Not Back To School
Today on social media a lovely article, about a year old, is making the rounds: “‘What’s the magic word?’ The routine shaming of children” on parentallies.org. It’s a concise article, scratching the surface and making some excellent points. I appreciated the read.

I’ve written many pieces on “manners” and the social framing of children. I long ago realized that we are constantly, and I mean constantly, rebuking, correcting, and yes – abusing – our nation’s children. In fact when I am out and about in a location with lots of kids – children we are, by the way, regularly segregating into institutions and adult-sanctioned and -controlled activities – I am exposed to a litany of aggressive correction and unwarranted personal evaluation heaped upon our younglings. I might be sitting on the sidelines watching at a sporting event, or assisting in a schooling environment, or hanging out with parents of young children. And I am astonished at how much evaluation children receive and how many demands they hear. It is obvious adults don’t realize how much they do this, even as they engage in the behavior. Children are told what to do, how to talk, how to think and feel. “Stop fidgeting!” “You need to use your words!” “Don’t get upset!” They are also talked about in ways that are dismissive, ridiculing, auditing, and just plain rude. “He eats nothing but junk food!” “He’d play [insert popular video game] all day if I let him!” “She is so bossy! She gets it from her mother!”

In these environments we don’t just talk about the children; we talk about parenting, too. Harsh, manipulative, and bullying strategies are openly discussed – and met with approval. On the bleachers recently I listened to a parent tell another how he gets his children to behave in a restaurant. He holds the children’s pre-paid gaming cards and threatens to snap them in half if the children aren’t quiet at the table. In hearing this the other parents laughed and nodded. I certainly understood the man’s impulse, but I felt horrified and angry. What a humiliating experience for those kids! And how smugly this father reports his method, as if it was something to be proud of!

We are simply swimming in these stories, in these strategies, and in the explicit and tacit endorsement of this kind of parenting.

And this is one reason I keep writing, and I keep posting, and I keep talking about how we did things differently, and why. My partner and I found a way out of this depressing, exhausting, ugly mess – and we are so grateful for this, and for those who helped. Our kids are doing really, really well for it. But the thing is, it isn’t only our children who are important. More children are being born, being raised, being schooled. New parents are finding themselves reverting to the way they were handled – or fearfully attempting to parent in reaction to their upbringing. More children are coming to believe that they deserve this kind of rough treatment – at the hands of the adults they love and esteem. They are learning that this is the way to parent; learning this, because they are being parented this way day after day. More children are being raised to repeat for example (to themselves and others), “I was spanked and I turned out fine!” despite the fact it is not “fine” to believe a a large, powerful person should hit a small, entirely vulnerable one, and despite every bit of scientific evidence continuing to strengthen the case that hitting harms children. I’ve had practicing Buddhists vehemently defend spanking to me! I’ve heard it all.

If I would have read these two articles – the parentallies one, or an article like my own – when my kids were very small, I would have been gobsmacked. How on earth is it possible to raise kids if we aren’t “allowed” to do any of these things (time-outs, punishing, spanking)? What kind of boring-ass/saintly/know-it-all parents could possibly stick to such a restrictive list of parenting behaviors? How will we teach children right from wrong? You’re going to tell me my parents were abusive? You’re going to tell me “time outs” and manners-prompting is out of line? For fuck’s sake! I turned out “fine”!

But I didn’t turn out fine, and a few years after starting my family I began to see this. Parenting is scary, and it is hard work. And I began to understand the way I was parented and schooled wasn’t as great as I’d previously thought. I have articles like these, to thank for this awareness.

Once we were exposed to gentler and more intelligent parenting methods, my partner and I went much further. As we came to see there was a different way to do it, that the logic was sound (if a bit foreign to us!), we knew we had to choose. The old way – or something new? We put our most treasured responsibility and our greatest assets on the line – our own children. It is one of the most deeply felt experiences of gratitude for me, to this day, that we did.

