What Your Parents Never Told You About How the World Works

Parents want to protect their children. But in doing so, they tend to omit some vital details about life. How often does a parent tell a child people are basically good and beautiful, and the world is benevolent, and love can be trusted?

beauty

Photo Credit: Dawn Huczek via Compfight cc

Sometime in December—as this long, bitter, snow-buried winter descended upon Chicago—my wife was accosted by a squirrel.

She was walking out our front door when it ran up our sidewalk directly at her. She retreated inside and called us to the front door, where we looked out at the rodent through the pane of glass—the biggest, heaviest squirrel I’ve ever seen, sitting upright on our front porch, staring at us.

It was like Man Vs. Wild Goes to the Suburbs.

“Is it rabid?” my wife asked.

I scanned it for symptoms and didn’t see any. Incredulously, I responded, “I don’t think so. I think it just wants…food.”

I grabbed a scrap of bread, tossed it at his feet, and he proceeded to eat the entire thing right in front of us. And then he stared at us again, silently asking for more. We gave it to him and he disappeared around a tree.

That was three months ago. The ridiculous, record-setting winter continues, and several times a week, we look out our back door to find our big squirrel, perched on the deck railing, staring into our kitchen, waiting for food.

Recently, as I watched him eat and marveled at the size of him, it dawned on me: we’re not his only benefactors. In this long, hard winter, our squirrel is thriving because he’s learned one thing many people never learn: he exists in a benevolent world.

He’s learned to ask for good things until love responds.

When We Protect

Most parents have an intensely protective instinct. This is a good thing. It’s essential to our survival and it comes from a place of love. However, out of this protective instinct—in a futile effort to shelter children from all danger, struggle, and suffering—parents tend to teach their children exclusively about the dangers of the world. In subtle and not so subtle ways, parents send the message that people are basically corrupt and dangerous.

And that has consequences.

As we grow, our default mode becomes one of fear and protection—we create tribes, circle the wagons, and hope everyone who looks, thinks, and acts like us is safe and trustworthy. Ironically, in our effort to isolate and protect, we create an in-group versus out-group dynamic which dehumanizes “outsiders,” resulting in violence toward them. This violence then proves our original assumption: the world and its people are dangerous and not to be trusted.

We unintentionally create the reason for our fear.

Because we were never told the rest of the truth about people.

When We Open Up

My family recently traveled to New York and, I’ll be honest, I went with some misconceptions about New Yorkers. I’d been told they were hard and cold and bitter, kind of like the winter we’ve been having.

On our second day in the city, we left a restaurant and had walked about a block when a man came running at us from behind, waving his arms and screaming. The protective instinct within me arose. It felt like a crazy squirrel was running at my family.

But as the man came close, I saw the blue rectangle in his hand and my fear melted away in a river of gratitude. He was holding my wife’s credit card, which had dropped as she left the restaurant.

Suddenly, we were the squirrel being fed by one good and beautiful New Yorker.

As this lovely stranger walked away, I realized most of the people who had told me dire things about New Yorkers had never been to New York themselves. And I recalled a recent conversation in which someone told me, “Kelly, I’ve traveled all over the world, and the vast majority of people are good. The vast majority of people are kind and generous.”

When you get out into the world, meeting people from other groups and tribes, you begin to discover: while horrible things do happen in the world, there is also a benevolence alive within it that can be trusted and called upon and lived within.

I Have Been a Witness

People sometimes ask me, “As a therapist who bears witness to so many of the horrors of the world—who hears tragic stories of violence and evil every day—how can you have such confidence in the goodness of the world?”

My answer is, “I’ve been a witness to suffering, but I’ve also been a witness to its limits.”

I have been a witness to the vast, expansive, resilient, untamable power of hope.

I have been a witness to people who quit avoiding suffering and decide to carry it—venturing into the world full of courage, because they know they can bear the weight of it, because they know it won’t overwhelm them, because they know they can stand strong in the midst of it.

When we no longer feel compelled to avoid our suffering, we are set free to engage the world. No more groups. No more tribes. Just people, encountering each other with openness and grace, trusting in the presence of a benevolent love, and willing to suffer the consequences when love doesn’t show up.

I have been a witness to a people unleashed—free to live within the benevolence of the world, and free to become the benevolence of the world.

I have been a witness to this kind of people, and I want to shout the good news from every good and beautiful mountaintop in this broken, suffering, lovely world.

And I want to whisper it into the hearts of my children, so they can be cautious of danger, yet wide open to the potential for goodness, beauty, and grace in every moment, and in every person.

