Is “Gentle Upbringing” Wrong?

Why do we scold our children?

I will begin by citing a fragment from the memoirs of my teacher, academician Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachov. He had a happy childhood. His parents loved him very much, giving him a so-called “gentle upbringing.” At the age of 22 this pampered boy found himself in the terrible conditions of the Solovki special prison camp. He was able to take with him from St Petersburg some personal things, including his own baby blanket. It was not even large enough to cover his body, warming him with memories rather than physically. He wrote, “I covered myself with it diagonally, putting one corner on the legs and the other on the shoulders. I used some other piece of my clothes to put over it (in winter it was a sheepskin coat) and pulled it over my head to go into my own world of memories of home, university and St Petersburg. <…> Lying under a baby blanket was like being at home, where I could feel my parents’ care and remembered myself as a child praying at night, ‘Lord, have mercy on mom, dad, grandpa, grandma, Misha, nanny… Have mercy and save everyone'”.

I am often reminded of this lately, as I hear that “gentle upbringing” is wrong and that parents need to take care so that their children are not too happy. It is being argued that it is wrong to give children as much love as Likhachov received in his childhood, because if you show attention, care and patience to them, creating for them a favorable psychological environment, then something bad will happen in their adult life when they discover that the world is not nearly as warm and kind, as it seemed in childhood. In other words, allegedly, the “greenhouse” atmosphere harms the upbringing. A child needs to be prepared from an early age for the vicissitudes of adulthood, for which purpose the parents need to expose him to negative experiences through strict discipline and all kinds of restrictions, punishments, etc.

I strongly disagree with this approach. In my opinion, the memory of a happy childhood is like Likhachov’s blanket. It shelters you from many terrible events. Sooner or later (rather sooner than later, since besides family there is also kindergarten, school, street etc.), any person will find out that the world can be evil and cruel. But without that reserve of love in childhood, a person, faced with evil will think that all life is evil and that there is nothing else in it, which makes it easy to conclude that there is no reason to live. Why be in this world if it is so badly arranged? But when you have this experience of a happy childhood, you understand: there is something to live and survive for, a place to return to.

There were times when I thought that maybe there is a point in “tough” upbringing? I thought that maybe it could be viewed as a vaccine, needed to make sure that the first blow of reality does not knock you off your feet? But with age, I am drawn to the conclusion that it is not necessary to go through this vaccination deliberately, because any child will still receive it, regardless of his parents’ efforts. Take for example the same old kindergarten where they force-feed you semolina while the other children call you names and tell on you. For a small child, this is not preparation for life, but life itself that he takes extremely seriously.

Generally speaking, the people sharing goodness with us are so few that one should not be afraid to overdose. And, unfortunately, many are afraid. Interestingly, sometimes such fears are based on pseudo-Orthodox concerns, purporting that since it is “through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God”, we need to create these ‘persecutions’ for our children. In my opinion, this approach is a mixture of pride and stupidity. The world ‘lies under the power of the evil one’, and one way or another, this evil will sooner or later sting everyone. You do not need to add your own blows to what is already coming from every corner. On the contrary, it is our job to ensure that these blows of life are not too painful. Yes, it is impossible to keep a child locked up in a warm room all his life, but it is also impossible to put him out in a cold on purpose. We can’t be conservative with kindness; we can’t be “poking” our children out of “pedagogical” or, even worse, “Orthodox” considerations.

What we as parents can and should do is live a common life with our child, accept his problems and his achievements as our own, without trying to deprive him of the opportunity to make his own decisions. We need to understand that the best protection that we can give our children is our love and a family atmosphere.

By the way, one more reason why parents nag at their children is pagan thinking. It sounds strange, since we have not had paganism for a thousand years, but it has not gone very far and pops up every now and then. It seems to people that by scolding and punishing their child, they “ward off” trouble from him, as if they are deceiving the dark forces kind of saying, “You have nothing to profit off here; our child has already received his dose of suffering”. This happens, of course, not in consciousness, but deeper, at the level of vague experiences. These experiences were clearly expressed in the so-called “amulet names”, spread not only in Russia, but also in the West. Suppose the parents wanted the person to be kind, and gave him the name Malice, hence the surname Zlobin (malice = zloba in Russian).  Or, let’s say, they wanted the child to live a long life, and they called him Death, hence the surname Smertin (death = smert’ in Russian). In Germany there is the surname Teufel (in German, Teufel means the devil). This represents the same pagan logic of warding off trouble by deceiving evil forces. All this has long been studied and described by scientists.

To this end, all of us, parents, should take a closer look at ourselves and the reasons why we are ready to scold our children and why in our attempts to avoid the so-called “greenhouse upbringing”, we sometimes deprive them of our love.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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