What is a Child?

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Dave: My riddle, “What is a child?” is still in the air.

9f5cabc8f55110923b227ec817103d1bHow we think about the questions is influenced by cultural mindset. During the past 25 years of therapeutic work and exploration in our culture, the over-marketing and extensive use of psychotropic medication has altered our language for talking about human experience and emotional pain.

Most particularly this has happened in the clinical disciplines that attend to mental health, but the changes in language have seeped outward into the culture at large. These days anybody can assign a diagnosis and suggest a medication to go with it. By changing language, the pattern of medication use changes the consciousness of our culture, and thereby limits alternatives for problem solving. The use of medications redefines symptoms by making an authoritative, non-verbal proclamation in a language that pretends there is no relation between the symptoms and interpersonal or subjective experience. This trend has had a heavy impact on how our culture thinks about children.

We end up with a fantasy we know more about children and child development that we do. The fantasy dismisses the essential mystery a child is.  Mystery interferes with certainty and understanding.

UnknownIn every child there is a uniqueness, not explained by family history or genetics. The idea is contrary to the common belief that the child is a blank slate. I am captivated by James Hillman’s idea (The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling) that a personal daemon accompanies each child into the world (a daemon is a good spirit, a guiding spirit. A demon is an evil corrupting spirit). The child is uniquely a self, a mystery of “being recreating itself” (Hillman, 1996). Each of our souls enters the world accompanied by a daemon, and the daemon holds an image or pattern that guides us in the world. This sounds mystical. I’m not a mystic. Without fully understanding, I find it a useful, poetic way to represent the child.

The daemon carries one’s destiny. This daemon idea is not entirely practical, nor does it fit with science-based theories of personality; it comes out of the dream world, the underworld. It is a useful idea even though not solidly grounded. It would be as if we live in a shadowy room with curtained windows and every once in a while we catch a glint of sunlight through a divide in the curtains. Even though you cannot describe it, you don’t forget you saw it.

There are influences that come into play when we think about what a child is. There is who the child is, there is what parents consciously want them to be, then there are the parent’s unconscious desires and fears. Those unconscious desires and fears are part of the mystery; more influential than the conscious ones.

We do not understand ourselves very well. We must give up our fantasy of understanding our children or someone else’s. There is a mystery in each of us, which is out of reach. Children are more fully souls than we know, not just blank slate extensions of their parents. Be careful not to corner these souls. The greatest maturity is required of parents in this region, to acknowledge and appreciate the uniqueness of each child, especially when schools and diagnosticians are over-defining them.

images-6The daemon is their destiny. The child brings something into the world that we have no way of understanding. They are a somebody, and when that ‘whotheyareness’ is not honored, they are likely to become belligerent, or depressed or distractible or anxious. When a child is pressured to be someone they are not, defiance shows up, aggression intrudes, psychosomatic problems appear. The child instinctively protects the Self, the core sense of who they are. Good parents know that children need space in unstructured time, even to boredom.

I remember the experience of feeding our infant children. Only a week old, they sucked from the bottle, and their eyes locked on mine. I felt like they were feeding from my soul. I experienced something about love I had not known. I never forget that above all else children are mysteries who come into this world to teach us about loving. And, because there are questions, does not mean there are answers.

This from Kalil Gibran: “Your children are not your children. They are sons and daughters of life longing for itself. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may house their bodies, but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of the tomorrow which you cannot visit, even in your dreams. (Gibran, 1923).”

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