Questions: What did your parents teach you about people and the world? How has it helped you? How has it hindered you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Elizabeth Ayoub

    This was really powerful to me, and it makes me question how I could teach this to my future children. I think my parents unintentionally did teach me this, and built a strong wall of in-group vs out-group. Fortunately, I’ve had many experiences in my life that have slowly helped tear down this wall of fear of the world. One strong memory I have is of working at a homeless shelter during college. A white, middle-class girl with the resources to attend a liberal arts college, surrounded by homeless of all kinds: parents, children, elderly, drug abusers, alcoholics, you-name-it. I was alone at the shelter one Sunday afternoon and a large, black, man walked in extremely intoxicated, swearing, and he began knocking everything off my desk. I was terrified, and I know that for an instant I thought “what if they all turn on me?” (why would I think this?) That was not what happened. Immediately four other homeless men who had been hunkered in the corners with coffee leaped into action and pulled him outside, helped right my desk and encouraged me to call the cops once we found the phone. It was that perfect moment of being terrified of the world, and then realizing it had come to me rescue. I’d love to know how you would teach children this from the beginning? As always, love your posts!

    • drkellyflanagan

      “Being terrified of the world, and then realizing it had come to my rescue.” You just summed up my post in one beautiful sentence. Thank you, Elizabeth. Some quick ideas about kids? Formal practices of gratitude with them. It opens us up to the goodness in the world we rarely notice. I like to watch videos on YouTube with them that depict acts of kindness and love. And most powerfully, try to point it out when they do one. Because in my experience, kids are doing it all the time.

  • Marie Graham

    When asked the question ‘what did your parents teach you about the world?’ many memories flood in.
    I was one of four children raised in a village in the West of Scotland. Our parents had been born in the years just after the second World War had ended, and although both very bright, had been obliged to leave education early to provide for their families.
    I would like to say so much about my parents; they were hardworking, funny, incredibly resilient folk.
    However, one trait stands out as defining how I learned to view the world from them.
    We lived in a part of the country where religious bigotry was a pervasive, insidious dark cloud, and as Catholics we were often viewed with suspicion and intolerance by Protestants and vice versa.

    Some neighbours simply ignored us and some made their views very clear, often in the dead of night shouting and swaying with alcohol-fuelled venom. This was scary as a child,lying in bed, wondering why a weekly trip to church could possibly provoke such anger.
    How did my parents respond to this situation? Well this is the crux of the matter. The main antagonist often found himself locked out of his own home, I am not to this day sure whether he would frequently lose keys, or if his own family, wary of his mood, would refuse him entry.While other neighbours closed their blinds and pretended there was noone home, my parents would bring this scary,angry,drunk man into our living room, listen to him for what seemed like hours, and share our dinner with him!!
    He was not the only neighbour to receive such graces; We had a lady in the street who wore chiffon multi coloured dresses and sang to the birds in the early hours. Now as a trained nurse I now would recognise signs of a psychiatric disorder, perhaps a bi-polar condition, but as a child this was just plain bizarre behaviour, and yes, she too would be invited in for tea and a chat. Then there was Walter, who spoke very slowly and smelled pretty bad, he was a regular too and had a particular taste for mum’s homemade soup.
    What did I learn from my parents? To give respect to others in a way that is unconditional and uncompromising, to keep looking for the best in others until you find it, to refuse to judge others by some unattainable standard, to love and to forgive because it heals us to do so.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing your story, Marie, it is good and beautiful.

  • Christina Davila

    I really appreciate this post because I really do feel like parents tend to highlight the evils of this world. No one wants their children to be naive, but I don’t feel like children should have their natural benevolence (like with strangers) squandered out of them.Just a couple of days ago my mother was warning me about going to George Mason because D.C. is a dangerous city where I’ll get stabbed for wearing the wrong clothes. My mother had a rough childhood and had to make it on her own, so I think that left a few scars. By default she is very distrustful and cynical. I think I learned that the world still has good by doing the opposite of her. Where she wouldn’t trust, I would. I’ve been through the kind of trauma you only share in therapy, yet I think that helped me see the kindness of the world. I had to reach outside of my family for help and comfort. Reaching out caused me to seek benevolence and to actively try to be someone that could be reached out to. I saw an episode of Rachel Ray where this woman does a random act of kindness everyday. She did things like pay for the meal of the car behind her or buy a tank of gas for whoever was also at the gas station. There’s lots of similar stories out there, so no one should ever lose hope. Rousseau believed men were naturally evil; John Locke believed men were naturally logical and good. It comes down to how we decide to perceive our world.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Christina, thank you for this, and thank you for highlighting our choice in the matter!

