Gently Teaching Breastfeeding Manners

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For all the convenience of whipping out a boob whenever your baby starts squawking, breastfeeding isn’t always a walk in the park. One of the hardest challenges was when e.e. started doing gymnastics at the breast, around nine months old. He was distracted, restless. He bit me a couple times. He started grabbing my glasses and my hair, and whacking my face and chest — hard. I wanted to wean him cold out of sheer self-preservation.

I didn’t really know how to handle it, because he was a baby, after all. How do you teach a baby? The only insight I knew about flailing baby hands was the punitive methods I’d heard in the past: pull his hair when he pulls yours; pinch him when he bites you; gently slap his hand if he smacks you. Show him how much it hurts.

Violence against my child was not option. Neither was violence against me, no matter how innocent or accidental.

My big breakthrough was giving up the idea that I could control my baby’s actions. That is, I couldn’t actually prevent him from trying to hit, pinch, bite, or pull my hair. It’s not like I could get inside his brain and flip an “off” switch for restless baby hands. Nor is that a developmentally appropriate expectation. Once I accepted that he would try to do those those things, I could focus on what I could control: preventing him from actually hitting, pinching, biting, or pulling my hair.

Babies don’t do anything out of malice. They do things to explore, to get a reaction. What happens if I pull on this long hair? What’s that fun sound Mommy’s skin makes when I slap it? Wow, Mommy yelled really loud when I did that! Why would she do that? Can I make her do it again?

A corollary insight: The more you make a big deal out of something, the more interesting to baby it becomes. For toddlers as mischievous, curious, and stubborn as mine (that is, most toddlers), Mommy’s big reactions are excellent opportunities to explore their power and influence — a healthy thing, a good thing, a normal thing, but a thing that gets old and hurtful real fast for Mommy.

It’s better to simply prevent the pain and redirect a baby toward a more pleasant way of being silly, stubborn, or curious.

When his little hand started whack-whack-whacking against me, I’d catch it in mine and kiss his palm. I’d turn it into a distraction far more fun than scratching Mommy’s cheek. I’d stroke my face with his hand, or stroke his face with his hand, or playfully shake his hand, or wiggle his fingers.  I’d play three little piggies on his toes, or the itsy bitsy spider on my fingers, or round and round the garden by his belly button. Usually he stopped trying to whack me fairly quickly, but sometimes he didn’t, and I’d just keep hold of his hand, blowing raspberries into his palm, until he was done eating.

In other words, I responded to what he really wanted: to move his hand, or be goofy with Mommy, or keep himself entertained while nursing. If I were to pinch him back or yank his hair or even cry, “NO! Bad touch!“, I’d be responding to a nonexistent impulse in babies: the impulse to be naughty or disobey or cause pain. The important thing is meeting him at his level, keeping myself safe, and reinforcing positive, pain-free things to do with his hands.

For biting, whether accidental from restlessness or purposeful from curiosity, I would yell out (an involuntary and unplanned response that I include only to keep it real). To reduce the restless acrobatics that led to bites, I learned to nurse him in distraction-free areas or pump a bottle to-go and avoid the issue altogether. If he was really restless, that was a sign to me that he either wasn’t hungry or wasn’t going to focus, anyways, and I set him down and tried again later. If he bit on purpose, I might set him down (not as a punishment, just to collect myself), or I might carry on with more intentional distraction. He didn’t bite more than a handful of times.

Last insight, a mantra really, a perspective that keeps me sane no matter what age of child I’m dealing with: this will not last forever. The standing-on-his-head, kicking, pinching, arm-flailing, tear-inducing, painful nursing stance he took as a nine-month-old only lasted a few months, at most. He naturally transitioned to a more mannerly nurser around age one.

My point is, there need not be any fear surrounding restless breastfeeding or slapping baby hands. He will not grow up to be a psychopath who delights in causing pain. It’s not a serious, ingrained character flaw that needs to be pinched out of him. It’s just a normal development in the breastfeeding relationship, and like all other aggravating parts of childhood, it will likely be short-lived, and it will certainly, eventually pass.

In the meantime, I grab hold of and kiss those flailing baby hands to keep my sanity and skin intact.

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Raising Kids without Gender Stereotypes Isn’t About Getting Them to Like Certain Things. It’s About Acknowledging That They Already Do.

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Hurrah for floral prints!

Here’s the problem gender stereotypes: they say many true things about boys and girls — who they are, what they like, what they want, what they’re capable of — but they don’t say all of the true things. My son does indeed enjoy pushing his toy truck across the floor. He rough houses. He ate a handful of mud the other day. He loves the outdoors. He plays catch. He likes bears, lions, dragons, and dinosaurs because they growl and roar. One of his first words was “whoo whoo” — the sound of a choo choo train, obviously.

Name any toddler boy thing, and he’ll likely be into it. All of those “boy things” are great fun, and not remotely toxic.

What’s problematic is when a descriptive observation (most boys like trucks) becomes a prescriptive value that limits and shames boys who don’t conform — e.g., all boys should like trucks, and by extension, shouldn’t like a certain set of other things that only girls should like. It’s also problematic when those accurate descriptive observations ignore other accurate observations that give the whole story about boys and girls — such as, “most girls like trucks too.”

