Human beings can relate to one another with either mutual respect and freedom or mutual attempts to control and force. Objectivists idealize the former; most of America practices the latter. Though Objectivists are fundamentally against relating to their fellow human beings with various methods of control (bribery, threats, manipulation, slavery) many do not hesitate to relate in that way to the young human beings we temporarily refer to as children. Ayn Rand told me, in her books, that if I ever found a contradiction I needed to check my premises. “Contradictions do not exist,” she said.
I spent the last ten years working with children and reading around seven hundred books on the subject and I can tell you that Rand is right—many Objectivist parents base their parenting methods on two incorrect premises: 1) that controlled children grow into free adults and 2) that there simply is no other way to raise good children.
In this talk I will explain why it is that controlled children do not tend to grow into free adults. Then I will explain the other way to raise children, my theory of Objectivist parenting, a way of parenting that is entirely consistent with Objectivist ethics.
When I first imagined what parenting would be like in Galt’s Gulch, I imagined firm, consistent parents and well-behaved children. I imagined moms similar to the Tiger Mom—less emotional but serious, dedicated, and focused on results. I read a few books on child development and raising children was so clear it puzzled me as to why so many parents struggled with their children. There was one simple rule: reward the behavior you wish to see continue, punish the behavior you wish to see cease.
As a professional executive nanny, using this one rule, for many years, I made children do what their parents thought was best for them, what the children would supposedly thank their parents for later: I trained young children to not bite, hit, get out of diapers and lose weight; I made older children get better grades, lose weight, be more committed athletes and be more competitive college applicants.
What I learned is that you can absolutely manipulate, coerce, require, or train children to do or be pretty much anything, except happy. You can give them Prozac, but you cannot force children to be genuinely happy with their lives. How could a teenage girl, obese her entire life, not be happy to be thin?
This was similar to something that happened when I was in college. I had just read Atlas Shrugged and I gave it to everyone who was important to me. I begged them to read it, but I couldn’t make them read it and those who did, I couldn’t make them care. Why is it that the first ten pages of Atlas Shrugged was so exhilarating for me and so boring for my friends?
Incorrect Premise I: That Control Leads to Freedom
Behaviorism has been around since the late 1800’s. It is a psychological theory and methodology that came out of the philosophy of determinism and suffers from the same error: the belief in existence without consciousness. It can be summarized: humans don’t make conscious decisions, they just respond to pain and pleasure. We are victims of our programming and can reprogram ourselves not through consciousness awareness but by associating various behaviors with pain and pleasure—humans can and should be trained just like rats. Behaviorist methodology is therefore: control. Reward the behavior you wish to see continue and punish the behavior you wish to see cease.
Behaviorist parenting is: influencing a child’s behavior using any method of intentional reward (from an approving glance to praise to bribery) or any method of intentional punishment (from a disapproving glance to threats to a spanking).
Behaviorism is by far the most common method of control parents use on their children. Behaviorism is so entrenched in American parenting, I have met more Objectivists who defend it, than I have met Objectivists who say they would never use it on their children. Leonard Peikoff advocates certain Behaviorist methods of child rearing. Nathaniel Branden and William Thomas advocate the sort of thinking that leads to Behaviorist child rearing. And yet Ayn Rand wrote about how horrible Behaviorism is.
The first thing my Objectivist friends tell me when I point out this contradiction, is that it’s fine to use Behaviorism on children because “children are not rational.” Their mistaken premise is that Behaviorism is designed for or appropriate for irrational human beings. This is not the case. Behaviorism was not designed for any kind of human being as Objectivists understand the term. Behaviorism was designed for animals that will live an unconscious, deterministic existence. To argue that Behaviorism is appropriate for children is to argue that children, to quote Rand, have no “self”, nor any form of reason, values, concepts, thoughts, judgments, volition, purpose, memory, independence, self-esteem or freewill.
