The Power of a Hug

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Before I had children, I had six theories about bringing them up; now I have six children and no theories. - Lord Rochester

Mention child rearing to Eric, and you're sure to get him going about his childhood. The third of eight siblings, he grew up in a well-heeled suburban neighborhood that regarded his family as a model household. A doctor and devoted family man, Eric's father returned from his office on time every evening and rarely went out on weekends. His stay-at-home mother was equally devoted. Yet neither Eric nor any of his brothers and sisters liked being at home, especially when their father was around.

"Our household functioned wonderfully, but only by appearances. In actual fact it was ruled by fear. It's not that my father ever beat us - though he did on rare occasions spank or slap us. But woe betide you if you set him off. You never knew what kind of punishment you'd receive...

Dad, a master disciplinarian, kept us in line by effectively crippling us with an ongoing sense of dread. One summer night he caught my older brother Jack sneaking out of his bedroom window to go out with his friends. Dad ran outside and waited till he was safely on the ground. Then he confronted him: "Well, son, it's clear you prefer running around outside. Maybe you ought to stay outside."

For the rest of that summer Jack had to eat his meals outside, next to the dogs. "Maybe he'll learn what it's like to act as a civilized human being," Dad explained to us younger ones. Jack left home when he was sixteen and never came back.

Another time Dad grounded my older sister Mary, the family goody-goody, for a whole summer. Mary was normally super-responsible, but at the end of her sophomore year she skipped one class, and Dad snapped. I can still see her, talking through our backyard fence to her friends, day after day, week after week. It must have been the most humiliating punishment.

As for myself, there are numerous reasons why I was deathly afraid to cross Dad's path. But one example will suffice. It must have been when I was eleven or twelve - in the sixth grade - when I tried smoking for the first time and got caught. First I was sent to my room, where I waited for what seemed like hours. Then Dad came in. He advised me that I had two options. I could either smoke the entire pack I had started right away until they were all smoked, or display it on my window sill for a month and explain to everyone who came in - including my siblings and friends - why they were there, and how disgusting my father thought smoking was. I knew where the first option would lead - I would have been sick - so I decided on the second.

For the entire next month, I could think of only one thing: how to keep people from entering my bedroom. In fact, I literally feared cigarettes for years afterward. I was so afraid of smoking that whenever I walked down a street I made sure to keep clear of any and every cigarette butt on the ground. I was worried that Dad might drive by and think that I had been smoking.

One time my English class was assigned an essay for homework that I knew would require my writing the word "cigarette." I was so scared at the thought of what Dad might think that I destroyed the assignment and had to lie my way out of explaining why I didn't have it.

Something like cigarettes might seem like a small thing, but not for Dad...By the time I was in high school I had gone pretty much ballistic and did everything I could think of to spite him. He could have the final word at home, I said to myself, but nowhere else. I guess it goes without saying that we never had (and still don't have) any relationship worth speaking of."

Eric's story is a miserable one, but for countless adults it will ring a familiar bell: the memory of a similar incident that marred what could have been a happy childhood. Sadly, parents are sometimes so blinded by their principles that they are unable to follow their hearts. Ready to "do the right thing" at any cost, they are masters of their domain - but all too often they lose their children in the process.

Discipline is probably the most overused word in the vocabulary of parenting, and also the most misunderstood. Discipline is not just punishment. What is it then? It is guidance, but not control; persuasion, but not suppression or coercion. It may include punishment or the threat of punishment, but never cruelty or force. It should never mean the use of corporal punishment, something I feel is always a sign of moral bankruptcy. What it will always include is loving consideration for the inner disposition of the child. As my grandfather, writer Eberhard Arnold, put it, "That is the crucial element. Raising children should mean helping them to become what they already are in God's mind."

Thankfully, my siblings and I received such consideration from our parents throughout our upbringing, and the result was a relationship of mutual love and trust that lasted, unbroken, to the end of their lives. Of course, this relationship was grounded in plenty of old-fashioned discipline, including rows so loud and dramatic (especially if we talked back to our mother) that we would be shamefaced for hours afterwards, and certain that the neighbors had heard every word.

Name-calling and mockery were cardinal sins in our house. Like boys and girls anywhere, we sometimes made fun of adults whose peculiarities made them stick out, like Nicholas, a simple-minded neighbor who stuttered, and Gunther, a pedantic, extremely tall librarian at school. But even if our targets knew nothing of the clever ridicule that went on behind their backs, our parents failed to see any humor in it. They had a nose for cruelty wherever it was and would not tolerate it for a minute.

