Screw the Rod, Spoil Your Child

I’ve seen a lot of parenting articles posted by ‘friends’ on my facebook newsfeed of this ilk that purport to offer advice on how to raise ‘respectful’ or ‘responsible’ kids by basically being a total jerk to them. With this British nanny’s five reasons as to why we modern parents are destroying our kids I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I feel a strong urge to change the dialogue about this subject because it involves the world’s most vulnerable people. There are so many children victimized by genuinely dire circumstances, and so we here in the fortunate parts of the world should use the luxury afforded by our relative security to raise well-balanced children who desire to change the lot of those who suffer.

It bothers me as a parent of two special needs kids to think they are growing up alongside children being raised by parents and nannies who treat them like they aren’t entitled to have feelings or desires of their own because they are too imposing on the parent. The risk is that children raised in such environments will become adults who lack compassion for the unique challenges my adult children will present. They will be too emotionally damaged themselves to understand or care about the needs of others.

This idea that ‘coddling’ a child will turn them into ‘spoiled brats’ necessitates a hard-ass parenting style to prevent that happening is one I find gravely disturbing. If you take this tack, what you’ve set out to do is wage a systematic campaign of insensitivity against an extremely vulnerable, powerless, and emotionally un-developed human being who depends on you, the parent, to be the one most sensitive to their every need.

You can call it whatever you want – toughening up for the real world, teaching life’s ‘realities’ – whatever. The reality is, to unleash this approach requires that you, the parent, be the blunt instrument your child most frequently encounters in life. And it will suck to be you, as much as it will suck for your child, when he has to face the real life challenges that arrive in adolescence after having been emotionally beaten down by parents intent on “teaching respect” in the years prior.

A child subjected to this parenting approach won’t be emotionally capable of facing the hard knocks of reality. They will most likely be thin skinned adults with a big chip on their shoulder who handle adversity poorly and lash out at others for their feelings of insufficiency. They will feel at a deep level that the world is unfair and cruel – which it can be, at times – because the lesson was given harshly at a tender age when they weren’t able to integrate their emotions into a more established, confident, self-concept. They learned it at an age when they were still really on the fence about whether Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were real.

A parent should not be the one to ‘toughen up’ their child who is possessed of these emotional sensibilities. The lesson in toughness should come later when there’s a more solid identity to ensure the child’s psyche isn’t de-stabilized by the infinite number of threats it faces in adolescence. The tough lesson should not be given at the home, at least to the young child, because there are so many of those lessons in the playground of life.

The home should be the place where the landing is soft at all times. If the home is also tough, the child learns there is no escape from things that cause emotional trauma. That lays the foundation for serious emotional insecurity. It is absolutely horrifying to think there are legions of parents out there who don’t see what is, to me, an obvious reality. We parents need to go back to our childhoods for insights on how to raise our own children to be certain we don’t sub-consciously repeat parenting tactics that were most damaging to our own emotional development.

Think about it, where did your philosophy of parenting come from? If you don’t believe you have a parenting philosophy, think again. You do. It is that of your parents because that is what you learned, even if, at a conscious level you disavowed it. When faced with the immense emotional burden of raising a child without a manual, your parent’s methods will be your default. That is, unless you’ve taken specific steps to educate yourself on the subject of parenting and child psychology; or have done a shitload of therapy or other self-exploration aimed at gaining insight – and control – over your own emotionally unintelligent behaviours.

My insights on this come from my own adulthood meditations on growing up as a child in a family of adults who took the approach hailed by nanny and applied it too often indelicately from the time my sentient memory began. It was an emotionally cold, distant family possessed of two deplorable British inventions: the stiff upper lip and a belief in the sacrosanct nature of ‘manners’ rooted in aristocratic, ethnocentric ideas of ‘propriety.’

I am here to tell you fans in the peanut gallery today that this approach can irreparably damage a parent-child relationship. At the very least it can keep it strained for a really long time. This, in addition to putting a stake in the heart of an adolescent’s budding, non-existent self-esteem and leaving it in tatters well into adulthood.

