What Whales can teach us about Parenting

whale up

Sometimes I find top-rate parenting wisdom in places that ostensibly have little to do with parenting. 

A beautiful, moving and profound article by Charles Sibert in the New York Times, “Watching Whales Watching Us” (http://tiny.cc/tQ6SW) obliquely has much to offer us parents.

Sibert writes, “The sperm whale… has been found to live in large, elaborately structured societal groups, or clans, that typically number in the tens of thousands and wander over many thousands of miles of ocean. The whales of a clan are not all related, but within each clan there are smaller, close-knit, matriarchal family units. Young whales are raised within an extended, multitiered network of doting female caregivers, including the mother, aunts and grandmothers, who help in the nurturing of babies and, researchers suspect, in teaching them patterns of movement, hunting techniques and communication skills. ‘It’s like they’re living in these massive, multicultural, undersea societies,’ says Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and the world’s foremost expert on the sperm whale. ‘It’s sort of strange. Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves.’”

It seems that many whale beachings are the result of whales racing too quickly to the surface when man-made underwater sounds, such as military blasts, freak them out in their sound-sensitive habitats; whales can’t safely just rocket to the surface from the depths any more than can human divers—it turns out that whales, surprisingly, get the bends.

Having parented a highly sensitive child, I am familiar with how sounds that wouldn’t faze most kids (garbage disposals, electric hand-dyers) were huge issues in the first few years of one of my son’s experience.  Besides it being important to respect and understand whales, it reminds us of the importance of attuning with our children and realizing that certain sounds, smells or sensations that go virtually unnoticed by ourselves may be much more impactful, and potentially disturbing, to some kids.  Rather than “toughening kids up,” there may be some gain in our learning to become more sensitive.

Of an encounter with a whale, Sibert writes, “And then, within moments, the mother was surfacing again off to our stern and doubling back in our direction, but this time with her newborn male in tow: a miniature version of herself — if two tons of anything can be referred to as miniature — the calf’s skin still shiny and smooth. The baby gray glided up to the boat’s edge, and then the whole of his long, hornbill-shaped head was rising up out of the water directly beside me, a huge, ovoid eye slowly opening to take me in. I’d never felt so beheld in my life” (italics mine).

“Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel ‘us’ has long been out there roaming the oceans’ depths, succumbing to our assaults. Indeed, when that baby gray calf bobbed up out of the sea and held there that first morning, staring at me with his huge, slow-blinking eye, it felt to me as if he were taking one impossibly long and quizzical look in the mirror” (again, italics mine).

In terms of parenting, the issue of being seen, also called “mirroring” by some psychologists, is of central import—it is through being truly seen that a child comes to develop a sense of individual realness and identity.  In a world so fraught with alienation and narcissism (i.e. people who really don’t know who they are, and thus are overly focused on themselves as a symptom of their not being seen, and in turn becoming secure in their own selves in childhood), whales may teach us the importance, and the art, of “watching.”  We do a fair amount of whale watching, and even more people watching, but as parents we often forget to do our child-watching—not watching to see if our kids do the right things, but watching purely to behold the beauty of them just as they are.  Gazing at our children, free of judgment or desire to have them do any particular thing (the way we might “watch” a bird or a whale), is good for child development and it’s good for adult development.

Whales are deep creatures who are able to go to deep places, delving into the far reaches of the ocean, a potent symbol of the collective unconscious, the Great Mother and our shared pre-history as well as place of origin.  Sibert trenchantly says, “Human-whale relations have long been defined by this stark dualism: manic swings between mythologizing and massacre; between sublime awe and assiduous annihilation, the testimonies of their slayers often permeated with a deep sense of both remorse and respect for the victims. In our earliest cosmologies, the whale loomed so large as to be more or less commensurate with the cosmos, equally vast and unknowable, as hugely fearsome and immeasurable as any god.”

