Yes and No

Economics, Darwinian biology, and dualistic religion all agree that the only hope for a livable world is if we all try really hard to be nice. Such a view sees civilization as a fundamental good, for it overlays the bestial inclinations of nature with conditioned behaviors that run counter to nature—counter to its win-at-all-costs, eat-or-be-eaten truths. Since the newborn child is wholly natural, wholly uncultured, education and child-rearing aim to destroy, or at least to suppress, the child’s original nature in favor of civilized morals, values, and behavior. Hence the enormous emphasis placed on obedience and discipline.

The alternative to “trying harder” is play, which is spontaneous, improvisational, and easy (play only begins when we are at ease). If we try to play, we do not play. Fear and anxiety, compulsion and coercion, obedience and discipline are inimical to play. Many childhood activities that today go by the name of play, such as gymnastics classes and Little League, are actually closer to “skills development” or obedience training. But sad to say, our society begins to deny play at an earlier age than that.

Until she learns to crawl, a baby’s freedom to play is restricted only by her physical capacities. She plays constantly, exploring different ways of moving her body and making sounds. Few parents try to restrict and instruct a child younger than eight months old, and there is little reason ever to use the word no. But when she becomes mobile, the baby or toddler can (as all we parents know) get into trouble: make messes, refuse to cooperate, and even endanger herself. Maybe she wants to take out all the pots and pans and bang on them for half an hour. Maybe she doesn’t want to get into her car seat. Maybe she isn’t hungry right now and would rather throw her food onto the floor. Maybe she wants to climb up the slide backwards. What if some other child hits her on the way down? She could fall and hurt herself.

Situations like these elicit that defining word of early childhood—”no”—which acquires its force from the violence (physical or verbal) that accompanies it, or the implicit threat of such violence. In each case we feel the necessity of asserting control. We cannot let her bang away on the pots and pans because of the horrible racket and the mess, plus it is just so. . . disorderly. She has to get into her car seat, right now, because we have to be somewhere at ten o’clock and it is unsafe and illegal not to ride in a “child restraint device” (as I like to call it—”Matthew, get into your child restraint device!”). Throwing her food onto the floor makes such a mess, and besides dinner time is now, not later, and we have other things to do. Immersed in modern life, we are at the mercy of its schedules, we are busy. As for the playground slide, well, maybe if we think about it rationally it isn’t so dangerous, but we must teach her to respect rules, after all.

On one level, we seek to corral our children’s autonomy and creativity for the same reasons we corral our own: it isn’t practical, realistic, or safe. Subtly or not-so-subtly, we try to steer them toward practicality, safety, good manners and good morals. Today crude methods employing outright fear of physical pain have fallen out of favor. Instead we manipulate our children through selective praise and disapproval. We contrive to make them feel good about doing what we approve of, and guilty or ashamed about doing what we disapprove of. Sometimes a mere inflection of the voice is enough, or a subtle comparison to a sibling or friend.

The program of control is both subtle and pervasive. It is nearly always unconscious. If you are a parent, listen to yourself as you speak to your children. Notice when, through word or tone, you create a subtext of “You are bad” or “You are (conditionally) good.” If you have parents, listen for that in their communication to you. And finally, no matter who you are, listen for it in your communications with yourself. I have found it pervades my inner dialog. I am good because of this, bad because of that. I can’t do X because I’d be bad if I did. I must do Y or I won’t be good. You won’t necessarily use the actual words “bad” and “good”; instead you might employ substitutes like lazy, indulgent, selfish, greedy, or wrong for the former, and cool, nice, deserving, worthy, or right for the latter. Underneath these words, feelings of guilt, self-rejection, desire for approval, anxiety, and shame shepherd us through a life under control.

The sophistication of this program becomes apparent when we realize that many of the child’s behaviors that we seek to control are not actually that dangerous. The justification, “We must teach her to respect rules” takes us to the root of the issue. Overriding the immediate concerns of safety and convenience is the “principle” that she must learn to obey her parents. She must submit to discipline—at first external, then internalized as an adult. Control is actually a goal more important than the safety, practicality, and morality that justifies it. Consider the two cardinal sins of childhood: disobedience and lying. More than nearly any other infraction, disobedience and lying are profoundly disturbing to the typical parent. They provoke irrational and often unbearable frustration, helplessness, and rage, because they reveal that the child is out of control; they amount to an assertion, in action, of the child’s autonomy. As such they are sure to incite the harshest punishment!