Keep in mind that even after I was on board, it took me years to stop reflexively parenting the way other people wanted (demanded) I parent. Like most American children, I had been regularly corrected and shamed, ridiculed and punished. My family and teachers liked and loved me, yes, but they also treated me like property, and they treated me as less than a person. Adults do this to children; it is very rare to find an adult who does not. As a result of my upbringing I wasn’t well-prepared to become a parent myself, even though I thought I was. I had unrealistic ideas about how children behaved (one family member told me to “control” a two-year-old at a gathering by “simply” making him sit on my lap for the duration). Looking back, I think I thought you could train a child like a dog (no one says it like that, but it’s how many adults operate).

More ominously still, I had a lifetime of programming that was very hard to dismantle. I became angry when my child said “no”, when he defied me. Nasty, toxic words sprang to mind when my child disobeyed (words like “brat”, “tantrum”, “throwing a fit” – and other words and phrases I won’t print). Publicly, I was eager to “prove” my child’s good behavior to every grownup I met. I deferred to adults, and to authority; their requests and whims and demands – from the waitstaff at the restaurant to my former teachers to the grocery store cashier to our dentist – were always more important than my children’s rights and development. It was my job as a mother to have “good”, clean, well-mannered children, and to parade them in certain public spaces on certain schedules, and to demonstrate how adorable and well-behaved they were. Of course, I didn’t put this in those terms at the time. But it’s what I was trying to do.

This? Was a nightmare. For the adult who has the main bulk of child-raising duties, it’s exhausting, and it’s terribly restrictive. It’s far worse, however, for the children involved.

It took me a very long time to stop parenting the way I was parented, and to start consistently parenting better. And this wasn’t just because of how I was raised; it was because of how people were still, in modern society, talking about parenting children. For one thing when I did rebuke, punish, or embarrass my children – I was praised. Not just within the family, but socially. I once corrected my youngest child in a cafe, scaring the hell out of him with stern words and mommy voice, but getting that short-term result: his obedience. Immediately afterwards a woman approached me and said, “That’s great! I love to see a good mom. Kids need to respect their parents!” I felt terrible. I knew I’d bullied my child. I knew he hadn’t learned how to “behave” – he’d just learned I was scary. But I was starting to realize I couldn’t stop being scary. I’d get a few days of being gentle, then I’d relapse.

Now, I’m only human of course. And this piece isn’t about my specific story. The point of this anecdote, and what my cumulative decades of parenting has shown me, is that in our culture if you bully your child you will get far more direct and social kudos than if you are aware, gentle, consistent, and patient. You will get more public accolades if you demonstrate you are raising “good” children, than if you put your children’s well-being first. And unfortunately, bully-parenting works. For a while.

Unfortunately, there is a trade-off.

When I parent the way I was parented, the way I used to parent, there will be a cost. Sometimes I see the cost immediately; often, the results will reveal themselves over the years. When I parent punitively, I foster a great deal of fear and shame in my child. I will probably forget the specific rebukes, punishments, and time-outs, but my child will remember them – either explicitly, or through an unconscious deep sense of shame and “not good enough”. My child is now more likely to grow up with resentful, fearful ideas about children and childhood, about power. My child is more likely to seek out imbalanced friendships, and have difficulty standing up for himself with clarity and directness. My child is more likely to be fearful, and to keep secrets. My child is more likely to find unhealthy friendships and relationships (and I won’t be able to “fix” those, but I will want to). My child is more likely to do what she thinks will get approval, rather than what stems from her authentic dreams and desires. My child is more likely to seek consolation and anesthesia through food, dieting, social climbing, sex, drugs and alcohol. My child is more likely to develop constant anxiety or depression, to become a bully or a target for bullies – or both. He will see vulnerability as weakness. He will look forward to “when it’s [his] turn”, and in time he will develop his own controlling and manipulative strategies for his own children.

And unfortunately, that’s when all those social kudos I enjoyed will run out; they won’t mean shit. That’s when my investment in punitive parenting won’t feel so solid. When my child begins having outbursts in the classroom or on the playground. When my child starts disrespecting the property of others. When my pre-teen bullies vulnerable children, online or in the hallways. When my teen shares his ex-girlfriend’s nudes with other young men, or starts drinking, or starts stealing, or develops a drug habit. When my teen becomes angry and uncommunicative, or bullies her younger siblings (sneakily or overtly). When my grown child is just one of those miserable people, feeling grateful for little and martyred by life in general. When my adult child is a workaholic; when they visit only a requisite amount, and don’t let me in to their personal lives. When I watch my own grandchildren hit, or given time-outs and bribes.

