If you read nothing here or only have time to skim, I ask that you please watch this video.
I used to not get upset by the “bad kids”/”bad parents (mothers)” talk. Because I knew I was a Good Mother™ with Good Kids™ – see, I could “prove” it by their manners and how I could get all stern in stuff, in public, and make them “behave”, and get everyone’s approval, and then I could prove how I wasn’t one of those BAD parents, ew! It worked out really well!
At least… in supporting Oppression in our culture.
And… It actually didn’t work out for me, or my kids, very well at all. More in a minute.
See, one day I saw how harmful the whole business is. And now? I’m just done.
It’s hard to escape deep-seated child-hate, yes even when we are socially steeped in the myriad kinds of suffering that results. I’ve seen child-hate crop up loads (well, more than usual) recently in the articles regarding the recent publicized bullycides1 – probably because, to put it succinctly, bullies still scare the hell out of us.
We cannot continue to tolerate violence, that is clear. And yet our fear and suffering are often hand-in-glove with the very factors that create tragedies like these. When our strategies come directly from responses of fear and anger and deny the humanity of perpetrators and the reality of the forces that shape these tragedies, they are are often ineffective and/or further perpetrate the very things we are afraid of: some of us hide, some of us want to be the ones with the bigger stick to beat the bullies down in the name of justice.
These incidents of bullycide are enraging and upsetting, the culmination of a terrible series of events, adults in power who’ve let children down, children who’ve made mistakes and committed wrongs against one another, oppression and fear, damage, death, destruction. The stories are hard to read2 because we think of our loved ones – or ourselves. They are hard to respond to with good strategies because many of us relate, having been on one side or the other of bullying behaviors (usually both at some point) and we are damaged from these experiences. Many of us have not healed from wounds inflicted during our childhood. We remember with righteous anger or trembling fear these horrible things that happened to us. We want to speak out, to voice our pain. The pain and anger are so loud in our blood we sit down and start typing away. We walk amongst others with our gut in a knot of pain.
As the legal aphorism says, “If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.” It is really easy for many to pound the table about bullies, about “assholes” and “psychopaths” (when children are younger you hear them called “Devil’s spawn” and “brats”, my parents used to call me “Little Hitler” when I was two!). It feels (momentarily) Good and Right. Does it help? Hmm… Does it further perpetrate harm? You might not like my answer, which is: Yes.
And the fact so many even well-intentioned adults don’t realize any participation in Dominator culture is exactly what creates and reifies bully culture and oppression is just – for me – devastating.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about these subjects over the past week. How would I write about it? What or who would I address? How could I discuss the poor strategies many grownups persist in (which need to be addressed) without denigrating the feelings of Fear and Anger these grownups have (which are entirely valid)? How could I differentiate the role of good leaders – who employ effective and holistic strategies against the abuse of power – with those who (mostly) “pound the table” – without disrespecting the feelings and experiences of the latter group?
The answer is, of course, to reflect on where this starts for victim and perpetrator: childhood.
So here, reader, is when I begin to talk about childhood. And here, perhaps, is where you may no longer want to read on. Because I’m not going to be writing to those who have not done their homework as to whether the child class is an oppressed group in our country (short answer: they are, and across all races and genders and socioeconomic classes etc).3 To further argue the subject is exhausting to me, personally, just now, and I have been let down by so many activists who do not engage in this work or take it seriously as their own activist subjects, seeking support for their own personal brand of social justice without seeing the limitations therein.
I am going to talk about childhood a bit, and here is another thing I’m not going to discuss: I’m not here to address the feelings and angry accusations of those without children who claim they aren’t “allowed” to weigh in on parenting or child behavior4 or the accusation that all those who parent children reject out of hand the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of those without children. Don’t misunderstand me: these feelings of minimization felt by those without children are important; indeed I have discussed them, though not yet at length, before5. I’ll likely write on the subject again.