  • Tall Paul

    This reminds me of the Life of Pi. I feel as though together this post and that share two important sides of the coin as far as facets of life that it’s important to see. Leave out the danger, and your kid will get his hand eaten off by a tiger. Leave out the love and your kid may become one.

    • Lee Ann

      My parents tried to knock out the idea that people are good from my head. But they couldn’t cause even though there were true horrors in my background, when they adopted me they showed me that people are good. I didn’t need any other example.

  • Kari Swenson

    I grew up out in the country. But in search of a job, I ended up moving into the Twin Cities area. And one of the hardest adjustments for me was seeing the level of trust people have here. I grew up leaving doors unlocked, like the time a friend drove the car into a ditch and we needed to call for help. I just grew up trusting everyone, and reassessing if there was need. It feels like as soon as I moved to the metro, other’s approach to this was reversed.

    I’ve even made adjustments to my philosophy, even having things that could completely reverse my trust. But as a whole I think people can and should be trusted. Maybe don’t hand your car keys to a perfect stranger, but providing compassion to a stranger first rather than wariness can start the chain of trust.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Kari, we can easily create what we predict. We have to give goodness a chance, or we leave no space for it to grow.

  • Julie Fitzpatrick

    My mother taught me that the world is unpredictable. Each person and situation must be evaluated on its own merit, using our prior knowledge of the world as we know it to help with our evaluation, but not allowing our preconceived notions to cloud our evaluation of each unique encounter. Our experiences shape us, but our evaluations of our experiences shape us even more.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like the wisdom and flexibility of this, Julie.

  • Laura

    I don’t have any parental teaching memories to share; I just wanted to thank you for a great post, a timely reminder to instill in my children a respect for their fellow man and an expectation of goodness in the people around them. Thanks for starting my day off on a positive note.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re very welcome, Laura!

  • Amy Mullen Chen

    I love this! I grew up in a truly dangerous world as an American child in the middle-east (my parents were in humanitarian work). They often told us (and others who wanted to know what they were doing with three small children so far away from home) that the safest place in the world is always in the center of God’s will. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee nothing bad will ever happen, but it does allow you freedom to embrace every person and situation whole-heartedly! Thanks for getting me thinking Kelly. I want this for my children too!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing that perspective from such a unique experience, Amy!

  • ananymous

    Its my first comment.. Even though I was following your blog
    for around an year or so.. First comment because perhaps this one is more
    touching and appealing to me right now!! After all I am selfish 🙂

    Kelly, as always you bring out the best and most soothing
    things in your writing.. which will
    positive ripples .. start making a voice and will eventually lead me to
    right direction.. 🙂 Thank you for wonderful posts .. I can only say all of
    them were priceless advice… looking forward to more from you.. After all when
    I am sad/depressed your blog is the first place i look for.. 🙂

    My parents thought me of how to live openly and kind to the
    people around us.. as we were brought up in lower middle class family here in
    India.. it was the way we get along and live our life.. Today I might need help
    from my neighbor or fellow countrymen and tomorrow he might need me for some of
    his things.. but such a community life was just awesome 🙂

    Recently I moved to one of the Booming (mainly in IT)
    Metro’s in India… with the new place it was more evident that here people are
    that kind hearted or did not have time to even think about others a bit.. but
    which was complete contrast to how we brought up.. I did not bother much about
    how others but I kept on living my way of how I was brought up.. I helped many
    be it work/personal issues and went an extra mile to help the people who are in
    trouble at that moment only because I was capable of helping them at that
    moment..

    just because of this help i did today (of course I did not
    expect anything in return from any of them).. I feel I am at such a mess

    Of all those whom I helped.. few are so selfish that they
    called me Good friend/brother etc., and at the end they even called me the
    worst one can expect..

    I insisted them at least 10 to 20 times that may be its time..
    your life is settled and lets move on but they said “I need you”
    utilized me to the fullest and Now I don’t have anything to give neither
    Love/time/money

    Now I am made to look cheap in front of everyone…

    I have all the details of how and what they told and then
    where I helped etc.., Even today I can make them look worst in front of society
    for their selfish behavior.. But that can only lead to spoiling their life
    beyond repair…

    I am trying my hardest to move on..
    my only hope was your words in this article… “I’ve been a
    witness to suffering, but I’ve also been a witness to its limits.”

    I can only say “I respect my friends and would love to be
    with those friends when they too have feeling of same towards me”
    otherwise no point continue any further after all their life is as precious as
    that of mine or anyone!!

