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#Bonsai – A Metaphor for Parenting

Bonsai_ParentingSo, if you reflect back on your upbringing, and lived in a home where excessive physical discipline accompanied your parent(s) pointing out your faults and failures to comply with boundaries and rules, this post may resonate with you.

I stumbled across this picture (“unattended children”) at the perfect time just when I was outlining this post.  I began my journey as a novice bonsai artist in February of this year.  As a person who journals for personal growth reasons, I have been pondering for years the impact of parenting on the character of adults in later life.  As I started learning the craft, I couldn’t help notice how many parallels there are between the art of bonsai and some life-altering parenting techniques.

As a new bonsai artist, I find the comments in forums and Facebook groups from experienced bonsai masters follow a predictable rhythm.  This is not a criticism, it is an observation–heeding their advice is necessary to become good at developing attractive bonsai.  If you buy a puny juniper from a retail store, you’ll hear “plant it outside and let it grow and develop a thicker trunk for a few years.”

A thicker trunk is necessary to create the appearance of maturity and provide visual balance.  All of the wiring, pruning, and shaping techniques are intended to give a full-sized appearance to a tree that is typically no taller than two and a half feet high.  So what does all of this have to do with parenting?

If you walk around retail stores late at night you’ll find examples of what I’m calling the bonsai parent.  Shift workers sometimes interrupt their child’s nocturnal rhythms and put them in a shopping cart at 1am (often during holiday seasons).  When the child starts whining and complaining, the instructions parents give children at this hour are unrealistic.  The parent gets embarrassed that their child is throwing a tantrum and attempts to bribe, shush or threaten them to achieve silence, avoid embarrassment, and calm the child.  This interaction only frustrates the child and intensifies the behavior.

This type of scenario plays out in parking lots, churches, school functions, waiting rooms, ball games, and movie theaters.  I’ve seen it myself.  As a youngster, I was the child in the scenario.  While most parents wait until they are in their car or back home to retaliate for the child’s behavior, you will sometimes witness the pruning (shaming/bribing), and wiring (hand smacking, head-thumping) in public places.

Parents who expect or demand mature-like behavior from a toddler, young child or teen, and achieve it through repeated punitive actions, do not realize the long-term damage they are doing to the spirit/psyche of this developing human entrusted to their care.  This type of recurring trauma forces the child to build beliefs about themselves and others that aren’t necessarily true or healthy.  It also can cause some individuals to develop negative behaviors and attitudes as defense mechanisms that actually hinder their ability for building healthy long-term relationships with others.

The generic ultimate goal of any parent is to raise successful and happy children who become responsible adults–who contribute positively to society.  However, if you never question the values passed onto you through your upbringing, you’ll find yourself repeating your parent’s internalized values/methods (repeating cycles of negative/destructive behavior).  When you are tired at the end of the work day, you’re more than likely to resort to parenting actions motivated by those internalized behaviors/beliefs.

There are ways to achieve successful parenting practices that do not result in abuse, shame, guilt or pain.  If you are interested in learning methods and tools that you can use resulting in the least negative impacts to your child, I recommend a book called “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers” (title is linked to the book for sale on Amazon’s website).  The book basically teaches you how to teach your children self-control.  There are several books in the Positive Discipline series that help you direct your introspection and learning to your needs.

The results of bonsai techniques are successful only while constantly tending to the developing specimen (child) … if left alone, the specimen will resort to natural growth behaviors and “go native”–the result isn’t the most attractive.  Similar with children…behavior modified or controlled by punishment only work to curb growth behaviors while under the control of the bonsai artist (parent).

If you have heard parents say, “We didn’t raise her to act this way!” …. I submit that actually, yes–those bonsai parents did.  Punishment doesn’t teach–it has the opposite effect–rebellion/resistance–positive behavior only resulting from “being the control.”  The old adage, do what’s right even when nobody is looking comes to mind.  What happens when the control isn’t around?

Teaching self-control should be the aim of a parent.  Self-control results in self-respect and an ability to respect others.  The result of not teaching self-control is the belief that I must do something, perform or create value for others in order to “deserve” any modicum of love, attention or appreciation.

As an adult professional today, I have been told I am a consummate worker–I set the example.  It is because I am very self-disciplined, self-motivated (the rules of the organization are my wiring, pruning, pinching).  Much of this stems from my identity (value) being built around a reinforced internalized belief that acceptability equals performance.

Luckily, I have been journaling for about 30 years and have been able to heal from much of my past–I still have a lot of work to do.

On a personal level, because of my upbringing, I still struggle to manage personal relationships well.  The good news is, each negative or painful relationship exchange is an opportunity to go inside and tease out what is motivating beliefs that trigger behaviors.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that lessons come in layers (like onions)…so you may need to learn deeper levels of the same lessons over and over (start peeling those onions).  Your clue is that your friend/spouse/boss will repeat the same phrases to you time and time again, complaining that talking doesn’t help because in spite of what they say….nothing changes.

As a side note…humanity is filled with all sorts of examples that show that regardless of parent’s poor choices, somehow, some people manage to create a great success of themselves in spite of the emotionally scaring situations we put our children into.  A movie released this month, based on the memoir written by Jeannette Walls, called “The Glass Castle” is a good example of this type of resilience.  You know…there’s always one in every family who is … not like the others.

If you have a history of failed relationships, are not able to “find your thing” …or generally unhappy with where you are in life, don’t accept that you’re stuck.  If you find yourself in the words of this post, I recommend journaling as a first-step to beginning the corrective process of undoing damage from the past.

Becoming healthy is a journey where you learn to be “WHO” you are without all of the pruning, pinching, clipping, wiring and stunting created by an inherited system of beliefs that you may be following today without ever having questioned the basis of their value to you in your life.

You exist … you are human, and therefore, are “deserving” of love, attention, and respect just because you exist.  You are a unique expression of humanity, struggling to figure out where you fit into the big picture, just like the rest of us.  My hope for anyone reading this post is that you truly see yourself as a beautiful person who is worth knowing, being seen and valued by others.

If this post has touched you, struck a personal nerve or think this may help others, please share it.  To learn more about this line of thinking and better parenting/relationship practices, I highly recommend you visit the website created by the author of the Positive Discipline book, Dr. Jane Nelson.  The Positive Discipline website is filled with plenty of resources for the struggling parent, teacher, boss, spouse, roommate and baby-sitter.

All the best to you on your journey.