Children and Detachment

A discussion in regard to the course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology

with Professor Robert Wright, Princeton University

Early on in the Office Hours the question of children and detachment came up and Professor Wright invited comment. I didn’t comment, then, because I am not a Buddhist scholar and I felt my opinion outside of the course of study. However one of the midterm assignments I assessed posited that it was a choice between Buddhism or family life and inevitable suffering. I am speaking out because yesterday while reading “The Moral Animal”, the part on the state of our disenfranchised children (my word) due to the serial monogamy of our culture spurred me to tackle this question and share my perspective.

But first a disclaimer. I am not a Buddhist but I have arrived at a very Buddhist like perspective on life (hence my interest in this course). It was through a series of unfortunate but cathartic events rather than any kind of asceticism. It wasn’t until I heard the description of non-self as experienced by Smith and Goldstein during meditation in lecture five that I realized I had indeed accessed this state, though not through meditation. And, to be honest, the state I experienced of non self was not one of nothingness but of vast somethingness and that something I refer to as love for want of a better word for God. (I appreciate the passage on abstract God in “Evolution of God”)

I do not live in a state of bliss but I totally understand the five aggregates and what I feel, in my experience, is correct in what is not-self and I am grateful for the discourse on modules because this shone a light on a very perplexing state for me. And that was the random thoughts that have no meaning whatsoever. These are distinct from thoughts that I have regarded as legitimate until now. Now I know that none of these thoughts that crowd my mind like hungry mice are legitimately ‘mine’ but can be picked up by the tail and flung out if they do not serve my greater good – my own happiness. I have benefitted hugely from this course in finding language for my own experience.

So, now to children and detachment. Like suffering, detachment is a word which meaning is very misunderstood. In my early days of bewilderment when my husband was dying and my sons were young, I said to my spiritual teacher (in this case yoga) I just want to get to a state of allowance. Just to let life wash over me and be okay with that. Her response was that acceptance is a better state. What was the difference, I asked, and she replied that one was active and one was passive. And here I think is the crux of the problem with understanding detachment – especially as it applies to children or any extremely personal relationship that has inevitable challenges – including the one we have with ourselves.

Detachment is not a state above, below or around anything but one of complete (mindful) engagement. We do not detach from life or the situation or the person, but we detach from how we value it as good or bad, satisfying or not satisfying. This kind of detachment from outcomes allows us to really get into the relationship without any baggage, misperceptions or judgements. We are we and they are they and we have a vital interaction. We do not detach from our children and leave them lying in their crib all day until the day they miraculously walk. We engage in their development with excitement and enthusiasm. It is our role as parents to nurture and protect. Where we get confused and hung up is when we lose the detached perspective of a child as a developing being, complete with a unique imprint of poet or astronaut, and see our children as extensions of our own egos. This is attachment. This is the seat of suffering for many parents who have preconceived notions of how or what their child should be.

Neither is detachment a state of not caring. On the contrary it is caring very deeply and helping them develop the skills they need for the world they live in. And that caring is not out of fear or overprotection which will inevitably drive them underground into non communication or active rebellion (beyond a healthy and necessary individuation) to seek understanding or comfort in destructive behavior. In my experience, it is critical to be uncritical and make the home a safe harbor. And to not shield children from difficult times. These are the times when we can do our greatest work as parents and model behavior of resolution or empathically assist the young person in dealing with their own challenges – with age appropriate levels of active involvement. From an evolutionary point of view, the better equipped our children are to thriving and adapting to their world, which they will live in long after our departure, the more successfully will their genes get into future generations.

We cannot know the cast of characters or circumstances that will foster the strengths of our children or what will allow them to find their particular expression in life as adults. Standing by when you think you see a train wreck in the offing is one of the most challenging things a parent can do. But in detachment and in full loving engagement you might just see that what was feared (attached to a particular outcome) was actually of gift of deeper understanding – for everyone involved.

In detachment you can be trusted by your child to give helpful advice from your own experience, but then you have to accept (with detachment) that they may not take it. And that is okay too. There are times not to speak and not to act, but to be present. When we are critical or judgmental we often entrench the behavior we wish to avoid. They become attached to a relationship or situation which might have fallen away on its own accord. To be sure, children or young people in crisis need all the more loving acceptance and support so that they can navigate the minefield to a safe exit. If they have made a mistake in judgment and need help, who do you want them to call?

Being detached yet intensely engaged and interested in the wellbeing of your child as the individual they are offers a relationship that will stay close and intimate and communicative for your whole life. You will continue to be a welcome, meaningful and influential person in their life. The ultimate detachment as a parent is to let your child be who they are. Parents have a tendency to want their children either to follow their footsteps if ‘successful’ or the opposite if they feel they failed at life. Neither is appropriate.

Detachment fosters continued delight in witnessing a new being grow to competent and confident maturity. Self love and self esteem, to use the “s” word are the most important things a child can learn from their parent. These are the tools they need to carve out a happy and successful life on whatever terms that means.

And if we are really honest with ourselves and open to the exchange we can let our children lead us to our own enlightened wisdom.