FREE OUR CHILDREN by Esther Nelson

I remember a poignant conversation with my sister when our children were young.  Our biggest fear at the time? How would we ever manage if one (or several) of our children refused to speak to us as they grew into young adulthood? Stories swirled around our social circles about a son or daughter who wanted nothing to do with their family of origin. These estranged children frequently put physical distance between themselves and their parents.

That fear eventually became my reality.  I despaired.

Like many parents, I lacked experience and maturity while raising my children. I didn’t have the wisdom to understand, trust, and apply the message of the Lebanese-American writer/poet, Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). Had I done so, not only would I have avoided a lot of grief, but my children would probably have had an easier transition from childhood towards independent adulthood.

This is part of Gibran’s poem “On Children.”

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

Gibran’s poem is antithetical to patriarchy’s ideology, that enveloping social system that teaches us to dominate.

Carol Christ (1945-2021) defined patriarchy as “…a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.” 

Even though patriarchy as a social system allows men more agency, domination is at its core.  When we dominate, we (all genders) perpetuate patriarchy.

One way we dominate is by attempting to mold our children into our own image.  I learned that “good” parenting meant teaching children to obey parents just as wives obeyed their husbands and husbands, being de facto leaders in the home, obeyed God.  Furthermore, since children entered this world completely tainted with original sin, their inclination can only be towards evil.  It was up to parents (usually the mother) to insure that the child found God’s way, meaning that the patriarchal order (domination) needed to be replicated and enforced.

To be sure, I had a concentrated dose of this deadly doctrine. Nevertheless, the “truth” of that hierarchical, dominating order has seeped into our current cultural consciousness.  We’ve all absorbed it and learned to think of it as “right.”  We’re harsh on parents and children who color outside patriarchal lines.

A friend of mine divorced when his children were teenagers. As a result, his daughter didn’t speak to him for several years. Reflecting my own angst, I asked him, “How did you handle that?  Weren’t you upset?”  He said she needed some time and space to sort through it all. “But what if she never speaks with you again?” I prodded. “Then she will never speak with me again,” he calmly answered.   

Bob Dylan (b. 1941), American singer/songwriter, addresses the patriarchal penchant inherent in our society through his art. I find this stanza of his song “The times they are a’changin’’ to be especially appropriate:

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’”

Here is a video of Dylan singing the complete song—a favorite of mine:

My son and I were estranged for about a decade. I’m “over the moon” that we made our way back to each other.  Over our ten-year estrangement, I learned to think differently about children. One thing I’ve learned:  Children are not here as our tools or pets.  We do them a gross disservice when we try to make them over in our image and use them as a means towards an end—even if we have a “good” end in mind for them.

Several years ago I read “J.B.,” a Pulitzer-winning play written by Archibald MacLeish in 1958. J.B. is based on the biblical story of Job. Even when my son and I were estranged, I knew my experience was nowhere near the upheaval Job experienced—sickness, loss of property, loss of status in his community, and eventually the death of all his children. I’ve learned, though, not to measure my own pain by another person’s agony. Quoting the poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992), “There is no hierarchy in oppression.”  No matter what degree of oppression comes our way, it’s worthy of our attention.

The modern story of the play J. B. focuses on a wealthy American banker who remains faithful to God even when God strips him of his family and wealth—just like the biblical Job. MacLeish wrestled with the question: How can people retain hope with all the suffering in the world?  he banker, J. B., eventually realizes there is no justice in the world—both happiness and suffering are undeserved, but people can still choose to love one another.

Loving our children means we allow them to discover themselves as they travel their own path.  We can help them find their way, but forcing them to walk our path violates them.  All too often, our children are bound and guided by our own dreams.  Our dreams are our dreams, not necessarily theirs.

Let’s love our children enough to free them from our expectations.

Mike and me—May 2022 in Roanoke, Va.

BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

8 thoughts on “FREE OUR CHILDREN by Esther Nelson”

  1. Ahhhh, yes, all those levels of obedience with the jealous male god at the top and women and children at the bottom. It’s like an unclimbable mountain with gods and angels and men hovering around the summit and women and children and mud being kicked around at the foot. That’s what we’re seeing in politics and governments all over the world today, especially (alas) in the U.S. Right?

    Thanks for this post and for the poem by Gibrano and the song by Dylan. But are the times a-changin’ now? Changin’ to worse. I, too, was a really dumb mother to my son. At least now we are friends of our sons. We’ve all learned some lessons. Bright blessings to lesson of love and understanding!


    1. Yes, thanks, Barbara. You make some good points. I DO believe the times are a’changin’. I think that’s why the backlash is so severe. The more dramatic the social change, the harder the backlash. Prohibition only lasted but so long–13 years? Remember blue laws? That didn’t last long. Ban on gay marriage? We have that going still. I think it’s good to remember that nothing (even our long-fought-for rights) are not set in stone. When the social upheaval requires more agility than many can muster, the response often is to go back to the “good ole’ days which means the constructed reality of some folk about the bygone days.


  2. What a wonderful post! I wish I had read this when my son was little! Being a parent is so hard and there is so little guidance, unlike in times and places where parents had the support and life experience of many family members to help. I think this advice to allow others to fly off into the freedom of their own lives relates not only to our children, but other family members, friends, even people we have never met. You have given me much to think about!


  3. Thank you, Carolyn. You’re so right regarding allowing other people the freedom to be themselves. You’re also right that so little guidance and support is “out there.” The nuclear family has been deadly for social cohesion and our mental health. All too often, I felt alone in my parenting job.


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