Forgiveness is possible; loving others in a way that works for us

All comments on this post will be moderated.

Welcome to the Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival

This post was written for inclusion in the Second Annual Spank Out Day Carnival hosted by Zoie at TouchstoneZ. Spank Out Day was created by The Center for Effective Discipline to give attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior. All parents, guardians, and caregivers are encouraged to refrain from hitting children on April 30th each year, and to seek alternative methods of discipline through programs available in community agencies, churches and schools. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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Mid-summer of last year I shakily drove my new (to me) car to a friend’s house. I’d made a desperate call just a few minutes prior and she could hear that I was in need of someone kind to talk to. I knocked on the door and was welcomed into the home of this friend and her partner, both women very dear to me. I sat on their comfortable couch in the soft summer light, ready to compose myself to tell them what was wrong – and instead burst into shuddering sobs.

I’d just come from a meeting in a self-help group. Over the past few months I’d been recovering from the shame and misery of my past – including, in my own words, “the worst shit I’d ever done”. The worst shit I’d ever done, what does that mean? Well, we all know deep in our Knowing Place what these things are, and my worst and your worst aren’t going to be the same. I have a share of immoral (by my own standards) acts in my past. But for me at the time, the “worst things” weighing on me were the things I’d done, or hadn’t done, for my children. I couldn’t shake the thought that while other adults could choose to play in my playground or leave me be, my children were hostage to my bad behaviors. This thought had haunted me to this very summer day.

So in my self-help group I had named some of my mistakes aloud. I briefly related that I regretted yelling at and hitting my children (in an commitment to truthfulness and yet a simultaneous masochistic act of self-criticism, I’d refused to give myself an “out” by calling my behaviors “spanking”, “swatting”, or “paddling”, etc). I started to talk about my freedom from this guilt and shame, and the help the group had brought me in this regard.

But before I had finished speaking, another woman turned to me in disbelief. “For spanking your kids?” She asked in astonished contempt. I paused, surprised at an interruption – rare to unheard of in this group – and went on talking.

As soon as I finished speaking – on a larger point than my parenting, or so I thought – this woman immediately launched into her own narrative. In a most articulate fashion she listed every justifiable reason to hit one’s children and make sure they know who is boss, and why. The world is a hard place. They’re going to learn on the streets if they don’t learn at home. Your kids will blame you later if you don’t discipline them. Anyone who criticizes can fuck off. “CPS can show up and I’ll beat their ass.” Et cetera.

I sat on the sofa and listened. The oddest feelings crept up on me. As she went on – seemingly for ages! – I knew I was feeling – something. I knew I was unhappy, but I didn’t know what else I was going through.

At the end of the meeting we closed and said farewell. I was still confused, but I smiled with a genuine shining love for this woman, the love I feel for all members of the human race today. I knew even though she was addressing me, she was telling me about herself. I knew she had a heart and mind and love for the children she was raising. Perhaps she’d heard what I had to relate and would reflect on it later. I knew she was stressed. I knew I had nothing to give her in this moment but love and compassion.

A few minutes later, I got in the car. I drove a little ways before bursting into tears. Minutes later I’d made my phone call and sat weeping on my friends’ couch. After I had a good cry, the cry I needed to have, my friends and I talked it out. And when I tried to explain how this woman’s words had hurt, but my own words failed me, my friend said firmly and kindly, “She told you to do things that don’t work for you.”

***

I was spanked growing up, but I don’t cite those experiences as particularly painful. The physical aspect of my childhood punishments weren’t as humiliating and confusing, for me, as the emotional and spiritual dysfunction. Besides spanking, I remember only a few other humiliating episodes involving physicality, such as my father throwing a glass of water in my face when I was a teen, and my mother slapping me across the face about that same era. Neither of my parents ever apologized to me for these actions, and I have no idea how deeply, if at all, my parents felt regret, remorse, or shame for these actions on their part.

I have forgiven them, and that forgiveness has been a gift to myself.

I’ve maintained for some time that there is little difference in our “punishments” or “discipline” of our children, as long as we are trying to manipulate them out of our own fear (however deeply our own fears are hidden from us). Last year for my post for the Great Spank-Out I wrote,

“[I]n my opinion there is little to no concrete differences between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, “natural and logical” consequences (applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior). On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too.”

Although I believe there are more similarities than differences in the above-listed strategies, I also believe every child (and adult!) has the right to relate to themselves and others which strategies hurt, and why. In other words, what was painful for you might not have been as painful for me, and vice versa. What matters, as parents or carers, is we honor our responsibility to our children, instead of deciding our will for them be made manifest. What matters is we forgive ourselves and change. What will make a great difference is if we can forgive those in our past who hurt us. It may make all the difference in the world.

Imagine my intense gratitude when five months after I wrote this post I heard a talk on this topic from Harshada Wagner, a yoga meditation instructor I respect and admire. In his guided meditation, “Living Wisdom: Releasing Shame” (August 29, 2011, at yogaglo.com), Wagner said the following:

“The good news and the bad news about shame is this:
 
“The good news is it’s not our fault. We can blame our parents for a lot of our shame.
 
“The bad news is that our parents aren’t here, and our parents aren’t going to be able to take away whatever it is that we have taken on. We’re going to have to do that ourselves.
 