Defenders of Behaviorism for children, must determine not at exactly what age a human being’s rational faculties are developed enough for him to be called “rational,” but to at exactly what age children have any of these traits—which would be from birth. But let’s go back to “children are not rational and therefore I can use Behaviorist controls on them.” Even if it were true that children are not rational, to argue that Behaviorist controls are “therefore okay” is to argue that: children are just like rodents. Each creature must act according to its nature—but not from birth. A human can be raised like a rat because when he reaches maturity he will magically transform into a man. He doesn’t need any different, special, human child rearing methods. Human child rearing methods—rat child rearing methods—why should they be different?
I think the “children are not rational” argument is a rationalization of an obvious contradiction so: I am going to move on, to clarifying the issues that will solve the contradiction, but before I do, I want to clarify two last things about Behaviorism:
Behaviorism is not an authentic response. If a baby takes his first steps and his mother responds, “How exciting! You’re walking!” That is an authentic expression of her feelings. If she says, “You’re walking! Good job!” with the conscious or unconscious belief that her approval will encourage him to walk more, that is Behaviorism.
Not long ago an Objectivist father asked me if it was still Behaviorism if he told his child what he was doing. He thought if he said, “Now son, you understand why I have to take your phone, don’t you? I have to teach you not to do what you did,” then it wasn’t Behaviorism. I told him that a clear explanation about why you are doing what you are doing, does not change what you are doing.
Behaviorism on Children
Behaviors are actions we take to meet needs, to gain or keep what we value. When the parent controls the child’s behavior, the parent severs the child’s action from the values behind the action and makes himself the value. Because the parent, not reality, determines when the child feels pain or pleasure, the child’s entire orientation changes—the child will study, not reality, but people.
In 1958 Nathaniel Branden gave a series of lectures on Objectivism. In one of those lectures he talked about the man who “lives, not in a universe of facts, but in a universe of people…. People, not reason, are his tool of survival… It is on them that his consciousness must focus. It is they who he must understand or please or placate or deceive or maneuver or manipulate or obey. It is his success at this task that becomes the gauge of his fitness to exist.” His metaphysics have been replaced by what Branden calls “Social Metaphysics.”
Because a child’s way of relating to the world, his metaphysical orientation, will be largely determined before he is five-years-old, I think the main cause of “social metaphysics” is Behaviorist parenting. Most children are raised as follows: They hit. They are put in time out. The parent thinks he is teaching the child to associate hitting with the pain of time out. What the child actually learns is not that hitting will lead to pain, but rather, that not pleasing his parent will lead to pain. The child does not need to study, understand and conquer nature, if he wants to avoid pain he needs to study, understand and conquer his parent.
Fast-forward fifteen years. This child raised on Behaviorism is now in college. Offer him Atlas Shrugged or reality TV. Which one will offer him more information about the reality that he thinks he needs to study, understand, and conquer? And now you know why so many of my friends thought Atlas Shrugged was boring.
Ayn Rand did not write very much about children but she hit upon this issue in her Comprachicos essay when she said, “Of what importance can reality be to a child if his fate depends, on what seems to him, your whims as to what is ‘good for him’, this thing you claim that he cannot understand.”
Behaviorism also destroys the child’s intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is defined as: motivated by a self-interested pursuit of values, seeking personal satisfaction derived from self-initiated achievement. I’m going to say that again: motivated by a self-interested pursuit of values, seeking personal satisfaction derived from self-initiated achievement.
In his book Teaching Johnny to Think, Leonard Peikoff suggests that extrinsic motivators can be used for good instead of evil. But extrinsic motivators, by their very nature, require that we suppress our real feelings, desires and values and replace them with someone else’s.
Extrinsic motivators beget collectivism, it does not matter at all what you are trying to make your children do with extrinsic motivators. Change the curriculum all you want—make it 100% Objectivist—but if you teach it with external controls—and it doesn’t matter if you spank or use time out or do away with punishments all together and just focus on rewards—the method is the message.
In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn shows that the mechanisms of reward and punishment to control an adult’s behavior, only work if the adult was rewarded and punished as a child. The younger the rewards and punishments start, and the more consistently they are used, the more effective they will be and the more necessary they will be. The method is the message.
