What if there’s no ‘right way’ to parent? – a ‘many lifetimes’ perspective on parenting
Debate about parenting styles has been reignited by Amy Chua’s controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where super-tough love is held up as the panacea for parenting problems. Other authors argue for the safe-bet of having a balance between ‘discipline’ and ‘freedom’. Yet life shows countless examples where siblings who have experienced the same upbringing, have had quite different outcomes. It seems there is no proven, linear ‘law’ of cause-and-effect with any particular method of childrearing. So how are parents supposed to raise their children?
What if there was another perspective on parenting, not as yet recognised in the pop-parenting culture or academia?
So, ‘what if…?’ … What if I was born into this world, already having chosen my parents? What if I had planned to be second-born to my gentle, push-over ‘pussy-cat’ mother, and my firm, disciplining ‘tiger’ father? What if I had agreed to the heredity-mix and the emotional environment, the culture and ethics of that socio-economic nest? What if this was not my first lifetime, and that more than half a century ago, my spirit began returning to earth, re-entering the stream of physical life within my mother’s womb? What if each lifetime allows me to further develop the soul virtues I lack, such as loving compassion? And what if, since this is a more complex task than learning my ABC, this may require many lifetimes to fulfill?
Would it be too bizarre to contemplate that I may also be here to help my parents and older brother advance, as they learnt their particular life lessons? What if prior to our births, we had choreographed a dance for four individuals to understand the value of loving support? Of course, as we put it into practice under earthly conditions, it often fell apart! Did we all have ‘left feet’, I wonder, or was each stumble a precious moment of learning?
Is there much point calculating a family’s success? Can success be even measured in one lifetime? By what yardstick is parenting measured? Is it academic prowess or a moral life we are aiming for? For example, it sometimes happens that a quiet, compliant child is coerced to behave nicely, resulting in a well-mannered kindergarten child, and everyone praises the parent, but then the child may fall into depression as a teenager, and everyone pities the parent. Yet, should this child survive against the weight of depression, applying great effort, they may become stronger than a child who simply sails through each day. This child may then emerge with profound empathy for other people’s suffering, and people rush to commend the parent on producing such a gift to humanity. Then another child, from the same family, may energetically resist parental coercion, be regarded as a hopeless case, but later seize an opportunity to give of themselves selflessly. Judgementalism can be so exhausting!
Over time, the so-called negative experiences can sometimes become pearls. For example, painful emotions have helped me identify treasured life values: I was smacked as a child, and now I turn away from violent solutions. If I contemplate the possibility that my sufferings were actually willed by me before I was born, and that we are all learning how to love, and how to temper our anger and pride, I will not waste energy on taking revenge, but develop compassion. And what if, as this lifetime concludes, and I participate in a Grand Life-Review, I see what improvements I might work on next time, and what race, sex, culture and family constellation may best support those lessons? Not that I would be able to create a perfect future, since this is not a case for idealism or fate. Besides, we each have a measure of freedom – every action we take changes the world!
My understanding is that, if I wake up tomorrow, I have been granted another opportunity to develop and help my fellow travellers. If I am granted another lifetime, I can imagine that, as I experience future burdens, this could be the fulfilment of my pre-birth wishes, where I am being granted a lesson of my own making (although I probably won’t think it’s a blessing at the time!) Various philosophies of world wisdom refer to such perspectives as ‘The laws of reincarnation and karma.’ Rumi’s ‘Guest House’ poem and Buddhist practices include welcoming our adversity: “Welcome, my friend, Anger/ Fear/ Poverty. What have you to teach me today?”
Although I am unable to remember my past-life weaknesses, or pre-birth resolutions, this life’s troubles have called forth strengths such as humility and patience, eroded a few layers of pride and may yet culminate in a few morsels of wisdom. Then there’s a need to look at how we might sort out our ‘bad karma’. Perhaps once I’ve left my body behind, the remorse I feel for my destructive deeds will create a yearning for the chance to right those wrongs, by living again where I am in a position to help those I have hurt.
What if we could measure the gradual descent of the spirit as it enters life? Could it be that the energetic forces around a tantruming toddler, or a hostile teenager, reveal phases in child development where the individual’s spirit rushes in – often leaving parents flummoxed?
The mystery of the cause-and-effect of the soul’s life suggests that a child does not need to be ‘perfectly’ parented, behave impeccably or avoid adversity to develop kindness and moral fibre. It seems that the laws of the soul do not allow ‘ethical qualities’ or ‘happiness’ to be wished for, enforced or in any way simply added to a child’s life. Since young children learn so much through imitation, perhaps unconditionally surrounding them with fine examples of caring for one another will do no harm. ‘Receiving each child with reverence’ was suggested as a great starting point by Rudolf Steiner.
There is much written about present-moment mindfulness practices, but we need not be sitting cross-legged to become enlightened! A parent luckily has a multitude of moments where their emotional reactions to the children’s spontaneous lives offer precious opportunities to slow down, see what’s happening inside their own reactive body, get a picture of what the child is feeling and remember to breathe. From that still space within, the parent is free to act, or not, without repeating too many unhelpful patterns. Finding that centre of calm may need regular times of quiet reflection, such as looking back on the day, meditation or journalling.
I picture every moment arriving on the wings of destiny – an encrypted post-it-note, written long before I was born, reminding me to stay awake, take stock of what I’ve already done, and prompting me to bear courage for what I still need to learn and live through. Until I cross the threshold of death and perhaps experience the how’s and why’s of spiritual and earthly coexistence, I can only ponder the what-if’s, and endeavour to resist the sweet temptation to compare and judge myself and others, or seize truths about the ‘best’ ways to parent.
I look with awe at great accomplishments, where a group of individuals with a vision, determination, good health and training reach the very summit of Everest, or produce a stunning film. I wonder how many lifetimes those people may have been collaborating together, and where to from here? I muse on the possibility of reincarnation, where the soul’s journey towards its lofty goal may requires many lifetimes, and where our children may one day be our parents, if they have not already birthed us on a foreign shore a lifetime ago.
Kim Billington is a counsellor and narrative therapist at Mevlana Healing Centre, St Kilda, Victoria. She is a parent of three. Originally a schoolteacher and parent education facilitator, Kim has long pondered the mystery of life’s purpose, how we learn the most important lessons in life, and what is behind family dynamics and friendships.
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