Remembering True Nature as Guidance for Counseling Children
John Breeding, Ph.D

Dr. Breeding's website,, contains a wealth of information on working with children. The material for this seminar is largely drawn from his book, True Nature and Great Misunderstandings: On How We Care For Our Children According To Our Understanding.

On Seven Vital Aspects of True Nature

All but the most hardened and darkened of us know the glory of a newborn babe. We also recognize and are thrilled at the gleeful exuberance of an excited toddler, the robust vitality of a young child, the sweet affection of our 8-year-old, the inquiring mind of any age, the intense philosophical reflections of a young teenager, and the romantic love of later adolescence. It is nearly impossible to behold these magnificent expressions of our humanity without falling into those most precious spiritual states of awe and splendor. We are always pulled to feel hope for the future when we see such glory in the present. In these moments, we are inspired to obey the words of the prophet, Kahlil Gibran, who told us of children that, "You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you." Here we stand on firm ground.

These glorious faces of childhood are true. They are reflections of our inherent, given nature as human beings. We are born with many wonderful qualities, some immediately manifest as in the pure awareness and sweet energy of a contented baby; others latent and awaiting their own birth as in the philosophical musings of an inquiring young mind. There are so many positive aspects of our true nature; here I will emphasize six. Remember as I discuss the nature of children, I am really writing about all of us in our unconditioned, natural state.

Brilliant Intelligence

Children are highly intelligent, just brilliant. By intelligence, I mean the ability to come up with unique, creative solutions to any problem. We humans are born with an enormous capacity to learn, to gather, store and compare information, and to solve problems. One of the world's greatest writers ever about children is John Holt, author of many books and father of the modern homeschooling movement in the United States. This excerpt from How Children Fail speaks to this first quality of our essential nature:

Nobody starts off stupid. You have only to watch babies and infants, and think seriously about what all of them learn and do, to see that, except for the most grossly retarded, they show a style of life, and a desire and ability to learn, that in an older person we might call genius. Hardly an adult in a thousand, or ten thousand, could in any three years of his life learn as much, grow as much in his understanding of the world around him, as every infant learns and grows in his first three years. But what happens, as we get older, to this extraordinary capacity for learning and intellectual growth?

Children are enormously intelligent and sponges for learning. Read John Holt's book for a master educator's explanation of how these qualities are suppressed.

Abundant Energy

Children are extremely energetic, just bursting with energy, zest and vitality. We all know this. Remember that this list reflects inherent nature. In the next chapter, we begin to look at how easy it is to derange these qualities. As a simple example, poor nutrition will sooner or later interfere with inherent zest and vitality.

Intensely Relational

Young people are intensely relational. The truth of our nature, and the reality of our existence, is that we are completely interconnected with all of life. We absolutely need and love closeness and affection, on all levels. Children delight in wrestling, roughhousing and pillow fighting, if done properly and not in a teasing or controlling way. They take great pleasure in snuggling and cuddling, and they generally much prefer sleeping together to sleeping alone.


Self-determination is a core aspect of human nature. Children love closeness, yet they also fiercely fight for their independence. This need for self-determination is so central to the human condition that it is much more important to children to resist control than to have things go well. It is wise for adults to bear in mind the teaching I learned from the founder of process psychology, Arnold Mindell, that "Unfair use of rank causes revenge."

This paradoxical tension between our yearning for closeness and our need to be independent lies at the heart of the human experience. All meaningful philosophical systems and authentic spiritual traditions confront this truth and offer guidance about the reconciliation of these two drives. Psychologists refer to the resolution of this issue by a child as rapprochement, achieving an authentic independent identity while maintaining a genuine personal connection at the same time. What an awesome challenge! Most of us adults, unless we have given in to despair, continue to work on this in our closest relationships.


There is a beautiful quality that manifests itself in our warm, affectionate relationships. It is called gentleness. It is so very important to consider that our true nature is gentle that I share a somewhat lengthy quote here from the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama:

One of my fundamental beliefs is that all sentient beings have gentleness as their fundamental nature. If we look at the pattern of our existence from an early age until our death, we see the way in which we are so fundamentally nurtured by affection, each other's affection, and how we feel when we are exposed to each other's affection. In addition, when we ourselves have affectionate feelings we see how it naturally affects us from within. Not only that, but also being affectionate and being more wholesome in our behavior and thought seems to be much more suited to the physical structure of our body in terms of its effect on our health and physical well-being, and so on. It must also be noted that the contrary seems to be destructive to health.