Behaviorist parents say: “You hit Jenny. You are bad. What you should be feeling is shame. Go stand in the corner and feel shame. You may feel better when I say so.” Or, “You didn’t do your homework. You don’t know what’s best for you and I do. I must make you do what is best for you. Only the goals I deem rational are the ones worth pursuing. You can be rational… by agreeing with me!”
Ayn Rand wrote that the field of extrospection is based on the questions: “What do I know?” and “How do I know it?” The field of introspection is based on: “What do I feel?” and “Why do I feel it?”
It is in the contemplation of, the thinking about, the analyzing and understanding of the answers to these questions that we teach our children to use their brains to the best of their abilities; it is through these questions that we help our children develop an integrated mind, an understanding of why they feel what they feel about what they know.
Extrinsic controls prevent these questions from being asked. It sounds like this: What do I feel and why? Who cares, a candy bar will fix it!
With children it sounds like this: “What do you feel and why? Who cares, shhhhhhut up.” Or “What do you feel and why? Who cares, go to your room until you can calm down and talk to me like a normal person.” Parents think they are teaching their children self-control, but really, they are teaching emotional repression—“You may not feel that.”
By the age of six months!!! most children have already learned that their parents do not like it when they feel sad, and they begin to look for ways to stop themselves from feeling sad—or crying. Some children stick their thumbs in their mouths, / some distract themselves by wildly looking around for something else to do, and others cry but exhibit shame when doing so.
By the time they are ready for preschool, teachers expect children to have learned somewhat to “control” their emotions. Not feel them. / Not receive and process needed information. J I’m sorry, did I say control their emotions, I think I meant, “repress.” Nathaniel Branden says, “Fear and pain should be treated as signals not to close our eyes but to open them wider, not to look away but to look more attentively.”
Extrinsic controls prevent children from developing intrinsic selves and teach them to not know the emotional information they receive from their own minds. You cannot think for yourself if you have no real self so the outcome is the creation of an extrinsic, unreal self.
Hence the twenty-two-year-olds today have no idea what they enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it. They are motivated by money, prestige, winning, approval, and above all, by pats on the head for being Good Boys and Girls. They use Behaviorism on themselves: they promise themselves a new outfit if they just lose ten pounds or a week of self-loathing if they don’t.
Even if they find Objectivism, they don’t know how to selfishly and righteously be themselves, instead they seek to be Good Little Objectivists. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem Nathaniel Branden wrote about how many Good Little Objectivists he saw in his practice, people who missed the point--people who were trained from birth to miss the point.
We sometimes hear people say, “I have accomplished so much. Why don’t I feel more proud” … it can be useful to ask, “Who chose your goals? You, or the voice of some ‘significant other’ inside you?’”
Ayn Rand said, “It is the hardest thing in the world, to do what we want.” Extrinsic controls make it the hardest thing in the world to even know what we want.
This is why it seems to high school teachers (and Leonard Peikoff) that extrinsic motivators simply must be used. As children progress though the educational system, their motivation becomes so extrinsic that by the time they are in high school, researcher Mark Lepper notes, they rarely display any intrinsic motivation whatsoever. Behaviorism creates the problem for which Behaviorism is the only solution.
And so Behaviorism seems to work! Not on an intrinsic or authentic level, but on a my-human-rodent pet is behaving in a way that pleases me level. This is why science shows that Behaviorism will only ever “work” in the short run and will backfire in the long run For example children rewarded for playing with markers, will play with them more… as long as the rewards keep coming, and then they will hate them. What’s the best way to make your child hate a certain activity? Reward him for doing it.
An experiment was done on how to best impose that extremely important value of sharing one’s toys on young children. The results showed that children who are rewarded for sharing will share their toys more—as long as an adult is looking. They will share significantly less than the non-rewarded children when an adult isn’t looking. This is why extrinsically motivated adults find that, like children, they are only “good” when someone is watching.
This is another impulse of collectivism: people want someone to make them do what they can’t make themselves do. They say they vote for a “nanny-state” to keep all the “bad people” under control, but subconsciously they want a nanny for themselves. This is also one of impulses of religion: if you can only be good when someone else is watching, they have a solution for you!
