When sperm meets egg, an amazing thing happens. A new organism starts its life, genetically distinct from both parents and, from that moment until death, it has to live its own life. It draws sustinance from its environment, even at this early stage, and uses this energy and matter to grow. Over the next few weeks, all being well, it travels down to its mother’s womb and nestles into the warm uterine lining, where it implants and continues to draw food and oxygen that it needs for itself. Within the womb, the baby grows all by itself, drawing nourishment from its mother, but distinct from her.
For the Christian-inclined, this process of in-utero development is alluded to in the bible. “Abba, Father, you are the potter, we are the clay” is one of the more tender images of God that we see in the bible. It presents God as a mastercraftsman who takes the stuff of creation and forms us, holding us in his ever-loving hands, moulding us into the very image and likeness of himself (God transcends gender rather better than English does: bear with me). Importantly, it is God who forms us in the womb, not our mother. Our mother lovingly provides us with the oxygen, food and warmth we need and graciously takes away all our waste, but the intricate work of building our bodies is left to us/nature/God.
A beauty of God-as-potter, us-as-clay, for me, is that the clay God uses in this act of creation is not perfectly uniform and smooth, it’s full of stripes and lumps and imperfections, but God uses it anyway, his expert fingers crafting a beautiful, complete person, with every detail just-so. Stripes, lumps and bumps and all.
From the moment your child is born and the midwife declares its destiny, parenting begins in earnest. The child-as-clay model works well and can lead us a long way towards being great parents, but only if we remember that “you are the clay” is only half of the biblical image. If we take God-as-potter out of the picture and put ourselves in his place, things can get sketchy. If we do that, we are expressing the belief that it is the parents who mould and shape the growing child, and that the parents can (and should) tweak out the lumps, bumps and imperfections present in the clay. The very lumps, bumps and imperfections that make each child unique. We assume that it is the parents’ role to form the child in a particular way; we assume that the parents have been given a card with a picture on it and told “make one of those”. We assume that the parents have the ability, no, the duty, to push out a formless blob and make it acceptable to society.
This model is hugely prevalent today, and it puts unbearable pressure on parents and children. Our children and our parenting is judged by how well our children fit the moulds.
There are traits that are seen as undesirable by society. Certain behaviours that cause discomfort to others because they don’t fit the simple pattern. If my son wants to wear a dress, for example, he is not conforming to the “boy” mould, and it is my duty as his parent to re-model this trait, to tweak the flaw out of the base clay and persuade the remainder back into the correct shape. If my daughter likes rugby, football, athletics, sport in general, it is my duty to “nip it in the bud”, to gently encourage her in a more artistic direction. If she prefers ripped jeans to frilly skirts, I am expected to smile sweetly and tell her that’s lovely, dear, now put this dress on, we’re going to the shops.
If my young child is showing too much interest in playing with opposite-sex friends, I need to redirect them into more “appropriate” friendships. After a certain age, however, if my child is showing to little interest in playing with opposite-sex friends, I need to redirect them again.
If my child-with-a-penis has told me, all their life, that they are a girl, I am expected to tell them, with ever increasing firmness, that no, that penis means that you are a boy. It doesn’t matter who you are inside, what matters is what your body looks like: you are a boy. Boy boy boy. Now shut up and put on your ripped jeans and go out and play football.
If my child-with-a-vagina has told me, all their life, that they are a boy, I am expected to tell them, with ever increasing firmness, that no, that vagina means that you are a girl. Now shut up and put on your dress. I spent a lot of money on that beautiful dress, now put it on and be grateful.
If my child wants to be a lawyer and I’ve planned on her being a doctor all her life, I can push her towards medical school. If my child wants to be an artist and I’ve planned a football career for him, I can push him to the local club’s academy.
There are all sorts of techniques available to parents (and society in general) whose children don’t fit the acceptable moulds. “Take his dolls away,” is one I’ve heard very often, even from some medical professionals (and the very famous Dr Phil). “Make her wear a dress”: very useful, that. “Take him to the football club,” again, useful. I’ll take him into a testosterone-soaked environment where he can be bullied to within an inch of his life because “it’s probably for the best,” or “it will make a man out of him.”
On top of that, we load on shame. “Boys don’t cry,” and “girls should be prettier: make an effort.”
What all of these child-moulding techniques are doing is forcing a child into a situation they find acutely uncomfortable, holding them there and telling them that they need to thrive, that they should be grateful for all the effort we are making for their own good. If only the child would learn to conform to expectations, they will magically become happy, and we can be proud of them as parents.
This kind of parenting certainly does produce results. The problem is that it’s the same sort of results as hitting the child across the shins with a cricket bat. You get a bruised child whose only goal in life is to run away from from the people who keep hurting them and never return. It breaks relationships, homes and people. The parents spend their lives frustrated because they keep trying and trying but don’t achieve what they want. The children are frustrated because they are never good enough for their parents, their peers or their community: the very clay they are made from is seen as flawed and wrong. When a child develops in this environment, they learn to see themselves as ugly, worthless and hateful, and find themselves at significant risk of self-harm and suicide.
Having said all that, I’m going to conclude with a hopeful alternative.
We need to ditch the child-as-clay, parents-as-potters model and take another look at how the child develops in the womb (with God/nature as potter). The child draws food and oxygen from the parent, the parent feeds and loves the child, and allows it to grow its own way.
After the child is born, it is the parents’ job to continue this nurturing, to support the child in her own growth, to feed her interests and her body, to provide opportunities to grow and to learn in an environment that feeds the child’s own development, without forcing her to be someone she is not. Pour in the love and watch in wonder as a new creation emerges.
I think that will get better results. Don’t you?