People being who they are and liking what they do is never a problem, even if their interests are stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with statements such as, “Most boys I know prefer trucks to dolls,” and there’s nothing toxic, dangerous, or oppressive about boys enjoying trucks over dolls.

But gender stereotypes often get internalized not only as “the way things are” but also “the way things ought to be” — so much so that those generalities, however accurate, prevent us from seeing our individual kids as they actually are. In other words, we often miss when our descriptive observations become prescriptive, and oppressive, values.

Already someone has snatched a doll away from my son because “boys don’t play with dolls” — a funny observation, since a boy was literally just playing with a doll. “Pink is a girls’ color!” some of my former students shouted at the boy using pink scissors — an odd assertion, since a boy is currently using pink scissors without any evidence of a sex change.

We say “boys don’t,” but what we really mean is “boys shouldn’t.” Instead of changing our concept of masculinity to include all the things that boys can and often are interested in, we try to restrict the parameters of our sons’ unique beings based solely on “what most boys do.”

Do I really have to elaborate on how blind, repressive, and, frankly, silly this is? Even if it’s true that more boys like “boy things,” many boys do like many of the things girls like. That’s a fact. Why deny it? Why can’t “most boys prefer trucks to dolls” be an interesting factoid instead of a prescription for how our individual sons must be? My individual son is not “most boys.” He is himself. And there are many boys (and many girls) like him.

Gendered parenting says be this, not that. It takes all the different things and interests and traits in the world and divides them into two categories: masculine and feminine. It introduces a faulty, absolute division of the world: you can be like a girl, or you can be like a boy — as if that’s the only or primary value governing children’s interests. If a boy possesses too many things, interests, and traits from the “feminine side,” he allegedly becomes effeminate. Even though he may naturally value those “feminine” things and interests and naturally possess those “feminine” traits, gendered parenting says those things, interests, and traits cannot be a boy’s true masculine nature.

Gendered parenting is a lens that trains the eye to look only for masculine or feminine traits and interests in boys and girls, respectively, and thus reinforce only those things as good, normal, and desirable. And if children don’t respond to this subtler reinforcement, gendered parenting openly shames the “effeminate” or “unladylike” things their children do.

Basically, gendered parenting only values parts of our kids — everything that falls under a predetermined “masculine” and “feminine” category. 

Gendered parenting particularly hits hard against feminine traits — obviously in boys, but also in many girls raised in “gender-neutral” households. There is a kind of “gender-neutral” parenting that applies the same prescriptive censorship against “girly” things. Their girls will not wear pink. They will not like princesses. They will not wear dresses, or make up, or sparkly shoes. On principle. These gender-neutral households act as if there is only one way to be a strong woman — and that is to be like traditional masculinity, or at least not like traditional femininity.

Of course, many girls like “girly” things even in households where parents don’t introduce them or outright discourage them. Restricting our children to a predetermined way of being — even if it’s a less traditional, allegedly more subversive way — is just plain old gendered parenting. There’s nothing progressive about it.

My husband convinced me to get rid of the term “gender-neutral” altogether and replace it with “parenting without gender stereotypes” instead. For many, gender-neutral parenting implies an aim to make boys as feminine as possible and girls as masculine as possible, deleting and adding feminine and masculine traits until their child is completely androgynous.

This is not the parenting without gender stereotypes that I advocate. Parenting without gender stereotypes is not prescriptive. It doesn’t let gender concepts for either sex dictate how the child will be raised. It doesn’t place any inherent value on masculinity and femininity as distinct sets of virtues, interests, traits, colors, activities, and so on. It isn’t about making boys less like boys and more like girls; it’s about operating outside of the idea that boys should be one way because they’re boys, and girls should be another way because they’re girls.

Parenting without gender stereotypes draws awareness to gender stereotypes only to check parents’ own biases and tendencies — never to restrict a child’s being.

That needs to be understood clearly: parenting without gender stereotypes is not about “un-sexing” children. It’s not about confusing them about their biology, or discouraging stereotypical interests, or ignoring real differences between boys and girls and how the culture socializes them. It’s about un-gendering and un-stereotyping parents‘ perspectives that would cause them to miss, ignore, downplay, or shame certain of their children’s traits when they view their children primarily as boys or girls instead of as individuals who happen to be a boy or a girl.

Parenting without gender stereotypes challenges parents’ gendered assumptions. We assume that baby boys like blue, sports, bears, dinosaurs, and rough and tumble play, so we decorate their nurseries in “boy colors,” buy them dinosaur rompers, and purchase Little Tykes push mowers for their birthdays. Let me again be clear: nothing is wrong with any of those things, and nothing is wrong with the assumption that boys will enjoy them. In fact, I decorated e.e.’s nursery in primary colors, dressed him in dinosaur rompers for a good chunk of his babyhood, and bought him a Little Tykes push mower for his birthday. Those are all things that are good, fun, and likely to pique any kid’s interest.