“Of course, I’m kidding. It’s really Good News, and Good News.
 
“It’s good news that it’s not our fault. Everyone has a certain degree of shame that we carry around that keeps us from really shining. And it’s actually good news that the sources of the shame, if they were on the outside, aren’t the ones that can take it away. Because it puts that responsibility, but it also gives us the ability and the privilege and the freedom to work out what we need to work out.”
 
[…]  
“Almost every child is punished with emotional pain. It sounds very harsh, but let me just spell it out. When a child makes a mistake, when a child has done something that the parent doesn’t approve of and the parent wants to get the child to do what they want them to do, they will withdraw some kind of privilege until the child does what they want them to do.
 
“Why is that? What is the parent drying to create there?
 
“You parents watching this, please don’t take offense.
 
“When we do that, we’re trying to create emotional pain in the child. ‘You can’t go outside until you do your homework.’ ‘You can’t eat your dessert until you eat your vegetables.’ These are very benign sort of punishments. ‘Go to your room!’ … And then it gets harsher and harsher, all the way up to, some of us were actually slapped, or screamed at.
 
“But whatever the punishment was, was made to make us feel bad, as a way to learn a lesson. Even if our parents didn’t want to hit us physically, they wouldn’t feel like we had really gotten the message, unless we were sad. Our favorite toy was taken away. Our video games were denied to us.
 
“A really smart little kid, you know if they said, ‘Jimmy, you’re only five years old, you shouldn’t be playing with matches,’ and little Jimmy was really sharp and said ‘You know what, you’re right. I’m only five, what do I know about playing with matches. I could burn down the house down. You’re so right. I’m too young to play with matches and it’s dangerous. Thank you, mom and dad for the feedback. I really appreciate it. I’m going to take this on, and really make sure that I don’t play with matches any more. Thank you so much.’
 
“No, it wouldn’t go like that. If a child was that bright, was so smart, most parents would still not be satisfied until they grounded him or smacked the matches out of his hand, or yelled at him and frightened him in some way.”

Wagner’s entire meditation, which I have since earnestly recommended to so many, resounded with me deeply last September, and continues to today. All parents, even the best parents, attempt to apply emotional pain to their child to get their child to do what they want. We may do it reflexively or we may do it deliberately with some thought ahead of time – or, as is most likely, we do both. We may do it for noble reasons or for selfish ones – again, we likely do both. Some of us can know we are doing this to our children and desire not to – yet we still do it, to whatever degree we do. A lifetime of training, and our own fears and resentments and anxieties, have created a habit energy hard to dissolve. Progress can be made, but I’m unsure if perfection can be achieved.

I also know the child has a right to her own experience, and tuning into her experiences is as important, if not more so, than time and energy spent building and defending and tearing down and rebuliding and obsessing over our strategies, or those of other people.

The woman in my self-help group who told me I should beat my children had what seemed like the absolute noblest of intentions in advising me such. Briefly: she is the matriarch in a black family, raising her own nieces out of familial necessity while living in an urban, drug-riddled and economically-depressed environs. She is battling her own disease of alcoholism and she has an unsupportive larger family. If you can see deeply at all, you can have compassion and understand where she might be coming from.

As I heard in group the other day from an older man: “I had to come here to this group to learn things. I had to learn to stop hitting people. You hit people when you’re afraid.”

You hit people when you are afraid.

And the parents, carers, or those without children who attempt to put themselves in a false position of separateness and superiority with regards to the topic of disciplining children are also acting out of fear. Compassion, kindness, and gentleness are needed – not more recrimination and words spoken in anger.

This upsetting conversation last summer, and the discussion with friends afterwards, were very helpful. I was brave to be honest and vulnerable in a public way – about my worst shit. And after I spoke, someone directly challenged me with every possible good argument to punitively parent my children – even as she spoke and I felt sad, the amusing image of a little cartoon devil on my shoulder popped into my mind. But the truth is this: I could not parent my children this way and be okay with myself. I had never had this ability. So, I part ways in strategy with this woman. I can speak my mind and relate, from the heart, my experience as child, then parent – but I am not in a position to play God and I cannot follow her home and force her to see things any particular way.

I have not seen this woman in a while, but I hope she holds me in love and kindness the way I hold her. I know that this is possible, even in the most controversial and personal of topics. It is possible when we practice love and compassion – for all beings.

***

Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival hosted by TouchstoneZ

On Carnival day, please follow along on Twitter using the handy #SpankOutCar hashtag. You can also subscribe to the Spank Out Day Carnival Twitter List and Spank Out Day Carnival Participant Feed.
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

Question: How do you implement non-punitive parenting [and whole-life unschooling]?

Remember so long ago when I wrote a primer on non-punitive parenting? That got a fair number of shares on Facebook as well as several emails, tweets, and comments that asked for more information or follow up.

But, I had a hard time thinking of how to write another piece for many reasons. One, I wasn’t sure if I should write to parents-to-be (who may be more open-minded to such ideas), or write to those who’d already had bad experiences or results from mainstream parenting strategies (in other words, who could use some help, but already had specific problems developed between themselves, their children, and other adults – the latter class who may or may not be supportive of non-coercive/manipulative/authoritative strategies). And really, that last little bit is crucial. Assisting families out of harmful patterns and (seemingly) complicated impasses is often best done with specifics discussed, and at length. To that end, I am always willing to respond to emails and assist anyone as best I can (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org). I do this writing and work for no other reason than I am passionate and I want to help families live in harmony, freedom, and with intelligence and respect.

