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Sunday, August 26, 2012


If the Buddha Had Kids: Raising Children to Create a More Peaceful World, by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D.
Penguin Books

Be forewarned: As is the usual case with “Books in Northport,” my take on If the Buddha Had Kids leans in a personal direction, emphasizing what the book means to me. I suspect that it will have similar meaning for a lot of other readers, and this book certainly deserves wide readership.

When contacted by Penguin Books to see if I would review If the Buddha Had Kids on my blog, I agreed without imagining it would be directly relevant to my own life. After all, the next crying babies in our family will be great-grandchildren, and raising children—well, that chapter is closed for me, isn’t it? So on the one hand, thinking as a bookseller, I know parents of young children, and a number of them already find Buddhism a helpful spiritual path, so I thought the book would appeal to my customers. On the other hand, I thought, as for me, I am too attached to the world and too happy in my attachment (so went my thinking) to want to disengage, so the Buddhist way is not my way. Good thing I'm a bookseller and read the book, because it was full of important surprises.

My first error in thinking should be obvious to any parent: once a parent, always a parent! It never ends! How do I connect with and respond to my 42-year-old son? To my stepchildren, my nephews? To grandchildren of school age and beyond? Connection and dialogue with my mother and sisters is still and always will be family connection and dialogue.

The title sounded a trifle gimmicky, but this book stopped me in my tracks right at the prologue. There, before the first chapter, the author (a practicing psychotherapist for over 30 years) tells of her 33-year-old daughter’s final illness and death from pancreatic cancer. She tells of parenting this daughter from the time the girl was three years old and arrived from a foster home after having spent the first year and a half of her life in a dangerously violent home. Kasl says that her daughter “was attached to me by a thread so thin it barely held at times.” And now the daughter was dying. And leaving behind a six-year-old son for whom the grandmother had already felt strong concern. All the things Kasl wanted to say to her daughter she says in this book to other parents. Right away any reader must realize that the author is speaking out of deep personal experience, and the lessons she will share come out of that experience.

It goes beyond parenting, too, as is quickly apparent. If the Buddha had Kids is specifically aimed at parents, but the practical advice on how to listen to others and how to explore one’s own feelings applies to all human relationships. For example, Kasl gives a list of examples of “living out of the ego” that create problems for parents. Here are a couple of them:
4. Difficulty seeing the need beneath the surface of a behavior. You might react to a child’s behavior as irritating, a nuisance, or difficult without seeing the underlying need. The child may want attention or feel angry, hurt, hungry, tired, or lonely. 
5. Difficulty acknowledging your own part in the child’s behavior—that is, perhaps your inattention, control, intrusiveness, or volatility contributes to a child’s whining, rebelliousness, depression, or being explosive or unable to concentrate.
Now read those two points again, replacing “a child” or “the child” with “someone else” or “the other person.” Read this way, we are on an even wider path to peaceful living, in much the same ways recommended by William Ury in The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop--also published by Penguin, I note and reviewed on this blog.

Finally, what about that attachment/detachment stuff, always the biggest hurdle between me and Buddhism? It isn’t simply that detaching is “too hard.” No, I didn’t want to give up attachment. I had (and still have) no desire to remove myself from the wonders of life or to observe the world as a bemused and distant spectator. So what a wondrous revelation to read Kasl’s chapter on pleasure in the natural world, entitled “Wow! I Climbed the Mountain,” with the statement that “there is mounting evidence that disconnection from nature affects our mental and emotional well-being in ways we do not fully comprehend.” Wow, indeed! This is more like it! Have I had Buddhism wrong all along, or is Kasl’s a departure from the classical version?
When a child loses his sensory capacity for connection with nature, he may also lose the capacity for contemplation, relaxation, and comfort with stillness. In general, when we can’t go deeply into the human experience, we turn instead to counterfeit stimulation—computer games, TV, the Internet, texting, tweeting, everything that is fast, and stimulating. We can’t sit still. The more we become dependent on constant stimulation the more quickly we feel boredom.... The hunger never abates.... The person feels increasingly helpless to feel satisfied and happy, as if he were losing control over his own life. This feeling also contributes to depression and anxiety.
In the frenzy that is August, I have fallen behind with my stillness project, but even having it on the back burner is a comforting thought. Kasl offers practical suggestions for things parents can do to get children “back to nature.” They are simple ideas, as is appropriate to the subject.