A problematic assumption is that there’s something wrong with a boy if he doesn’t like those things, or an assumption that boys wouldn’t like the color pink, dance, cats, flowers, and make-believe dress-up — because let me assure you, they are just as likely to enjoy them as they enjoy all those wonderful “boy things.” e.e. chooses his pink sparkly hand-me-down shoes over his no-nonsense sports shoes every time. His first explorations in play involved a beloved leather purse, a teething necklace, and Mommy’s scarves. He spends the majority of his day “cooking,” and if I ever lose him in a crowded play place, I can generally find him at the play kitchen.

Gendered assumptions miss whole chunks of a child’s world. My e.e. still doesn’t play with his Little Tykes push mower, but he loves snuggling his Monkey stuffie. Going off gendered assumptions, who’d’ve thunk that?

Parenting without gender stereotypes also challenges parents’ gendered assumptions on the meaning of children’s play and interests. Many people would recoil at many of e.e.’s toys: He has a purse? You bought him a purple necklace for Christmas?! You’re emasculating your son!

But that’s superimposing a gendered understanding of the world onto my son’s play. He’s one years old. I guarantee you that he doesn’t gravitate toward or away from certain things based on the social pressure to be a boy, or to advance a feminist agenda. Even if I wanted to shape him into a particular kind of child, I couldn’t: I can’t get him interested in most of the stuff I set out for him. He plays with what he likes, for reasons that have nothing to do with gendered stereotypes. He doesn’t play with purses to challenge the status quo. All he knows about purses is that they’re fun to hang around his neck, pull around, fill with stuff, and fiddle with buckles, straps, and zippers.

Adults read far too much of their own beliefs and fears into their kids’ play. Because we’re hyper-aware of gender stereotypes, we often fail to see the context, the meaning, and the true appeal of a child’s particular interest. We might see the boys who come to my school with painted nails and assume that they’re secretly gay, or want to be girls, or will grow up to be fashion icons, or don’t want anything to do with “masculine” things.

We’d guess wrong, because every one of those boys fits the traditional rough-and-tumble stereotype. They like painted nails because colorful paint fun, especially on nails! It doesn’t stop them from digging for worms or tackling each other on the playground. Nor does it predict that they’ll be feminists or emotionally intelligent or anything like that. It’s just nail polish to them — no gendered thinking, whether traditional or subversive, attached.

Shame, oppression, toxicity; self-confidence, equality, freedom: they start with outside values that parents’ inculcate in their children, not with children’s innate interests. Parenting without gender stereotypes redirects parental influence toward teaching real virtues and values, rather than assuming that certain interests will predict a certain kind of virtue or value.

Of course, what children are interested in can and does influence their values. Play is their way of exploring the world — and it matters. So there’s nothing wrong with deliberately introducing or not introducing a child to something because you as a parent value and enjoy it (or don’t). Parenting without gender stereotypes asks us to examine the reasons why we do or don’t value that thing, and get rid of reasons that are based in gendered thinking — thinking that is entirely arbitrary and culturally bound.

I deliberately put my son in pinks and florals. Why? Because his dad and I like them. Sharing something we love with our son is a perfectly natural parenting instinct. Pink is a great color, floral fabrics are fun, and good grief, God created pink and flowers for everyone. Why shouldn’t naturally-occurring  parts of creation show up on my son’s sweatshirt? Once e.e. starts picking out his own clothes, I won’t mind if he prefers different prints or colors. There’s no inherent goodness in him liking pink or floral; no inherent danger in him picking out his truck pjs and dino shirts instead. His color and print preferences are not, in themselves, indicators about his values or personality.

But the fact that he can wear whatever he likes without having to worry about whether he’s less of a man — that’s an important value I hope to pass on through his pink shirts.

For me, parenting without gender stereotypes isn’t trying to get my son to prefer pink over blue or girl stuff over boy stuff. It’s trying to get him to see that every option is valuable in its own way and open to his choosing. Where gendered parenting says he can be this or that, parenting without gender stereotypes says he can be this and that. He can rough house and play in the mud and play kitchen and drive his trucks and read mermaid books and like lions and like all the colors of the rainbow (or only prefer blue). He can respect women and hate the color pink; he can be a firefighter and unwind with a latte; he can be completely, stereotypically masculine and still be not an ounce toxic in his thinking or behavior; he can be every inch gay and not be any less of a man.

He can like whatever he likes, and by extension, he can be whoever he is, and he doesn’t ever have to worry about conforming to what most boys do just because most boys do it. And I will love all of who he is.

It’s not that kids should enjoy a predetermined amount of “girl things” or “boy things.” It’s that they already do enjoy a whole bunch of diverse things that range from “girl” to “boy” to “neutral.” If we take away our gender blinders long enough to see, that would be the most obvious and accurate description of our children.

You Aren’t Wrong Just Because Someone Else Is Upset

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I’m indebted to Robin Einzig’s (above) and Harriet Lerner’s wisdom on this subject.

As a highly sensitive person, as a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, and as a woman conditioned to care far more deeply about others’ feelings than her own, I find it difficult to say no, to disagree, to disappoint, or to be in conflict with others.

