Often we tend to think, that as par­ents, our job is to pro­tect our off­spring from expe­ri­enc­ing pain. Nat­u­rally we want them to have only pos­i­tive life expe­ri­ences. How­ever, this is often not real­is­tic. Even if we were able to micro-manage our chil­drens lives and so pre­vent them from hard­ship, we wouldn’t be doing them any favors. As a mat­ter of fact, we most likely would be hin­der­ing their growth!

As a friend of mine once replied to his mother in response to her pro­fuse apol­ogy for hav­ing failed him, “But mom, you’re imply­ing you don’t like the way I’ve turned out! We both know it took every­thing I’ve been through to be who I am today and I hap­pen to like the me I’ve become! Don’t you?”

Of course we should do every­thing pos­si­ble to learn how to be the best par­ents we can be! Read­ing how-to books about health­ier com­mu­ni­ca­tion with our chil­dren and exchang­ing ideas with other par­ents is impor­tant. Seek­ing fam­ily coun­sel­ing when it’s indi­cated can be essen­tial for proper heal­ing. But it’s also impor­tant that we as par­ents under­stand that our job is not about pre­vent­ing our children’s pain. We can’t! We do and say things to our chil­dren that feel and in fact are abu­sive in spite of our best efforts. There’s no pre­vent­ing it. Chil­dren do not get through child­hood unscathed. And, more impor­tant … per­haps they’re not sup­posed to!

What if child­hood was designed by nature to be an ini­ti­a­tion? Could it be that the wounds of child­hood are part of the nec­es­sary jour­ney towards be com­ing mature and capa­ble adults? We cer­tainly know that how chil­dren respond to adverse cir­cum­stances will influ­ence them for the rest of their life.

Many third world cul­tures pre­med­i­tate rites of pas­sage for their youth. If you were to study some of these ini­ti­a­tion rites for African or Abo­rig­i­nal tribes, you might be dis­turbed at the sever­ity of the tri­als set in place. Ado­les­cent boys, for instance, might be sent out, naked and hun­gry, into the jun­gle and not allowed to return until they killed a preda­tory ani­mal. A hard­ship of some type must be endured by each youth in order to be accepted as a wor­thy adult mem­ber of the tribe.

It is easy for us to judge such rites as unciv­i­lized and cruel. We might even describe them as abu­sive behav­ior, unjustly wrought against the youth of a peo­ple who don’t know any bet­ter. We tend to think that we are “too civ­i­lized” to indulge in such painfully pri­mal prac­tices. But it doesn’t take lis­ten­ing to many of our own people’s hor­ren­dous child­hood his­to­ries to see how ram­pant inci­vil­ity is in this country.

Whereas ini­ti­a­tions are per­formed with delib­er­ate inten­tion among tribal peo­ples, we leave it to acci­dent or hap­pen­stance. Theirs are rites which have been designed by tribal elders for cen­turies. Their prac­tices orig­i­nate out of an ancient under­stand­ing that peo­ple are shaped and strength­ened by what they go through. There is an acknowl­edge­ment that strong char­ac­ter is built from strug­gle … that vic­tory is hard earned. They under­stand that self mas­tery and ful­fill­ment results from over­com­ing hardship.

Every­one of us has endured some type of ini­ti­a­tion through child­hood. Unfor­tu­nately, it was prob­a­bly per­formed with­out inten­tion, or even aware­ness. A rite of pas­sage gone awry, we are too often kicked through the door­way of life by par­ents who were them­selves mind­lessly ini­ti­ated. As a result, we fail to glean the pos­si­bil­i­ties that might have come from our adver­si­ties. No one ever shared with us that strength comes from pain endured. That patience and tenac­ity is earned through long stand­ing tribu­la­tion. That com­pas­sion, and a sense of oth­er­ness is gained from heart­break. Instead, we saw noth­ing beyond cru­elty as the rea­son for some of the things we endured. We balked at the idea that any­thing pos­i­tive could have pos­si­bly come from such hor­ren­dous treatment.