Fortunately, a reader and Twitter friend gave me a few direct questions about her specific situation and I was able to write her. After the first bit of our exchange I asked her permission to publish her query and my response, as I thought it might help other readers (please remember anything written to me is considered fair game for publishing, although if you have any specific objections let me know as I am often wont to honor them). So here’s a scenario-specific followup.

***

This is Sandi, @5and1 from twitter. I’ve seen you link some really interesting things about non-punitive parenting and unschooling and I’d really like to learn more. I’ve looked a bit on your website but if you have other resources I’d love to read them.

A bit about my family. I have four year old boy/girl twins. We co-slept for a year and a half, and I nursed them for almost two and a half years so I’m used to being labelled as a hippie by my friends and family. My kids are whip smart but have room to grow socially. They have been in preschool for a year and are really excited to start back again.

We don’t spank but we do do time outs. I am realizing that they are not effective so I’m trying what I call time ins. The kids have to sit with me and once they are able to we talk about what has happened. But. Even that is not always effective. I am way more shouty than I care to admit. I never thought I’d be this kind of parent. I know that it could be a lot worse but I see that there is loads of room for me to improve.

So what has worked for you and your family in terms of non-punitive parenting? How have you implemented unschooling?

Thank you for the generous offer to give me more information!

Hello Sandi!

I think it is wonderful that you’re seeing the limitations of punitive, authoritarian, manipulative, and/or coercive parenting. Many if not most adults are quite sure these strategies are necessary, and very fearful that if they were to abandon them for something else the results for parent and child would be horrific or at the very least, highly uncomfortable and inconvenient.

My kids are “well-behaved” (whatever that means! – I only report what many grownups tell me, here), literate and life-skills proficient, social, intelligent, strong, loving, empathetic, self-directed (now there’s a value you won’t see most school environs fostering or supporting in a meaningful way) and this is all despite the many many times I’ve fallen well-short of my ideals and been quite ungentle – and resorted to punitive or authoritarian strategies. I too was for a long time able to report “I never thought I’d be this kind of parent”. This was made confusing by many factors, especially considering that before I had children, I’d never been a violent person or rather, had not considered myself one. It was a very discouraging revelation to find out I was, or had that potential as a parent. But I have resolutely used my experiences to delve deeper into the roots of my story and my inner states of spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as developing and writing with a critical eye towards the narratives society purports – which are often quite harmful. The results are pretty good, in that we’re a happy family as far as I can tell, my kids are thriving without school or authoritarian/authoritative edifices, they tell me I am a wonderful parent, and I am committed to further improvement, god willing.

So as for being a “shouty” parent, or behaving in ways you never thought you would – welcome to the human race. I have not met a parent/carer who would claim perfection in the ideals they wish to live out, although I have met some who seem not to examine their own behaviors very closely, nor evidence corrections. I never want to sit back and justify my bad behavior or poor strategies, and leave it at that. I want to, and do, pick myself up, apologize, strive to do better through mentors and/or spiritual practice or whatever works. Sometimes I think I will never get it “right” but – that’s okay. The days I think, in so many words, I’m doing so awesome at this gig!, and compare myself favorably to other parents (ugh, yes, I do this sometimes), I’m usually overlooking something and I am definitely suffering from major cases of Ego and Denial! Usually these spates are followed by me having a massive and inappropriate blowup at my children.

So, you asked about my family. My kids are 7 and 9. Raising them as we have, they are very adept at handling themselves in many situations I notice schooled kids, parented in mainstream and authoritarian fashion, tend to be less competent with. They also seem very happy, well-rested, well-fed, and physically and “academically” active (the latter: they read, study, teach themselves skills and world science, do math etc. on their own). The factors I’d say contribue to our successes (such as they are):

1. a knowledge and acceptance that to live the way we wanted required financial sacrifice (specifically, of a fulltime income),

2. a partner who is in as complete agreement with these principles as is possible or likely in another human being, and who is as committed as I to our role as parents, and our passion to sort out problems when they arise (I don’t think a partner is necessary to so-called whole-life unschool, but if you have one that is in disagreement with these parenting values and practices, this can add some complexity),

3. freedom and autonomy given the children as much as they request (example: today the kids know they can choose school if they ever want to try it out),

4. complete inclusion of the children as to how the family runs itself and why, and a regarded voice in all decisions.

When it comes to freedom and autonomy for children as well as their vote, my main regard is safety as is age- and child-appropriate on a case by case basis. It seems to me safety concerns take a more active role when a child is very little. But in raising kids the ways we have, it is incredible to me how adroitly they master concepts of personal safety and how quickly they are to take suggestions, directions, and/or advice from a parent who they’ve come to trust via their own experience, and trust at a deep level.

