Reactionary, unconscious parenting pains me.
When I see it, I feel terrified for humanity that we’ll continue to screw up the next generation and the next, losing every opportunity we’re blessed with to transform our species, and our relationship with each other and the planet.
What’s going on when a parent yells? Maybe s/he is sick, sleep-deprived, worried about an abusive partner or where the next meal is coming from. I could say that they’re wrong for taking out their stress on a child. Or I could acknowledge that we react to life from the context of whatever we are feeling. The background story of whatever is going on for us affects us in any given moment. And at the same time, we sometimes react to our children’s behavior as if it were life-threatening without realizing it.
In a previous article I wrote: “(My children) push me to my edges and I can’t run away… I want to hit them because on some level, I feel threatened. Unmet needs, like choice, autonomy and care, may not appear life-threatening at face value. Yet on an evolutionary psychological level, we experience them as such, especially if those needs were unmet as children in painful and life-threatening ways.”
I mourn that too many people enter parenthood with so much unhealed and unacknowledged trauma from their own childhoods, and that this perpetuates the pain.
Most of us were raised coercively. Children were expected to listen to their elders and obey their requests and demands whatever their own thoughts on the matter. Modern parents may try to do it differently, and so called licentious parenting can provoke a vociferous reaction. When Maine restaurant owner, Darla Neugebauer, yelled at a toddler to stop screaming, a lot of people blamed the parents. Surely they should have pacified their child. Because whatever they were doing didn’t work, Darla yelled and the kid shut up. Job done!
It would be wonderful if we could have ease, peace and quiet in public places, and at the same time parents can’t always control their children. By “control” do we mean that parents should stop their children behaving in ways that are frowned upon by society? Sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to do so. When my children are misbehaving…okay, hold on, what does that even mean?
1. Misbehaving can mean that children are behaving in ways that are wrong according to an external standard of rightness as determined by an external authority. The external authority is usually an adult, or someone who has power.
2. Or it can mean that the child is behaving in a way that does not meet the needs of another person. Shouting may meet the child’s need for being heard, though it doesn’t meet my need for consideration.
If I believe that my needs are more important than a child’s needs, then yes, someone should force that child to change their behavior. (A licentious parent may believe that the child’s needs are more important than the frustrated adult’s, and the adult will probably rebel at that.)
Alternatively, I may believe that all needs matter. I feel the pain around my unmet needs more acutely than I feel the pain of others. Yet I know that they still count and contribute to my life. If I disregard the other’s needs, eventually there will be a cost to me.
Children don’t have many rights in our culture, and they know it. I used to teach at a democratic school (think Summerhill or Sudbury). New students needed to exercise their right to autonomy for a few months by refusing to do almost everything on offer. When they saw teachers as people offering fun opportunities to learn, they were ready for democratic learning. Until then, they had learned that they had little if any choice and that there were negative consequences for refusing to learn or questioning their right to choose.
Generally we, as a culture, believe that children either don’t want to learn, or if we gave them a choice, they wouldn’t learn anything of use. As a mother and teacher, I have seen that children do want to learn when it is of interest and relevance for them to do so.
So what does it mean to be “of use” to them? We live in a utilitarian culture where values of usefulness are ascribed to everything we do. We fear that if children do not learn what we deem important, they won’t make it in the world. Are we trying to squeeze our unique children born with a diversity of gifts and potential to enrich our lives into an economic model of productivity?
My friend, Joe, was playing with my three year old daughter. Joe started tickling her. My daughter hates being tickled and she yelled for Joe to stop. But Joe said, “That’s too loud, ask me nicely.” She repeated her request in a quieter tone and then Joe stopped. I was deeply disturbed by what I saw. My daughter had not asked to be tickled and did not like it. When people do things to us that we do not like, we have the right to protest. Joe was unconsciously teaching my child that he, as an adult, had the right to do what he wanted to her, and would not stop until the request was made in a way that he dictated.
When I was 11, while teaching me a back exercise, my kung fu teacher pressed himself against me and masturbated. It happened multiple times and I never said anything to him or my parents. But this is a larger issue than me, him and my parents. I was raised in a paradigm that children should be seen and not heard. If a relative wanted to kiss me, it would have been rude of me to resist. I learned from babyhood that I should defer to adults and their authority in determining right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate behavior. I was discouraged from exploring the sensitivity of my inner terrain, whether something worked for me or not, because in the conditioning of my life—school, media and the weight of history—I learned that listening to my needs would be punished.
Coercive parenting only works in the short term, and there will be a cost to the relationship and the child’s sense of self. There is also the cost to our culture, the future of our species and the planet. For generations, the needs that have counted have been those of the ones who hold the power. Men may assert their right to non-consensual sex; Europeans may colonize the lives and lands of people of color; humans may assert their dominion over the Earth.
In every generation, with every child who is born, we are given another opportunity to change the dynamic that has subjugated all of us at one time or another. We have the opportunity to realize a new paradigm—one of compassion—if we learn how.
Author: Elizabeth De Sa
Editor: Travis May
Images: Flickr/Randy Sloan