This is what I didn’t understand ten years ago: you can convince children to do or be pretty much anything, but unless a goal is self-initiated, its achievement will not make the child happy.
Behaviorism on Parents
Being in control of one’ children sounds so nice and playing the part of the controller, the benevolent dictator, captain Von Trap with his whistle—it makes parenting seem so easy! In our imagination. In reality: there is no freedom or respect for either party in a controller-controllee relationship.
Behaviorism requires the parent to mete out a punishment or reward based on the behavior of the child. The parent is controlled by how the child responds to his controls. BEAT
Our tendencies, when we are in a controlling relationship, are as follows and while I read these, note how controlling relationships have a lot in common with social metaphysics:
- We can’t be present with our child in this moment if we are busy thinking of ways to get him to do what we want him to do and monitoring if what we are doing is working. This limits our ability to enjoy our relationships with our children, to be consciously aware of them, to connect.
-We can’t allow ourselves to be visible to someone we are trying to control, that would be showing our cards; they would see our weakness and then they might win. This leads to a loss of integrity since we are not being honest—unless! we tell ourselves that we do not have to be honest because the person we are trying to control doesn’t merit our honesty.
-When we are controlling other people, we cannot allow ourselves to truly see them, because to do so, we would have to be aware of the pain and suffering we are inflicting on them. So our tendency is to see their feelings as not real--that’s not real pain children suffer when they cry.
This is why controlling relationships—or social metaphysics—can so easily lead to evil because our tendency will be: to not see the person we are trying to control as a person. Like with slaves or women or savages or heathens—we transform our adversary into something that needs to be controlled: SLOW “Oh children, they’re irrational, like rats, they feel safer when you control them, they need it!”
-In controlling relationships, the controller has a tendency to feel that he has not chosen to be in a relationship with the person he is controlling, rather he sees himself as responsible for them, for their welfare, for their souls. It’s hard to enjoy an activity that is actually a duty.
-Since the parent doesn’t see the child as a real person with whom he can connect, he ends up putting on a show. He plays a role, his abstraction of his idea of Good Father.
For example: He starts mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, reading to the kids, doing bath time, helping his wife with the dishes. He gets the highest paying job he can and works his tail off, and at first he’s patting himself on the back as he thinks, “I am such a Good Father!” But, after a while, the father starts to feel like being a Good Father is a huge obligation, a chore, a long list of things to do. It’s not fun anymore. And if he could admit it to himself, he is starting to resent his wife and child, who he sees as his ‘slave drivers’. But it’s not them; it’s the role. It’s the lack of conscious awareness with which he is living his life. Just like his children, he has no self; he is following a script someone else wrote.
Henry David Thoreau published Walden in 1854. It’s a true story about how he wanted to build a cabin in the woods to discover himself and what life was all about for him. His neighbors thought he was a little weird but this was what he wanted to do, so he did it. What he learned and wrote about is that the secret of life is knowing your intrinsic self and setting your own goals despite society’s judgments. I found it to be a fairly Objectivist message—but most people miss it. Most people who read Walden think that what Thoreau was trying to say is that the secret to life is leaving society and living in a cabin in the woods. This is a misunderstanding. “You must advance confidently in the direction of your dreams,” he said.
Plato, the arch-totalitarian of philosophy, thought roles or scripts were great for societies--specifically, a great way to control the masses. According to Joseph Campbell, roles and scripts are what enable people to be in power because they homogenize our behavior, making us easier to control.
One of my favorite professors at Wesleyan University, Kach Tololyan, said it the best, “Those who create normal rule the world.”
Whether it’s: this is what a nursery looks like, this is what an education looks like, this is what an expertise in children looks like, this is what a good parent looks like. The parenting role, the most important script to control, for over a hundred years, has come from the same Columbia and Harvard professors who teach Keynesian economics, Kantian philosophy and determinist psychology.
A respectful relationship requires presence, self-awareness, visibility, integrity, honesty, interacting with reality—internal as well as external. There is no script for reality because every moment that ever happens has never happened before. I recommend Objectivist parents question every aspect of the “good parent script” that has been implanted in their brains by our society and that they ask themselves: to what extent, do I base my success as a parent, on my ability to control my child? Is there a way to control my child, without practicing Social Metaphysics?