By the way, I have realized that “time ins” can be tricky too, because we may still be forcing our will on our children. If children respond well to “time ins”, use them! But I suppose if pressed to comment I would say it’s better if kids are immediately removed from hurting one another, or humanely separated if need be, in a non-punitive nor angry fashion. Then each child should be loved up or given attention to in whatever way seems best, making sure your OWN needs are as reasonably met as possible before doing so (learning to meet one’s own needs, with regularity, is a challenge but well-worth the effort). Later in the day when things are calm a brief, age- and child-appropriate approach to conversation may be introduced, but watch and see how interested, if at all, the kids are in this. The separation, whereby you keep the kids safe, and respond with calmness as to whatever need they may have (food, attention, a quiet space, a LOUD ROWDY space, whatever it is), and later discussion with your partner or mentor as to the children’s possible deeper needs, is probably the most effective treatment in the long term. Over time kids will trust you to keep them safe while not trying to direct their feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. This in turn gives them room to develop better strategies and participate in family life in a more self-authored and likely more helpful way.

Obviously what I describe above, especially for young children, is time-intensive and means being able at any moment to put your work on the back burner. I just want to acknowledge this, because few adults seem to give primary carers respect for this aspect of a difficult job! This time-intensive nature was a fact of parenting my young children, but I will add that so soon the kids grow and need so much less physical constancy – and also that I miss the intimacy of my infant and toddler years, and in no way regret the efforts I put in during those times.

And on that note – your children are young enough they likely can’t be left unsupervised for much time at all. You also mentioned on Twitter that you work out of the home. I don’t know if you have a partner and if he/she is interested in the tenets of whole life unschooling, or life learning, or whatever label we’re calling it. All of these listed factors matter. However, I am convinced no matter what our particular circumstances are we can always move away from harmful practices towards ones that better reflect our ideals. So please do write more, with specifics, if you want to, and I will respond as best I can, keeping in mind that for some situations I do not have first-hand experience (for instance: raising twins).

If I had young children and was unable to have a partner at home, I’d probably seek out care for the kids in a less academically-inclined school – like a Waldorf or an outdoor preschool (however, in my opinion it is likely better to have the kids with kind and loving adults than prescribe to a specific type of educational model, so the type of preschool etc. is less important than the leaders/directors/teachers). Alternatively, I might seek out someone such as myself, a person at-home with other kids, who could care for yours in a way you and the children would be happy with. Finally, I might also consider committing to a life where one partner can be at home, if he/she can do so with a willing spirit (and I can speak to how exciting it is!). I might also consider living on student loans or some other form of assistance for those early years. These are all deeply personal decisions, especially that of working in-home without pay nor status, and I will say there is a phenomenal lack of support for kid-care work should you or partner choose it, or should you seek to have it personalized. Just things to be aware of, because my experience is that in having my children out of mainstream school/daycare structures I am often asked, basically, to explain or justify myself! *grin*

If you have any questions or desire clarifications please let me know. Realize also I am only a person raising my children and (to a lesser extent) other children around me. I have no professional qualifications that make me an expert on much of anything. I am passionate about these ideals and happy with the way we live – but I am human and fallible and have many lessons to learn. I write and share like I do because of how many adults have requested it, and how many have told me it has helped them.

Thank you for your query!

Non-Punitive Parenting: A Starting Primer

This piece was written as a participatory exercise for The Great Spank Out. All comments on this post will be heavily moderated. No comments endorsing punitive parenting will be allowed through, although of course you can write your own blog post saying whatever you’d like. Send me an email if you’d like me to link to it.

***

I’ve heard every rationalization for punitive parenting in the book, and then some.* I’ve heard that using these strategies doesn’t really hurt nor humiliate a child. I’ve heard Yeah, it hurts/humiliates, that’s the point, and it works well! I’ve heard “I was hit, and I’m fine” (about… a thousand times). I’ve heard punishing/hitting/grounding/time-outs are necessary and if you don’t do them, you will absolutely generate “spoiled, entitled brats”. I recently had a friend tell me he thinks something is wrong with my partner and I that we do not spank (hit) our kids as a parenting tool – although he grants my children are the first children he’s ever liked – and that he envies our family life but holds no hope he could raise children without violence. He explained to me his carers beat the shit out of him (his words), but it was for his own good; he lived in a dangerous and crime- and drug-laden neighborhood. I bring up this anecdote because it is an elegant example at the extreme end of this (common) worldview: “the world is tough and my kid needs to know about it, and I’m going to help him learn early to keep him safe.”

And of course, arguing against those who promote spanking, I’ve heard many words said against hitting children – while still maintaining we absolutely should exploit our power position to “mold” them. This worldview is represented by those who hold that spanking is inhumane and/or child abuse, while they advocate for so-called “gentle discipline” methods cited as time-outs, restriction/grounding, removal of privileges, lectures, etc.

I’m going to get down to brass tacks to state in my opinion there is little to no concrete differences between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, “natural and logical” consequences (applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior). On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too.

So I’d imagine some people are reading (if they’re still reading) with their jaws on the floor – or perhaps they’re sporting a sarcastic smirk. It would seem I don’t hold there’s any way one is allowed to raise a child. Next you’ll be guessing my house is a loud, craven mess with children shouting at me at the top of their lungs, their mouths set in garish and sticky Kool-aid grimaces, and that these children are the terrors of the town, and I’m in “denial” about it all, and I’m Ruining America.