It comes out in different ways with different relationships. With anyone else besides my husband or son, I feel intense anxiety and sometimes terror about conflict, even on the most innocent of subjects, like personal preferences. I tend to clam up and nod along. If they find out my hatred of sausage pizza, our friendship is done for. 

With my husband, this discomfort with conflict comes out in, ironically, angry fights, criticism, and arguments. I’m not comfortable with actual differences between us, not okay with holding to an opinion that he doesn’t completely support too, certainly not able to take a stand that evokes a strong negative reaction in him. Since I have no faith in my own opinions, I have to be right — unequivocally, universally right. My opinion being not mine but God’s own truth, I must therefore argue my husband into submission.

Funny, isn’t it? Argumentative people are so crazy insecure about being wrong that they have to be right, especially when they’re not sure they are.

With my son, my anxiety over our differences in opinion (I want to make breakfast right after I take a quick bathroom break, he wants breakfast NOW) manifests in indecision, guilt, and, eventually, irritability.

I point out these different manifestations because I think both dogmatic, critical people and insecure, guilt-ridden people are just two sides of the same coin: uncomfortable with making decisions that others disagree with; uncomfortable with sitting with someone else’s loud, conflicting emotions; unable to see the difference between causing disagreement and causing harm. And as a result, we lose sight of our own agency and responsibility, as Einzig’s quote above demonstrates.

We are ultimately responsible for our own choices. We are responsible for believing what we believe and acting on what we believe in accordance with our conscience. For those of us with a neurotic need to be right (and thus safe from harming others or eternal judgment or loss of love or whatever it is we fear most), the scary reality is that we are sometimes wrong…or that there are several reasonable choices available to us, and we’ve got to pick one if we want to live a life. We’ve got to risk being wrong.

Other people’s opinions and reactions make that difficult. Of course, it’s good to consider people’s reactions to our choices, as those reactions indicate the effects of our choices on others. Making responsible, ethical choices for ourselves ought to factor in the impact of our lives on others. A good number of people ought to pay more attention to other people’s reactions, frankly.

And then there are people like me, who swing wildly between crying, “Hang it all, I’ll do what I want!” and cowering in the same spot, petrified of any negative reaction. More scary realities: there are many reasons why someone, somewhere would have a strong negative reaction to our choices — whether that’s our husbands or toddlers or the world wide web. We sensitive people must never construe the presence of a negative reaction to be a surefire indicator that our decision is wrong, selfish, or harmful. We must separate our agency from other people’s feelings.

We lose our agency, our responsibility, and thus our own selves when we cannot separate a decision and our ability to make a decision from someone else’s feelings. Just as Einzig points out, in our discomfort with others’ negative reactions, we start shifting the blame of our indecision or our own feelings onto others: “He won’t let me. I can’t do it.” Eventually we feel trapped. And this entrapment shrivels our souls and boils up into angry conflict with those we love.

There will always be consequences to our choices, for sure. It may be true that you can’t go to the bathroom without your toddler melting down, or that you can’t say no to sex without your husband stonewalling you. But that doesn’t take away your choice. It doesn’t take away your responsibility to make the best decision you see fit. Their reaction is only one piece to puzzle of decision making.

Often it comes down to choosing your consequences: Do you want to sit on the toilet while your toddler screams and bangs on the door, or do you want to take a pee while your toddler destroys your under-sink storage? Do you want to stand your ground and experience your husband’s bitter disappointment, or do you want to have a tiring, empty sexual experience that leaves you resentful?

There aren’t universally right or wrong answers. And to be clear, others’ emotions aren’t right or wrong either. Your toddler is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. Your husband is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. It’s unfair to expect that their emotions should align with yours, and it’s not okay to invalidate their feelings just because they make you uncomfortable. BUT. That doesn’t make your decision wrong. That doesn’t make your feelings invalid. And that doesn’t take away your ability and responsibility to make choices in line with what you think is best.

True boundaries allow you to sit with your own emotions and acknowledge that your feelings don’t take away someone else’s right to feel his own feelings. True boundaries allow you to sit with another person’s emotions and recognize that their emotions don’t take away your agency or responsibility.

It’s a scary but liberating reality.

A Day in the Life of a Mom with an Eight-Month-Old

Since I shared in intense detail the overwhelming experience of mothering a newborn, I thought I’d share a peek into a much more rewarding time of motherhood. I might be the only mom on earth who never wants to go back to the newborn stage. Yeah, itty bitty babies are the cutest, but I can’t function without sleep or with a nonexistent schedule, and I struggled with the limitations of an immobile baby. And newborns are hard, because they demand so much without responding.

Now that e.e. smiles and babbles and pulls his version of practical jokes on me, I finally can feel a connection. And now that I get enough sleep every night, I actually do feel it.

I love our mornings together. He wakes up somewhere between 4:30-6:00 AM for a morning feed. I gave up trying to designate a specific wake time, but I put him back to sleep if he wakes up before six. We hang out in bed, whispering, playing peek-a-boo with the covers, and annoying Daddy who valiantly sleeps in until past seven. We chat and giggle, and he scratches my face and pulls my hair and steps in my eye. That, and finally admitting that it’s a reasonable time to get out of bed, gets me up. I throw on a robe and make my coffee.

