Would you order your life partner to stop swearing? Or manhandle them onto the naughty step? How about sending your girlfriend to her bedroom? Would you consider it appropriate if your husband sent you to bed or dictated what you wore?
The chances are, if one adult acted towards another the way most of us treat our children, it would be defined as abuse. Yet this model of discipline seems to be ubiquitous in our culture. Most of us were brought up by parents who had internalised the idea that children should be seen and not heard, be clean, tidy and to do as they are told.
I remember the moment I began to question this parenting paradigm. It is seared into my memory by the hot tears I shed and the screams of my daughter. I was holding her bedroom door shut as she tried to pull it open, wailing, and eventually, screeching like a wounded animal. The red mist had descended because she had climbed from her bed and into mine, yet again. It wasn’t as though I hated her in my bed. I rather liked it. No, I thought I was damaging her by allowing her to dictate where she slept. But, like a thunderbolt, the thought struck me, as I held tightly onto her door handle, this was what was damaging her: my refusal to provide the comfort, safety and security at night she clearly craved.
I felt utterly appalled at myself. I had sworn I would never hit my children. But here I was imprisoning and traumatising my baby. Sounds harsh? Well I think I deserve it. She was two years old. A baby, too young to understand why I was treating her that way, too young to understand I thought it was for her own good to be separated from her mother, and certainly too young to understand the illogical notion that she was allowed cuddles and reassurance during the day, but not at night. It was the fallacy of that notion that really hit me as the red mist began to dissipate.
I didn’t, of course, mean to be abusive. We don’t mean to treat our kids with a lack of compassion and empathy. It’s just that we quite literally have no other tools at our disposal. When a mother has a baby, the most oft-asked question is “is s/he a GOOD baby?” We are judged on our ability to make our children conform, be placid and unquestioning.
At no point does anyone suggest that these small humans that have come to live with us are guests in our house – with the right to the same treatment as anyone else. They deserve to have their emotions validated, their concerns, problems and fears taken seriously. They deserve to be heard, and their opinions taken seriously. Of course, no one would suggest that children shouldn’t be given boundaries; that there should be no lines drawn in the sand. But in my experience, even very young children are perfectly capable of being part of the family team, negotiating the rules of family life.
As a doula I so often see families at war. And all too often it is because the family unit is riven with many and varied arbitrary rules. We are setting up our children for failure, expending energy we don’t have on punishing those failures and creating children that either capitulate and do everything they can to keep their parents happy, turning into adults who are sheep or people pleasers, or rebels who keep their lives very separate from their parents, lying about behaviour they know would be disapproved of.
The trenches of parenthood are hard enough. How about we pick our battles? What is really important in your house? What means the most to you all? I would hazard a guess that if it really came down to it, most of us would end up with a really short list along the lines of:
- Don’t hurt each other
- Listen to each other
- Accept each other unconditionally
- Be respectful of each other’s bodies and privacy.
Can you think of anything else? Is it really worthwhile shouting at and grounding our child for talking back or getting down from the table without asking? What exactly are we hoping to achieve? Do you believe that people would not become law abiding, moral adults without this kind of coercive control? Do you think children are born evil and we parents have to knock that out of them?
Perhaps it’s time for our society to look at what we know about child development. Because the evidence is clear – children are socialised by the adults around them, modelling good behaviour. They have an abiding need be part of their tribe, a yearning to fit in and an in built moral code that merely requires tending to as they grow.
“Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as…the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it…responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,”
I wonder how differently our culture could look if we stepped back and asked ourselves an important question as new parents: what kind of people do I want my adult kids to be? I don’t know about you, but I’d like them to be questioning, curious, angry in the face of injustice, with a strong internal sense of their own worth. Let me say that last bit again – I want them to know they deserve to be loved and listened to.
I don’t know any other way of reaching that goal without showing them that every day, in word and deed.
Of course, all this is much easier said than done. I have forgotten to listen, many times. I have lost my patience and my temper on numerous occasions. But I hope, overall, that I have tried my best to treat my kids like people, with the same human rights as anyone else. I have been accused of being a ‘permissive hippy’ and I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit smug because my children have grown into utterly delightful young adults who care about themselves, other people and the planet. They pursue their passions and enjoy deep discussions with their parents. Most of all, they are what I wanted most for them – kind.
Perhaps it’s time to put some effort and political weight behind projects that can support new parents. Because until we can build in solid education and social and emotional support, parents are going to continue feeling they have no other options other than the carrot and the stick.