Rebellion and Freedom

As we recreate relationships with children, we have to question all of our assumptions about what it means to be parents.

I was and sometimes still am a parent who uses power and oppression to dominate the children in my life. It could be something as simple as wanting them to comply with a request or meet my expectations.

As I began to work on recreating relationships based on mutuality rather than power over, I began to apply my professional work in dialogue with my parenting.

One of my favorite authors is Paulo Freire.

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, informed my work in intergroup dialogue, and my thoughts about the process of education since the first time I read it. It took many years , for me to begin to see how his work could influence my relationships with the children in my life.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes about the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors and the role of violence. His view of violence is not limited to physical violence, but is defined by a situation in which a parent (I am using “parent” in this case) refuses to see the child as fully human.

In our culture, the responsibility outlined for us is to tame our children and make them acceptable to society. They must learn how to fit into the systems we create and sustain, such as institutionalized child-care, institutionalized education, and the workforce.

Though we love our children, we are taught to see them as less than full human beings. In essence, we have created a worldview that allows us to subject children to particular kinds of behavior for their own good and for the maintenance of our social institutions.

As Freire says, “For the oppressors,…, it is always the oppressed who are disaffected, who are ‘violent,’ ‘barbaric,’ ‘wicked,’ or ‘ferocious’ when they react to the violence of the oppressor.” (p. 56, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Children rebel against this oppression in various ways. In my own case, the first child in my life lashed out at others around her who did not have a lot of power, like other children, because she could not rebel against me directly for fear of losing love and approval.

Her anger was both outwardly directed at others and inwardly directed at herself.

All the things I did, I did because I thought she was unable to make the right choices and it was my responsibility to make and enforce those choices for her.

I did not see myself as an oppressor whose actions dehumanized her. I was a loving mother who was teaching her child how to do the right things (according to my standards).

Although my own leanings have always been to question the status quo, all I had done was merely replace mainstream doctrines, with “natural living” doctrines.

At a fundamental level, I did not question my right to impose my will when it came to certain things in her life.

As her rebellion (as I now see it in positive terms) continued against my refusal to treat her with the kind of respect that should be afforded any human being, I began to question more and more what my role was.

Freire describes this process as the oppressed restoring the humanity of the oppressor.

Yet it is –paradoxical though it may seem- precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found. Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed … can initiate love. Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become humanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression. (p. 56, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

She very clearly had the need to be treated and respected as fully human. The more that I denied her this right, the more she pushed back. In fact, her acts of rebellion did restore my own humanity. I began to see in her, those things that I had been denied as a child.

I have written about trust and how, in the process of trusting him, I am learning to trust myself. I am regaining my inner authority and working to be in the most important relationship in my life in ways that are truly just and respectful.

I call this my most important relationship (parent-child) because in this relationship I hold the power to oppress, at an individual level and at an institutional level. Having this power means that I have a clear responsibility to examine my behaviors and attitudes.

At times, this is an incredibly difficult process. I feel as though my own childhood was lost to the systems in place at the time I was born, and I need to fight my own impulse to lash out and not place myself in the role of victim.

Being a parent opens up our core in ways that can be incredibly uncomfortable. Because of her rebellion, I have been able to more clearly reflect on my world-view and attitudes about children and begin to liberate myself, while working to create a liberating environment in the family.

This is a daily process. I am triggered, I respond (this response might be internal or it might be external), and then I am challenged to reflect on that response.

It is this process of action and reflection that creates the learning I need to live a life that has integrity. In the dialogue work I did, this was often referred to as a learning spiral.

It is an upward spiral from which you may periodically revisit issues that have been challenging, but through reflection and action, you are able to see the issue from a newer perspective, you act and reflect, again and again, moving yourself further up this learning spiral. It also implies that the learning never ends.

We live in a society that continues to reinforce the status quo in order to support the institutions we have created.

The learning process requires me to be patient with myself and know that each time I act and critically reflect on that action, I am moving forward in my process as a parent and as a human being committed to creating a society in which all are respected and accorded their right to be fully human.

I do this in dialogue with both of the children in my life (as well as other parents and adults who can help challenge my own thinking). Together we talk and work to create the kinds of relationships that challenge my socialization and, in fact, challenge our society to change.