The adult view of children is overwhelmingly Puritanical even today. The Doctrine of Original Sin seems to have infected our collective consciousness so that even Atheists are unable to believe children are essentially good until shown how to be bad. The Horror genre is full of stories of evil children: “Bad Seeds” who are just gonna kill the shit out of people no matter how great the parents are.
Even those adamantly against spanking are often in favor of rewards for good behavior. Nearly all children are treated as animals we need to train with the same Operant Conditioning B.F. Skinner used to control rats and pigeons.
Today I saw a video of a teen boy, maybe about my eldest son’s age, shrieking abusively and threateningly at his teacher. It was awful. And it was followed by more awfulness. People with zero background information on this teen’s life were expertly diagnosing the problem as a kid who got away with everything and never suffered any consequences. They posted pictures of wooden paddles along with the usual “I got hit and I’m better than him, so clearly he wasn’t hit” – um – ‘logic.’
The thing is, when I saw that boy I felt sorry for him. I know what it’s like to lose control so badly and I was hit. I was hit plenty as a kid. I was “disciplined.” I was never “spoiled.” I had “consequences.” And there were times when stifling any emotion deemed unacceptable or disrespectful, (disappointment, hurt, anger, frustration, disagreement) became impossible and some straw was the last straw and I exploded.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying I think what he did is okay or acceptable; it’s not. He was clearly threatening and if he’d done it to me I’d have flattened him. I wouldn’t have blamed the poor teacher if he’d done so. But I saw all of the people assuming this kid needed his ass beat as a child and I was just sickened.
That level of rage and frustration doesn’t come from not being hit, it comes from not being heard.
I couldn’t help but compare it to an incident with my own 17-year-old son this week. We are starting new jobs and had to go away for the long weekend to do some meetings. The kids had to come along: five of us in the RV for several days and nothing fun planned to break up the time. As we were getting packed, I asked him to do a couple of specific things and he got immediately pissy with me. My knee-jerk reaction was to shut that shit right down, but I’m not that parent any more; I haven’t been in a long time. Instead, I took a calming deep breath and said, “I don’t understand why you’re being so rude to me right now.” He doubled down, “You always do this, you always assume I can’t do anything myself without you micromanaging me!” I replied that he knew that wasn’t true and then I let it go. He groused at me some more then stomped up the stairs.
The old me would have escalated the hell out of that situation. The new me reminded myself that sometimes I lose my temper too. I have bad days. I speak sharply when I shouldn’t. Should I expect my children to be more emotionally mature than I am, than any adult is? So although I was upset, hurt, and a little pissed myself I stayed calm and figured I’d talk to him about it when he was also calm.
Thirty minutes later he came to me and said, “Before you say anything, I’m really sorry. I don’t know why I was like that, I didn’t have any good reason to be mad, I just was but it wasn’t your fault and I’m sorry.” I laughed and told him I was sorry too, since he gets it from me and he smiled and said, “Bring it in for a hug, Ma!”
My parents could never have had such an exchange with me. They believed in eliciting respect (deference) by whatever means necessary. They believed along with the vast majority of adults that children need a strong hand to train the evil out of them or else. Our relationship was adversarial in every way. Even when I was wrong and I knew it I wouldn’t have apologized except to try and manipulate them into letting me out of a punishment. After all, my entire experience of the parent-child relationship was manipulation of my behavior, what else could I have internalized?
Manipulation of children’s behavior, whether through spanking (however ‘calm and lovingly’), ‘gentler’ punishments like isolation from our love in ‘Time Out’ (a term taken directly from the Operant Conditioning playbook), or strictly by rewarding (which renders the lack of a reward a punishment in the child’s eyes), distances us from our children. It sends the message that the most important thing they can do is perform to our standards and it does nothing whatsoever to encourage them to develop good standards for themselves based on principles like kindness, generosity, and respect.
Some may ‘take to it’ and internalize our expectations of them, but many will simply revolt at the constraints they endure. And when they do, the lesson they will have learned is that now they are big enough or loud enough to demand others conform to their expectations and that demanding such conformity is what adults do regardless of the feelings someone else has about it. What is screaming at a teacher other than a poorly thought out attempt to manipulate?
When I see that video I’m sad because I think it’s likely too late for that teen to develop the kind of self-awareness and principles I see my own teen sons growing into. I see one more angry adult on the horizon, adding to the already seemingly endless misery of the world. I see someone who could have been better, happier, more peaceful and respectful if only he had been heard, seen, loved, and respected himself through those formative years. And I’m even more sad to see people insisting that what he really needed was some targeted violence done upon him when he was too small to defend himself.
It may be too late for him, but it's not too late for many of our children. We can treat them like people instead of animals. We can have a partnership instead of a power struggle. We can believe that children will model our good behaviors with every bit as much conviction as we already seem to believe they will model anything bad they see. I invite you to immerse yourself in your children's lives, learn what they value and why (even if it's something you think is dumb), and discover the joy that can be found there. It will do them, you, and eventually the world, a great deal of good.
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