If the stern approach is not implemented with utmost caution and insight – and at the appropriate time in a child’s life, it will backfire and turn a child into a resentful, insecure adult teeming with ill-will. This accounts for the stunted, posturing, repressed emotionality of most men in male-dominated cultures; those who had the ‘toughen up’ lesson applied way earlier than it should have been in their lives.

Most parents, most adults, don’t seem to possess the degree of self-reflectiveness to get the ‘hard knocks’ approach to teaching the art of living right. That is the nuance which is missing in the nanny blog, and which I find most disturbing. The damning logic in all of these “spare the rod, spoil the child” approaches is the unqualified belief that any given parent – one assumes, because they are an adult – is emotionally equipped to raise a child. Most adults genuinely believe they have their bigger emotional problems licked, which is sad on a human level, but also a contemptible farce when such delusions are the springboard for parents who aim to whip their children into “respectful” adults.

It is my observation that many adults in our culture are profoundly emotionally stunted, psychologically unaware beings. This is through no fault of their own. They probably had shitty parents. And that is why, as a rule, I believe it’s better for today’s parents to err on the side of being more lenient when confronted with their child’s emotional excesses (ie misbehaviour) until they’ve got a good grip on their own emotional hot buttons. This reduces the chances, although only slightly for some of us, of being a total asshole to our children.

The process of becoming a better parent has to start with a little bit of honesty about where we’re stuck emotionally. It’s my observation that most adult egos have a difficult time doing this kind of soul-searching. It requires a loosening of the certainty our egos have fashioned to get our psychological selves through all the shitty things that belie the craven world of adulthood. It also gives the lie to the firmness in the ground from which the heavy handed parent imposes his worldview upon his children.

In my family, to the degree my ass was spared the rod, which I am grateful for, heaps of verbal lashes criticising my conduct, grammar, clothes, hairstyle or any choices that were actually mine were dished out in its place. And the problem with this approach, which I detect in the nanny’s article, is the absolute and total disregard for viewing any of the parent-child situations from the child’s perspective. Why might a child have a tantrum? According to the nanny and all the parents who solemnify the tactic of hectoring children, it’s because they are an insolent shit who needs to be put in their place.

This reinforces what I consider to be an illegitimate and profoundly disrespectful philosophy of parenting; one that totally dismisses the individuality of a child, the likely reality that the world they see is vastly different than the one their parent, or any adult for that matter, sees. No matter what we wish as parents, we cannot ever expect our children to be miniature versions of ourselves and then set about a parenting campaign to effect that outcome.

The ‘sippy cup test’ the nanny outlines is pretty pedestrian in illustrating the doomed parenting of the times but is symptomatic of a deeply disturbing logic. For example, what if my teenaged child is gay? What if his best friend commits suicide? What if he has mental illness? Has been experimenting with drugs? These real-life dilemmas in an adolescent’s life may in fact raise emotions that are equal in scale to the “sippy cup” or to any number of other “whimsical” emotions in the early years.

I wonder how the child whose parent has been telling them “no” to their every “whim” from a very early age is going to feel about approaching their parents in these situations later in life. The “whim” of a child is in the eye of the beholder. Constantly referring to a child’s expressions as a “whim” is problematic because the child doesn’t see it as whimsical, especially if they are three. To frame every “childish” complaint in this way says something daming about the parent making the inference. It says, ‘I AM A DICK.’

In my mind the nanny is just basically telling parents to take the stand “fuck you for wanting something different than what I decide you want, you little Queen of Sheba.” It’s extremely demeaning to a child’s self esteem to immediately dismiss their wants in this way. Every bloody adult in existence has similar preferences, which in many cases are equally whimsical. To immediately deny a child their wants in a punitive way all the time is to teach the adolescent and adult of tomorrow that they aren’t entitled to the things they want; things like success, happiness, or a good career. It is the basis for extremely low self-esteem.

The nanny, and all the “don’t coddle your child” fans are suggesting parents are being slaves when they accommodate what are, in the eyes of an adult, “whimsical” needs. But a child’s expression of a “need,” even if small, may be something to take seriously. It warrants investigation, negotiation and patience to discover, not immediate dismissal simply because of how the need was conveyed.