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Caffeine doesn’t make a difference to me, but I like the ritual of something sweet and warm every morning (no black coffee for me!). Plus, coffee draws me into the kitchen and motivates me to make breakfast. Whether or not I actually make breakfast depends on if he slept through the whole night or woke fitfully every two hours from teething pain. Since he still gets all his nutrition from breastmilk, I’m not as rigid about regular meals. And I rarely eat breakfast myself. I know. Bad mom. I’m just so slow in the morning, and I hate cooking.

To accommodate my lack of cooking motivation, I’ve got his breakfast routine down to a simple formula of grains, berries, and fruit. Normally I make porridge fingers or banana pancakes ahead of time and just toss one in the microwave each morning. That way I only have to muster up the energy to cook once every two weeks or so. Then I cut up some sort of berry and fruit (banana or clementine, usually, though I bought plums this week).

I drink my coffee at the table and toss food onto his tray while he feeds himself. We started baby-led weaning (a UK term for eating solids) at six months old. Once we got over the initial terror of choking (which he’s never done), it was smooth sailing. I love baby-led weaning — less cooking, more time eating my own food, and great entertainment. e.e. has developed quite a diverse and demanding appetite. He eats anything, and anytime he sees anybody else eating something, he protests loudly until the person in question caves. Not unlike a begging puppy, actually. His pincer skills are incredible, and he regulates how much food he ought to put in his mouth all on his own.

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After a quick swipe with the wash cloth, I ignore the messy booster chair and release e.e. to play while I finish my coffee. Normally he’s independent in the early mornings, and I read or stare into space while he explores within my peripheral vision. But I follow his lead: if he needs cuddles, we snuggle, sing, and read books until he crawls away, ready to explore.

I am a huge, huge advocate of babies playing independently, for their sake and for parents’ sanity. The paradoxical way of infant independence is connecting when baby wants to connect so that he feels attached and satisfied enough to go explore. I never demand that e.e. play by himself; I just connect when he wants to chat or snuggle, and I don’t interrupt him when he’s doing his own thing.

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Getting off my soapbox, we enjoy our morning until an hour-and-a-half after his wake up. We follow a flexible schedule based on wake times, and I adhere to it religiously. Our day falls apart if he doesn’t get enough sleep! He takes a long morning nap (1-2 hours), leaving me plenty of time to shower, get ready for the day, and clean. (I usually read or write, to be honest. Like I said: bad mom.)

For some reason, he needs more cuddles after this morning nap. We read one of the library board books obsessively curated for maximum social awareness and diversity. We sing some songs. I bounce him on my knee. I’m likely still not dressed at this point.

On Tuesdays we go to library storytime, where e.e. ignores all the colorful toys and inspects the perimeter of the room. He’ll crawl back to snuggle up with one of the adult strangers or use an infant as a stepstool. We’re making great progress with safe socialization and personal boundaries. /sarcasm

He goes back to sleep two hours after his morning nap and sleeps for an hour, waking up when Daddy comes home for lunch. 95% of the time I’m dressed (unless I’m really involved in a blog post), so we play outside or take a walk to a park. Ideally, I want him to get some outdoor time every day. Practically, I get fed up with digging dirt, leaves, and wood chips out of his mouth and sometimes we come in early.

I love our outdoor time, though. It’s fun to see the world through his wondering eyes, and there’s no pressure to be active or exercise. I just sit and think (or not think). It’s done a world of good for my mental health and creativity.

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Two and a half hours after his late morning nap, he goes to sleep again. My mother- or grandmother-in-law watches him for an hour while I go to work at my preschool for a couple hours, and then Erich comes home. e.e. reportedly sits up all excited when he hears the door open. He adores his daddy.

I get off around 6:15 PM and come home to a baby eager for snuggles and boobies. We’ll go outside again, maybe eat dinner if our lives are put together enough, or hang out in our apartment. When 7 PM rolls around, we go through our quick bedtime routine: pjs (sometimes), a lullaby, and our goodnight ritual borrowed from my granddad and punctuated by lots of kisses: “Good night! Sleep tight! Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Scrambo! Hasta mañana! I love you!” Then I kiss his cheek with his bunny lovey: “Here’s lovey!” And then I’ll kiss his cheek with his puppy lovey: “Here’s other lovey!” Then I’ll blow him one last kiss (unless I lose all self-control and smooch his chunky cheeks again) and close the door.

Unless he’s overtired (in which case he might cry for 5-10 minutes — getting off schedule makes a gigantic difference!), he’ll babble to himself before drifting off to sleep until around 6 AM the next morning.

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See? Motherhood isn’t all chaos. I wish my sleep-deprived newborn mom self could have seen this coming — these lazy mornings and those rested nights, and this giggly, snuggly, adventurous eight-month-old.