The truth is of course it isn’t really a parents vs. nonparent thing anyway. Framing the issue of child oppression this way only obfuscates and ensures the continued oppression of mothers and children. It also means the best efforts and research in anti-oppression work regarding the child class is ignored in favor of shouting matches where everyone feels entitled to weighing in on with their “expertise”. And, sadly, those without children who have deep-seated anger regarding child behaviors have more in common with many parents than they might realize; much like racism and homophobia, none of us have escaped internalized child-as-second-class-citizens worldviews; instead we must work to undo them. Sadly, many if not most parents daily devote their work as the Long Arm of the Law, doing their best to “guide” (meaning coerce, control, beat, etc.) their children according to oppressive strictures.
And with that last I am – finally! – going to tell you who I am writing for, today.
I’m writing to other Good Parents™ who know it isn’t really working.
I’m writing those who already have those squicky feelings about how we frame children and speak about them and treat them. I’m here to speak to those who already know the problems of bully culture do not start in a vaccuum. Those who’ve felt uneasy when they see parents/carers cockily strut their, “I’d never let my kid such-and-such” or “I’m raising my kids right”, etc. stuff – the kinds of statements parents are so culturally-rewarded for saying (and talk is cheap). I’m writing to those who were smart and “strong-willed kids” (hi!), intelligent enough to see the “I’d never let my kid blah-blah-blah” is a road that only leads to two destinations: the person with the stick and the person being hit with the stick (remember, the person doing the hitting always feels righteous in the moment he/she is doing so, for whatever reason including Good Parenting and Concerned Citizen).
I’m speaking to those who’ve either not been damaged so much they cannot disengage from their personal history (for whom I have much empathy; some of my friends who most adhere to authoritarianism in parenting were themselves abused and maltreated horribly – one of these friends gives thanks for the beating and abuse at the hands of her mother – it kept her “safe” from worse things – but admits she is too afraid to have children herself as she knows she would likely be unable to not abuse them; naturally this person also supports corporal punishment of children even as she does not want to be the one who “has to” do it) or who’ve healed enough to be ready to do their part and Help. Sadly, there are too many who are – for lack of a better phrase – wounded. They aren’t yet ready to join to make a better future. I suspect many are scared and angry about the vulnerability of the child class and do not want to take a real hard look at what’s going on.
At root like a cancer our culture perpetrates poisonous worldviews reified generation upon generation. Most grownups believe kids will go astray unless we force values into them, like opening their throats for ill-tasting medicine “for their own good”. I used to believe this myself, even if I would have resisted such a grim characterization. Thus, many parents are afraid to relinquish control. Why wouldn’t we be? We know how severely we will be tasked and blamed (especially mothers6) if our children fail, or hurt other people, or wreck something, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Our strategies may be poor or not good enough but our drives are quite honorable: we don’t want our children to get hurt; we don’t want them to hurt others. We want to be Good Parents™. All most of us know are oppressive edifices that employ Control models. Many of us as children were told “sit down and shut up” – and rarely did anyone defend us or stop the diminishment and/or abuse – so much we grew a thick, leathery skin so we could deny how much it hurt. We merely, now, breathe a sigh of relief to have left it behind us. Now we’re in charge (or we SHOULD be, it’s our place and prerogative).
Never mind that Control doesn’t really “work” – for anyone. Sure, it seems to function well at first (or looks like it). We tell ourselves Control is what keeps our kids from running into the street and being killed by a car (this, along with the “loud children in restaurants”, are the two most oft-employed examples used to justify adult privilege). Make no mistake: we are responsible for our children’s safety, entirely at first, diminishing as they grow and learn to care for themselves. But so many of us go astray; as our children grow we shift our Survival and Safety drives onto our need to control child behavior, as well – an error socially-enforced, and one that doesn’t necessarily evidence itself immediately. Thus we can make our children (most of our children) toe the line and say “Please” and “Thank you”. We lap up the praise we get for “good kids”. When we hear other parents (mothers) dissed – for feeding their children “junk food” or, alternatively, for being “control freaks” about “healthy food”, or for not being involved enough, or being over-involved – whatever the Parental Evils of the day are being lamented – we breathe a huge sigh of relief because it’s the OTHER parent (mom) who sucks, not us. See, we know how to raise our kids in proportion. We make sure our kids have the exact right manners/diet/values/foodstuffs/education etc. They aren’t talking about US. In my case, the razor-thin line to walk in feminine perfectionism was dialed up all the more acutely once I embarked on Motherhood; and I know I’m not the only mother who experienced this.