At that point it won’t feel so great to have parented the way I did. I won’t necessarily know what I did wrong, but I will know something was amiss; I will have a general sense that I bear some responsibility. And unfortunately, time’s up.

I still have options, of course. I will be tempted to cling to comfort. I can try to not see my role in my child’s unhappiness, if I like. I can continue to try to interfere in my child’s life: to “fix” them. I can tell my neighbors about my daughter’s degree and her condo, while trying to squash my worries about her eating disorder and relationship difficulties. I can tell myself, “I did the best I could”, and try to make it up to my grown child by buying him things or pressuring him to come to family gatherings or letting him lash out against me as some sort of penance. I can loan or gift him money. I can take a self-affirming class and try to say my mistakes are in the past. I can do all these things, but they won’t blot out the vague awareness that something went wrong some time ago. I may come to a better awareness but by then, a tremendous amount of damage has been done and there is little consolation for that. (My advice if you find yourself there is to get your ass out of denial, because you deserve to make amends and to start healing!)

Hey, I told you: parenting is scary. And it’s hard work.

But like I said: there is a way out. I firmly believe it’s never too early, or to late, to start on this path.

Modeling good behavior, parenting gently, and trusting our children takes not only effort, it takes discipline. It’s essentially a reprogramming job. It takes time. It takes commitment. That’s OK! We have time. And we can commit! Being patient, aware, gentle, and consistent is harder than it sounds, but it is also possible.

Let me address that original topic, that of “manners” (that is, children saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, children learning not to take things or to interrupt, that sort of thing). For most children, 99% of manner acquisition will be attained through their observance of how we as adults model manners, and how gentle, consistent, and aware we are in correcting or helping our child. This means I need to watch my own behavior; I need to be courteous and kind. But of course, no matter how courteous and kind I am, my child is still a child. He will need a lot of help to learn. It is tempting to say he will make mistakes, but your small child’s manners slip-ups aren’t mistakes any more than a child’s crawling is, before she can walk! When you come to see children as needing a lot of attention, nurture, mindful parenting, and a lot of practice, you can relax a lot more while they do what they do.

In gentle and attentive parenting, we do not need to correct the child harshly when their manners fall short. And just as importantly, we do not need to rebuke the child in front of other people unless it’s absolutely necessary (it really, really, rarely is). If my child isn’t hurting anyone, I simply make eye contact and say “thank you” or “excuse me” for the child – hopefully with the same dispassionate, mindful, and kind energy I’d employ when I show the child how to use a fork. This strategy took me a while to figure out, but it is genius. This way I am addressing the social situation and the other human being(s) involved, but I am not shaming or humiliating my child just to placate other adults. This way, too, I am practicing my own mindfulness. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scold our child aloud; when I refrain, I discipline myself. The (small) social pain of the moment, not squandered by the energy of my own self-serving outburst, sharply focuses me on the job at hand: my parenting. I am less likely to see my child and my parenting as a constant stress and a struggle, but rather a responsibility I have mindfully agreed to, every day. And this strategy – hard as it was at first – became easier when I realized that I give way more a shit about my child’s development, than that a stranger think I’m a “good mom” for correcting my child showily.

But key also, is to not pretend the child doesn’t have a problem. I see parents doing this too: ignoring or excusing their child’s difficulties, or blaming circumstances instead of attending to their child and their family life. I see this often where there are unaddressed or poorly-addressed difficulties in the home – marital or relationship problems, eating disorders, mental and emotional health issues, or drug and alcohol use. The parent develops increasingly frequent and complex explanations for their child’s difficulties, instead of addressing the underlying dysfunction or difficulty. And for many parents, these excuses are made as loudly (and with sometimes rather complex, meandering justifications) as another parent might make a show of delivering a rebuke. So in the case of the child grabbing a toy, the parent will “explain” out loud why the child grabbed the toy – “Oh he’s so tired!” – or even blame the situation: “They shouldn’t have such tempting playthings here!” And let me be crystal clear in saying I see these things happen a great deal, but I also used to do the same myself. There isn’t a parenting mistake I write about, that I haven’t stumbled over.