A Controlling Society
Jean/”Jon” Piaget wrote a theory of psychological development in the 1950’s, which was expanded upon by Lawrence Kohlberg shortly thereafter; today it is known as Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. It holds that there are six natural stages of moral development in humans.
To summarize--and I’m going to extrapolate a little bit with this: in stages one and two, children are like little scientists, judging the morality of an action by its direct consequences—morally right, to the child, is that which is in his own best interest. In stages three and four, children come to accept society’s rules regarding right and wrong and generally follow the rules without really thinking about them. In stages five and six, they realize they are individuals and “morally right" may not always coincide with collective opinion. Stage five is called “the contractual perspective” and stage six is called “mutual respect as a universal principle.”
Stages 5 and 6 coincide nicely with Objectivist ethics but psychologists say that most people will never pass stage 4. Most people will never grow beyond the belief that morally right is society’s definition of a Good Little Girl or Boy.
I think controlling parenting creates this problem. These are not “necessary” stages of human moral development. Children begin as scientists who want to know the consequences of their actions—naturally concluding that that which is in their own self-interest is morally right! Given good information, this should lead directly to individualism and mutual respect but instead almost all children develop a collectivist morality that will stay with them their entire lives.
Every conqueror since antiquity has known you do not have to worry about the people you have conquered, you just take over how their children are raised. It is no accident that we benevolently dictate to our children, and our government benevolently dictates to us.
Behaviorist parenting, the default method of parenting with which we have all been programmed, fosters the turning of our children into collectivists and non-people. It demands that parents relinquish their personhood and become role-playing puppets, more non-people. It leads to the creation of a collectivist society. It has no place in an Objectivist household.
Incorrect Premise II: There is No Other Way
Because of how we have been socialized, it is hard, even for Objectivists, to imagine any other way to parent.
This is why William Thomas wrote, “Children regularly have to be restrained from doing what they want to do and forced to do something else. They have to be put to bed and made to wash.”
We have been offered a dichotomy: either we control our children, or they live lives of chaos. Either we make our kids go to bed and wash or they won’t. If that is the choice, William Thomas is correct. But that choice is a false dichotomy. That is not the choice.
William Glasser wrote a book called Choice Theory about non-coercive relationships. He says:
The vast majority of unhappiness [in the parent-child relationship] is the result of well-intentioned parents trying to make children do what they don’t want to do…. Few of us [parents] are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us some [influence] over them, our relationship.”
The choice isn’t control or chaos. The choice, in human relationships, does not change based on the age of the people involved. The choice is: mutual respect or mutual attempts to control.
Mutual respect is the other way to parent.
I have found there are two main areas that need clarification in order for people to understand my parenting theory; the first is, how they think about the parent-child relationship. Relating to children with respect rather than attempts to control is an entirely different approach to the whole relationship. The second is that having a mutually respectful relationship with children is only possible to the extent that the adult becomes an expert at communicating with emotional people—this is a learned skill and failing to learn it is the reason why most parents revert to various control tactics.
The New Operating System
Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
In the operating system of freedom, we relate to one another as traders, we trade value for value. This is incomprehensible to people who operate in the system of control. In the system of control employer and employee are always adversaries trying to take advantage of one another. No matter how hard we try to explain that trade is a win-win, people who operate in the system of control can only see things on the spectrum of control—either you are exploiting me or I am exploiting you, either I sacrifice myself to others to they sacrifice themselves to me.
This is my disagreement with Nathaniel Branden. He accepts the popular idea that parents should be “warm but authoritative” because of a scientific study done in which four types of parents were studied—warmly authoritative, coldly authoritative, warmly permissive and coldly permissive. He misses the false dichotomy. It’s like doing a study on whether people prefer to exploit or be exploited in a trade. It’s as if there are two different languages / and to speak in one is to negate the existence of the other.