I want my child to know, without any doubt in their mind, that I, their parent, am one person in this entire world who respects them absolutely, will give them unconditional love, and be there to support their emotional needs. To a two year old, that sippy cup could be a real emotional need, not just some phlegmatic outburst for a capricious reason. Until I take the time to figure out exactly, it’s not right to assume it is what I think it is and shut it down.

Later on in their life, when they begin to see the world coming at them with knives from all angles, maybe it’s important for a child’s self esteem to know there’s one corner of the world where someone has their emotional back. They will be secure in this feeling because, as a child they were showed support consistently when it was called upon and not immediately dismissed as “whimsical.” If my kid wants an aubergine sippy cup with dancing bears on it because bears make him feel happy, fuck it, they’ll get it from me. And I’ll make sure over time they learn to ask nicely for things they want without believing it’s necessary to apply the lesson in a single stroke.

This is what we should tell our kids: they are awesome, even if they screw up or are screaming banshees from time to time.

This is what we should tell our kids: they are awesome, even if they screw up or are screaming banshees from time to time. As they grow to be adults, there will be fewer people in the world willing to do so. Be their best friend, but also be their kind, constructive, and generous teacher as you impart them as best you can with the skills needed to survive the many undulations in life, good and bad.

The nanny’s point about manners and respect raises my ire to an extreme degree. When I was a kid I’d say to myself “why does my grandmother think it’s okay to be an asshole just because she believes it’s important to hold my fork properly.” That’s the problem with manners or respect. The stuff of these principles, again, is in the eye of the beholder. Except the approach to teaching is determinately less flexible, and too often expects a child to immediatly apply the lesson, as if they were a mini-adult. This actually creates and reinforces feelings of disrespect and resentment, which undermines the project of creating respect and virtue.

The lesson may be learned, but it comes at a high emotional cost on many levels. Consistently kind, unceasing repetition of the basic message is my sense of what it takes to effectively teach a child something they’re having difficulty learning. To an adult ‘manners’ is fairly concrete. To a child it is extremely abstract. Punishment is not the way to imprint the desired behaviour in a lasting way, even if it works in the immediate sense. It breeds contempt for the way adults can be absolutist in their beliefs in what are, to a child, a bunch of very arbitrary ideas.

The flawed way nanny and her drill-sergeants address the issue of teaching manners will undermine efforts to have children internalize far more important lessons required of well-socialized adults. For example basic ethics of conduct and relating to other human beings. The message will lose its legitimacy not because of its content, but because of an emotional aversion to who delivers it.

Children have eyes, ears, and brains. Unless the kid is a vegetable, they will see a majority of the adults who harshly impart these lessons failing to conduct themselves above the same bar they’ve set for their children. Any parent who gets drunk in front of their child loses a serious credibility test in this area. Any parent who has said anything to their child of the variety “do as I say, not as I do” or whose actions contradict the messages of propriety that are brow beaten into their children will also lose their credibility.

When my grandmother slurred her words as she lambasted me for having my arms on the table like a barn animal the words “fucking hypocrite” were swishing in my mind. In addition, seeds of resentment were planted and would blossom an internal rebellion against all putative authority figures who appeared later in my life. In this one respect, I’ll agree with the nanny. Kids aren’t stupid, and they will instantly sniff out the hypocrisy in how their parents or any other adults approach the fine art of dealing with their “misbehaviour.” The harder the lesson is given, the harder the child will be in adjudging the parent who gives it.

I could write a book about how insidious this ‘teach manners and respect at all costs’ approach is. As a child I’d sidle up to fucking trees and random strangers just to fill the vast void of feeling and affection withheld from me because the adults treated giving a hug like it was giving away a kidney. At the same time they dished out criticism and hectoring like they had orchards of the shit growing in their back yard. A child learns some profoundly dysfunctional ways of coping when subjected to that kind of insensitivity from those who he looks to for feelings of emotional security.

This and the many similar articles of this variety that celebrate spanking and have stained my newsfeed tout a parenting style totally discredited by the massive scale of maladjusted adults today. These are the adults who are being prescribed anti-depressants in record numbers, who are drug/gambling/shopping addicted, craven, greedy, dog-eat-dog individualists that are very nearly bankrupting the world because of their pathological need for validation and self-worth in transient external achievements.

