustain itself. Most of the time, not taking the time to build a solid base led to a fire that went out before it even really started.
Lesson two was that a campfire needed to be tended. The first spark needed to be gently nurtured until it was a growing flame. A growing flame needed space and constant attention so that it would not die out before becoming a roaring fire. A good campfire that was built well only needed minimal attending. Vigilance was required to ensure it wouldn’t leap outside its boundaries and start an uncontrollable forest fire but also vigilance to ensure the fire wouldn’t go out as the wood burned low. (But, even then there were many times when a new fire was easily started from the embers and ashes of an old one using the same gentle, nurturing touch.)
Due to the nature of field in which I work, I have occasionally been asked my opinion about the source of a child’s potential and how best a parent can unlock that potential. I have noticed that my opinion on this subject is often at odds with the beliefs of the faith community in which I participate as well as the culture of the Midwestern community in which I live.
To some, children are born with an overpowering desire to do wrong. As parents we are then tasked to rid them of this desire, whether through strong discipline or a shaming reproach rooted in a hundreds of years old belief that a heavy hand is needed to essentially ‘beat the devil’ out of our children. Anything less risks our children being lost to those wrong desires they were born to. The logic and application makes sense if that is our belief. In fact, if our belief is that children are born with a bent towards evil within them, it would be (arguably) negligent to not respond strongly through any means possible to save them from themselves.
But, I do not believe children are born with an innate desire to do wrong as the foundation of their identify and morality. I find comfort in the teachings of the Quaker faith (a faith to which I am not a part) in which there is a belief that all are born with an inner light, an inner spirit that is good and pure. For the Quakers, my understanding is that they believed this inner light is God.
As the light is nurtured and tended to like a campfire, God grows in the person until such a degree that the person is completely overwhelmed in the love of God, a love that is then poured out into the world through the actions and character of that person.
Of course, not all believe in God or believe that God resides in us in that way. But, what if the foundational concept was correct? What if we were born with a bent towards doing good, towards creating a just and fair world? If that were true, how might that change our approach to parenting?
Through my work in the social work field, I have met with hundreds of parents who are trying as hard as they can, but who are ultimately failing to parent their children in a way that they find to be helpful and consistent to their child growing to become the person their parents want them to be. I am often told stories that end in some form of “so we end up using physical discipline because that’s what we have to do.” I always respond with a question.
I ask, “If there was another approach that allowed you to raise your child to flourish while also instilling a strong sense of character and discipline, an approach that didn’t use any form of physical discipline, would you be interested to learn that approach?”
Not one parent has ever said no.
There is another way to parent than using an updated version of the Puritan belief that we are all hopeless and need a strong, forceful hand to keep us on the right path.
My approach to parenting is similar to how I learned to build a campfire. I believe that children if nurtured well and gently re-directed when necessary, they will grow to provide much good to themselves and those around them. There is no need to take a strong hand against my children because I am cultivating in them a desire to do what is right. Yes, they will make mistakes and make decisions I do not like. But, so what? Parenting is the constant tending to the fire to ensure that even when it crosses the threshold to the forest, I can quickly and easily move it back to a safe space.
Does this mean I let them do whatever they want and live in a chaotic of world of absolute free choice? Absolutely not. I provide structure, rules and consequences when needed. But, even the negative consequences my children earn are aimed at teaching rather than punishing.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Or at least I know I am not one. I make mistakes, I miss teachable moments, I raise my voice sometimes, etc. But, as much as I can, I try to remain focused on the bigger goal of my parenting; raising children who know well that they possess an inherent value and goodness and who I hope will one day be independent, healthy and flourishing adults.
But, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps children are born fallen shells of their potential selves. Potential selves that they can never become. Yet, if that were true, how is empathy then for their plight not always a more helpful response than inflicting physical pain?