In Zen Buddhism, teachers will use a variety of tools and methods to guide their students towards enlightenment. Meditation and the practice of art forms that cultivate stark, spare beauty are examples. Another is the use of a Koan. A Koan is an unsolvable riddle. A typical feature is the simple presentation of two or more contradictory ideas in a single image, which the student is then asked to somehow resolve. The idea is that resolution can’t be achieved through standard thinking, but only through a more expansive, enlightened awareness.
My favorite Koan is this: When you meet the Buddha in the road, you should kill him.
The statement is simple and straightforward, but what it is saying is deeply contradictory in some profound ways. First, central to Buddhist teaching is compassion and kindness. Violence is to be avoided, yet here a teacher is instructing a student to kill. Furthermore, the Buddha is revered. A Buddhist is to wish harm to no one, so the idea of wishing harm to someone who has such high position in the Buddhist worldview seems especially incongruent.
Students of Zen can spend years struggling with the Koan they receive. How do you resolve a contradiction that can’t be resolved?
Often, parents approach their children as a Zen master approaches a student. Parents will give their kids Koans without knowing it. These are called double binds, and they are very common.
A double bind is giving your child an instruction or feedback that contradicts deeper attitudes toward that child.
Common examples are experienced by girls as they enter puberty. They are constantly receiving messages that they need to grow up and act more adult. But they are then often told to not be sexy (an adult behavior). When a girl’s body begins to change into that of a woman, she may receive double bind messages from her dad. He says, “I love you,” but then physical affection becomes awkward or withheld altogether.
Both of these examples represent an incongruity that a child at this level of maturity is typically ill-equipped to resolve. This can lead to emotional reactions such as frustration and resentment; it can lead to rebelliousness and undermine the formation of healthy bonds between parent and child.
Let’s look at some other examples that are specific to the age of a given child.
For preschoolers, double binds typically give conflicting messages about a child’s identity, capacity to learn and relationships with others. These may include growing up versus staying small. Or being smart, but not smarter than the parent. Or not to tattle, but be sure to tell your parents everything. Or being told to think for yourself and show some independence, but Mom/Dad will tell you what to do.
These double binds tell children that other people are more important than they are, and they may react by seeking power over others or having others define them. These messages can be very disempowering, leading children to feel uncomfortable with seeking personal power and autonomy. It can also lead to some extreme, black-and-white thinking.
For elementary school-aged children, double binds typically give conflicting messages about rules. They are told to get good grades, but then parents fill their schedules so that there is less time/energy for homework. They are told to figure things out, but expected to do things a specific way. They get presented with a rule, like “don’t fight” or “always tell the truth,” but then encouraged to violate that rule, like “if someone hits you, hit them back” or “you need to lie to protect your parent.”
These double binds undermine not just learning the rules, but learning the value of rules. Rules become unimportant and untrustworthy. They are not fair and are only for kids, not for grownups. Children may react by becoming helpless and confused when determining priorities and what is of value. Older children may struggle with decision-making and boundary-setting.
Finally, for teenagers, double binds typically give conflicting messages about a child’s identity, sexuality, independence and competence. These may include growing up versus staying with the parent. Be well-liked, but don’t follow the example of your peers. Be adult, but not sexy. Make smart choices, but I’ll make decisions for you.
These double binds tell children that they are not trusted and that they need to stay home for their parents’ sake. Children may react with confusion about growing up and independence, and may inappropriately express themselves sexually.
Clearly, it is easy to find examples of parenting that creates double binds for children and that these mixed messages can do harm. So what can you do about them?
The first is awareness. Now that you have the concept and some examples, begin to examine your own parenting. I do not have research to back up this statement, but I will make it anyway. I think it is safe to assume most, if not all, parents present their children with double binds. Life is complex, we as individuals are complex and parenting is a complex skill. It strikes me as close to impossible for contradictions not to arise in all that complexity.
That being said, there are degrees to double binds. Some just happen because you are tired and having an off-day. Those may create some frustration and confusion in the moment, but are unlikely to cause long-term damage to your child or your relationship with your child. Some happen because of deep, unresolved issues within the parent or lack of skill in parenting. This latter has the potential for doing the most damage, but is also going to be much more rare.
So begin to examine your own parenting. Avoid being judgmental toward yourself—that is never helpful. Instead, be an objective detective, looking for clues.
After awareness of your patterns, you need to develop awareness of their source. Often, this comes from simply not being clear on the values you wish to impart and how you can best go about imparting them. Being clear on who you are and how you want to express that as a parent is essential. If you have a parenting partner, you need to include them in this process so that you are not contradicting each other when you approach your child.
Another source of these patterns can be unresolved issues from your own childhood. These can be addressed through contemplation, working with your partner or through counseling.
As you explore your role as parent and search for double binds, you have the potential to learn more about yourself, become more skillful at parenting and improve your relationship with your child.
Through untangling these Koans (and not presenting them to your child), you may become a more enlightened parent!