This is the generation raised by baby boomers who were busy climbing their ladder and immediately saw the extraordinary, time and energy-saving benefits in relinquishing the agony in assuming the role as patient, forebearing parents and assuming the role of benevolent dictator instead. For them the edict ‘I am the parent, you are the child, I am the boss’ was the rule of the day and that lack of patience made their mode of relating to their children often caustic, capricious, reactive and inconsistent.

The nanny’s point about the village raising my child is idiotic in today’s world. If a bus driver wants to kick my child off his bus for misbehaviour, fair enough. However, it’ll be a frosty day in Sudan before I give carte blanche to random strangers to impart “life lessons” to my kid.

You know why? Because some of them will be dipshits who apply the nanny logic in their dipshit way. Or, it will be some bitchy tiger mom treating everyone like they’re a piece of shit if they don’t do what it takes to get into Harvard. Or it will be some posturing, sabre-rattling drill-sergeant trying to create mindless drones who march in formation to any old wank who’s higher in the pecking order. I cherish my child’s well-being enough to assert that it is not okay to allow them to be subjected to the reams of adult neurosis posing as principled admonishments of their ‘misbehaviour.’

I do not trust the legions of emotionally imbalanced adults out there to make that call. I barely trust myself, but at least I am their parent. If my kids are out of line, which because they are human beings, they will be, I will punish them. But you, random-adult-in-the-village-purporting-to-raise-my-child will not. If you do, I will punish you.

I’d rather teach my child to know what it’s like to be given respect by an adult so they know it when they see it and know disrespect when they’ve been subjected to it. If they’ve been respected by their parents, they won’t over-react to being disrespected in the world. Teaching a child to be obedient to any schlub adult who enters their life is teaching them a lesson in the antithesis of self-respect. It teaches them that they don’t have a right to draw a line in the sand that represents their self-respect.

The point is to withhold the knee jerk tendency to allow yourself as a parent or a village of random strangers to punish whatever you believe is misbehaviour in a child. It’s important to take the time to uncover what is really beneath their conduct. Yes, this is true even when the outburst is in a public place, and yes, even when it’s probably embarassing to you.

Do not let your own adult fears about the judgements of random strangers sway you from principled parenting, so that you then unleash acts that demean your child. Acknowledge their feelings and teach them to express them in a way that others can understand and appreciate. Use these situations to teach a child that it’s okay to be angry, excited, or bored, but to be constructive in conveying those feelings more effectively to others. This can only be achieved with consistency and time, rather than with an emotional sledge hammer wielded to achieve the  learning objective in a single blow.

For most children, it sucks to be in any number of meaningless places of import in an adult’s life they get dragged to by their parents. As parents we have to take some responsibility for how our children respond to situations we ourselves created that are unpleasant for them. This is not putting my child’s needs before mine, as nanny laments in her blog. It is being a little more self-reflective about the consequences my actions have on my child. It is suggesting that my child gets a say in things too, because I respect his feelings about things, and acknowledge that it is okay if they differ from my own. It is not putting all the responsibility for perfect behaviour on my child, especially in situations that any insightful adult should know a child may not take kindly to.

We have to be respectful to our childrens’ needs by being honest with ourselves as parents about whether our expectations for how they handle things are reasonable. In many cases, our ‘high expectations’ for their behaviour are just high-minded veils for the hope that our kids don’t call us out for the crappy things we invited into their existence. Things that we did, for which they had no choice and pay an emotional price – like divorce, our emotional baggage from our childhoods, our work-a-holism, our bad day at the office, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s not fair to expect a child to approve of all our choices if we don’t let them have a single one of their own. That’s why, as nanny laments, fathers run across the zoo to get their kid the drink. It’s a small gesture to say ‘hey, I was out of town last week ‘providing’ for you, so here I will honour you for making you worry about my absence.’

This is more in tune with what concrete thinkers need for emotional balance. Children cannot relate to the abstract nature of a concept like “toughen up” or “be courteous.” To any adult these are easy to understand because we’ve been through life. But a child hasn’t. They only really can relate to the actual means by which the “lesson” is instilled by the parents in the situation at hand. It requires utmost delicacy and kindness, rather than sternness and shrillness in meting out the lesson, which young kids will often interpret as “why is mommy being unkind to me?”