Still, their tempers never lasted for long, and even if a punishment was deserved, it was sometimes dispensed with in favor of a hug. One time when I was eight or nine, I angered my father so much that he threatened to spank me. As I waited for the first blow, I looked up at him and, before I knew what I was doing, blurted out, "Papa, I'm really sorry. Do what you have to do - but I know you still love me." To my astonishment, he leaned down, put his arms around me and said with a tenderness that came from the bottom of his heart: "Christoph, I forgive you." My apology had completely disarmed him. Because this incident made me realize how much my father loved me, it has always remained vivid in my mind. It also taught me a lesson I have never forgotten - one I drew on in dealing with my own children years later: Don't be afraid to discipline a child, but the moment you feel he is sorry, be sure there is immediate and complete forgiveness on your part.

How different the landscape would look if each of us were ready to practice such compassion - and not just by hugging our own sons and daughters, but by standing up for children everywhere! As it is, we are bringing up a generation of children whom we not only don't love, but fear. Signs of this are everywhere: from nighttime curfews for urban youth in many big cities to the criminalization of petty acts such as "tagging" (graffiti-spraying), and the deployment of armed guards and police officers at schools. Most alarming of all are the skyrocketing rates of youth incarceration.

Despite the obvious failure of such grim "solutions," attitudes toward young adults and children at risk - and laws designed to seal their fate - grow more repressive with every year. In California, legislative initiatives like Proposition 21 have given unheard-of power to prosecutors in juvenile courts and vastly increased the odds that suspects as young as fourteen will be tried as adults. Meanwhile, in Texas, standardized reading tests taken by third graders are being used to project the number of new prison cells that will be needed by the time those children are adults (low scores are supposed to indicate a higher propensity for crime).

There's nothing new about using childhood personality traits to predict adult behavior; psychologists and psychiatrists have done it for decades. But what does it say about a society when its leaders bet on the failure of the next generation, and no one protests? What does it say about the way we view children, when we allow the very guardians of their future to dream such fatalistic dreams?

Clearly, a satisfying exploration of such big questions is beyond the scope of this article. So is the discussion of many other issues that would need to be addressed beforehand, such as why so many young men behind bars had trouble in the classroom in the first place, and what sort of obstacles were blocking their progress then.

I am also hesitant to advise readers on how to guide and discipline the child within the home; after all, each one brings with him or her a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, promises and challenges, as does every parent. Perhaps it is best to follow the wisdom of Janusz Korczak (1878 - 1942), a remarkable Jewish pediatrician whose story I will tell later. He writes:

"You yourself are the child you must learn to know, rear, and above all enlighten. To demand that others should provide you with answers is like asking a strange woman to give birth to your baby. There are insights that can be born only of your own pain, and they are the most precious. Seek in your child the undiscovered part of yourself."

Speaking of insights "born of pain," my wife, Verena, and I gained several in the course of bringing up eight children. Like most parents, it is probably safe to say that there is plenty we would do differently if we had the chance to do it again. Sometimes we unfairly assumed bad motives; at other times we had the wool pulled over our eyes; one day we were too lenient; the next, too strict. Of course, we did learn several basic lessons as well.

When a child is conscious of having done something wrong, but there are no consequences, he learns that he can get away with it. It is a terrible thing for a child to get that message. With a younger one, the issue might seem unimportant; his misdeed may actually be small. But it can have repercussions far into the future. The old saying, "Little children, little problems; big children, big problems," is easy enough to dismiss, yet like most clichés, it contains a significant truth. A six-year-old may only snitch cookies; at sixteen he may be shoplifting. And while the will of a small child may be guided with relative ease, a rebellious teenager can only be reined in with the most strenuous effort.

Despite the need for consequences, they are not sufficient in themselves. Discipline entails more than catching a child in the act and punishing him. Far more important is nurturing his will for the good, which means supporting him whenever he chooses right over wrong - or, as my mother used to put it, "winning him for the good." Of course, such affirmation has nothing to do with manipulation; the purpose of rearing them can never be to simply make them obey. Rather, our goal should always be to help them toward the confidence that enables them to explore life and yet know their limits. That is the best preparation for adulthood.

Writer Anthony Bloom was once asked by an interviewer what it was about his upbringing that stood out most clearly to him as an adult. Bloom, the son of a famous diplomat whose travels took the family on colorful adventures all over the world, answered simply, "two things my father said, which impressed me and have stayed with me all my life."

"One was this: I remember he said after a holiday, "I worried about you," and I said, "Did you think I'd had an accident?" He said, "That would have meant nothing...I thought you had lost your integrity." Then on another occasion he said to me, "Always remember that whether you are alive or dead matters nothing. What matters is what you live for and what you are prepared to die for." These two things were the background of my education..."

