Marriage and Parenting
A Process Approach
Jay McDaniel, 2018
1. Marriage is a communal activity. Our marriages belong to us, but we are not isolated individuals cut off from the world by the boundaries of our skin. As we enter into our married lives, the many people in our lives come with us, including our parents and friends. Ultimately our marriage does not belong to us alone, but also to other people and to the Life in whom all lives unfold: what the Tao te Ching calls the Mother of the Universe. We can speak of this cosmic force, this Mother, as Life.
2. Marriage is a process of re-marrying our partner every day. In marriage as in life, everyday is a new day. Even if we are married to the same person for twenty years, we are always re-marrying that person. Being married is a process which needs to be renewed on a daily basis.
3. We never re-marry the same person. The person whom we marry will change over time. He or she will change through age, through difficulties, through the ordinary course of life. Part of our commitment is to walk with this person through his or her changes. And part of that person's commitment is to walk with us, too.
4. Marriage is nourished by faith. There is a spirit of creative transformation at work in our world which is the Tao's presence in our lives. As we re-marry day by day, this spirit takes the form of fresh possibilities for re-marrying. These possibilities come in many forms: possibilities for tenderness, for forgiveness, for adventure, for respect, for shared suffering, for laughter, for intimacy.
5. Marriage is intense. The lure of Love in our lives is not for harmony alone, but rather for meaningful approximations of harmony and intensity. Sometimes our marriages are more intense than harmonious, sometimes more harmonious than intense. There can be beauty in the intensity as well as the harmony.
6. Marriage is a greenhouse for love. One purpose of marriage is to us learn how to love and be loved. At every stage of a married couple's relationship, there is an opportunity for learning, and the process can last a lifetime. In this life we may never complete the process, but we can improve. Even after death there will be a need for marriage.
7. Marriage is not an end in itself. While it is true that a successful marriage requires a commitment of one another to the relationship; it is false to say that the relationship itself, understood as a self-contained unit, is an end in itself. Marriages are successful when they are not self-centered, when they do not focus only on themselves. Successful marriages are those that find joy and purpose outside the marriage: most particularly in helping others. The others may be children or family or friends, but it is important not to make gods of the extended family and close friends. Ultimately a marriage is successful when it adds beauty to the extended family of life and the Life in whose heart all lives unfold.
8. Marriage needs humor. It is important to share suffering in a marriage, but it is also important to share laughter. Without humor, without playfulness, a marriage becomes stagnant. Humor opens up space within the heart and mind, so that married partners can experience common joys and not take themselves so seriously. Married couples need to tease each other.
9. Marriage needs mystery It is also important for married couples to recognize and honor the private side of the other person: the side of the other person that cannot be known and need not be known. This private side, this unknown side, is part of their beauty. Every person has a private side, a celibate core which transcends the relationship.
10. Marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament is a finite reality or relationship which simultaneously functions as a window into the Life in whom all lives unfold. A committed, loving, and trusting relationship between two people can indeed be such a window. It can be a place where they find Life. One important purpose of marriage ceremonies is to help people recognize and affirm, in public, their own hope that their marriage will become a sacrament.
In a process context these ten ideas are relevant to all marriages: gay, lesbian, straight. They may be built into wedding vows, but even more importantly they can be built into the private vows that married couples make to one another by simple acts of kindness in daily life. Marriages that succeed are those in which these and other vows are renewed, sometimes publicly but often privately. In the renewal itself there is a beauty. The renewal is a sacrament, too.
Marriage as a High Calling
One of the highest callings in life is to be a parent or grandparent. It is more important than making money, going on vacations, having a high status job, or being recognized by others. This high calling is available to mothers and fathers, grandparents and great-grandparents. A good parent is not recognized by others, but her gift to the world does not require this kind of recognition. It is the beauty of her relationship with her child and the gift of wisdom which she imparts to her child. All things pass away over time, but some things touch eternity even in their passing. Parenting – moment by moment, day by day – is one of the activities touching eternity. Every parent and grandparent deserves a Nobel Prize, just for doing what she does.
In our time, though, parenting does not come easily for many people. Many of us feel and are forced to spend more time at work than at home and some of us are even happier at work than at home. We feel validated by our accomplishments outside the home, but not within the home. In a postmodern world, parenting will be among the vocations that are re-valorized. In such a world – deeply modern yet deeply Confucian – teachers and parents will be heroines and heroes.
My aim in this talk is to offer some reflections on postmodern parenting. Please do not worry too much about this word “postmodern.” I use it to refer to a way of thinking that is indebted to the philosophy of a man named Alfred North Whitehead. He lived in England and then later moved to the United States, where he taught at Harvard. He developed a way of looking at the world and understanding life that is now being used by people in China, the United States, and other nations to help them build healthy societies and live satisfying lives.
His way of thinking is quite similar to some traditional Chinese ways of thinking. For example, some forms of Taoism emphasize that, once our basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are met, it is important to learn to be content with what we have and not always want more. A postmodern perspective says this, too. It says that once our basic needs are met, the purpose of life is not simply to accumulate more material goods, but to help others and find value in things that money cannot buy: friendships, the beauty of nature, random acts of kindness, music, and children.