If We Want to Protect Our Kids from Sexual Abuse, We Need to Change the Way We Parent

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In the wake of the Me Too movement, I hope every parent commits to making sexual abuse prevention an urgent priority. Our kids need to know they can say no! to anyone wanting sexual contact with them — whether that’s a teen from high school messaging your daughter for explicit photos, an older sibling intimidating a younger sibling into sexual acts, or a youth group leader grooming the middle schoolers in his care.

But in order for a child to say no! and tell an adult, and in order for that child to grow up into an adult who can say no! and contact the proper authorities, she needs more than the cognitive understanding that nobody can violate her body. She needs more than the knowledge of good touch/bad touch. She needs more than the know-how that she can come to tell Mommy and Daddy anything.

She needs self-confidence. She needs courage. She needs a strong sense of self-worth. And she needs the tools and the practice saying no! to anyone who violates her body or gives off an “ick” vibe. She needs an inner conviction that her bodily autonomy matters more than respecting adults or being nice.

None of those things come from a few conversations about inappropriate touching. Those things come from regular practice and experience in everyday life. My concern is, the parenting promoted in our culture regularly undermines the self-confidence, courage, self-worth, and bodily autonomy of our children. When it comes time to stand up for herself or run and get help, her mind will know what to do, but she will shrink in fear and confusion, scared to offend, uncertain of how to assert herself.

This is true for both the ten-year-old and the twenty-year-old: how we parent daily sends stronger messages about our children’s worth, bodily autonomy, and self-confidence than a couple talks about sexual abuse prevention.

Today’s parenting emphasizes compliance in children and ultimate authority in adults. We demand respect for adults at any cost — and by “respect,” I don’t mean treating all people kindly; I mean treating all adults as authority figures with more say over a child’s life than the child herself possesses. If a child crosses an adult by asserting her own thoughts, feelings, and needs, she is treated as less than a person. She loses rights to her personal property (taking away her things for an unrelated infraction), her body (corporal punishment, grounding, time out), and her right to be treated kindly (screams, insults, humiliation, anger).

As a viral Reddit post says,

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person,” and sometimes they use respect to mean “treating someone like an authority.” And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me, I won’t respect you,” and they mean, “If you won’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a person.”

That’s American parenting in a nutshell.

This creates a dangerous power imbalance between all adults and all children. Adults feel entitled to treat children however they like in order to get the “respect” owed them. Children learn that their own ideas, values, thoughts, and feelings matter less than adults’. They internalize that adults always know better, even if the things they do hurt the child deeply. They learn they must always do what adults say, even if it hurts them, confuses them, or violates their sense of bodily autonomy or fairness. If they don’t do what adults tell them, they are “naughty” and will receive punishment. They fear questioning an adult, lest they be disrespectful. After all, what do they know? They’re just kids.

This is the sort of internal messaging driving a child or a grown adult into fearfully “consenting” to sexual abuse or feeling powerless to say no.

The people who are sexually abusing our children, both young and adult, are rarely strangers. They are older siblings, relatives, family friends, teachers, bosses, significant others, sometimes even parents themselves. They are the people we insist our children respect as authority figures, even if the child brings legitimate complaints about them to our attention. They are the ones about whom we say, “Yes, that’s not fair, but he’s your teacher, so you have to do what he says.” “Yeah, I know you don’t like Auntie’s kisses, but she’s your aunt. You’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t let her kiss you.” “No, it’s not right that Grandma spanked you, but you need to listen to her when she gives you a direction.”

Instead of standing up for our children’s bodies, feelings, and basic right to be treated as a person, we cave to social pressure, fearful of disrespecting or angering other adults.

Successful sexual abuse prevention hinges on dismantling the adult-as-authority/child-as-compliant power imbalance. We dismantle it by honoring our child’s limits; defending our child’s rights to control their bodies and property; respecting the real emotions hidden beneath inappropriate behavior; and giving children practice in conflict mediation.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Honor Your Child’s Limits

“Stop!”

“Don’t!”

“I don’t want to!”

“NO!”

Few things make authority figures angrier than hearing a kid assert her preferences in a way that shows she values her own thoughts and feelings over our own. In a culture where child compliance is the ultimate virtue, it’s embarrassing when our children refuse to participate in what other children are doing, and it’s humiliating when they do the opposite of what we ask them to do. We worry that other adults will be insulted if the child refuses to hug them, listen to the story they picked, or eat the meal prepared for them. We worry that our kids will grow up anti-social and rude.

But it’s imperative that we honor our child’s internal monitor of danger and dislike, no matter how irrational it seems to us. This is the same internal monitor she will have if someone tries to abuse her. All children feel an “ick” or “danger” factor when encountering sexual abuse. Not all children feel confident in the accuracy of that monitor. If we repeatedly insist that children disregard a strong dislike or fear in favor of social convention, she will learn to doubt the inner voice that helps her determine what’s safe and what’s not safe.

Honoring our child’s fears, dislikes, and assertions includes showing respect and support with our words, tone, and immediacy. It’s not enough to bargain with or bribe the child — “Oh, come on. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s okay!” — and then shrug in defeat. They need immediate validation and support without a hint of teasing, disapproval, or dismissiveness: “I see that you don’t want to join the library story time. Is there something worrying you? You said you don’t know, you just don’t want to. That’s okay. You can stand in the back and watch. I’m going to sit in the circle and listen to the story. If you change your mind, you can come sit with me.”