Just as gentleness comes forward in our warm embraces, so does strength manifest in response to threat or challenge. We humans are physically weaker than a number of animals, but we are strong in many ways: in our persistence, our determination, and our willingness to stand for justice, to name a few. I recommend that we make a practice of pairing the words gentleness and strength into "gentle strength."

The Uniqueness of Persons

I have been emphasizing the common splendors of humanity, the magnificent inherent qualities we all share. It is an equally awesome miracle that each and every one of us is unique. Wherever you look-- a fingerprint, an eye pattern, a temperamental style or a signature-- each of us is unique among billions. However much we group according to shared characteristics, we remain unique. Any approach that truly facilitates optimal human development absolutely has to honor this truth. To the extent that a person or environment lacks the vision and capacity to recognize and encourage expression and development of children's unique gifts and ways of being, that person or that environment become suppressive, and true nature is distorted. In the words of John Gatto, "Process kids like sardines and don't be surprised when they come out oily and dead."

 Two Fundamental Needs or Conditions

The manifestations of the soul that are inadequately mirrored remain in the dark recesses of unactualized potential.  - A.H.Almaas 

The first imperative of nature is simple as rain, and as natural: no model, no development.  -Joseph Chilton Pearce


Children need mirroring: adults who reflect the world and their own actions back to them. In order to mirror for our children in a truly effective way, a way that supports children to manifest their uniqueness and true nature, it is necessary that we adults who do the mirroring know something of our own essence. Lacking an awareness of our essential nature, and its awesome qualities, we see only instinct and adaptation. We are then unable to empathize and support the incredible challenge of developing an individual self. Thus, we are not only unable to manage the frustrating limitations of the physical and social world, but also fail to maintain conscious contact, appreciation and enjoyment of our true nature. 

As an example, consider the quality of responsibility. For a parent who knows that responsibility is an inherent human quality, the task becomes one of drawing out or helping children to express this given part of their nature at different levels of development. For a parent who distrusts true nature and believes that human nature is inherently irresponsible or empty, the alternative task is to instill this missing virtue in the child, to "make him responsible." This difference between somehow implanting a sense of responsibility into a child seen as inherently irresponsible, on the one hand, and figuring out how to evoke a child's inborn need and desire to be responsible, on the other, is a radical one. My view it that anyone who has either been around two-year-olds and their intense pleasure at helping out with responsibilities, or who has done inner work around experiences of their own abuse in childhood and felt the intense guilt and shame that comes from children's tendencies to feel responsible for everything that happens to them, should see these experiences as evidence that responsibility is one face of our inborn essential nature.

Have you noticed that adults tend to be very serious? The average youngster laughs hundreds of times a day, the average adult maybe 15 times in a day. I think the offhand admonition to "grow up and act your age" carries mostly distress. It is not so much encouragement toward true spiritual maturity as it is a cudgel of culture, acting to stifle joy and creativity.

In order to really mirror children in the way I am discussing here, we must take them seriously—in the sense that we must fully respect them. All too often as adults, however, we demand "respect" from children, and we take offense at defiant "talking back" or sluggish response to orders. My opinion is that most of the time our reaction to this so-called disrespect says more about the way we were treated as children than about our own children. The judgment we make justifies our own controlling and punitive, or despairing and disengaging response to the child. It is important to keep in mind the diagnostic tool for discerning the action of adultism: "Am I communicating to this child in a way that I would not do to another adult?" If the answer is yes, it is likely that you are being disrespectful and acting from your own internalized experience of being treated disrespectfully as a young person.

Adults tend to be very serious about work. Children can be very serious about their own work, reacting intensely when it is disturbed or doesn't go right. To be the best ally for children, it is necessary to be crystal clear about the following:

            The work of children is play.
           Play is their work.
           It is not a waste of time.
           It is not unproductive.
           It is not something to grow out of.

Play is about learning and power. It is about working out upsets. It is most especially about connection, for our children and us. Children connect in play, and they work out difficulties in connection thorough play. If we want to know the delights and pleasures of real intimacy with our children (and all of life), we best follow their example and be sure that we can play. 

Joseph Chilton Pearce has spent a large part of his life trying to figure out children, and defending play. In writing his most famous work, Magical Child, he spent months grappling with the question of why children want to play all the time, from birth on, while we adults have such a different agenda for them. As he describes in his latest book, The Biology of Transcendence, his intense query caused him to experience this truth:  "I knew that play was the whole reason for and essence of life—and not just for children, but for all God's children, whatever their age; and I understood that our great model's [Jesus] observation that we must become again as little children meant precisely what it said. But I also knew that our refusal to play and our prevention of play in children, our insistence on forcing them into defensive procedures, were evils of long standing."