And just as some forms of Confucianism say that we find our deepest and most satisfying relations in family life, so a postmodern perspective says this, too. It says that we find happiness and meaning, not only in realizing our potential as individuals, but also in taking care of others and allowing ourselves to be taken care of by others.
This occurs most deeply in family life. Just as the ancient Book of Changes – the I Jing – presents the whole of the earth as a network of inter-related events in which everything is connected to everything else, so a postmodern perspective influenced by Whitehead says the same thing.
Perhaps it is not surprising that some people consider Whitehead’s philosophy more Chinese or East Asian than Western in its orientation. What is interesting, though, is that Whitehead was also very influenced by modern science and by certain aspects of western religion. He was an East-West thinker. Postmodern thinking develops Whitehead’s philosophy and applies it to a wide variety of topics: education, agriculture, economics, science, and family life.
I speak to you, not only as a scholar influenced by Whitehead, but also as a parent myself. As I write this my older son is 30 years old and my younger son 28. Both are engaged to be married. My wife, Kathy, is also a teacher. She teaches speech therapy to college students, who then gain employment in hospitals and schools where they can help people with speech disorders such as stuttering. As we raised our children Kathy and I often talked about what it means to be good parents. The tips I offer on the right and the tips I offer above on marriage, are tips for us, too.
-- Jay McDaniel
1. We are always learning how to be parents. The first idea is that, if we are parents, we are always in the process of learning how to be parents, and this learning process can continue for the whole of our lives. When we first become parents, we have examples to follow: perhaps those of our own parents, or our grandparents, or friends around us. But it is our first time to be parents, and we will be learning how to be parents. This is one of the basic and most important ideas in postmodern parenting. It is that parenting is like education itself: a lifelong process. My own mother – who lived to be 101 – is a wonderful human being, now entering the twilight of her life. But even to her very last day she as learning how to be a mother to me and a grandmother to my sons. She had never been 101 before. Every day was a new day for her, too.
2. We do not need to be perfect parents in order to be good parents. A second idea in postmodern parenting is that we do not have to be perfect parents in order to be good parents. We will always make mistakes in our parenting. There is no escaping this. We will do things, or not do things, that we wish were otherwise. But this, too, is like life itself. In the course of a lifetime no one does everything perfectly; we all make mistakes. The postmodern parent accepts the fact that she can improve in her parenting, but she is also humane and compassionate, not only to others, but also to herself. If parents feel too guilty about mistakes they have made, they cannot be good parents. They – we – must be forgiving, even of ourselves.
3. Parenting is a Creative Process: an Art not a Science. A third idea in postmodern parenting is that parenting is a very creative process. Some people think creativity is limited to what artists do, but from a postmodern perspective we are all artists: that is, we are all trying to add beauty to the world, as best we can. One of the most important forms of beauty we can add to the world is a well-adjusted and happy and self-confident child. Of course we do not create the child the way a painter puts paint on a campus. Rather we allow the child to create himself, or create herself, with our help. We are, as it were, stagehands in the theatre of life. Our family is our theatre; our family life is the play. Sometimes we ourselves are at center stage and our children are the stagehands, that is, the helpers; and sometimes they are at center stage and we are the helpers.
4. Children Need Love and Love has Two Sides. A fourth idea should have been mentioned at the outset. It is the obvious fact that we should love our children. There is nothing new about this idea. It is not a Western idea or an Eastern idea but a human idea. What postmodernism adds is that there are two sides of love: a listening side and a responsive side. The listening side of love is very important in parenting. It lies in sharing in understanding the feelings and emotions of one’s child and also in the imaginative act of knowing what the world looks like from their point of view. In postmodern parenting this act of imagination is very, very important. It is important for us to try to remember what it felt like when we ourselves were children and to imagine what it might be like to be our own children. This cannot be learned through books. We must spend time with children listening to them. The other side of love – the responsive side – lies in offering them guidance.
5. Children need structure and freedom. This takes me to the fifth idea. It is that guidance includes a combination of discipline and freedom. The discipline side is very important. Children need to have limits imposed upon them; they need to hear the word “no” and learn that they are not the center of the universe. In families with more than one child, this happens naturally because other children compete for attention. But in families with one child it can be very tempting to give the child everything he or she wants, thus sending the signal that “she alone” or “he alone” is the absolute center of things. We do not love our children when we spoil them in this way, because part of maturing is knowing that we are one- among-many, not one better than many. However, it is not enough to give a child a sense of limits. It is also important to give a child a sense of freedom, as found in the joy of playing and in having free time where nothing is expected of them, except perhaps to have fun. In some parts of China this is perhaps a very serious problem, albeit for understandable reasons. Given competition for jobs and the stresses of education, many Chinese parents feel that they must over-school their children in order for their children to succeed. This over-schooling can leave children stressed, lonely, and lacking in capacities for self-initiated enjoyment. The solution to this is to recognize that, sometimes, what is most loving for a child is to let a child play.