Still, for a while we try to keep up the effort. We have successes and they dull us to the truths deep within our bodies. We have the “well-behaved” kid. This feels so good! Sure, sometimes we’re uneasy… when someone says something horrible and we recognize ourselves, and some of the unaviodable Truths of parenting, and we feel that little earthquake that informs us how much pressure it really is. So we say something. Usually mildly. Then we hear: “Kelly, I’m not talking about YOU, you have good kids, you’re raising them right.” I’ve heard it so many times. When my kids were younger it felt good. See, I was doing it Right. If the kids slipped up I’d only have to nip in and employ a little control. A little pruning.
And it feels so good until you’re under that lens – until it’s your kid who has the audactity to, you know, be a child, and hit another child, or wander over to another table in a restaurant (if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard the “horrible kids in restaurant” anecdote… I’d be able to buy my own restaurant!), or loudly proclaim a preference in public, or break down crying in public (and we all know how well that socially enforced suppression-of-unwelcome-emotions thing works for grownups!) – and then?
Then. Ouch. You want to know what happens? Let me tell you, you probably won’t like hearing it. Then we are crushed by all the judgments we’ve held against those other parents (mothers) who were Doing It Wrong. Then we’re alone – yet on display as Failure. Then we maintain the thin-lipped smile or brittle “in control” mommy mantra. “I”ll talk to you when you can speak nice.” “You need to quit this fit right now.” “1… 2…. 3…” We call our child a “brat” and shake our head (from our own fear and anger and as a performance for the other adults watching, the other adults putting the pressure on to “control our kids” – or maybe they are primly “not saying anything” but judging, and don’t think we don’t feel it). Then we hold it together and then, safe in the car, or in our home, we scream at our children. We hit. We say horrible, horrible things to them.7
Then, all the cultural pressures are rained down upon: our children. Literally the most vulnerable group in society.
Don’t worry. We don’t scream and hit our kids in public – if we are Nice White Ladies (or whomever) and that’s part of the training that is. Thus all those other people going about their day, they don’t have to see the fallout. You’re welcome; another service of Not Inconveniencing You, brought to you by the Kyriarchy, penalty paid by the little ones.
And the cycle continues.
If you don’t think this happens you’re only kidding yourself. You don’t need to be a parent to start caring about it, either.
Me? I had to stop being a Good Parent™. I was hurting my kids too much – and I was suffering not only from the Perfectionist mantra but by the awful knowledge me, I, was hurting my own children, a stark bottomless awareness that caused me more pain than I could have previously believed possible.
So yeah, I’m no longer a Good Parent. I intervened early enough to begin providing a better future for our family; I’d like to believe I’ve begun undoing damage. My children are now safe (safer). They are happier. I am happier. My husband is happier; our marriage has improved. I am moving through the pain inflicted on me as a child and more amazingly still I am moving through this with my mother (the author of much of my pain as a child). My children have given us another chance; and we’re giving them a better one.
And this? Is why I write.
Many who read my work know we are now life learners – sometimes called autodidactic homeschoolers or radical unschoolers – that we live consensually8, and that we do not “discipline” our kids. And I understand – well, I sure do understand now that I’m some years in! – since this is my field of study and my lifework, that the concepts of consensual living, life learning, radical unschooling, parenting without discipline are terrifying, confusing, and yes, even enraging to many. I get that they scare and upset many people. Those of us who employ it are called “crazy”, “loony”, “abusive”, “neglectful” or “sheltering”, “elitist” or “low-class”, “too intellectual” or “backward”. And you should hear the things they predict for children being raised in homes like these.
