Parenting denotes ownership

The other day, I found myself in a discussion about parenting with a woman who styles her thinking along the lines of Eastern mysticism – yes, to many that is still fashionable.  It yielded an interesting difference in our view toward our adult children – and it’s one that I encounter from time to time.

Said succinctly, the difference is that I say that I view my children as mine, whereas my acquaintance says she does not view her son as hers.  Ownership is an egocentric, therefore erroneous, attitude toward parenting, she concluded. She took her opinion from the words of Lebanese/American poet Kahlil Gibran in his little book The Prophet:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far. 

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Now, I admit that these words are poetic – profound even – and they certainly contain some wisdom.  Many would say that they are hard to argue with, for they ring with rhapsodic beauty. 

Yet I’m a realist.  Gibran’s words seem to come from someone in the autumn years of a life (though he himself didn’t make it to his own), where usually a person’s scale of perspective toward their children has been seasoned with a natural detachment before life’s final curtain inevitably falls. 

My contention with this take on parenting lies in the firm belief that when children are young and in the process of developing, they need adults who unashamedly claim them as their own.  Why so?  Because “the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself” (evolution/natural selection) are brought into existence by, to and for parents to call their own. Ownership is exactly the right concept to apply to one’s young, since the young who belong to no one among us are known as orphans, and orphans desire more than anything else in the world to be claimed: to belong.

Literature is laden with stories and themes about children whose overwhelming desire is to be claimed as somebody’s, from street-wise Gavroche in Les Miserables (who has parents that neither want or love him) to precocious, red-headed, “romantical” Anne, the orphaned protagonist in Anne of Green Gables.  

A powerful theme in Herman Melville’s great seafaring epic, Moby Dick, with its famous opening line, “Call me Ishmael”, provides nothing short of a morality study on how human beings relate to nature, including other human beings, through a crew of orphans, exiles and social-outcasts who make up the central characters on the ship.  Melville penned these sensitive words which, in my view, are more poetically eloquent than Gibran’s:

Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm… Where lies the final harbour, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

Aside from giving children the incomparable gift of belonging and with that an identity bound into a family name, the most far-reaching gift to be bestowed upon a young mind is a strong value system – ie your thoughts, your views of right and wrong, your judgements about how things are and ought to be. It’s not to say that it will all be correct, let alone be adopted by your children, but it has the benefit of serving the young as a solid reference point to compare all other new thoughts and values against.

Children who are not given this kind of conscious gift end up being sponges who absorb every whim and impulse of a pervading, impersonal culture which doesn’t give a fig about their well-being – whereas parents do. Providing they are not psychopaths, it’s much wiser for parents to consciously and confidently instil their own thoughts and values into the minds of their children than it is to leave them wide open and susceptible to the fads and fancies of a wider culture’s unaccountable grip.

So, contrary to what my acquaintance likes to say, and what Gibran’s poem advises, while my children were children, they were my children and I confidently gave them my thoughts to ponder, as did their father.  Now they are very much their own people, with their own thoughts and values, which are frequently measured against the contemplations of both their parents. But they are still our children and by blood and kin still belong to us, and always will.