    I just want to get out of this let down/suffering by not
    harming anyone including me .. I have decided no matter whatever happen I wont change myself
    even a bit in places where I can help the people around me in future.. because that’s
    what makes “ME” 🙂

    Kelly looking forward another soothing post from
    you next week…

  • Lauren Robinson

    This hits home with me. My husband and I are raising two young children in a city where crime is high. I worry all the time that I am jeopardizing their childhood by choosing to live where we do. However, our community is so full of love. They attend a small charter school with so much diversity and compassion. If we were to move to the suburbs, their unique vision of the world might become less bright. I am coming to realize that my own fears can rub off on our children and the best thing to do is accept our place in the world and not react with fear, but understanding and compassion for others.

  • Debbie Mitchell

    My parents actually taught me that everyone is basically good and that if I look hard enough, I will always find the good. However, as I ventured by myself out into the world, I learned that sometimes the parts of people that are not good can hurt us very deeply and leave scars. By the time I had children, I had experienced this hurt enough times that I taught my children to be cautious. I think it is important to recognize and appreciate all the good people who bring joy into our lives. But it is also important to pay attention to the ‘red flags’ and know when to walk away… and when to run.

  • Swan Isis Etiquette

    I’m relieved to have this question asked. More relieved to answer it. I’ve been running away from the Fearlingz….(the descriptive family in the book by Hannah Hurnard~Hinds Feet on High Places), & I have lived her caricature named “Much-Afraid” for far too long….My family screamed when I moved back to my hometown Philly (esp. since my Mother moved us out of there afraid for us & wanting to give us a different chance). They freaked out when I moved to Atlanta for 11yearz. then have absolutely lost their rabid mindz when last Aug I moved to Seattle, Washington to follow my dreamz & yes to put more distance betwix them & mine own fearz. It waz the best move for me each time elevating me to a level of new awareness that yes there iz a grand life to live. One of discovery & innovationz when the Heart iz unchangeable & not afraid to explore. Pain iz Luv’z twin….yes. However, people have fed me vast Seedz of hope each & every time I tried to retreat back to my fearful rootz. I have also resolved that mine own fearz of people have attracted that type of experience. So today I’m boldly going where I waz Divinely deemed to go….into the abyss of People~Land to train & evolve the life experience for the generation to come…..that YES this truly iz a “Wonderful World” painz fearz tragediez & all. I’ve learned to let it Burn away the deceit of Non~disclosure….Lol

  • LeeLee

    I like the message you’ve illustrated here. I have a really hard time teaching my daughter that the world is more of a friendly place than the opposite, even though I wish with all my heart that I could believe it. I often feel like it is quite rare to find genuinely kind people who don’t want to take advantage of me somehow. We had a ton of examples growing up of people giving extravegantely, whether it was pitching to help us build our house, sharing their homes when we visited, or giving us money so we could afford a car. And then out of the blue, my dad became a predator, grooming me and then molesting me. It was such a betrayal and it changed me. I did get help from a variety of therapies when I got older. However, I still mistrust people’s intentions and think we are just lucky if we get to witness benevolent behaviour. I teach my daughter to listen to her intuition and understand that the world is unpredictable.

  • Raj Kushal Rathour

    I like that statement you make-“we create the reason for our fear”, i only add we ‘intentionally’ do that. We create a fear & put a wall around it & feel we are safe now coz now that we can’t see it so it can’t get to us. for those children we barricade the world out & fence the kids in, in the process taking away a part of their world & of who they are. Something otherwise they should rejoice in.

    With that we also instil a deep sense of shame, coz people, specially the young learning about the world & about themselves will one day come to realise that they have the same within them & the only way they will respond to it will be with a sense of shame. Most probably that comes out of our own sense of shame, our ineptness, our failures. Not to say these feelings are leaving them & will not bring their faces up again, they will. & then we don’t know how to face up to them coz we never let ourselves see them in the eye, recognise them for what they are & end up having our fall from grace. we do keep seeing that a lot around us & within us. Thus, we also shut out a part of the world & of who we are in the process.

    Maybe we should hold their hand not to hold them back, but to walk with them & learn from them the spirit to walk, to fall & to rise & even embrace the hurts, the bleeds & yet know we will rise & not be shut out by our own spirit. We can trust them to teach us because they know it won’t overwhelm them, because they know they can stand strong in the midst of it & yet walk through it all & on their own they are doing it all the time. Surely fear will have no footing to take that away or take away the belief that inherently we are all good, & strong & wonders with/of a higher self.