Well, first of all, let’s banish this “allowed” business. You’d be surprised what you’re “allowed” to do as a parent. Actually, everything I’ve listed above is fair game and usually encouraged in our country. Indeed, in the United States you are legally sanctioned to hit your child – as long as you don’t use an implement nor leave a mark (grownups and animals are protected by at least the letter of the law). As for grounding, restrictions, time-outs and the rest – these are generally thought of as Good Parenting. In any case, I have neither the ability, the right, nor the interest to drive around inspecting how you’re doing things. If you parent or care for a child you are pretty much free to do as you see fit and nothing I say here can force you one way or another.

Secondly, you should know I do not think parents/carers who employ the above listed strategies are bad people, monsters, stupid, “crazy”, or any other pejorative. If I thought that I’d pretty much think all parents/carers were jerks. I’d also have a hard time forgiving myself for my own “monstrous” behaviors, because for reasons I won’t go into detail here and now I have let myself and my children down many times, yes, even against my own better judgment or principles. Now while a sense of sadness in knowing one has violated one’s own spiritual practice or strayed from one’s moral compass can be helpful in course-correcting, shame and guilt as forces for improving one’s parenting don’t work very well. I do not wish to promote these experiences. Sadly, when it comes to parenting – or mothering, as most finger-wagging diatribes usually concern – almost any discussion of bad strategies vs. better ones will prod the injuries most parents (/mothers) carry. This is a sad thing, but perhaps unavoidable unless we decide not to talk frankly.

The good news is, I’m here to deliver some hope.

Because what many people are too afraid to hope for, and too convinced otherwise to entertain, is the possibility of raising a happy, healthy child – complete with a compassionate and moral and fierce spirit – without punishing them, or at least while actively resisting punitive methodology. That’s right. No grounding, yelling, lecturing, time-outs, spanking. Yeah, I wouldn’t have believed it either. Until I started experiencing it firsthand. It’s been one of the most humbling and exciting and amazing partnerships of my life. And my kids seem to feel pretty good about it too.

Parenting non-punitively is possible, rewarding, and incredibly freeing in about twenty discrete ways I could probably list (and will do so at some point). Most parents/carers are too scared to try. They intuit, correctly, that if they attempt to give up punitive measures they will have to give up things they want. And they’re right. Here is, as of today, my best thoughts on these sacrifices as I’ve experienced them.

Primarily, we give up the illusion of control. Hear that? We don’t really have control – we have the illusion of it. We maintain the facade of control as long as our child is not developmentally aware enough to perceive how she is being controlled; later, we may maintain this facade if our child either chooses to let us win out, because we have made things so unpleasant for her should she assert herself, or if she chooses to hide her nature, opinons, feelings, and/or actions (indeed, duplicity in a child is a first-string symptom of punitive parenting). We maintain the illusion of control until we observe our child regularly employing self- or other-harm. I am often very sad to hear adults promote narratives where their teenager “suddenly” starts acting “crazy”/sullen/angry/anxious/like an asshole. Thus many parents and adults put forth junk-science rhetoric regarding the “teenage brain”, pathologizing teens themselves and/or setting down young adult expressions of anxiety, alienation, anger, sadness or severe disassociation to hormones or some kind of temporary innate contrariety, etc. (what’s deeply sad is to witness teens internalize and then repeat this denigration and erasure; I was one of them). I personally think espousing “teen brains aren’t ‘normal'” / “teens are jerks” rhetoric is a last-ditch attempt to avoid admitting the damage many endemic mainstream parenting and teaching practices have inflicted upon our children. It’s too bad, too, because I’d like to believe it’s never too late to admit our mistakes, acknowledge our fears, and in doing so improve our treatment of the children in our lives.

Again: what do we give up, when we decide we will no longer punitively parent? We give up many accolades and praises from mainstream parenting “gurus”, from our family and friends, and from our micro- or larger culture. Believe me, if your child has a loud emotional display in a store (for instance) you stand to gain approving nods if you come down on the child with a stern and/or loud voice, especially if delivering a threat. Giving up punitive parenting strategies, then, means many adults will expect these displays of you and, when you do not deliver, tsk tsk – or worse. You may be told to beat your child. You may be encouraged (usually implicitly) to put him down or speak about him in a sarcastic and dismissive manner so he at least knows what a pain in the arse he is. Fortunately, although it can sting to give up the many surface-level commendations you receive as a demonstrably-“strict” parent, if you can cast off punitive forces or provide better caregivers or environs for your child, you’ll likely soon be receiving genuine expressions of delight regarding your children’s character and behaviors. The funnest part of this is, for me, a state of far less attachment to outcome; e.g. appearing virtuous or a “good mom” by result of my children’s behaviors (however I am nowhere near immune to this vanity, sad to say). When my children are complimented (as they often are), I can know it is not me in the driver’s seat, but the kids’ own individual qualities emerging. I do not accept compliments regarding my children’s behavior, but of course my children themselves are allowed to handle those as they see fit (they usually say, “Thank you.”).

I’m wracking my brain to think more about what we give up, but really those two things are about it (although they’re biggies, I grant it). I suppose we give up allowing ourselves episodes of retaliatory anger. Or rather, when we inevitably give in to such displays (as I do, still), we can relatively quickly abandon the premise that this is our right or responsibility, apologize sincerely if we did something asshat, and return to our better selves a lot quicker.