This bears directly on our collective human need to recognize and integrate our Shadow.  And it relates to child development in an interesting way:  besides “mirroring,” or being seen, development progresses through the growing ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly opposite ideas.  Melanie Klein was most famous on this topic of “splitting,” but any parent can attest that we are at moments the “good parent,” and then we are the “bad parent,” both in the eyes of our children (and also in our own eyes).  As our children, (and we parents as well) learn that the good and the bad are to be found in one and the same parent, we move toward a paradigm of authentic wholeness rather than bound-to-fail perfectionism.  Our more grounded authenticity, in turn, models a healthier way of being to our children who may become less enraged at their own short-comings, as well as more secure and thus more willing to try things at which they are not already sure they will be skilled and masterful (i.e. new activities, social relatedness, actual encounters with reality, rather than nefarious electronic games that give a false sense of accomplishment in an alienated virtual world).

Siebert continues, “Gray whales, thought by some scientists to live as long as 100 years, were once commonly referred to as ‘hardheaded devil fish’ because of the ferocity with which they would defend themselves and their young, smashing whaling vessels and killing their occupants… the question of why present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars, would take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms is a mystery that now captivates whale researchers and watchers alike.”  He goes on to suggest that whale seem to be trying to connect with us humans, seeking eye contact and touch, perhaps even deliberately trying to “let us off the hook” for the way we have treated them in the past.

This relates to parenting, particularly in our relationship to our own parents to the extent that we still harbor anger and unresolved grudges.  I’ve spent many a therapeutic hour trying to wrestle some toxic and long-held resentment at a parent (often now deceased) from the arms of a wounded grown-up child.  When I’ve succeeded, good has always come of it.  We often refuse to forgive because it simply feels so unfair; yet the bigger, more evolved and wiser thing to do is forgive.  We can take a great parenting cue from whales in this regard and strive to forgive whoever we feel has hurt us.

A final point is that whales seem to bring out the kid, the exuberant naïve and the celebratory ecstatic in us humans (things whales know we need in the same way that Mary Poppins knows the healing value of kite flying).  Sibert confides, “I read before my journey to Baja of what happens to people when they come in contact with a whale, how they tend to go, literally and figuratively, a bit overboard: nearly tipping over boats for a passing touch; spontaneously breaking into song; crying out in ecstasy; or just flat-out crying. Frohoff (a whale expert) herself warned me as we were first boarding Dolphin II that morning that she was given to doffing her scientist hat in the presence of a whale, and sure enough, there was Fluffy, her microphone, set down for a moment beneath her seat, Frohoff dangling far out over the boat’s prow, arms outstretched, cooing and trilling at the approaching mother and calf. Another watcher in our boat began singing Broadway show tunes. I joined in.”

So, let’s watch some kids today, and coo and trill and sing some Broadway show tunes—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce



3 Responses to “What Whales can teach us about Parenting”

  1. kali Says:

    This past February, I had the amazing experience of touching a baby Pacific Gray Whale in Bahía Magdalena. It was incredible that after the initial encounter of 20 minutes the mother and the calf followed our tiny panga for a while. It sure made us appreciate a certain bonding aspect of this specific human-whale interaction.

  2. A. N. Says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful and inspiring story with us all! I also find the brightest jewels of parenting in the reflection of the most unlikely places.

    In ancient cultures whales were known as the Mother Earth’s (her name was MU!) record keepers. Very much like the library in Alexandria once was to all of the humanity, where all the ancient knowledge and “secrets” were kept inside it’s walls. Our ancestors destroyed the library and curently we too are working really hard on deliting our only record keepers from the face of the Earth.
    Despite our best shots at trying to be human, perhaps the whales are teaching us that the way of compassion and the gentle beholding of one another is The Way. I think they are even teaching us how to do it : through the calling out, releasing the locked, painful and wonderful memories equally. The memories that are stored in the very being of each cell throughout eons of time…waiting to be unlocked and free to merge with the echoing sounds coming it’s way.

    When my first child was growing inside of me, she listened through the tiniest speakers placed upon my belly to the songs of the humpback and some other whales. I could not sleep peacefully, and was tossing and turning unless she was absorbing those sounds as she was developing….it was obvious that it was all her idea! I tried the same trick with my son in my belly and he did not want any of it. At just 7 years old she is the most balanced and zen like in our family.

    I hope for all of us to find our song and let our stored memories across the landscapes of time empty themselves till we are clean and shiny like the child’s mind is: always in the moment and ready for fun!

  3. Beth Says:

    Thank you for this inspiring story and message. It is so important to see and appreciate children for who they are, not for who we think we want them to be (or who we wish WE were). There are too many messages to “toughen up,” especially for boys.

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