I remember one time years ago, my son Jimi was riding his trike around our cul-de-sac when I saw a car pulling out of a driveway. “Jimi,” I shouted, “a car wants to pull out, move to the side of the road.” When he didn’t respond, I shouted again, a little louder, “Jimi, get out of the way, there’s a car coming!” Still he didn’t respond. Fortunately, the driver had seen him and driven around him and out of the cul-de-sac (he had never actually been in much danger), but by then I’d completely lost my temper. I walked up to him and screamed in his face about how he must always do as his father says because what if the car didn’t see him? Jimi of course began crying and it was quite a while before I, feeling miserably guilty the whole time, could console him.

After years of reflection on this and similar incidents, I eventually realized that the danger of the car was just an excuse. The real reason I “lost it” was because I felt threatened. I wanted to frighten him into submission. I was furious that he didn’t do as I said, and I wanted to scare him into obeying me next time. I was also embarrassed because the neighbor probably disapproved of my lax supervision of his activities. I felt like a bad parent. Jimi’s disobedience triggered a deep unease that actually had little to do with any real danger.

I have since learned that to gain a child’s trust and obedience, it is far more effective to kneel down in front of him, take his hands, look at him at eye level, and sincerely tell him in calm but certain words why it is important to listen to his father. It is so much more effective to trust that a child naturally desires the guidance and protection of the parent, and to speak to that desire. It is not necessary to subdue his spirit. It is not necessary to fight human nature. Can you believe that? Can you believe that my children almost always obey me, and I never threaten or punish them? We don’t have to live in a Newtonian world where only force can change the course of matter.

And can you see that my children rarely have any cause to lie to me? There is nothing to evade. Think back on your own adolescence. Did you routinely deceive your parents in order to gain freedom and avoid punishment? Did you have a secret life? How long (if ever) did it take to restore intimacy and trust? Our alienation from our children is yet another example of how control isolates us from the world.

The fashionable locution, “You need to. . .” is a telling manifestation of the domination of children’s spirits. I heard one mother, after her six-year-old daughter had ignored two or three requests to go inside and get ready for bed, switch to a tone of angry, insistent menace: “Maggie, you NEED to go inside right now!” As George Orwell observed, to dominate a person’s actions is not enough; his thoughts and feelings must be under control as well. I am not blaming the mother, for she is just a channel for the climate of the culture. But think of the tyranny of dictating to someone what they need. Any marriage counselor will tell you that it is disrespectful and unproductive to tell another person how they should be feeling, but we do it to children all the time through praise and disapproval, reward, threat, and shame.

The subtle forms of control I have described seem gentler than the whippings and beatings of yesteryear, but in essence they are no different. They are merely a different means to access a child’s greatest fear. Far more than pain, what a child (or any young mammal) fears the most is rejection or abandonment by the parent. That is why children have been known to willingly kiss the hand that strikes them, or even to ask for punishment. From this perspective, a putdown is the same as a beating. Both invoke the primal fear of abandonment. In fact, an occasional spanking is probably less damaging than a prolonged campaign of control that makes the child feel never good enough for complete acceptance. Never good enough. When approval is conditional on performance, then no degree of perfection can ever suffice to put the child at ease. The same is true when he grows up and internalizes parental approval as self-approval. Conditional approval means you are perpetually on probation. Your natural self is bad, so you have to try hard to be good. Yet no amount of effort can build a tower to Heaven. No matter what heights we achieve we always fall infinitely short.

The human spirit is so strong that only a threat to survival can subdue it. The primal fear of abandonment is instrumental in breaking a child’s spirit. The “training” or acculturation of children taps into survival anxiety at the deepest level. Remember my students who say, “My parents would kill me.” That is a code-phrase for fear of abandonment.

Survival anxiety is also what motivates the parents. We typically rationalize this breaking of a child’s spirit by saying it is for his “own good”, either in terms of physical safety or in terms of winning a secure place in society. What would happen, after all, if we raised a child to do what he wants to do instead of what he has to do? A child who always put play before work? A child who never compromised his dignity? Such a child could not occupy the usual roles society offers, would never submit to the humiliating routines of school nor the routine humiliation of life in the Machine. Derrick Jensen puts it this way:

I’ve since come to understand the reason school lasts thirteen years. It takes that long to sufficiently break a child’s will. It is not easy to disconnect children’s wills, to disconnect them from their own experiences of the world in preparation for the lives of painful employment they will have to endure. Less time wouldn’t do it, and in fact, those who are especially slow go to college. For the exceedingly obstinate child there is graduate school.[19]