Related to the “back to nature” chapter for me, because it also relates to my stillness project, is the one called “The Amazing Sounds of Silence.” The author recalls her family’s tradition of setting aside an hour after lunch on family camping trips as quiet time. “We could sit in a camp chair or lie on a cot and read, embroider, carve, write, or sleep.” After my own father’s parents retired to Florida, our family traveled south every other year for a visit, and after lunch adults and children alike had “nap” time. Reading was allowed, but no talking, no radio, no TV or games. Shades were pulled down, and a peaceful quiet filled the house. I liked the feeling of being alone with my own thoughts and dreams during that time.

Happily, just as we are not required to detach from nature but to be present in it, we are not detaching from other people, either. The detachment is from our own egoistic preoccupations and from the ego’s insistence that other people should not be the way they are but should be some other way we think would be better. Again, the author’s focus is on the adult-child relationship, but I find it insightful across the board, helpful for all relationships,. The chapter “Deep Listening and Loving Speech” tells parents how to give empathy and understanding. The whole idea is to be fully present and open and to create connection rather than separation (and again I am put in mind of the William Ury book). Resistance and argument escalates anger. The idea is to defuse anger and prevent its escalation by giving the gift of peaceful, active listening.

My only quibbles with this book are very minor. I would have appreciated an index. The claim of 2-3% Cesarian sections in a nurse-midwife birthing center compared to 30% hospital rate did not take into account mothers’ ages or complications during pregnancy that would have influenced the choice of childbirth location. Absence of commas in compound sentences sent me back to the beginning of more than one sentence. As I say, all pretty minor points.

Most of what I have written here in praise of the book is either personal or general, with only a few direct quotes. The reality is that it is a wealth of ideas, examples, exercises and practical advice. Beyond the basics, the author covers topics such as education, sexuality, money, modern technology, and food. Exercises in various chapters offer the parent-reader (or nonparent adult) opportunities for self-reflection, but there are no scorecards attached: In going through an exercise and answering the questions posed, the parent is encouraged to practice with him- or herself the same loving kindness to be offered to the child.

--What I’m telling you is that you, parent or not, can read this book and learn from it without feeling scolded. So please do read it. It’s what the world needs now, and there is no one whose life does not have a corner in which to apply these ideas. One conversation at a time....

There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.


Kathy said...

This book sounds amazing. Your review makes me want to read it. As someone who meditates and feels very connected to Buddhism, I also am interested in the issue of attachment/detachment. Thanks, Pamela, for the intriguing review.

Gerry said...

I'm surprised that the review makes me want to read the book, too. Not until winter, but then . . .

It reminded me of Geri Larkin. She was a recovering Detroit/Ann Arbor business executive and a Buddhist monk and a writer. She wrote "Building a business the Buddhist way." She also did a series of presentations where some of her clients talked about how the principles had worked for them. It's been a long time since those days, but I still remember the book and the impressive results.

P. J. Grath said...

If I've made you want to read the book, I've succeeded. One point I neglected to make in my review is that one does not have to be a Buddhist to learn from the exercises and suggestions. In fact, you can be an atheist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, or just about anything else and still apply these "Buddhist" principles. The author brings in many Quaker ideas, too.

I will be carrying this book at Dog Ears as soon as it becomes available from my distributor. They have it on order from the publisher.

P. J. Grath said...

While waiting for the official release of this book, I have ordered three others by the same author--one on dating, one on marriage, and one on "getting stuck." They are at Dog Ears now.

Dawn said...

hmmmm...on getting stuck? Hopefully some words of wisdom about getting unstuck. :)

P. J. Grath said...

Yes, indeed, Dawn--getting unstuck is the point. The author also distinguishes between getting stuck and floundering. (I think that's a great word choice!) You're floundering when you know you want to make a change but don't know what direction to take. You're stuck when you don't like where you are but make excuses for why you can't make a change. I've been both places, and the distinction makes sense to me. Also, she writes of GETTING stuck, not BEING stuck, and I find I keep having to be careful not to misrepresent her ideas by using the wrong word. Then I think about it and realize that stuckness isn't identity, just a place along the journey.