The operating system of freedom and respect is an entirely different way to think about parenting. For example, when my son was one-and-a-half, a lot of people asked me if he was “defiant yet.” This is a question that would only make sense to someone who operates in the system of control. I don’t operate there. To be defiant he has to have someone to defy. I would have to see myself as his ruler and he my subject. In the operating system of freedom, my son has a point of view. His point of view is valid. His desire to keep playing rather than change his diaper is valid. He is not "good" when he does what I want him to do, and "bad" when he doesn’t, as the "Is he defiant yet?" question implies.
People then assume, "Oh, so you just let your son do whatever he wants!" If I’m not authoritative, I must be permissive. If I’m not the master, I must be the slave.
What if instead: I am an ambassador for this fabulous place I live, Galt’s Gulch, and my son is a distinguished visitor from a far off land who does not understand my customs. It is my goal to help him thrive in my land, but not at the point of a gun.
This is how I think about my relationship with my son. I respect him and try to understand his culture and show him how to respect me in my culture. My son is 2 1/2 and most of the time our relationship is effortlessly respectful (toddlers who have been treated with respect since birth are quite respectful little people). Every now and then we run into a situation where one of us is doing something that bothers the other--perhaps he wants to throw beans on the floor and I don't want him to or I want to leave the park and he doesn't want to--at which point I think some version of: "This is what I want. This is what my distinguished visitor wants. What can we do to get both of our needs met in this situation?"
Since no one is trying to control or manipulate anyone, neither of us approach our relationship with any fear or resentment. Without control there is a lot of presence, visibility, accurate information--honesty, and integrity. And it’s a lot easier for each person to get his or her needs met.
Like adult Objectivists coming together and marveling at how easy human interaction can be, parents who switch to this operating system are shocked to discover how easy family life can be. Dr. Thomas Gordon wrote, “The most significant outcome [in the households using this operating system] and the one that I had not expected, is… conflicts simply do not come up very often.”
This has been my experience. I have never had to make my son go to bed or wash.
Here are some concrete examples to clarify my ideas:
I will start with a newborn baby because many people think that they can possibly treat older children with respect, but it is very hard for them to understand how one would do that with a lump. Each of these scenarios involve real interactions I had with my son.
Scenario 1—a newborn baby and how he is fed
The Standard American Mom sees it as her job to get food into her baby. So she brings the baby to her breast, tickles his cheek to trigger his mouth-opening reflex and puts her breast in his mouth.
The Objectivist Mom, does not think it would be respectful to just put something in someone’s mouth, even a quadriplegic. She brings her baby to her breast so that her nipple is near his nose and mouth and he can smell what she is offering. If he wants to nurse, he can open his mouth and do so.
Scenario 2—a newborn baby and when he is fed
The Standard American Mom believes that to be a Good Mom she is supposed to feed her baby every two hours. She has a handy little device that goes off every two hours so she knows its time to feed the baby. If he acts hungry before the two hours is up, she distracts him so that he learns to wait two hours.
The Objectivist Mom thinks refusing to feed her distinguished visitor, when she is capable of accommodating him, is disrespectful, so she feeds her baby when he’s hungry. Maybe it’s been one hour; maybe it’s been three.
Recap (and I’m assuming these are interaction patterns not single events):
The Objectivist Baby has been made responsible for his eating: his mind is learning to connect the sensation of hunger with the solution—food. He must learn to recognize the sensation of hunger and communicate it to his mother. He has found a benevolent universe and already sees himself as a capable actor in it.
The Standard American Baby has food shoved into his mouth whether he wants it or not / and it will be done when the clock says, whether he is hungry or not. In his mind, the connection between hunger and food has not been made. Likewise he has learned nothing about communication or self-assertion--except that it there’s no point since it doesn’t work. This baby will oscillate between feelings of frustration and anger as he fails repeatedly to communicate to his mother and passive resignation as he tries to accept the universe that he has found.
For the moms: the Objectivist Mom is getting in tune with her baby. The Standard American Mom is getting in tune with her alarm clock and whether she means to or not, showing her baby who is in control—it’s not him. It’s also not her. She’s just doing what she’s been told.
Now, the baby is older, let’s say one-year-old; he’s teething, and when he’s nursing he bites his mom.