    I do not have an answer to your question at the end but another question to myself & to you. Will we let ourselves soar or will we live in fear & let the ghosts hold us down. These are things I probably did not learn as much from my parents as I do from my 10 year old who opens me up to his fears & to my own & shows me the goodness of the heart & the resilience of the spirit. That piece of music somehow makes me dance through the same. What I can thank my parents for is that they let me fall & go through my own journey & to you who lets me walk through those feelings yet again. And then see a few cracks & remember the benevolence & the sweetness of many that I stand here & those cracks seem like nothing in front of the goodness that many sent me. I tip my hat & take a bow to that & to you, till we meet again

  • Ron Page

    One message I was taught was that peace and harmony mattered more than the protection of innocent and vulnerable children. What conveyed that message was my mother’s refusal to deal with the neighbour who had sexually molested me in my early teens. To address the horror of what he had done to me would have jeopardized this idealized and illusory peace and harmony. It told me I was expendable, was on my own and that I if no one was going to look out for me, I had better do it myself. Ironically the wall I erected for protection became the very wall that inflicted damage on myself and my loved ones by the way it interfered with love. Struck more by the damage this wall was doing than by the damage originally done to me led me to give it up. As I embrace the freedom from needing to make sure I never get hurt again I’m not only learning how to live with suffering when love doesn’t show up but how to invite a person out from what is interfering with their ability to love.

    • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

      Ron, it was brave for you to share your experience here, and you have articulated well that the lessons that parents convey to their kids go far beyond the ones they speak. You should have been protected and when your trust, your choices, and your right to be safe were all violated, you should have been your parents’ priority. The wall you built was the best you could do with an awful situation; the rebuilding you are doing now to give yourself freedom to be open to good and loving care from (and for) the people around you is what you can do now that you have safely moved beyond that period of high trauma.
      I think what you ultimately illustrated is that your mother’s attempt to teach you to value harmony and the illusion of everything being alright had the opposite effect: that you became a man of integrity who values honest, real love over the appearance of it. And good for you.

    • Barbara

      thank you Ron

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  • FG

    Much of what you wrote resonated with me, but I probably don’t have quite the rosy outlook. While I, too, have been pleasantly surprised to find kindness among people who outwardly appeared threatening, it’s also a fact that most molested children were violated by someone both they and their parents knew and trusted. The world is a complex place indeed.

    You wrote:

    “This violence then proves our original assumption: the world and its people are dangerous and not to be trusted.”

    This is an interesting “which came first; chicken or egg” issue. While one might claim that a fear-and-protection mode eventually results in violence, others might contend that fear and protection resulted from people acting violently in the first place.

    I suppose one might respond by suggesting that, even if the violence did come first, responding with a fear-and-protection mode perpetuates a cycle of violence-fear-violence-fear-violence, ad infinitum. The problem with such a theory is that once the reality of violence began, it’s rather naive to ignore its dangers.

    When you write that, “We unintentionally create the reason for our fear,” that seems to be a speculative generalization which might, if at all, only apply on limited occasions under narrow circumstances. However, a little girl, for example, who is molested can hardly be faulted as if she helped “create” the actions of the perpetrator. Nor should she be asked to “suffer the consequences when love doesn’t show up.”

    You wrote:

    “Because we were never told the rest of the truth about people.”

    I encounter more persons who believe that people are basically good than that they are bad. The reason no one has to be taught about the benevolence of people is that it’s already a default assumption in our nature. Little children don’t assume a plant is poisonous before placing it in their mouth. They often don’t realize an animal is dangerous before trying to pet it. Children usually have to be taught the dangers of certain things because it’s in our nature to simply assume something is safe until we have reasonable ground for believing otherwise. Even as adults, humans are overly trusting and prone to fall victim to swindlers, false advertisers, and crooked politicians. The little child who is enticed by candy offered by a molester should frankly have been taught that, while many people can be nice, she (the child) should assume the worst; not because all people are bad, but because the consequence for assuming some non-existent, universal benevolence is far worse.

    Finally, you wrote:

    “I want to whisper it into the hearts of my children, so they can be cautious of danger, yet wide open to the potential for goodness, beauty, and grace in every moment, and in every person.”

    While I totally agree with such advice to your child, it’s not clear how this changes present conditions. How is one to exercise caution without first assuming the potential for harm poised by others, i.e., without recognizing that one should view others with caution?

    Frankly, I truly wish the world were universally benevolent. While I do see much goodness, I think wisdom dictates that we be ever cautious and then subsequently pleasantly surprised when we find benevolence, rather than assuming the best and suffering the consequences for having been quixotically trusting.