Rather than being able to see strength of char­ac­ter or resilience as attrib­utes we have earned through hard times, we learn instead to shrink away from life, avoid­ing pain at all costs. Out of this aver­sion to inter­nal duress, we tend to either repeat what was done to us, or swing to the oppo­site extreme, vow­ing never to do to our chil­dren what was done to us.

But, we too are des­tined to become the unwit­ting ini­tia­tors of our chil­dren. Our own unhealed child­hoods prompt us to uncon­sciously react in ways which end up wound­ing them. Even our attempts to pro­tect them can be hurt­ful: Jenna’s father, who had wit­nessed his own father sex­u­ally abuse his sis­ters. He went to great extremes in order to pre­vent the pos­si­bil­ity that he might ever demon­strate such behav­ior with his own daugh­ter. He acted in the only way he knew to pre­vent such a thing from hap­pen­ing. He avoided her. She took his shun as rejec­tion. His attempt to pro­tect her left her with an aban­don­ment wound she has strug­gled with through­out her life.

Some­times, through our efforts to cush­ion our chil­dren from strug­gle we end up depriv­ing them of impor­tant, albeit painful lessons. Chil­dren need to expe­ri­ence some hard­ship in order to learn how to deal with the inevitable blows of real life. If ones early years are too easy, then one does not acquire the nec­es­sary skills for deal­ing with life. Besides, child­hood hard­ship may very well be a rite of pas­sage designed to direct us towards find­ing our very pur­pose for being here.

Child­hood is not sup­posed to be a pro­tected envi­ron­ment, free from all tribu­la­tion! Nature designed chil­dren to be tough and resilient so that they can with­stand the falling down and knock­ing about that inevitably goes with the busi­ness of grow­ing up. This is how they find out what works and what doesn’t. They must learn through expe­ri­ence the sur­vival skills they will need later in life.

Chil­dren are not sup­posed to be treated as frag­ile, del­i­cate pieces of break­able stuff! And if we treat them so then we risk instill­ing in them a lack of con­fi­dence towards being able to han­dle life. We have become so wor­ried that we are going to be seen as abusers, that we are afraid to do any­thing that might cause our chil­dren dis­com­fort! It’s as if we think it’s some­how wrong to dis­ci­pline or set restrictions.

We are begin­ning to see a back­lash as a result of such over-therapied think­ing. Our chil­dren are turn­ing on us. With self will run riot, these undis­ci­plined chil­dren have never known appro­pri­ate bound­aries. When we become afraid of our chil­dren they become that which is to be feared.

Our chil­dren need to sense that we are in charge. They need free­dom within struc­ture. This gives them an assur­ance of safety from which they can cre­ate, express, and explore. It’s nec­es­sary for us as par­ents to pro­vide a bal­ance between lim­i­ta­tion and lib­erty which is age-appropriate. Instead, par­ents tend to go to extremes. Nei­ther being too demand­ing nor being wishy-washy push overs work well. Hav­ing more “yes’s” than “no’s” in a childs life does work. But the “no’s” need to be final! Every child deserves to know what his or her bot­tom lines are! Deal­ing with lim­its is one of the impor­tant tasks of child­hood. It is part of the prepa­ra­tion for life.

Also our job, as par­ents, is to let our chil­dren know that life is not fair, or pain­less. That it is not designed to be. That, in fact, they will be bet­ter pre­pared to han­dle life as a result of the depri­va­tions they must endure. We help them under­stand that child­hood can be a rite of pas­sage designed to direct them towards find­ing their very pur­pose. Their most painful times can actu­ally strengthen and refine them into being the best they can be, espe­cially with a lit­tle guid­ance. But we must let them face their ordeals with­out run­ning inter­fer­ence for them.

The great­est truth that we can arrive at regard­ing our chil­dren is to under­stand that they are not ours. We do not own them. We are given a very beau­ti­ful and sacred trust with them. That is all. This blood con­nec­tion we have with them assigns us the respon­si­bil­ity and the right to come into real, authen­tic rela­tion­ship with them. A rela­tion­ship fraught with tears and anger, dis­tance and rebuff, as well as joy and love.