For support in understanding more about the importance of play, and for support to help adults reclaim the ability to play, I strongly recommend the works of Patty Wipfler and her Parents Leadership Institute (, and the book, Playful Parenting, by Lawrence Cohen.  Lest this remain an intellectual concept, I also recommend the resources of the Re-Evaluation Counseling Community ( as one place that provides real experiences in the form of playdays and family workshops; I am one individual who will testify that this community helped me enormously as a parent with my own children.


Children need models. At every level of development, from the beginning of our life, someone, some thing or an event in our immediate world must demonstrate each new possibility for us. Inherent nature is glorious, but requires a model to develop and be expressed. It is a magnificent, frightening, and at times overwhelming fact that who we are as adults unavoidably becomes a significant part of the structure of our child's psyche. There is no way around it. Ideas, information and techniques are helpful for relating to children. The most important part by far, however, is who we are as individuals, the level of our awareness, the quality of our attention and loving. The truth comes back to the fact that the best way to help our children is to help ourselves. This means doing whatever we can to get free of whatever gets in the way of or throws us out of our own inherent, loving nature, and the essential quality of spacious, free involvement.

With such involvement, children retain their intelligence and zest, and learn to share with others in a spirit of warmth, affection and cooperation. Without this support, they often succumb to the effects of neglect, insult and injury, and sometimes act badly. This is not a default option. It is the effect of having been systematically hurt with no recourse to ways of healing.  Fortunately, young people are resilient and have an inborn mechanism for healing: to emotionally express the effects of hurt. Crying is the release of hurt and loss; storming anger is the release of insult and frustration; shaking, sweating and trembling releases the effects of fright, laughing releases embarrassment or humiliation, and so on. 

Children need us and we cannot avoid the fact that we profoundly affect them. Fortunately, this effect goes both ways. If we are willing to take responsibility for that fact, we will grow together with our children. Also, children don't need perfect parents. They need loving, imperfect parents who keep showing up and never give up.

Psychological Distress and Natural Healing

The tears are the healing.

We adults have an awesome responsibility to nourish and guide the development of our children in a way that honors their true nature and allows the best possible opportunities for them to fully realize themselves. While an enormous vulnerability to hurt and conditioning often interferes with this work, one more bit of good fortune is on our side. There is one last aspect of human nature that even the most profound spiritual philosophers of history apparently failed to fully comprehend.

There are many psychological theories on trauma, and associated methods of healing. I want to share one that I especially like for its clear theory and its effective practical application. I also like it because it is non-professional, reclaiming the power of attention from professionals who have helped turn warmth, affinity and listening into commodities for sale. It may at times be necessary to do professional counseling, especially in a society like ours where community is in such a crisis of disintegration. The true way out, however, must mean a restoration of family, friend, and neighborly support, and a reclaiming of common sense and wisdom from the so-called experts. With this in mind, consider the teachings of the Re-evaluation Counseling Community (RC).

RC is a grassroots peer-counseling program.  Here is a description from the back of the RC journal, Present Time:

Re-evaluation Counseling is a process whereby people of all ages and of all backgrounds can learn how to exchange effective help with each other in order to free themselves from the effects of past distress experiences.

Re-evaluation Counseling theory provides a model of what a human being can be like in the area of his/her interaction with other human beings and his/her environment.  The theory assumes that everyone is born with tremendous intellectual potential, zest, and lovingness, but that these qualities have become blocked and obscured in adults as the result of accumulated distress experiences (fear, hurt, loss, pain, anger, embarrassment, etc.) which began early in our lives.

Any young person would recover from such distress spontaneously by use of the natural process of emotional discharge (crying, trembling, raging, laughing, etc.).  However, this natural process is usually interfered with by well-meaning people ("Don't cry," "Be a big boy," etc.) who erroneously equate the emotional discharge (the healing of the hurt) with the hurt itself.

When adequate emotional discharge can take place, the person is freed from the rigid pattern of behavior and feeling left by the hurt.  The basic loving, cooperative, intelligent, and zestful nature is then free to operate.  Such a person will tend to be more effective in looking out for his or her own interests and the interests of others, and will be more capable of acting successfully against injustice.

In recovering and using the natural discharge process, two people take turns counseling and being counseled.  The one acting as the counselor listens, draws the other out, and permits, encourages, and assists emotional discharge.  The one acting as client talks and discharges and re-evaluates.  With experience and increased confidence and trust in each other, the process works better and better.
RC begins with "point 0," the belief that humans are inherently intelligent, zestful and loving. When physically or emotionally hurt, an individual experiences distress that interferes with natural intelligence and loving. Subsequent irrational, unloving behavior is caused by this distress. Fortunately, as I mentioned above, humans have an innate mechanism for healing from the effects of this distress and restoring inherent nature; this is emotional discharge. When discharge is suppressed, an individual will develop chronically rigid irrational ways of coping. These rigid irrational ways of acting are often interpreted as reflective of human nature; RC calls them patterns. The person is intelligent, zestful and loving; the pattern is by definition more or less irrational and unloving.

