How to trust your instincts

an excerpt from Jean’s book Once Upon a Family: Read-Aloud Stories and Activities That Nurture Healthy Kids (Viking, 1998)

Here is an old Yiddish tale that, with characteristic humor, speaks to seekers and givers of advice, like you and me:

One rabbi said to another, ‘Why don’t you watch your followers to make sure they obey the precepts of the law and pray the way they should?’ 

‘Let me tell you a story,’ answered the second rabbi, and here is the one he told. 

Once, three men were locked inside a dark prison. The first man was a fool who didn’t know how to do anything. He couldn’t dress himself or even hold a spoon in his hand. The second man spent all his time trying to teach the first man how to do things. But the third man just sat there in the dark, doing nothing. 

‘Why are you just sitting there, instead of helping me teach this fool?’ the second man asked the third. 

‘It’s so dark in here that no matter how hard you try, you’re not going to teach him anything,’ replied the third man. ‘I’m sitting here thinking of ways to make a hole in the wall. Once I let in the light, he’ll learn for himself everything he needs to know.’ 

Many parents tell me they turn to childrearing books when they feel as though they’re groping in the dark — when they feel a little bit like the fool in the story. What they often find is what the second man offers, plentiful advice and techniques on ‘handling’ kids effectively. Reading those can be reassuring. But I call it ‘virtual parenting.’ In the long run, when we approach childrearing by applying other people’s advice, we miss out on some of the richest rewards family life has to offer. We deprive ourselves and our kids of the pleasure and growth that come from being spontaneous and human. We lose faith in the instinctual knowledge of our children and in our daily experiences with them, which are our most trustworthy guide as parents. We turn our kids into problems instead of people. No wonder they sulk, rebel, talk back, and feel picked on!

….When we are willing to wait and discover, like the third man in the story, wonderful things can happen….

Once upon a time when I first began writing books and articles for parents, I thought that the widespread dissemination of child development information — guidelines on kids’ physical, social, and cognitive development — would change the face of family life. In those days I naively believed that by educating parents about kids’ growth and needs, authors like me could help transform the world into a safe place for children.

In the years since, I’ve worked with a discouragingly large number of parents who can recite the dates of their kids’ developmental milestones and can speak expertly about a wide spectrum of childhood challenges, from toilet training to sibling rivalry to eye-hand coordination. Yet all this information does them or their children little good, because they have not learned to be present in their children’s lives. They approach childrearing as though it were a task to be accomplished.

It’s easy to get so caught up in abstract theories that we forget the magic that can happen between two human beings. The best therapists I know have a great deal in common with the most effective parents. Both are the ones who cultivate an awareness of their own feelings, and who recognize that growth comes out of the authenticity of the relationship that unfolds between them and the child (or the patient).

Since 1990 I have been helping busy people in the New York area recover from pain and stress, gain confidence, and enjoy more trusting, fulfilling relationships.

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