6. Play is Beautiful. The sixth idea that is important for postmodern parenting concerns play itself and its relation to hope. It can sometimes be thought that play is a shallow side of life, compared to more important and practical concerns. In some circumstances this negative evaluation may be true. In postmodern philosophy of the kind emphasized by Whitehead, the simple reality of play has profound importance. Children and adults alike need times when they can explore what Whitehead calls “the world of possibilities” as distinct from the world of actualities. The world of actualities consists of the material things of our world: houses, streets, bodies, plants and animals. The world of possibility consists of items that exist in our imaginations and also goals we have four ourselves in the future. A sense of play is connected with a sense of adventure and hope. Children who cannot play cannot hope. They can work, but they cannot hope.
7. The Aim of Parenting: To Give Roots and Wings. This takes me, then, to the seventh idea concerning postmodern parenting. It is that children and adults alike need roots and wings. By roots I mean a sense of security and stability which comes from having a stable family life, trust in their parent’s love, healthy relations with grandparents and the extended family, and a sense of belonging to a community, whether the community is a classroom or a village or a city. But they also need wings: a sense of adventure, of curiosity about the world, a sense that they can have a role in determining their own future. This means that, from a postmodern perspective, one purpose of education at every level – from kindergarten education to higher education – is to help people gain their roots and wings. Of course education must also provide skills relevant to getting jobs. But this is not enough. This means that society must be structured in a way that makes this possible.
8. It Takes a Village to raise a child. The eighth idea in postmodern parenting is simply that parenting does require other people, and not just parents, to raise a child. There is a well-known proverb from Africa that many American parents take to heart: It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. There is much truth in this proverb, because from a process point of view, all things are interconnected. What, then, is the village in which a child finds himself or herself? The first and most immediate village is where she sleeps at night and eats during the daytime: her home or her grandparent’s home. But gradually her village expands to include the places outside the home where she can play, her school and schoolmates. These environments shape her life and so the people with whom she interacts. The quality of these environments partly depends on her parents and grandparents, but partly on the kinds of employment that are available to them, which provide means by which they can raise her. Teachers play a tremendously important role in all of this. In addition to parents and extended family, they are perhaps the most important “villagers” in a child’s upbringing.
9. It Takes a Healthy Earth to Raise a Child. Still, other people are not the only villagers who can help raise a child, or who are required for that raising. Children need clean air, healthy food, clean water, healthy bodies…all of which have to do with the environment. They also need, if possible, to be in the presence of animals, which stimulate their imaginations and, in the case of pets, can teach them to care for others. In urban Chinese settings pets are not plentiful, and for understandable reasons. But process philosophers emphasize that the very presence of plants and animals – of green spaces, too – is essential to a healthy life. We humans do not simply need one another; we need the other creatures, too, in order to become whole.
10. Parents and Teachers Alike Teach by Example. The tenth idea in postmodern parenting concerns the mutual role that teachers and parents play. Parents and teachers alike influence our children in many ways, and they influence us, too. This “influence” does not consist only in what we do with them, although that it important. It also consists in the example we set for them and in the attitudes we take toward them. In other words, the most important influence is not any particular activity you undertake, but (1) the time you spend with them, (2) the example you set for them in the way you interact with them and others, and (3) your mood and your personality. If they sense that you are peaceful inside yourself and that you are kind, your inner peace and your kindness will be contagious in some small way. If they sense that you are very stressed and very argumentative, these qualities, too, will be noticed by them. Thus, for good or ill, your children will be affected not only by what you say and do, but also by who you are. A good parent must be, first and foremost, a good person. The child will feel the goodness.
11. It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent. The eleventh idea is that, when a child feels the goodness of his or her parents and grandparents, the parent is changed, too. We learn from Confucius that our lives can be enriched by li – by daily rituals – that help us grow as human beings. The truth is: as parents and grandparents we are always being “raised” by our children. We are growing in who we can become, by helping our children become who they can become. We are, in our way, being mentored by our children: not necessarily by their knowledge, but by their lives, their dreams, their hopes, their inherent goodness.
12. Children have spiritual lives, too. The twelfth idea, then, is that this inherent goodness within each child is the child’s spirituality. In the west we sometimes distinguish between spirituality and religion. A child’s spirituality consists of early childhood experiences of wonder and amazement at the world around her and also of early childhood experiences in learning to cope with suffering and disappointment. These experiences occur at a deep level of the child’s life: a level that the child cannot easily verbalize. The parent can help the child verbalize these feelings, giving the child language. In some cultures religion provides the language for verbalizing the feelings. This is a good thing. But in China today religion does not now function in this way for most Chinese. Thus other languages and methods need to be found. One excellent way is through reading to children and then talking about what is read.
These are but twelve tips for postmodern parenting. Of course there are others. If you are a parent, your relationship with your child is unique and, in some respects, incomparable to the relationships others have with their children. It is like a precious gem, belonging to you and the child, which must be protected but not hoarded. Ultimately the relationship itself can become a gift to the world. The world itself becomes enriched because you have loved your child. All good parents deserve Nobel Prizes.