True nature is both highly intelligent and intensely relational in a loving way. The effect of being physically or emotionally hurt is to cause distress that interferes with true nature. When we are carrying this distress, we are less intelligent and less warm and affectionate in our relationships. 

Envy, jealousy, fear, resentment and rage are all faces of distress. People who act violently are caught up in these emotions, at least temporarily lost in their distress. Violent catharsis can most definitely bring relief by discharging the tension of these emotions when they have been activated, but it is also a violation of true nature because it is acting out from a place of distress. This is by definition at least somewhat ignorant and mean-spirited. Such behavior does not bring healing, only more distress in the form of guilt and shame. When adults try to justify their feelings of distress and their hurtful behaviors, they become confused. When adults assume that such negative thoughts and feelings are reflective of their true "bad nature," they completely lose their way.

The possibility of healing exists only when someone remembers that the fear and hate and other masks of distress are just that---masks of distress which cover up the true face. The possibility of healing exists only when someone remembers that another in distress is not thinking well and not relating well to others. Clear awareness knows that people in distress need help, and if they are going to act out their distress in a harmful way, they need to be stopped if at all possible. Children who are acting out distress need to be stopped not because they deserve punishment, but because they need help and they need to be protected from the consequences of irrational behavior. These words are not intended to justify preventive detention and psychiatric incarceration. I am strongly against these practices and place high value on freedom and liberty. My book, The Necessity of Madness and Unproductivity: Psychiatric Oppression or Human Transformation, addresses this issue in detail. (See

Stop a frustrated child from hitting his little sister, and he will turn his frustration on you, and storm and tantrum and strike out at you. Then he will probably let you hold him or stay near while he cries about the toy that was broken. Then having spent the emotion, he will likely cuddle for a few moments before jumping up to play again. You have made it safe for the child to discharge his distress by ensuring that no one gets hurt. It is more complicated and difficult with adults, but the principles are the same. Healing release happens when emotional distress is expressed in a safe and appropriate way. Abusive, destructive acting out only creates more distress. Authentic healing is greatly helped by assuming that our inherent nature is benign; if someone wants to hurt another person or property, you can be sure that it is not because they are inherently evil. It is simply that they have been hurt in such a way that they cannot help themselves at that moment.

We see the world as we understand it to be. Let's say that a child, or an adult, acts badly. It literally makes all the difference in the world whether we see such "bad" behavior as reflective of that person's defective nature, or reflective of how they have been hurt such that a mask of distress covers up their true nature. The first view leads to control, coercion and punishment. The second allows for the application of gentle strength as we determinedly interfere with any potential harm caused by the acting out of distress, encourage and allow the release of painful emotion, and reach for the true nature residing in the depths of every individual. Recognize this process, trust in the essential goodness of people, and everyone concerned will benefit.

The Eyes of Delight

These excerpts are from The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses.

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 painful feelings into your unconscious and you are projecting them onto your child. Parental heaven is when you see your child through the eyes of delight.

To see your child through the Eyes of Delight is the greatest gift in the world you can give to your child and to yourself. Viewing a child with anything other than delight really says more about the viewer than the child. Obviously children do experience distress and they do act this out; it means they need good attention from aware adults to help work something out. They are still inherently delightful. Adult responses of judgment and shame are not about the child; these responses are projections of feelings the adult carries inside himself.

Remember NOT to trust the thinking of anyone who sees your child through anything other than the eyes of delight. There really are no "bad" children. Your child is completely good and delightful.

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. You are in hell when you buy into the lies that it is for your child's good that you be in this hell together and that you punish him for his wickedness.

I think 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 most certainly need our attention, but our loving and thoughtful attention. It makes sense, then, that it's hard to see our children through "The Eyes of Delight" when they're showing us their distress or their zest.

The way out is simple. We must delight in and love ourselves unconditionally in order to truly delight in and appreciate our children. The alternative is to suppress them so that we won't feel so bad.

To see your child through the eyes of delight is the greatest gift you can give yourself and your child. It requires that you willingly pay the price of good attention. What you receive in return will be amazing. The reward for attention is always healing.

We must not abandon our children to the distressful patterns of isolation that they will show us. Remember to see your child through the Eyes of Delight. Know that deep inside they really do want to be completely close to you. Have fun with it. Keep reaching in for your sweet child.