Nei­ther are they exten­sions of us. They will prob­a­bly see the world very dif­fer­ently than we do. We can­not pre­dict or man­age how that will be. Accept­ing these truths can free us. We are not respon­si­ble for how they turn out … we are respon­si­ble for how we turn out. Their respond-ability is up to them. We can­not gov­ern that. It is their choice. Like them, we can only decide what we will do with what life hands us.

If we had been given to under­stand that child­hood is an ini­ti­a­tion, how might we be dif­fer­ent? If our par­ents had under­stood that their job was to take us through often painful rites of pas­sage, how dif­fer­ently might we have turned out? What if we had been given a frame­work of under­stand­ing such as tribal peo­ple pro­vide their chil­dren through rites of pas­sage? A frame­work that said, “Yes, this is going to be hard … you may not even live through it … but there is pur­pose to it. Through this ordeal you will find new mean­ing. You will come away bet­ter pre­pared to deal with your life. Your abil­ity to han­dle these hard times will deter­mine your very suc­cess. You will be stronger. You may even find your life’s purpose.”

We have the oppor­tu­nity to make con­scious our roles as ini­tia­tors for our chil­dren. It’s up to us to do the best we can to treat our chil­dren with respect with­out stand­ing in the way of their life expe­ri­ences. Allow them the refine­ment which their strug­gles can bring. This is our challenge.


  1. says

    I dream of a time when all our chil­dren are pro­vided with a rite of pas­sage into adult­hood — and that this would be nor­mal. We still have wed­dings, funer­als, baby nam­ings but we have lost our com­ing of age cer­e­monies. Our teenagers suf­fer for it — so does soci­ety. There is so much more I wish to say — some of it can be found here:
    If we don’t pro­vide an ini­ti­a­tion into adult­hood, our chil­dren will make them for them­selves — some­times in con­struc­tive ways, but so often with drink, sex, dri­ving, and risky behav­iour.
    So, how to cre­ate mean­ing­ful rites that don’t seem weird?

    • Lynne says

      Thank you Kim, for your com­ments. Your blog­ging (linked above) is very much in keep­ing with thoughts I too have had over the years about the impor­tance of mak­ing con­scious rit­ual a part of our lives. We all par­tic­i­pate in uncon­scious rit­ual every day … we call these some­times daily rit­u­als, our ““good” or “bad” habits.” :)

      I have come to see that child­hood, whether or not we know or like it, is a nec­es­sary ini­ti­a­tion, with our par­ents as our ini­tia­tors (whether they know it or intend it or not). Our par­ents are pow­er­ful play­ers, and prompters, in pro­pelling us for­ward into the jour­ney, with all of its dra­matic ups and downs, that we came to take.

      This ini­tia­tory jour­ney (ini­ti­a­tion being a word used to indi­cate our inner move­ment from out of one level of aware­ness into another, ‘big­ger’ under­stand­ing.) that I speak of is designed to fos­ter within each of us a process of mat­u­ra­tion. You refer to this jour­ney of matu­rity when you said,

    • It is stress­ful to live an adult life and have the psy­chol­ogy of a child – although many do …”

      These are words that, to me, touch on the under­stand­ing that “growing-up” is what the spir­i­tual jour­ney is all about. I agree. Growing-up is exactly what we are all here to do. We come here to incu­bate this imma­ture con­scious­ness, that we call a “self,” into a mature, self-responsible, focused, and fully aligned (with Source) grown-up. Again thanks for shar­ing. Blessings

  2. says

    Fab­u­lous piece, Lynne. Thank you.
    This is some­thing that I have had cause to think long and hard about. My own chil­dren have been through the divorce of their par­ents and one of the many pieces of wis­dom I picked up on along the way was: don’t let the bound­aries go because you feel guilt for the split. This is some­thing that has stood us all in good stead. As has the belief that the divorce of their par­ents is part of *their* jour­ney, too…
    Rites of pas­sage are sadly lack­ing in our soci­ety and ‘cul­ture’. This is a new way of look­ing at that, for which I am grate­ful.

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