The tyranny is far more subtle than Jensen describes, because it is actually not those children whose will is especially strong who go on to college and graduate school for some additional will-breaking. Quite the opposite. College and graduate school are a kind of reward allowed only to those who, through good grades, have demonstrated that their wills are sufficiently broken to qualify for elite positions in society. Certainly there are a lucky few who simply love schoolwork, but for most school is a chore, a discipline through which we demonstrate our willingness to do as we are told. Those who cannot bring themselves to fully comply with the instructions, whose attention wanders, who clown around in class, who would rather play outside than do homework, and whose aversion fuels a spirit strong enough to resist the institutional, cultural, and parental mechanisms that enforce compliance, will not get good grades in school. Instead they will earn labels such as stupid, lazy, bad or, increasingly, medicalized versions of these such as ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), or my favorite, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). Then, where the veiled threats, phony incentives, and other forms of scholastic manipulation have failed, we can resort to pharmaceutical methods of control to rein in the recalcitrant child.

Society will do just about anything it takes to compel the child to take “no” for an answer. This is a vast undertaking, because it is anathema to the human spirit of exploration and creativity. That is why we see toddlers repeating the word to themselves over and over, trying to come to grips with it, trying to reconcile its life-denying force with the creative potency within them. Try this sometime: go to one of those little playgrounds for young children, the ones full of young mothers with their toddlers. Close your eyes and listen. One word will stick out like a sore thumb; again and again you’ll hear it, pronounced in menacing tones. “No Jeremy!” “No Ashley!” “No Courtney!” No, no, no. Think of the impact on a small child: the parents are gods in his eyes, enormous omnipotent figures nearly coextensive, especially in the young toddler, with the universe itself. The gods tell us, “No”, with menace and the threat of alienation. The universe is not friendly. We are not free.

Internalized at a young age, the relentless refrain of “no” echoes throughout our childhood and adolescence until, by the time we reach maturity, it has silently imbued itself into our fundamental perceptions. The result is that we come to doubt the validity of our own creativity; we are constantly looking over our shoulders and wondering if it is okay, wondering if it is acceptable to venture into new territory. And eventually we become accustomed to this state of being, comfortable with a world in which everything is either expressly permitted or explicitly forbidden, where there is no uncertainty, no ambiguity, no open territory. Our entire lives, in other words, have come to be defined by this innocent-looking two-letter word. That, I imagine, was the intuition underneath the radical Sixties message: “The Establishment says no, the Yippies say yes!”[20] Yes to what? The declaration needs no explanation because its meaning is intuitively obvious, a universal Yes that needs no object.

In bogus compensation for cutting us off from most of life with the word “no,” society offers us limited, harmless, and ultimately phony arenas for escapism and indulgence, where we can enjoy a narrow range of trivial freedoms. The model for this is the playpen: a highly circumscribed section of the world where every variable is under control, where we can’t knock over a lamp, dirty the carpet, or run amok, and where it is absolutely safe. The exuberance and abandon of real living happens in safe, controlled fragments of life: on vacations, in bars, at parties, at amusement parks, on guided tours, through shopping catalogs, channel surfing, the Internet, and the limitless universe of consumer brands. These are the playpens of adulthood.

Within these playpens our society seeks now to encompass the whole of life. Here we find the counterpart of “no”: a conditional, narrow yes defined by our own fears and by the prohibitions of society.

Above I wrote that the world of play still survives intact through the first eight months of life. But just now I glanced at a news article about the latest trend in “baby workouts,” where “the class uses music and props to keep the babies focused and helps improve their eye tracking and coordination.”[21] In the hands of a good teacher such a class could be wholly playful, but the very concept reveals the general migration of physical movement—originally one of the greatest joys of being alive—into the realm of work: exercise or a work-out, something we have to do for fitness, to control our weight or shape the body. Here is yet another extension of the scheduled, directed, programmed life into unprecedented territory. “Play’s End,” as Joseph Chilton Pearce sorrowfully puts it, comes at a very early age these days. It has to. The spirit must be broken early to submit to a world under control.


[19] Jensen, p. 102


[20] I remember reading this once in some Sixties’ manifesto, but I cannot find the source.


[21] Gelineau, Kristin, “Baby Workouts Touted to Ward off Obesity” Salon Magazine, June 13, 2004.