The Kids' Project: Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
One Sunday evening in August of 1986, Rick Lahrson of Portland, Oregon, was seated at a restaurant. He was enjoying some coffee and looking over the menu, when he overheard parents berating their children. With a heavy heart, he listened to the steady stream of hurtful messages and threats, the tension mounting with every word they spoke. It was clear to Lahrson that this was not the momentary lapse of patience that all parents experience. Rather, it seemed to reflect the parents' usual way of relating to their children. The three children, about ages three to six, appeared to have already lost some of their spark.
Lahrson found this experience so painful that he could not bring himself to order a meal, and felt that he had to leave the restaurant. As he later described it, "These kids were absolutely delightful, but the parents just couldn't see it. They were suffocating the life out of these children and it was just so wrong. I'd witnessed the same thing so often, that I just couldn't take it any longer."
As he started to leave the restaurant, he could see that the hostess was watching the scene with a frown. Lahrson commented to her, "Somebody has to break that cycle." Within a few steps, he realized what he had just said and knew that he had made a personal commitment. By the fall of that year, The Kids' Project was underway. It became a non-profit organization, dedicated to creating a world in which children are treated with dignity and respect. Lahrson's goal was to break the cycle of child abuse by changing adults' perceptions of children. As he explained at the time, "Human beings are not born questioning their own worth. Infants have an abundance of what we call self-esteem. They are uninhibited, avid learners with no hidden agendas and no need to compensate for lost self-esteem or to covertly manipulate others."
It was Lahrson's hope to bring about a transformation in our thinking and in our interactions with children so that "every man, woman and child will be recognized as a complete, loving human being with the ability and desire to be a contribution to others. Crime, war, poverty and fear will be things of the past."
These may sound like lofty goals, but many psychologists believe that such difficulties as drug, alcohol and nicotine dependence as well as personality disorders and sociopathic behaviors stem from the unmet needs of our earliest years. Loving and respectful treatment of children is absolutely critical to their future happiness and to the welfare of society as a whole. Yet parents who were not given love and respect in their own childhood have not learned how to do this. Are we then locked into inadequate or abusive parenting, generation after generation? What can we as a society do to break free from this heartbreaking pattern?
Lahrson listed the following set of beliefs as a starting point for transforming our consciousness about children:
- Children, from before birth, have the same ability to think and to feel that adults have, minus the experience, and allowing for stages of development.
- Children have a voracious appetite for learning, and they learn best the things they learn first. Children, like adults, learn mostly by example and experience.
- Children have a drive to love other people and to be a contribution to the people around them.
- Children offer a joyful zest for life and a fresh point of view.
- Children are empirical scientists of the first order. A child's logic is flawless, based on his or her experience and stage of development.
- Children are frequently misunderstood in their early communications, and are often squelched, rather than listened to fairly.
- Misbehavior in children is an attempt to communicate when all else has failed.
Clearly, our interpretation of a child's intentions will have a significant effect on our relationship with them and on their own view of themselves. This belief in our child's intentions can lead to an upward spiral of good will: the more we trust the child, the more loving and cooperative he becomes, and the easier it becomes for us to trust him in the future.
As the educator John Holt stated, "All I am saying can be summed up in two words: trust children.
Nothing could be more simple - or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust
ourselves - and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."
This article was originally published in Natural Life Magazine, November 1994.
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.