So that, I suppose, is the bad news. (Except you can see it really isn’t. Bad news.)

Now: what do we stand to gain?

For one, we stand to gain the experience of a healthier, happier, braver, more empathetic, more alert, more humorous, and more fair-minded child. We also begin to see how children raised this way are less likely to experience or evidence the following: depression, low impulse control, habitual duplicity, generalized anxiety disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, repetitive bullying episodes (either as the bully or the target), self-harming rituals, and susceptibility to peer pressure. Please note I said less likely. Believe me, if I knew of any formula to raise a child safe from all large-scale harms, I’d be tempted to can it and put it up in my pantry.

What do we stand to gain? More enjoyment of our time together. More knowledge of who our children really are (and who they continue to grow to be). When we trust our children, we really trust them. It’s a wonderful experience. I’ve often been told by other parents, “Wow, I can’t believe you let your kids run a restaurant / ride the transit / pay your bills / use your phone / walk to the library. I couldn’t trust my kids to do that.” At first I thought these parents were talking into their sleeve, essentially chastising me for being me too permissive (and perhaps some of them were). But I began to understand I really do trust my children in a deeper way than many parents trust theirs. This wasn’t necessarily easily won nor is it fully accomplished, but is primarily due to and results in the fact: I don’t feel I should, or have to, fiddle with them too much. I am their advocate, I am their mentor and advisor (when they need me), but mostly I am their nurturer as much as I can be.

What do we stand to gain? Children we want to spend time with, and children who want to spend time with us.

What do we stand to gain? A home that is peaceful, fun, funny, compassionate, fierce, tender – and doesn’t feel scary … to anyone (including the parents… many whom I believe are often very scared indeed).

And a final note: although I have met other grownups who agree with principles of non-punitive parenting, I haven’t yet met one who claimed he/she had raised a child to adulthood and never hit, grabbed, yelled, or performed some other small or mean-spirited lecture, petty theft, or retaliatory creepitude (many parents/carers have done all the above). In other words, believing in a better way doesn’t automatically make one a saint.

But believing in a better way is the first step to living a better way. And so far, it has been the most encouraging experience of my life.

And next time I write, I’ll talk more about how it looks in practice.

***

* Here is a working definition of “punitive parenting”, from a site called the Positive Discipline Resource Center (I have not read nor formed opinions as to the site’s content, but do find this definition to be pretty good):

“Punitive parents assume children have to feel bad in order to learn – though they may not use those words to describe it. When confronted with inappropriate behavior in their children, punitive parents search for a punishment to extinguish the behavior. Punitive tools include: time outs, spanking, lectures, grounding, loss of unrelated privileges or property, physical exercise, and physical discipline such as hot sauce on the tongue. Reward/punishment systems are part of a punitive paradigm. ”

Further Reading
“Spanking Traumatizes Children” by Laurie A. Couture. I love this article by Laurie, for many reasons. Here are two: she discusses neuroscience and its findings on childhood development with regard to punishment, and she also provides one of the most convincing and brief yet well-rendered explanations of why so very many adults defend punitive strategies regarding children.

when Black Friday comes / I’m gonna dig myself a hole

Friday links, and I’m owning it!

1. This weekend we watched Trail of the Screaming Forehead courtesy of sundancenow.com, a project by Larry Blamire (who also helmed one of our family-favorites, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra). It was so much fun – so funny, clever, silly – and beautiful color (it was filmed in CRANIASCOPE). Truly a treat! The children laughed at the jokes but also took the “tension” very seriously!

2. At Underbellie: I published my piece for the Squat! Birth Journal. I encourage you to buy a copy (print or download). It’s a lovely zine by passionate people!

3. I was very impressed with “Ami’s Guide to Food Privilege: How classism, fatphobia, and various other “-isms” control what we eat”. Such a great 101 for the classist and orthorexic bile I am sad to say, I hear often enough – maybe even daily.

4. Join the “I LOVE MY BUM” Campaign! at The Discourse. AU Dr. Thomas continues to prove her awesomeness. I think I got firsties when I sent in my email, too. Hee.

5. “Guest Post: Transmisogyny is Misogyny Against All Women”; another one to sink your teeth into, featured at TranArchism.

6. Laurie Couture writes, in her typical direct and passionate manner, “Unschooling Parents (Not School Teachers) Best Equipped By Nature to Guide Learning”. As a friend at lunch said yesterday, she thinks parents truly aren’t aware there are options besides school or at-home-school. You know… as an aside, I would hope any of my work encourages parents to find ways to be with their children and live life well. I know I’ve made a difference – and I have people like Laurie and Wendy and Idzie and Cheyenne and Jeff and Daniel, to name a few, who’ve helped me find my own way.

7. Did y’all catch the title of the last Friday link post? [ tumbleweed blows past ] Anyway, 17 year old Fiona at Rachel Simmons’ site writes the first thing on the “Rebecca Black phenomena” I’ve seen so far that was worth reading. You know what’s pretty pathetic? Full-grown people making fun of thirteen year olds (yeah, this is happening. LOTS). And saying stuff like, “I’m going to ass-rape you” and “die in a fire” (but you know, it’s just a joke! And so are all those other instances of child abuse and terror, and actual thirteen year olds that get raped! All jokes! Um… er…). Yes. That is actually happening.