If I were to punish my child’s reactions because I had unrealistic expectations in these situations I would be a total jerk. I know from my own experiences that a child raised by the jerk parenting style will harbour deep resentments about having been punished for expectations that were absolutely unfairly put upon a child. An emotionally vulnerable person subjected to that kind of treatment risks turning out to be a cynical adult because the most important people in their formative emotional years were the ones constantly treating them unfairly.

The child raised in this environment won’t become a respectful, well-socialized adult with an intrinsic understanding of what should and should not motivate, limit, or justify any extremes in his behaviour. That requires the ability to process strong emotions intelligently in situations where they run high. This isn’t achieved when, as a child, your parent punished or belittled your strongest emotions under the assumption you were being ‘misbehaved’.

It is incredible how so many adults, like this nanny, make the mistake of punishing emotions because they are instantly perceived as ‘misbehaviour.’ It has the result of re-inforcing a child’s belief that emotions are bad, which makes them repressed and stunted in their emotional development. Sadly, it is also a sign of very poor emotional acuity in the adult who repeatedly cannot understand there are raw emotions beneath all misbehaviour, particularly those of a child.

It is a tempting delusion for parents to believe this drill sergeant shit works on emotionally undeveloped, vulnerable human beings, as children are, but we all know deep down that it doesn’t and we should stop. Even though it can be taxing on our energy as parents to give space to our kids to be pissed off, confused, overwhelmed or otherwise out of line at times it’s important they be allowed to feel entitled to their emotions, but that they must learn to process them more constructively.

As parents we have to be honest about our own emotional radars to to this as well. I am sorry fathers, most of us really fall down in this area because we were all trained to repress our emotions. As men, we are not in tune with our own feelings. When I see a father being hard-ass to his kids, I see a projection of his own unresolved emotions about being treated in hard-ass fashion by his own parents. That isn’t a parenting philosophy. That is a rote perpetuation of extremely insensitive behaviour. It’s thoughtless and takes inner work on ourselves as adults – and not on the ‘behaviour’ of our children – to change. It requires a change in your perception of things as a parent.

As a parent I believe it is crucial to win the respect of my children by treating them with respect first, not by asserting my authority over them as I see fit. This starts by not automatically invalidating their emotions with expectations of ‘behaviour’ that are inappropriate for children. Children are never, ever going to rightly be viewed as mini-adults and should not be punished for failing to regulate their emotions effectively as if they were.

In my experience, very few adults are able to effectively regulate their emotions. Ironically, this is most evident in the things parents tend to discipline their children for and the methods they choose to do it. It takes an extreme level of honesty and self-reflection to come to terms with that reality as a parent; the degree our children really do act as a lightning rod for our own emotional blind-spots. I’d recommend parents heed their own dictates and be the tough grown ups they badger their kids to be when they are faced with that fact.

Instead of just letting the chips fall after subjecting your kids to the shitty side effects of your own emotional hang ups, apologize to your kids when you’re out of line. Acknowledge that you are learning how to relate to them as individuals who are evolving every day in their unique way.

But YOU, the parent, have ALL the responsibility for demonstrating exemplary behaviour to them and NOT the other way round. Remember that. If you mete out punishment for an infinite number of random principles your concrete-thinking child cannot fully comprehend, your child will see YOU as ‘misbehaved.’ He will punish you later. Or worse, he will punish the world by being a greedy, bombastic, tyrannical, un-self-reflective douchebag in adulthood.

The badgering approach to child-rearing is extremely irresponsible given the reams of literature for the lay parent on how detrimental it is to a child’s emotional well-being. And it is just plain stupid, mean, and cruel. So cut it out. Do it for the sake of your children and those who will be the leaders of the next generation.

The world demands a change in human conduct, so be a mindful parent who is an agent in promoting beings who are emotionally capable of harmoniously cultivating such change. Start now by abandoning the temptation to be an unkind tormentor to your child on the pretense you’re raising a ‘respectful’ adult. Do not make a principle out of insensitivity towards your child, because it will perpetuate the same brand of pathological, unenlightened, self-serving adults who have put humanity in the sorry state it is today.

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