Any time we insist children ignore their fears and dislikes in favor of pleasing someone else or following social convention, we train them that other people’s desires matter more than their own safety, needs, or preferences. Conversely, every time we honor our child’s refusal to say hello, join the parachute play, or eat the meal Mom worked so hard to prepare, we teach the opposite: My wants, needs, and safety matter more than making other people happy. Mom and Dad won’t get mad at me for standing up for what I want or need. I can listen to what my gut tells me, and if I’m wrong about an initial judgment and decide that it’s safe and okay, I can change my mind. It doesn’t make me a bad or stupid person to listen to my intuition, even if it’s sometimes wrong.

This is exactly the kind of inner conviction and self-confidence we want to create in our children in matters of sexuality and consent: If I can’t give an enthusiastic yes, I will say no. I can always change my mind. I know how to assert myself respectfully and cope with other people’s disappointment. I know I am not a bad, disrespectful, or defiant person for valuing my needs, safety, and preferences.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Defend Your Child’s Right to Her Body and Property

“Be nice. Give her the shovel.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a hug!”

“If I see you hitting your brother one more time, I’m giving you a spanking.”

“That’s it! Go to time out and sit there until I tell you you can come out.”

American parenting insists on generosity and respecting other people’s bodies and property, but we do so often at the expense of our own children’s bodies and property. We need a consistent ethic of bodily autonomy and respect that includes everyone, including our children and their property.

Children without a clear understanding of their own rights and property will not be able to give generously. They will clutch their toys and scream, “Mine!” They will hog ten cars and refuse to share one with their sobbing best friend. This vehement refusal to share stems from insecurity and confusion over what really is “mine.” Ironically, the same child who savagely protects his excessive number of toys can become a teenager who caves into unwanted sexual acts because he too isn’t clear on what’s “his” or if “his” is worth defending.

The difference lies in how parents treat this critical developmental stage where children need to differentiate themselves from others, and whether parents continue to support a child’s right to his body and property in the face of others’ disapproval.

Children need clear boundaries on what constitutes “theirs” and what constitutes “others’.” It’s sometimes a difficult line to walk, since parents, teachers, and babysitters are charged with tasks that involve children’s things and bodies. They must wipe and clothe private areas, physically block children from hurting others or themselves, and remove playthings that children use to hurt others or property. Children are more dependent on us for their belongings, safety, and impulse control than adults.

It’s all the more important that we give children as much control as is developmentally appropriate and that we defend our children’s right to control their bodies and property. In areas where it’s inevitable that a parent must intervene for a child’s health, safety, and well-being, this often looks like giving age-appropriate and parent-approved choices: “Do you want to lie down while I change your diaper, or stand up?” “What do you think are good rules for your iPhone?” “You may whack the stick on the ground or the tree, but not on the window. It’s not safe to whack windows; they can break. If you choose to whack the stick on the window again, I will take away the stick.”

Age-appropriate and parent-approved choices still respect children’s autonomy, and they make sense to children. A child will not like Dad taking away his stick and may throw a huge tantrum in protest, but it is fair: Dad gave him clear choices and consequences, and the child made a choice with an unpleasant but natural consequence. If he can’t use the stick safely, he can’t use the stick at all.

It makes less sense when parents take away property or infringe on bodily autonomy as an unrelated punishment. When a parent spanks a child for being disrespectful, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It’s an external punishment that leverages fear of pain to get the child to do what the parent wants. When a parent takes away a child’s Legos for hitting his sister, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It leverages fear of deprivation to get the child to do what the parent wants.

External punishment that violates bodily and property autonomy can work as a deterrent to bad behavior, but it also teaches the child that they should submit to unfair or illogical things if an adult says so. It teaches them that adults do not have to respect their children’s bodies or property and that it’s futile to protest punishment on those grounds. It also sends conflicting messages: Children can’t take things from others or hit others, but parents can take things from kids and hit children because they’re adults.

Forced sharing is another staple of American parenting that values the disappointment of others over a child’s rights. When a parent insists that their child shares, she sends the clear message that the other child’s feelings matter more than the first child’s right to her property and play. It also sends a dangerous message to the child requesting a toy that his wants matter more than another child’s rights.

Children need to see their parents defending their rights to their body and property. Immediately stop tickling or roughhousing the second the child yells “stop!” or appears in any distress, even if she’s giggling or wants to do it again a few minutes later. Give a child parent-approved choices if she balks at necessary caregiving tasks. Never give away or take away a child’s belongings without her permission, unless it’s for temporary safety reasons. Defend your child’s right to play how she likes, even if it makes another child sad or disappointed.