8. On a lighter note, and at The Retroist: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Memories”. As I commented, I have a special place in my heart for this film; likely primarily because I saw it as a young child. Interesting it is one of two films responsible for the PG-13 rating. Also from the Retroist: Patrick Warburton for Bugle Boy. Look, PW is a handsome guy, and that’s a very nice bod he’s sporting there outside of blue latex and all. But the soprano sax and the come-hither-I’m-dressed-in-your-shirt-teehee!, not so much.

9. “Study: 87 Percent Of Movies Would Be Better With Michael Keaton In Them”. So true!

10. While I’m excited as anyone at the so-called trend Penelope Trunk identifies in Sara McGrath’s piece, “Entrepreneur with Asperger’s on getting unschooled” (I say “so-called trend” because of course, school is the relatively new invention, not “unschooling”), I didn’t like the tone of some of her comments. Specifically: “Over the next ten years, Trunk predicts that we’ll have two classes of kids: one set who knows how to run themselves in this world and another set who needs to be told what to do.” Hissss! While I have absolutely seen many differences observable in self-direction, independence, assertion, fairness, anti-bully mindset, varied and complex social skills, and real-life skills observable in non-schooled while well-nurtured children (not just in my own children but in reading countless testimonies of other life learning / consensual living / unschooled families, children, and grown non-schoolers), I think ultimately framing parenting and childrearing in competitive terms is both a very schooly thing to do and quite unhelpful – but, unfortunately, as American as deep-friend asshattery.  In this country, raising your own children without the use of state institutional instruction/care is damned rare, and I’m wondering if the few and the brave who do it might consider distancing themselves from or even denouncing outright too much Special Snowflake MY KID WILL HAVE AN EDGE OVER ALL OTHER KIDS. Caveat: in exploring the amazing multilayered awesomeness that is life without school and non-punitive parenting, it’s been like scales falling from my eyes daily and a lovely journey. I think any amount of talking about one’s experience of this Wonderfulness is going to necessarily bring to light some of the silliness or awfulness of the live lived before, and I’m aware that be threatening for some to read. It’s a conundrum I haven’t quite figured out myself (for my part I try, when talking about our homelife, to speak in first person). I’d also point out many passionate life learners are very concerned with improving outcomes and scenarios for all children, including the 98% enrolled in compulsory schooling, and have some of the most incredible ideas about how to go about these goals.

11. Film: live-action akira adaptation: starring white people! at Angry Asian Man. This film is a classic, much beloved, and Hollywood won’t do well by it. The typical racebending aspect is just another soggy slap in the face. SMH as per usual.

12. Speaking of movies: I’m loving Anita Sarkeesian’s vlogs times one hundred. In “Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl” she does not disappoint. But you know, Portman’s character in Garden State *totally* had her own story arc. Like how she was epileptic, and her hamster died that one time.

13. Movies, again: screen giant and philanthropist and lovely woman Elizabeth Taylor dies. A lovely photo-perspective at all things amazing.

14. Bri writes a wonderful post on her experiences with a lap band. You know, that surgery that is rather dangerous and doesn’t work, but people are still quite eager about.

15. In ridiculous and gratuitous cupcake awesomeness, I submit the Cupcake Cupcake Topper and homemade Hostess cupcake cake balls (as seen on my blog yesterday).

16. Wednesday night we saw Handsome Little Devils at the college (they were fabulous!); Monday it’s the Reptile Man’s Serpentarium, and a few weeks later, the Kenya Safari Acrobats. I can speak highly of the first two experiences and I look forward to the third; what are you up to?

17. Currently listening to: Vetiver, Au PairsAdele’s “21”, and Kelis (Phoenix loves the latter two). What are you listening to?

18. Live bunnycam featuring new babies. LIVE BUNNYCAM FEATURING NEW BABIES. There is no better link to leave you with, people. P.S. a baby rabbit is called a “kitten” or a “kit”. Excuse me while I punch myself in the face. Because of the cuteness.

Owning it; opening up

Since the gradual but steady and rather linear movement of my partner and I in exploring different ways of parenting and living together – frankly, radical lifestyles in the context of USian family life, and I take no particular pleasure nor displeasure in that particular label – I have often been reluctant to publicly vocalize in a pointed way how the drama, stress, illness, and disharmony in our household has gone down drastically – something like 400% (that is a real quantitative estimate, as best as I can make one).

Why shy? Well, I think for a while I was afraid things were only temporarily better. Then as it began to dawn on me this was no fluke, I still felt oddly gun-shy; perhaps publicly announcing definitive improvements would jinx them (I am occasionally superstitious like that). There was a third reason, the one I struggle with even today: considering how fraught with ugliness the public conversation on Parenting can be (usually levied most viscously against women and children: examples, the false rhetoric of the “mommy wars”, also contemporary feminist and mainstream science purporting concepts of children and teens as “little sociopaths”, inherently flawed, or less-than-human) it sometimes seems like any personal discussion of success is constrained to being misinterpreted out of the gate. A frank discussion of successful alternatives to dominatorstyle adult strategies runs the real risk of a reader – especially a parent/carer – interpreting my experience as a referendum on their failures, worldviews, or character – this referendum is so agonizing for some their ability to listen is thwarted. I’ve seen many grownups shut down instantly, unable to entertain theories or even digest others’ lived experiences, swallowed up by knee-jerk reactions brought upon by years of accepting the child class’ oppression (not just parents, either).