Unlike fathers such as Bloom's, who inspired integrity rather than tried to teach it, there are those parents who fall for the mean-spirited habit of trying to catch their child red-handed and then using their evidence to prove his guilt. That is an act of moral violence. So is distrusting a child, spying on him, or reading bad motives into his behavior, all of which will weaken him by making him doubt himself. Constantly criticizing and correcting a child will likewise discourage him. Worse, it will take away the best reason he has to trust in you: his confidence that you understand him. Froebel writes:

"Too many adults blame children who - though they may not be wholly innocent - are yet without guilt. That is, the children are unaware of the motives and incentives the adults accuse them of, which make their actions "bad." Children often receive punishment for things they have learned from these very adults...But that does nothing other than teach them new faults - or at very least bring to their attention ideas that might never have occurred to them on their own."

Naturally, every child needs correction regularly. Most need it several times daily. But when children are punished too harshly, the ultimate purpose of correcting them - helping them to make a fresh start - is overshadowed by the discipline itself. That is why it is always best to believe in the power of good and to give a child the benefit of doubt.

A fault like selfishness is rarely the same in children as in adults. Unable to see the world around them from anything but their own limited perspective, children feel fully in possession of it. Especially when small, they simply are - innocently and justifiably - the center of their own little universes.

Dishonesty is another issue parents tend to tackle with far too little regard for the child's point of view. It is surely important, when a child has been dishonest, to get to the facts of what happened and to encourage the child to face up to them. But it is rarely good to probe into the child's motives, and always wrong to push for a confession. After all, it may be nothing more than embarrassment or shame that caused the child to wriggle out of something by means of a half-truth to begin with, and if pressed, he may be so afraid of the consequences that he will tell an outright lie. Don't adults do that, too, for the very same reasons?

Forgiveness is necessary dozens of times a day. No matter how many times a child gets into trouble, never lose faith in him. As with lying, who is to say that any other fault a child must struggle to overcome does not reflect the same fault or tendency in his parents? To label a child as hopeless is to be tempted by despair, and to the extent that despair is a lack of hope, it is also a lack of love. If we truly love our children, we may at times throw up our hands in desperation, but we will never give up on them. God sent the Hebrews not only the Law of Moses but also manna, the bread of heaven. Without such bread - that is, without warmth, humor, kindness, and compassion - the most carefully considered discipline will eventually backfire.

There's no question that being a friend and companion as well as a parent requires double the patience and energy. But as Dale - an attorney who gave up his job to be a father - notes, there are few things as satisfying:

"When I think about it, it is much easier to live with children who fear you than it is to live with children who love you, because if your children fear you, when you come home they're gone. They scatter. They go to their rooms and shut the door, and you make it easier for them by piling their rooms full of computers, and TVs, and stereos, and everything else. But if you have children who love you, you can't get them out of your hair! They're hanging on to your legs, they're pulling on your pants, you come home and they want your attention. You sit down, they're all over your lap. You feel like a walking jungle gym. You also feel loved."

The willingness to be vulnerable is an important part of parenting, too. For my wife and me, few experiences brought us as close to our children as the times we overreacted but then realized it and asked them to forgive us. If nothing else, it reminded us each time that just as we adults depend on the promise of being able to start over every morning, children do too. They should always be given the same chance, no matter how bad the previous day. And no matter what they are going through, they should always feel the assurance that we are ready to stand by them - not hovering over them, but at their side.

Obviously, every family has its ups and downs, its trying moments, its embarrassing dramas. There is nothing as emotionally complex as the relationship between a parent and a child. But there is also nothing as beautiful. And that is what we need to hold on to whenever we reach the end of our rope.

Earlier in this article I referred to Janusz Korczak, whose writings on children are revered throughout Europe. A teacher whose selfless devotion to orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto earned him the title King of Children, Korczak never tired of reminding people how it felt to be a child in an adult world and emphasizing the importance of educating children not "from the head" but "from the heart."

Korczak's insistence on what he called "standing with the child" was not only a principle. On August 6, 1942, as the two hundred orphans under his care were rounded up and loaded onto trains headed for the gas chambers of Treblinka, Korczak refused the last-minute offers of Gentile friends who arranged for his escape and chose instead to accompany his charges on the gruesome ride that carried them to their deaths.

Few stories of devotion are as stirring as Korczak's, and as surreal, perhaps because of the gulf between our circumstances and the unspeakable ones that necessitated his sacrifice. Yet despite the distance between his era and ours, far too many children in the world today suffer for want of even one such guardian - one adult who will take them by the hand and stick with them, come what may. And so for us, who live in a time of relative peace and prosperity, Korczak's last recorded words not only remind us of his heroism, but stand as a challenge to each of us who has ever raised - or hopes to raise - a child: "You do not leave sick children in the night," he said. "And you do not leave them in a time like this."


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