II. 5. More Compassionate Child-rearing
Life-affirming death awareness, by reducing our desire to live on through our children, is critical to compassionate child-rearing.
Few factors influence how we raise our children more than our pain about our mortality. It is common throughout all societies for all time for parents to speak of "living on" through their children. This is in some ways, a positive phenomenon. It is not clear how many people would have children at all were they not driven to find ways to survive their creature-deaths. And the desire to live on through our children is a prime motivation for the aid most parents give their children throughout their lifetimes.
The desire to "live on" through our offspring, however, is also one of the major causes of the pain and abuse, gross and subtle, that has been inflicted upon children over the centuries. The part of us that has children to perpetuate ourselves, in the end, is more about us than them. It bespeaks our own emotional hunger more than a genuine desire to love and nurture our offspring.
Understanding the deep impact that the desire to perpetuate ourselves through our children helps explain many of the seemingly contradictory ways in which parents behave. Parents are often, for example, far more willing to be materially than emotionally generous with their children. Buying a house for a young couple helps perpetuate the family line, and is thus far more motivating for parents than opening themselves up the pain required to nurture their children emotionally.
Nothing illustrates this phenomenon more clearly than the oft-heard parental refrain that they are seeking to control their children "for their own good." In most cases, parents genuinely believe that their behavior is motivated by love. But it is an emotional hunger not "love" that nags, pushes, prods, manipulates, criticizes, threatens, punishes, screams at and even physically and sexually abuses another human being. It is clear that such behaviors, which almost all parents engage in at one time or another, are motivated more by a desire to have their children grow into recognizable versions of themselves than genuine love, nurturance and caring.
And the opposite kind of parenting also illustrates this phenomenon. Emotionally distant parents who neglect their offspring, emotionally and/or materially, strike us as odd at first glance. Why on earth, we wonder, did they want to bring children into the world only to so neglect them thereafter? The answer is obvious. They wanted to live on through, not nurture, their offspring.
The desire to "live on" through our children also helps explain the fact that people often enjoy better relationships with their grandkids than their children. Unable to control their grandchildren as much as their children, they are free to develop a healthier relationship with them. They find themselves enjoying and nurturing their grandkids, rather than seeking to control and manipulate them as they did with their children.
It may well be, then, that only if we are willing to stop using our children as "self-perpetuation projects" that we will be able to extend to them the genuine compassion, love and nurturance which is their birthright.
When we are willing to consciously face our own pain about our own death honestly, we realize that the drive to "live on" through our children is an unconscious illusion. We will die. We will not live on through our children. In fact, the very act of trying to perpetuate ourselves through our children will make it less likely that we will be remembered well, since they will resent us, consciously or unconsciously, for having used them this way.
If we can also develop a life-affirming death awareness, however, we can go beyond merely stopping the harm we do our kids. We can transform our relationships with our children into the kind of interactions marked by genuine vulnerability, heightened feeling, and increased aliveness that they - and we - really want. Parents who genuinely appreciate life because they are in touch with their own pain about losing it, and can thus appreciate the pain their offspring who did not ask to be born are undergoing as they learn and try to cope with their own death, will tend far less to inflict even more emotional pain on them. On the contrary. Their experience of shared vulnerability will encourage them to appreciate and support their children's own growth in ways that were impossible when they were denying their own death-pain.
Such a death-awareness, moreover, will help us transform the unhealthy "immortality project" of self-perpetuation into the far healthier project of supporting our offspring to develop themselves as they need to, both now and after we are gone.
There are few experiences of life more satisfying, and which help us cope with death more healthily, than the knowledge in the present that we are genuinely contributing to the future well-being of our descendants and future generations.
If we can give up the attempt to control and the fantasy of self-perpetuation, we are freed to experience the far deeper and more real satisfactions of knowing that our present acts will survive our creature-deaths in the beating hearts and healthier lives of those who will follow us, not on our terms but theirs.
We have no higher calling than to support and serve our descendants. We can only do so, however, by facing our own death in a way that affirms life and lets go of the need to try and control the future.