Those who say these things do not ask us how it actually works (but I like to believe some of the Good Parents™ reading here just might start to). We do have strategies; we do have a body of evidence. We have advice that does not require all parents follow the exact lifestyle tenets we do; improvements can be made in all circumstances. And we know eventually some people will catch up. Me, I’m waiting for them when they’re curious. I try not to think too much about what their children might be going through – unnecessarily.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “˜Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”‘ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother”‘s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers “” so many caring people in this world.– Fred Rogers
My kids are going to be Helpers. They already are, and they’re pint-sized.
That’s who children really have the potential to be; if we treat them right.
That’s the solution to invest in – for bullying, to stop the wrongs being committed, for compassionate, intelligent, strong, firm, direct intervention, for leaders, for joy.
Trust us. Join us.
I used to be a Good Parent™. But there is hope, even for that.
Next week: Part 2.
“Dancing between the tables: on the personhood of children” at Raising My Boychick.
Choice quote from the excellent “Children Take Up Space (and Notice When We Don”‘t Notice)”: “Children take up space, and when we don”‘t notice them, they hurt. It isn”‘t just a mother”‘s issue to let you know that. Children notice that we don”‘t do enough to give a damn about them, whether they know about social justice or not (some of them do, mine does). It hurts them. It should hurt more of us to realize this.”
“My Child Takes Up Space” at womanist-musings
Mothers for Women’s Lib; I recommend adding this excellent site to your feed reader as it does not update often.
“Kids: screw ’em” at Pandagon. Those who think only individual breeders are solely responsible for the holistic well-being of their own children have a lot in common with rigorous pro-lifers.
“How Children Learn Manners” by Naomi Aldort. This article was the first to expose me to unintended but unavoidable fallout of “manners” policing and enforcement when foisted on our children. Shortly after reading and discussing this with my partner, we stopped prompting our children. P.S. while I’d like to keep this article free of the justification of our parenting strategies by the “results” of our children’s behaviors I also know this kind of article challenges many people – who respond by predicting children will grow up total “sociopaths” without such “common sense” socialization. Thus I will point out our children, 6 and 8, evidence consideration, empathy, and social behaviors of saying “please”, “thank you”; they do not curse in public spaces, they make eye contact, shake hands, introduce themselves, and listen to others.
The Natural Child Project – better ideas for parenting
- “Bullycide” google search ↩
- “safety” at kelly.hogaboom.org ↩
- There’s already wonderful work being done: for some 101 you can read here at womansrights.change.org; in addition “The Adult Privilege Checklist” is a good start. The short essay “The Blank Page” offers much incredible insight: “Almost all so-called educational activity is pervaded by a notion of direct — and therefore violent — adaptation by the child to the adult world. This adaptation is based upon an unquestioning obedience, which leads to the negation of the child’s personality, a negation in which the child becomes the object of a justice that is no justice, of injury and punishment that no adult would tolerate. This adult attitude is so deeply rooted in the family that it is applied even to the child who is greatly loved. Furthermore, it is intensified in the school, which almost always methodically enforces direct and premature adaptation to the necessities of the adults environment.” Finally: read “Are Children An Oppressed Class?” at genderacrossborders ↩
- This is entirely countermanded by the experience of those versed in US/UK/AU parenting culture: for instance I threw a rock on Google and immediately found a great example of typical child-hate made public and much “weighing in” on child-raising; “Entitlement-Minded Mommies” also earns points for the oft-trotted out “horrible child/parents in restaurant” trope and large doses of child-and-mother-and-grandma hate – kyriarchal perpetuation across three generations! ↩
- One of my first pieces here at Underbellie regarded ways parents/carers can foster better relationships with their friends without children (“Breeding, or how not to be an inadvertant jerk” in the UB archives); incidentally, not only has my parental experience been saturated with lots of “weighing in” on my parental performance by many, many people, but I have indeed sought out those who have valuable insights, including those without children who it should not need to be said, were once children themselves. My favorite friend to discuss all things child-rearing related (besides my partner) has no children; several of my favorite authors with respect to parenting strategies do not have children. Et cetera. ↩
- “I Blame The Mother” ↩
- “and hours later I’m still thinking about her” at my blog ↩
- That really does mean something – it’s not just an empty New Agey phrase: consensual-living.com ↩