child and parent, student and teacher

As a parent of 2 young boys, a teacher and mentor at work, and a new student of Tai Chi, I think a lot about child-parent and student-teacher relationships, which can be wonderful, but can also be difficult. As I’ve grown up (even into my 30’s!), I was often unhappy with my teachers and mentors, many of whom seemed to be either too disengaged and remote, or too controlling in a way that advanced their own interests much more than my growth.  To be blunt, it seems that many parents and teachers are too wrapped up in their own narcissistic needs to keep their children’s best interests in mind, and instead use their kids to try to satisfy those narcissistic needs.  As children or students grow in independence and skills, some parents or teachers have difficulty letting go, or even feel threatened or competitive toward the child or student.  This competitiveness can lead parents to be overly punitive or to demonstrate their own superiority in a way that humiliates the child, which tends to tear down a child’s self-esteem and self confidence, rather than helping him grow.

Although I’ve been criticizing many parents and teachers, now that I am a parent and teacher myself, I have more sympathy for how hard it is to be really good in these roles.  As a parent, as much as you love your child, you can’t be 100% available and giving all the time—you still are a human being yourself, with needs of your own.  Some degree of narcissism on the part of parents is understandable, and healthy.  It’s really difficult to find the right balance between your kids needs, which can seem endless, and your own.  Also, as kids rebel or defy you, it takes a lot of restraint and effort to not give in to your frustration, impatience, and anger, and overuse the power you have in the relationship.

The Taoist approach to parenting or teaching, which is easier said than done, is to try to be present and available for the child or student as much as possible, but to avoid going too far in using children for your own narcissistic needs or abusing your power as a parent or teacher by being controlling, dominating, overly punitive, or exerting your superiority too vigorously.

“The Tao nourishes by not forcing.

By not dominating, the Master leads.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 81, Stephen Mitchell translation

While it’s important to set limits and use some discipline and structure in raising kids, the Taoist approach is to do so with a sense of restraint and gentleness.  It can help to try to remember what it was like to be a kid yourself, and how you hated to be either ignored, on the one hand, or dominated and controlled, on the other.   Sometimes when I’m feeling frustrated or impatient with my own kids, I try to remember that, as much as kids try to exert some control, they and I both know that I’m the parent, and hence the more powerful one in the relationship, so I, as the parent, have nothing to prove, and there is no need to abuse my power, which would only be scary to my kids and wouldn’t help.

The Taoist way is also to let go of seeing your kids as a competitive threat, of worrying that they might outdo you.  As a teacher, as impressive as your knowledge, skills, and achievements are, you are only one person, and there is only so much you can accomplish in your own lifetime.  By sharing what you know, encouraging your kids or students, allowing them to have increasing autonomy, and grow into their own people, you create a legacy for the next generation that may be as important or more important than anything you could hope to accomplish alone in your own life.

“Mother and Kitten” by Ren Adams

“Gentleness should be every parent’s and teacher’s standard.  Sure, life is tough.  Sure, you never had it as good as today’s young.  But isn’t it time someone had it good and right? …

“The most important thing they can do is simply to be present.  It is not a matter of quality time.  It is a matter simply of time.  The best thing you can do is just to be there as often and as long as possible.  If you can always be present for your child, then your child will understand what presence and constancy are.  There is no way to teach this other than by example….

“What do you, as the elder, have to fear by teaching all you know?  The child can never ‘catch up’ to you.  But if you teach without holding back, then the child may someday extend what you have passed on.

“It is in the selflessness of nurturing that the nurturer is in turn nurtured.”

–Deng Ming-Dao, essay entitled “Nurture” in the book “Everyday Tao:  Living with Balance and Harmony,” 1996

Of course, in our modern American culture, it seems almost impossible, and, some might argue, not even necessarily desirable or healthy, to be physically present for your child all the time, especially as they get beyond early infancy.  But, if I understand him correctly, Deng Ming-Dao is talking more broadly about a type of “presence” that encompasses, not just being physically in proximity to your child, but being emotionally present for your children and having the time to really listen to them (see my other post on “Listening”) when they need you, even if you are not always physically present.  Part of this idea of listening is trying to understand the child’s perspective, and trying to open ourselves up to seeing them and accepting them for who they are, not what who we hoped they would be.

Conversely, as a child or student, while it’s essential to learn from your parents and teachers and give them the respect they deserve, it’s important to not allow yourself to go too far in being dominated or controlled by them, or to give up your own self-esteem for a teacher.

“No matter what happens in life, believe in yourself….

“Too many people let others dominate them.   For what?  For the good of the other only….If you let your parents dominate you, who benefits?  Your parents.  If you let a master dominate you, who is empowered?  The master….And where does that leave you?  The master says, ‘Study with me, or be relegated to ignorant sorrow.’…Tell me, what good are associations built on dirty threats?”

