Parent Heaven and Hell:
A Note on Punishment
excerpted from John's book The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses.
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There is a Zen story of a pilgrim who approached a Master, asking him to reveal the nature of Heaven and Hell. The Master, without hesitation, told the pilgrim how gross and stupid he was for asking such a question. The pilgrim was furious, his face became red and grotesquely distorted in rage, he raised his sword and prepared to strike the Master dead. The master remained calm and, without hesitation, said "That's Hell." Whereupon the pilgrim was enlightened; his countenance immediately transformed and he bowed in deep heartfelt gratitude. The master responsed, "And that is Heaven." I think as parents we all know hell: it is when we are angry and disgusted with our children, when our sword is raised to give them a "well-deserved" punishment.

Think about what image you hold of a "spiritual teacher"; perhaps the wise old Zen Master or sage, perhaps the priest or pastor or minister of your church, perhaps a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King or a Mother Teresa .... Do you know that your child is unavoidably one of your greatest, perhaps the greatest, of your spiritual teachers? The pilgrim's intense fury was well justified at such an insult; his enlightenment came from realization that his grotesque "hell" was from within. There is no such being as a sinful, bad or wicked child. Any such feelings and judgments come from within you; they are from your own past. Parental hell is when you have banished them into your unconscious and you are projecting them onto your child.

Your child is your great spiritual teacher because, just as the Zen Master, she brings this to your attention. You can slay your child with your sword of righteous anger, shame and judgment; or you can step back, count to 10 and resolve to work on your own portable hell. As with the pilgrim, the natural result of transforming this hell is to enter the kingdom of heaven. Parental heaven is when you see your child through the eyes of delight; your attitude is one of joy, respect and heartfelt gratitude to be in the presence of such a wonderful being.

I want to share a few thoughts about Punishment. There really is much to be said here. I think the bottom line is, just as with the act of drugging our children, that Punishment is mostly an act of despair. Isn't it tragic when relationships with our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings ( and other life forms) degenerate into a condition based on retribution and retaliation? Did you know that the United States has, for a long time, had by far the largest per capita prison population in all the world - easily exceeding the USSR, easily exceeding South Africa in its heyday of Apartheid? Does this mean that we are the most primitive society in the world?

Isn't it especially tragic when we punish the ones we love the most, when our parental vows to honor, care for, love and nurture our children have degenerated to a punitive relationship? I suggest that we can forgo a theological or metaphysical dogma on the nature of heaven and hell; instead consider the following.

Heaven is seeing your child through the eyes of delight. A little bit of heaven is when you tenderly embrace and look adoringly into the eyes of your newborn baby.

Hell is when your vision is so distracted by demons that you see the sacred being who is your child as shameful and disgusting. You are in hell when you are overtaken by your own unhealed shame (the Devil) and fall victim to the tormenting emotions of embarrassment, anger and loathing, and to the lies that it is for your child's good that you be in this hell together and that you punish them for this wickedness.

I think that the truth is that we punish our children when they need our love more than ever. When they are having a hard time and showing us their distress, they need our attention for sure, but our loving and thoughtful attention.

I want to give you a real key here, which I got from Dan Jones. It has to do with when we punish, and is why I've included this note in the section of the book on Time. Dan's observation, and it tracks with my own, is that over 90% of punishment incidents occur in situations where there is pressure about time. Check this out for yourself. Punishment tends to happen when a child is being forced to move according to the demands of external time contingencies where the parent is under pressure to be somewhere or get the child somewhere. I think it is extremely useful to know this and, given the pressures of modern day life, to see ourselves through the eyes of compassion.

We know that prisons don't work except in a very narrow sense of removing someone from society; the prices we pay are enormous. One way to determine rationality is to look at whether there is flexibility to try other alternatives when something is not working. Our society's current response to disintegration is to keep building more prisons. Our society's response to failures in nurturing the development of our young people is to drug more of them.

It is not only that punishment is a tragic and pathetic condition of relating to our children. It is also the simple fact that, just as with prisons, punishment doesn't work. Based on results, punishment begets more punishment. Punishment also begets fear, and secrecy, and shame, and tense separation from the ones we are meant to love and cherish.