The Standard American Mom believes it is her job to teach her child not to bite people. When he bites her she gives him a disapproving look, says “Bad boy! No Biting!” Then she picks him up and puts him in time out for one minute because that’s how long time outs are when you are one-year-old.
The Objectivist Mom first responds authentically to what happened. She says, “Ow. You hurt me!” She looks her baby in the eye, communicating her pain, and says, “Please don’t bite me, but,” and she looks around and grabs a nearby doll, “You want to bite. Here is something you can bite. It won’t hurt the doll.”
The Standard American Baby has learned that he is bad, that his desire—to bite—is bad. He has learned that some people get to control others and that he is not the one in control and he has to please those who are in control or he will suffer. He has learned that not only should he not want what he wants, but that trying to get what he wants could lead to pain.
The Objectivist Baby has learned that biting hurts his mom and she does not like that but it is valid for him to want what he wants. He wants to bite and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with him, there’s no shame. But other people don’t want to be hurt by him. He’s learning the value of non-aggression with the recognition that he does have the power to aggress. No one is pretending that he doesn’t, that they are his “control”, there to stop him from his bad impulses. He is expected to stop himself.
This way of thinking about your relationship with your child—two people working together to get their needs met, just continues as he gets older. I will give one more example, still using a feeding scenario, this time the child is four. **(This is no longer an example with my son as he is not yet four, but it remains a personal example with other people’s children for whom I have cared.)
The Standard American Mom believes it is her job to get food into her child, especially vegetables. In order to accomplish this goal she does a variety of things: begging him to take one more bite, bribing him with desert, making vegetable purees and sneaking them into his food, making macaroni and cheese every night because he won’t eat anything else.
The Objectivist Mom knows she wants to eat dinner and shares whatever she makes for herself with her child, just has she has since he was a baby. Tonight she makes bratwurst, saurkraut and mashed potatoes. What her child decides to do at this point—is his business. She talks to him during dinner but she never even looks at his plate.
The Standard American Child has learned that he has to eat whether he is hungry or not. He has been taught not to listen to his body. He has been taught that sometimes you have to be sneaky to make people do what you want. He has learned that he does have some power in his relationship with his mom—the power to refuse food. He enjoys using that to get a little revenge on his mother.
The Objectivist Child has been in charge of his eating since he was a baby. He has been eating whatever his mom makes since he was a baby. Sometime he eats it, sometimes he doesn’t. Especially if it’s a new food, sometimes he doesn’t even taste it. He eats vegetables when he wants to but there has never been any pressure or guilt. He has no guilt associated with food! Eating is all his deal, his responsibility. He has learned that he is capable of taking care of himself in this way. He has learned to trust his body to tell him how much to eat. He’s very clear that his life belongs to him.
The New Ideal Parent
If we do not get to be warmly authoritative Benevolent Dictators to our children, but we absolutely do want to influence what kind of people they become, our only option is to have an awesome, present, respectful relationship with our children and model how to live an awesome life. This is actually a far more effective way to parent because, according to Nathaniel Branden, regardless of what parents try to teach with all their force and control, “What we teach is what we are.”
The wonderful problem with my parenting theory is that we cannot give our children what we ourselves do not possess—psychological economics—I will say it again: we cannot give our children what we ourselves do not possess.
The only way to raise a hero, is to be one. So instead of obsessing over our children and trying to control them, trying to make them be the person we dream they could be, the best way to parent is to focus on ourselves and make ourselves the person we dream of being. Instead of “how can I get my kid to do what I know is best”, the parents in Galt’s Gulch think: be the hero you wish to see in your children.
And so we find a solution to the most common complaints made by psychotherapy patients to Nathaniel Branden: My parents never truly saw me. They didn’t understand me, the real me. When I was telling them what I needed, they didn’t listen to me. When I was telling them what I did NOT need, they didn’t listen to me. They didn’t take me seriously. They didn’t treat my thoughts, my values, my SELF, with respect. And, worst of all… they worked so hard for my happiness, when all I wanted, what I desperately needed, was to see theirs. To be inspired. To see the kind of life that is possible on this Earth.
