“I know what’s good for you, better than you know yourself.” This is what parents will tell their children. The assertion is sometimes communicated verbally, yet it is more frequently translated implicitly into action, in the following fashion: “Do it the way it ought to do be done; I know that and you don’t.”
Parents know more than children do – that is clear as daylight. They basically want what is best for their children. They are supposed and willing to tell them how to do things in life and what is wrong and what is right.
How are children to answer this line of argumentation? Their time on this planet has, after all, been relatively short, and there are many things they do not know much about. They lack knowledge and experience. Therefore, they unquestioningly adopt the ideas of their parents by necessity.
There are, however, two kinds of knowledge that seem to come into play in this matter. One concerns the objects and circumstances of this world: if a traffic light is red, the street must not be crossed. At night it gets dark because the sun no longer shines. Two plus two equals four. Children do not know this when they enter the world but have to learn it and put their trust in people who know better.
The other kind of knowledge concerns what makes a life of goodness and righteousness. In this case, parents draw from their own experience, which is, of course, restricted to their own individual life. Their children started life’s journey a great deal later, at another time and on wholly different preconditions – genetically, psychologically, socially, politically, ecologically, etc. The similarities we see in our children have nothing to do with the fact that they are entirely new people that have never existed before in quite the same way. Therefore, the usefulness of our life experience to them is limited. They might include it as an option when making plans for how to live their lives, but they themselves must decide what seems worth imitating and what they want to go without.
In reality, then, we have no clue as to what is best for another person. Sometimes we arrogate to ourselves that we do but are in fact imposing our views, fearing that we would suffer if they did not do what we thought was the optimal thing to do. Looking at the world from an angle determined to some extent by individual life experience, we have certain expectations and do not want them to be disappointed by others, as that would mean we would have to change our plans.
It is primarily subconscious parental expectations that determine the mode of parenting. These expectations are often the result of frustration in the parents: the seniors expect the juniors to achieve in life what they themselves wanted to achieve but could not. Subconsciously, they view their children as extensions of their own personal entities, who prosper with their every success and shrink with their every failure. Such parents will say, “On the maths exam, we got a ‘B’”, as if they themselves had written the exam and the success were their own. In case of a failure, they will suffer with their child but primarily with themselves. They will pressure the infant into trying harder because it actually is their own self-worth that is at stake.
Such parents also find it difficult to let go of their offspring. They may want to spare their children the errors and detours they themselves made, but in the attempt of doing so they bar them from a fully independent life. It cannot be a good life if it does not follow parental guidelines. Thus, they make their children dependent while remaining dependent themselves – mutual dependency. Acting “to the best of their knowledge and belief”, parents deny their children an independent life.
If children, however, are to turn into mature and self-confident adults, we must foster their self-perception, so that they may increasingly decide for themselves what is best. Thus, they will gain more and more confidence using their own inner guidance to sense where they want to go in life. Only if their parents trust them – unconditionally, though not blindly –, only then can they establish such vital trust in themselves.
“No one knows better what he needs and what is best for him than the person affected. We can therefore not teach one another what is best for us. Not even by the most refined strategies. We can, however, support one another in finding it out for ourselves,” says the person-centred psychotherapist Peter F. Schmid.
Immaturity in Society
The model of intellectual imposition is widespread in society, obviously because it still plays an important part in parenting. Take healthcare: the medical establishment acts as the judge of what is the best therapy for an ailment, but its judgement is in fact rarely based on evidence. After all, for the great majority of applications of a certain medical treatment there may be personal experiences but no empirical data to draw from. Invariably, the medical expert decides what is good for the patient. The patient is never or rarely given the opportunity to contribute his knowledge about his own organism and personality. The healthcare system knows what is best for its flock, even though all it contributes are statistical data and conventional procedures.
It is a third-person perspective that is adopted here: there is objective knowledge that has to be put into practice for salvation to be obtained. The person herself and her knowledge do not enter into the equation and is not asked for her opinion. She is treated like a dependent child, whose dependent status is to be maintained. That is the price of submission to the standard of the third-person perspective as the only trustworthy source of practical knowledge: the irrelevance of subjective knowledge and inner life as sources of information. Patients who contribute by relating their feelings and their knowledge about themselves are disturbing and annoying, like little children asking too many questions instead of doing as they are told.
In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant called for enlightenment, saying, “Have the courage to
use your own inner reason”. Today, we should put it like this: “Have the courage to trust your inner sense.” This courage involves self-determined action out of trust and the blending of both perspectives in life: the objective knowledge science provides and the subjective knowledge our introspection makes available. This courage also means that we expect the same courage to reside within other souls. Then we will never again get the idea that we know better than our children and all our fellow human beings what is best for them.