But there are two compelling reasons to be honest and to not worry about appearing a blowhard or creep or worse. Maybe three reasons. The first is, I have a right to my experience and my online journal has been where I’ve recorded many of my experiences, for years now – and no one is required to read nor endorse. The second is, JEEBUS, I am not selling something and have no sinister agenda in writing boldly in defense of Love. I don’t do much of anything but write, write, write, (often) devoting my heart and guts and brains to helping families and children and grownups. All of this is pretty goddamned brave of me and I know it. Why not be braver still, and claim a victory when I experience one?

Because – and here’s that third aspect – I know how inspirational and helpful my writings have been to so many. Over the years I’ve experienced hundreds of emails, texts, IMs, tweets, phone calls, physical letters, and personal conversations – from all quarters of the world – attesting to this. It has been an honor to be brought into discussion and occasionally claimed as a mentor to others. Thing is: if I didn’t write, I couldn’t help. And reflecting on this I often feel sad for the parent I started out as, because I was not exposed much to dominator- and fear-free models of parenting for several years (and what I was exposed to, I probably missed). I myself could have used a hefty dose of wisdom eschewing the zero-sum game of life with children – long, long before I started a family of my own.

So let me tell you a bit about how it is for us. Let me be clear.

These days our household is such a peaceful one and my children are such strong individuals that the stress involved in parenting is almost entirely reduced to matters of paying bills and affording clothes, food, and the pursuit of creative exploits for the members in our one-income family. These are not necessarily small matters, but the agony and work and tension of life-caring-for-children has plummeted by virtue of what I have left behind. Every day I peel back the culturally-reified illusion of righteous control in their little lives and as a result my ability to be Present, aware, nurturing, and loving is increased all the more. The relief of leaving behind the contemporary small-minded and culturally-prescribed pressures of parenthood is glorious. I’d like to believe every day I heal a little more.

Time slips by quickly as most parents have had reason to observe. Last night while we four sat talking and laughing in the low light of our living room my husband said to my daughter in a voice I’d never heard before, “When did you get so big? It’s breaking my heart.” And I’d just been looking at her thinking the same thing; she’s tall as my shoulder now and she’s tough and tender and whip-smart and brave and scrappy and deeply empathetic and present. She is, in a word, (relatively) Undamaged. I can’t think of a word that fits better. Raising children in a consensual manner is an experience, perhaps like a happy, healthy, and supported drug-free childbirth – that is best experienced for its potential to be fully or partially understood. Today while I gave blood the phlebotomist asked me the ages of my children. It amazed me to reflect and name them as eight and six. Their moral development, their life skills, and their vocabulary and ethics are more fully-endowed than many grownups I know. These children are not experienced as burdens to me (well, not usually) so much as people I thank daily I have the gift of experiencing in my life. They are my favorite people to be with, and besides the deep-experienced protectiveness and crazy-in-love Mama-identifiers I’ve been overcome with many times, these days it seems more and more we are fellow travellers and friends. They inspire me more than anyone else I  know.

My children’s (relative) wholeness is no credit to my partner and I, really, any more than by providing fertile ground, planting a seed, and weeding and watering we could claim it was us, not the earth and lifeforce itself, that brought the green and vibrant vine springing to fruition. Indeed, I often feel aggrieved at my many, many mistakes I’ve made; I don’t get a do-over. I can have the knowledge my mistakes are in large part because I myself was damaged as a child, through many means and measures large and small, and I remain broken still – but it is frustrating to be so limited in my responsibilities as a parent. I sometimes feel so deeply sad because I don’t believe I’ll ever be whole again; I feel sad less for myself, but for what I’ve wreaked on my family. I sometimes think if I’d have known how much I would screw up, I would not have chosen to bear children.

All the same, children are incredibly resilient and thrive despite poor or abusive or anemic circumstances. And make no mistake, despite their wholeness and strength, I do believe our children still need Ralph and I. They need us for food, clothing, support, nurture, and love. The chillingly dismissive child-hate linked to above at least alludes to vital clues about our role in caring for children; there is evidence human brains continue to crucially develop well into our twenties or beyond; if this is true this means so many of us should be helping younger ones instead of hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, and stridently complaining about “bad” kids and their inept (or worse) carers (which usually means blighting under-supported women and alloparents, and the child class).

I hope I’ve been clear that things have improved for us; not that we have attained some kind of perfection impervious to sorrow and anger and suffering. Relative privilege has allowed us the space to heal. And disaster, despair, setbacks, drama – all of it is around the corner, or may be at least. One illness or death or devastating disability; the free will of other human beings who can choose to victimize any one of us, a day or week where the limitations of my partner and I keep us from meeting our still-growing children’s needs, one ugly fight where destructive words are spat out. Parental methods and spiritual concepts aside, I cannot offer immunity for suffering and I don’t try to. I can say suffering has diminished and the daily language and experience of love has swelled in recent years. It strengthens all of us and it makes life even more worth living, more deeply enjoyed; whatever time we have left together is savored like that delicious strawberry on the vine.