I think these avoidance- and blame-rich strategies are also a grave disservice to a child, as much as the tendency to performatively punish her. They teach our child to look for an excuse for bad behavior; they also teach a child to focus on herself and her motives or feelings, rather than to halt harmful behavior and if possible turn focus on the person or property has been wronged. After all, saying “oh he’s so tired!” when my child has just pulled a fistful of your child’s hair, is not at all kind to any party involved; it’s merely my attempt to try to save face as a parent. It stems from the same self-serving behavior as scolding does. The truth is, our child cannot be allowed to hurt another person, full stop. The truth is, it is going to take children years to learn this, and seen in that light it’s no universal tragedy to be either the grabber or the grabbed-on (although it can feel like a personal tragedy for the child, and we can and should honor this feeling). In situations like these, if our child is frustrated or tired we should endeavor for the discipline and awareness to give him a nursing session, or a cuddle, or a snack, or to leave the playdate. When everyone is feeling better, we can assess the situation and plan an intelligent strategy. If we have a larger, systemic problem at home – financial distress, marital problems, dieting and disordered eating, drug and alcohol use, bereavement or loss, under- or over-medicated family members, or a myriad other miseries we all live through and with – those need to be addressed along with our parenting strategies. Making excuses is a damned slippery slope, and it never helped my parenting a jot.

A few more words about this “manners” business before I close. Children get older, and generally stop grabbing things from other children. They are likely, however, to need more time to learn to say “please” and “thank you”, and to speak with kindness. This will lead to socially embarrassing moments, and it is absolutely unreasonable if they public thinks kids should never have a slip-up and parents should always respond with grace. Again, as parents we need to model better desired behaviors ourselves, and make sure our children are exposed to other adults who do. We need to attend to the stresses in the home; to be honest about them and address them. And as for the embarrassing moments themselves, I’ve learned to simply redress the grievance myself, or at least attend to the other party as best I can. Over time, my children learned courtesy through this modeling.

Sometimes however, children do not catch that their behavior was rude or hurtful, and it may be helpful to talk to them about this. That’s okay, because they are human beings who are still learning! If necessary after an incident, when I am alone with the children and we are all reasonably rested and fed, I have learned to take the opportunity to say, “Hey… I noticed at so-and-so’s you didn’t say ‘thank you’ when she gave you your plate.” We go from there. Every single time I have practiced this, my children have been receptive. And they have learned better this way, rather than being publicly shamed. They are more likely to take personal responsibility, and watching your child take personal responsibility – without feeling a lot of self-conscious shame and low self-esteem – is one of the most special moments in parenting. This result won’t happen overnight, but it will happen with gentle, consistent, and attentive parenting. And while some children will need more help than others, what is more to the point is that many parents and teachers do not take the time to slow down, respect children’s dignity, and bring these matters for discussion in a calm, dignified way.

May we all continue to improve!

Our children are 16 and 14 now and regularly commended for their deportment, positive self-image, presence, and yes – manners. They have healthy relationships within the family, and within their peer group. They are joyful, creative, and they are strong and kind. Even with all my failings – too many to list here – the experiment of gentle parenting has clearly been a success. And what I am most astonished by and what saddens me deeply – and angers me! – is how consistently and frequently my partner and I were told it wouldn’t work. We were told through direct words, through argumentative strangers, through concern-trolling and “devil’s advocate” arguments, and through mainstream parenting strategies as pitted against ours, that if we didn’t do the things cited in “‘What’s the magic word?’ – prompt for manners, punish, scold, and correct verbally or physically in public – our children would turn out to be ENTITLED BRATS.

I am so glad I did not do what these people told me to. I hope you don’t, either. Just because this is what a lot of adults think (and parrot), doesn’t mean it is correct. Let these ideas die off like the shriveled, sad, malformed little strictures they are. Invest your time and efforts in something better. Your heart, your mind, and your children’s development and joy, will be all the better for it.

It’s worth it.

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