In Which Children Are People Too
HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Darcy’s blog Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings. It was originally published on December 12, 2012.
There is a parenting paradigm I’d like to talk about. It begins with the idea of “parental authority”, which begins with the idea that there is a hierarchical authority structure in life that everyone must fit into and children are at the bottom. I’m the parent, you’re the child. I’m the boss, you have to obey. Everything in this paradigm is based on the idea that some of us have positions of authority and submission to authority is good, right, orderly, and “God’s plan” for all of us.
But what if it isn’t? What if it’s just a model of how we’ve set up our relationships, a pattern to follow, that may or may not work out the best for everyone involved? What if there’s a better model to follow? I mean, in a hierarchical model, with people on top and people on the bottom, it seems that the ones on the bottom get the short end of the stick. And all too often, when applied to parenting in an authoritarian manner, children are the ones that have the most to lose.
It is often taught in conservative circles that parents have to right to require what they want of their children, and children must obey no matter what. It is even encouraged to set up arbitrary “training sessions” to “test” a child’s submission and obedience to authority, for no other reason then to condition them to follow your every command. Children are set up, and if they do well, they pass, but if they succumb to temptation, they get thwacked and punished, thus enforcing the idea that Mom and Dad are the boss and need no other reason to be obeyed other than their perceived authority over the child. If I say jump, I don’t owe you an explanation nor do I need a reason because *I’m the Mom*, you are the child, I have the power over you, you must learn to submit. And all of this is justified by invoking “God’s will for your life”.
In this paradigm or parenting model, children are expected to obey, to suppress their emotions, to never voice their own opinion because all that matters is their obedience to authority. They have no autonomy, their feelings don’t matter, they have no freedom to choose for themselves, and they are at the whim of their parents, their authorities.
But what if children are people too?
What if parenting is less about obedience and more about instilling The Golden Rule?
What if good parenting is about producing adults that know how to make wise choices and respect other people?
What if, instead of seeking ways to prove “I’m the Boss and you will obey me”, I’m instead seeking out ways to teach them how to choose for themselves? To let them learn how to express themselves in a healthy manner? Teaching them that their choices have consequences in life? What if I include them in decisions that will affect them? Teach them their thoughts and feelings matter to me?
What if I even *gasp!* teach them to question authority? To think for themselves? Even if that means questioning me?
I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is this: What is my parenting goal?
Because, for a long time, my goal was incongruent with my parenting methods. My parenting philosophy was contrary to my goals for my children. I just didn’t realize it. I was so focused on the here and now, I forgot to see the big picture…the one where my kids end up as adults and are a product of my parenting.
“Parental authority”, the idea that we are the boss and they must learn to obey without question purely because of our position over them, goes against everything I believe in and desire to instill in my kids. I don’t want to raise little robots! I want to produce smart, thinking people, that can recognize bullshit from a mile away. That stand up to evil and fight for justice, even against “authorities”. Teaching a child to obey “authority” without question is dangerous. Because “authorities” are human and can be evil. Matter of fact, power corrupts and it seems to me that those who are in authority over other people are often the very ones from whom we must protect our children. I *want* my kids to question everything and everyone. What better place to model and teach this than with me, where they are safe and loved and their hearts treasured?
So I give them options. I do what I can to let them make their own choices about their lives. There are going to be times when I have to set boundaries that they can’t have a say in and don’t understand because they are young and immature in many ways. So how much more should I be celebrating the times when they CAN have a say? Seeking them out, even. And those times are much more numerous than I previously thought. For instance, I don’t believe that it is my choice to needlessly and permanently alter my sons’ (or daughters’) bodies by cosmetic circumcision. It’s their body, their choice; not mine. I don’t believe I should be the only one to choose what church we go to and not give heavy consideration to my children’s thoughts and desires; they are part of this family too, after all, and the decision affects them. It’s my job to make sure my kids are dressed appropriately for the occasion and the weather, but the details are always up to them. I think that by letting my children know that they have a voice that will be heard, that I value their input, that I respect their autonomy, that I celebrate their individuality, that they won’t be ignored or brushed off or their ideas considered less important than mine, I will be forming a relationship of mutual trust and respect that will last a lifetime. It helps them to listen better on those times when I need to put my foot down if those times are few and far between. I need to model respect if I want respectful children. I need to honor their personhood and their autonomy.
I think the biggest step is to be able to see our children as people.
It’s a simple as that. “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Children aren’t our possessions. They aren’t property to do what we want with. They’re people. Little, unfinished people, but still people, with all the thoughts and feelings and desires and conflicts that you and I have.
