Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Discernment versus Judgement

In reading the book Unconditional Parenting, and in some emails and discussions that have followed it, I've found the need to clarify the distinction between discernment and judgement. I think an understanding of this distinction is the very soul of the unconditional parenting philosophy (even though Kohn himself might not express it in these words.)

Judgement is a bad word these days. Most people with any sense of sensitivity will say "Don't judge." (I will, for the time being, bypass the whole irony that "Don't judge" is itself a judgement.) Judgement almost always carries a pejorative connotation now; to be called judgemental is an insult. This has lead many to renounce all comparative observations at all, lest they "judge" someone. The moment someone says, "Oh, don't do that, that's bad," they are immediately castigated for (gasp!) judging someone else.

I think the fans of unconditional parenting are even more likely to fall into this trap. In there sincere desire to display unconditional love for their kids, they refrain from saying anything that might stink of a sincere opinion or belief.

But here's where I think the virtue of discernment might save us from the evils of judgement.
Discernment says: "That's wrong."
Judgement says: "That's wrong, and therefore I love you less because you did that."
Discernment says: "That's a sin."
Judgement says: "That's a sin, and therefore you are less worthy of God's love because you did that."

It's very similar (though not precisely like) the Christian notion of "hate the sin but love the sinner." It's one thing to recognize the sin (literally, the error) of a person's action; that is valid, essential discernment. It only becomes judgement when it extends into condemnation of the individual.

Now, in my reading of Kohn, it appears that he believes that a statement of discernment almost always implies a judgement. As far as he's concerned, it's impossible to say, "Good" without also meaning, "Good, and therefore I love you more." No doubt he's right much of the time: people really do mean to convey judgement of the individual along with their objective assessment. But it isn't necessarily the case. (If you think it is the case, then I invite you consider the possibility that that is your own mental projection on the words, created by your own conditional self-love.)

Have you ever been around someone who's sensitive to the point of being "touchy"? It can be infuriating at times, because there will all kinds of things you say that are meant to be merely informative and helpful, but which the person immediately hears as criticism. You might say, "you misspelled X," but what they hear is "Jesus Christ, you dumbass, can't you even spell a word as simply as X?" If someone is fundamentally insecure, they will parse everything they experience this way, trying to turn it into an attack or affirmation of their being. That doesn't mean they are really being attacked . . . unless it means that they are attacking themselves.

This is just an extreme illustration of what I am talking about. If you hear judgement in the words, "Good job", is that because the words inherently convey judgement? Or because you projected the judgement into the words?

If, on the other hand, someone is secure in their being, they don't hear criticism where there is only discernment. They don't even hear praise where there is only confirmation of correctness. A child who is unconditionally loved doesn't even hear the things from which Kohn is so eager to protect them.

This is where I find the height of the irony in Kohn's stance. His primary complaint is that parents don't pay attention to the inner feelings and motivations of the child, that they are too focused on the child's behavior . . . but then his critique is entirely of . . .(ulp) . . . parental behavior.

I'm not sure if there is going to be a behavioral shortcut to all of this. In the end, I suspect that the way a child comes to feel unconditionally loved is not by what is literally said or unsaid by the parents, but rather by actually being unconditionally loved. And that is only possible when the parent is capable of loving themselves unconditionally.

And . . . just to keep this interesting . . . I am going to assert that the only way such unconditional love is possible is through spirituality. But more on that tomorrow.


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