Some parents struggle to treat their children with respect because children are often emotional. When raised the way I prescribe, they are not nearly as emotional as you think, but they still have a lot of strong feelings—as is natural to human beings.
Communicating with emotional people is a learned skill. You will only be successful, at treating your children with respect, to the extent that you treat their emotions with respect.
I will do one last scenario, this time focusing on emotions:
A mom is talking to a friend, vaguely aware that her two-year-old wants her attention, when suddenly he walks up and hits her. Her thinking sounds like this:
1) What do I know? My son hit me.
2) How do I know it? I felt it.
3) What do I feel? Upset.
4) Why do I feel it? Because I value non-aggression and this was an act of aggression.
5) What does my child feel? PAUSE Angry and hurt
6) Why does he feel it? Because he values visibility and I was ignoring him
What my distinguished visitor needs to know is: first: what he feels and why and second: how people in my culture express anger and how people in my culture get someone’s attention when they are being ignored.
In this scenario, which happened a few months ago, what I did was, I said: “You hit me--that makes me think you feel angry. Are you wanting to talk right now?” My son nodded. I said, “Oooooh. When you want a turn talking, I want you to say, ‘Excuse me. I’ve been waiting.” My son said, “Oooooh.” Then I said, “Do you want to play the mad game? How about, you talk to my friend now and I will pretend to feel impatient and get mad.” Then I modeled for him how to experience the emotion of anger without hurting myself or others. I modeled for him knowing what I feel and then wondering why and thinking of solutions. Afterward, it was his turn to pretend to be mad. I have never met a kid under seven who doesn’t think this is the best game ever.
There is a great deal with be said on the subject of emotions and how to best respond to them from an Objectivist point of view. For now, I will leave you with the following guide to helping an emotional person and I’m going to make it about YOU, because you cannot give your children what you yourself do not possess:
Step 1: Non-judgmental acknowledgement of what you are feeling—whatever you are feeling, the desire to hit your child, the desire to kick a dog. Feelings are not good or bad, the saying goes, they just are. But why? Emotions are part of our inner reality and if we get the message that what we are feeling is not okay, we repress.
Acknowledgement, “I’m angry” stops the repression—that is the goal. You cannot get a need met, if you don’t know what you need. You cannot examine a value, you are not willing to realize you have. We must know what we know and help our children know what they know. This is why music or movies can help us sometimes—we were repressing something and then that song came on and it helped to bring that feeling to the surface and we cried.
Step 2: Feel what you are feeling. Don’t say “I’m angry” and watch it as if it is not your anger, as some therapists will tell you to do--teaching you to not own your feelings. Go into the emotion, allow it to pass through your body.
Why? This is how we gather as much information as possible. Emotions must be felt all the way because surface feelings are often misleading. For example I know that when I feel depressed, if I bring that depression into my conscious awareness and allow myself to feel it, I usually find that I am just tired. If I don’t take a minute to feel the depression, I would mistakenly think that depression is the problem rather than exhaustion
Step 3: Reflect: this is the step a lot of non-Objectivists miss. Buddhists will tell you to ride the wave of the emotion and you’re good. That’s all you have to do. We know emotions are not causeless. After we have processed them and gathered as much information as we can about what we are feeling and why, we can integrate that information into our rational faculty, our decision making process.
Nathaniel Branden wrote, “Self-concept is destiny.”
If you raise your child as someone with ownership of his life—he will take ownership of his life. If you don’t manipulate his feelings of pain and pleasure, reality will be his only master. If you don’t use extrinsic motivators to control him, he will retain his intrinsic self. If you don’t use Behaviorist tactics on him at all—they will never be necessary. If you model and help him maintain self-awareness of his emotions, he will not lose valuable information through repression.
If we relate to even our youngest children in respectful ways, they will relate to others in respectful ways, and we will live in a society more like Galt’s Gulch.
Today I think of Galt’s Gulch as a psychological place—it’s the dream, the place where it doesn’t get any better. Today when I picture the parents and children of Galt’s Gulch, I picture relationships that are the dream. It doesn’t get better than this. This relationship, for both parent and child, should be that safe haven of freedom, joy and respect.