I have nothing to prove to my children. I don’t need to “show them who’s boss”. That’s not the kind of relationship I desire with them. I desire for them to be wise, independent, compassionate, passionate, lovers of justice and mercy, capable, respectful, and strong. If I want them to value others, I must value them. If I want them to be kind to others, I must be kind to them. If I desire respect, I must show respect. I do not see respect as something I am entitled to because “I’m the mom”, but something I’ve earned because I have shown respect to my children. This seems very simple to me. As simple as “do unto others as you want others to do unto you”.
See your children as people, change the way you look at them and change the way you see yourself in relation to them, and I guarantee you will change the way you parent them.
Look at the end goal and think about whether your parenting philosophy is going to get you there or if it needs some major overhauling.
I love how well you have expressed this. As i have been growing myself out of and away from this paradigm I’m seeing it in more places than just parenting. Out would seem that pour whole society, just about, ids based on this same model. I am often frustrated aft work – both my current job and previous jobs – because this is the model used there as well.
Over here in Europe, we just don’t get it – the fact that in the US this paradigm still exists widely. Did the US not sign the charter of Human Rights like the rest of us? – And are not children human beings? That should answer the validity of the authoritarian paradigm. Especially tripping children up on purpose to condition them is incompatible with human rights. The goal of breaking a child’s will is incompatible with human rights. Full Stop. (Sorry, to be so authoritarian about it)
But in Europe the discussion about that is over. Maybe because a people raised that way once laid Europe in ashes (no: make that “twice”, not “once”)
In the US, the cultural attitude is that children are possessions. We have religious political groups actively advocating against and fighting the UN Rights of the Child and jumping in to protect “parental rights” any time anyone mentions children having rights too. It’s pretty disgusting, actually.
Yep. This kind of thing often makes it more difficult to create any kind of laws that protect children, because some people and groups will be concerned that it tramples on parental rights. But it rather begs the question as to what rights the children have. The religious political groups you mention will never outright say that parents should have the right to beat or starve their kids. When one of their members or supporters gets arrested for killing one of their kids, the group usually cuts off connection. But overall, it seems they treat children as property in the same sense that animals are property. You might get in trouble if you physically harm it badly, but other than that, you can basically do whatever you want.
Speaking of Europe and those that destroyed it, here’s research on “compassionate parenting” from the ‘other side’. The researcher himself is US-American, Holocaust survivor and scholar Samuel P. Oliner. Among the benefits of his latest books against corporal punishment on children is this heart rending paragraph:
“Crucial Lessons to be Learned from the Holocaust – Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Germany received no or little physical punishment as children vs. non-rescuers. Lessons of the Holocaust learned by this country was to make physical punishment illegal in the school and home. Hopefully the US will follow. Never Again meaning Never Again; does not come without new learning from the past.” – Makes you kinda think, doesn’t it…
Unfortunately, “Never Again” can mutate into “Because next time WE’ll do it to THEM first!”
In order to form that relationship of mutual trust and respect, kids need to be shown that their parents are trustworthy and respect-worthy. And sometimes the biggest thing that makes parents worthy is the simple fact of love. If a child knows without a shadow of a doubt that their parent loves them, then they would obey their parents, trusting that what they say is for the best. Questioning authority for a young child who has not experienced social controversies of morality may be okay, if the child understands love to be the answer. Making wise choices and respecting others in adulthood will not always mean depending on ourselves. No, we need others. Even as adults, there are times when we just need to trust what others say even when we don’t understand, because the person has proven trustworthy, respect-worthy. Ultimately, this lesson in childhood prepares adults to trust in what God says, even if we don’t understand everything. Because He is trustworthy, respect-worthy. We cannot be in control of everything in life. That’s why as children, in order to be independent, we must learn to depend.
The Medieval idea of “The Great Chain of Being”, where everything had its God-Ordained and PERMANENT place — The Lord in his palace and the serf in his hovel.
It’s a Divine Right version of the Beetle Bailey cartoon:
General yells at the Colonel.
Colonel yells at the Major.
Major yells at the Captain.
Captain yells at the Lieutenant.
Lieutenant yells at Sgt Snorkel.
Sgt Snorkel yells at Private Bailey.
Private Bailey kicks the barracks dog.
Beautifully said, Darcy. Your very mature post expresses the heart of humanism: enlightened, compassionate, thoughtful and humble. The man Jesus would embrace you; so would the Buddha. For further encouragement in your new-found insights, I recommend “Free Inquiry,” the magazine published by the humanist organization Center for Inquiry.