—-Deng Ming-Dao, essay entitled “Yourself” in the book “Everyday Tao:  Living with Balance and Harmony,” 1996

One of the hardest parts of the child-parent or student-teacher relationship is that it continuously changes over time, as the child or student grows in knowledge and ability and capacity for independence, and differentiates from the parent or teacher.  This requires that the parent let go more and more, and that the child become more independent.  If a parent can handle this well enough (although perfection is not necessary), can let their child grow in independence, can let go, but continue to be there for their child or student when they need them without controlling them, the child’s heart will be filled with love for their parent, love that will never die.

“The Tao gives birth to all beings,
nourishes them, maintains them,
cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
takes them back to itself,
creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.
That is why love of the Tao
is in the very nature of things.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 51, Stephen Mitchell translation

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


4 Responses to “child and parent, student and teacher”

  1. plasticpumpkin Says:

    Present and available you can receive (and give) all things.

    There’s a Buddhist saying:

    “In the master’s mind, nothing is possible. In the student’s mind, all things are possible.”

    This saying reflects a lot of Taoist ideas–that by remaining a lifetime student, you become the best master there is.

    I’m sure you’re a fabulous teacher. 😉

  2. Aspiring Taoist Says:

    That’s a wonderful quote that I had never heard before. Thanks for posting it! 🙂

  3. Aspiring Taoist Says:

    This excerpt is from Andrea Miller’s interview of the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, pubished in “Shambhala Sun” magazine in January, 2014 (pp.59-60):

    “Andrea Miller: ‘What is the role of a teacher in spiritual practice?’

    “Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘A friend can be a teacher, a fellow practitioner can be a teacher, and you yourself can be a teacher. A teacher is anyone who helps you practice and find more freedom — even freedom from your teacher.
    ‘You have to be intelligent and not be dependent on your teacher. If you follow him or her with blind faith, it’s not good. There is no perfect teacher. You can learn the good things from him or her, and you can also help your teacher to be better. Very soon there will be a teacher within you, and you can follow that teacher.
    ‘So a good teacher is someone who helps you not depend on him or her all your life. That is why the Buddha said before he died, “Go back to yourself. Take refuge in the island within you.”
    ‘You are not lost when your teacher is no longer in human form, because your teacher is always alive in you and in his disciples. When I practice calligraphy, sometimes I invite my late teacher to join me, so as teacher and disciple we do it together. Breathing in, half the circle. Breathing out, the other half. When I smile, my teacher smiles.
    ‘I invite all the teachers of the past to do a circle with me, and I know that my hand is not my hand. My hand is also my father’s hand and my mother’s hand. Sometimes I invite all my friends to do it with me, because they are also me.’”

  4. Aspiring Taoist Says:

    Great post from Deng Ming-Dao today on Facebook:

    “In the martial arts world, and in traditional Chinese culture, we are trained never to criticize our masters (although our elders think nothing of abusing us at every turn).

    “Your teacher is always right,” my parents told me. My grandfather said the same thing to my mother when she was a girl. “Honor your teachers after your parents, for they have more wisdom than you do.”

    There was no child more devout than I was. It was a simple formula, yes? Just do what your elders tell you to do. Just be a “good boy,” or a “good girl” and all will be assured.

    However, I can honestly say that my life has been a progression of one authority figure after another crumbling in hypocrisy, dishonesty, laziness, outmoded knowledge, feebleness, chauvinism, misogyny, racism, pedophilia, professional and sexual misconduct, alcoholism, drugs, criminal behavior, and abuse. There is not a single person to whom I would unquestioningly trust my spiritual life. Yeah, I’ve heard those old bearded men say, “Then you will never find the Way,” and then I saw and heard them do outrageous things when they thought no one was looking.

    The older these teachers get, the more desperate they are to hold people to them. I’ve watched this all my life. So many masters try to keep people from drifting away. But keeping students in a traditional setting when the world around us is constantly changing is a quixotic thing. The culture in which students stayed with a master for life died over a hundred years ago—even before any of these masters were born. Why in the world are they trying to replicate that today? Can it be that they are lonesome, desperate, greedy for money, and that they ultimately intend to dole out their knowledge in just enough chunks to keep students hooked but never free? That’s the strategy of a drug pusher, not a master.

    The best way to keep students is the same as the best way to keep your children loving you: earn it. Be the master. Be the master who gives unselfishly. Be the master who opens the door at every turn. Be the master who urges your students to be free.

    Only the love of a student who can come and go freely is a worthy outcome of a master’s efforts. Everything else is just a hustle.”

    –Deng Ming-Dao

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