We want our children to give freely and wholeheartedly without compromising their safety or needs. By respecting their bodily autonomy and property now, we instill an inner conviction and self-worth that will serve them well in both consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters: My body is mine. I can do what I want with it unless it’s unsafe to me or others. I can stand up for myself even if that makes other people feel sad or disappointed. I will only let others touch me if I like it and feel safe. My parents will always defend my right to say no. I can go to them for help if other people will not respect my bodily autonomy.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Respect Your Child’s Feelings Even if Her Behavior Is Inappropriate

Why don’t children tell their parents if someone sexually abuses them? They’re terrified that they will get in trouble for “allowing” it or participating in it.

Many children feel that their parents’ love is conditional on their good behavior and that they are “bad” for making mistakes or acting inappropriately on legitimate feelings. “It doesn’t matter if he started it!” parents will snap at their kids. “You are the older one.”

“I don’t care if she yelled at you. You can’t hit her. Go to your room!”

“You know better!”

American parenting often sends the message that if kids do something wrong, their feelings, grievances, and reasons for the inappropriate behavior don’t matter. It also holds kids to an impossibly high standard: If they cognitively know something is wrong, they should be able to stop themselves from doing it.

Children are capable of a lot through practice and support. The key is practice and support. Impulse control originates in the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop in children. This is why we can explain things until we’re blue in the face and our kids will still do stupid, inappropriate, or unkind things.

They’re not “being bad.” They’re impulsive and short-sighted because that’s their current developmental stage.

As adults who “know better,” we’re responsible for interpreting children’s behavior, meeting the need they’re trying to convey, and giving them tools to communicate more clearly and respectfully next time.

When we focus on the inappropriate behavior (for example, hitting or yelling “I hate you!”) to the exclusion of the feeling underneath it (“I’m scared,” “I’m mad”) and the cause of that emotion (“He tried to take my truck,” “She’s not listening to my point of view”), we push our kids away from us. This is especially true when we side with adults or our children’s friends, minimizing the harm they caused in order to focus on making sure our children show respect. Our child learns that Mom and Dad will usually side with other people. They won’t believe me, understand me, or support me. I have to be perfect in order for them to care about my feelings and grievances.

When we validate our child’s feelings and point of view and set a limit on inappropriate behavior, we build up an inner conviction in our child of self-worth: My feelings and thoughts matter. If I make mistakes, I can respond differently next time. My parents will support me and understand me even if I make a mistake. I don’t deserve bad treatment from others even if I’m not perfect or treat others badly too.

Abusers capitalize on children’s guilt: No one will believe you. You deserve to be treated this way. Don’t you dare tell anyone. Your parents will hate you for what you’ve done. You’re already a slut, so I can do whatever I want to you.

If a child knows her parents are on her side always, no matter what, those guilt messages won’t deter her. She feels an intrinsic self-worth and conviction in her parents’ support.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Let Children Practice Conflict Mediation

It’s terrifying telling people no. It doesn’t feel good. Many adults avoid it at all costs, going along with the unpleasant situation as long as possible. We operate on the conviction that we need to be as nice as possible and say yes as much as possible and just be a bit more flexible.

This messaging doesn’t disappear the second an intimidating guy starts giving you unwanted attention. If we set our foot down now, before anything really bad happens, we risk misinterpreting his friendliness as flirtatiousness and embarrassing him; we risk making a scene and looking inflexible and rude; we risk hurting his feelings or angering him.

If we’re not used to setting limits with peers, saying no or stop when it really, really matters will be a Herculean task.

It starts with spats over toys and the shrieks of “he looked at me!!!!” and the unwanted rough play. Parents often swoop in to rescue their child or their child’s victim, handing over the toy the other kid wants, yelling at the kid to stop looking at his sister, banning roughhousing completely. In other words, we set the limits and resolve the conflict.

While it’s great for kids to know that parents will be there to help, parents won’t always be there. Our job is to train kids how to handle conflict independently from us as much as possible.

I once supported two kids trying to cross stepping stones in the opposite direction. “She won’t move!” screamed one kid. “He won’t move!” screamed the other. “I want to go this way!” yelled the first kid. “I want to go the other way!” yelled the second. I could have easily required one or both to get off and let the other pass, but instead I coached them to ask the other to move or suggested that one of them get off and let the other pass. They stood there, asking and yelling at each other to move with no resolution, until they both got bored and ran off together to play.

Whenever a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, I ask them what they want to do. Do they want to keep playing but with a new rule against, say, throwing wood chips? Walk away? Confront their friend? If they decide on setting a limit or sharing their feelings, I go with them for support but require that they do the talking themselves.

I try to police kids’ interactions as little as possible unless there’s a real safety issue or a student is violating another kid’s clear or implied limits. When given the chance, they often work things out quite well, even if it’s louder, more disrespectful, and messier than I like. Instead of barging in and solving problems for them, even if kids are upset, I probe their self-awareness about their safety and feelings: “Are you okay with your friend grabbing your arm in this game? Yeah? Okay. You can always change your mind and tell your friend not to if you don’t feel safe. No, you’re not? Okay, tell your friend that you want to play but do not want to be grabbed. Are you okay with her tagging you but not grabbing you?”

This teaches skills clear confrontation skills and the importance of expressing their needs. It’s a courageous act to tell a friend no and mean it, even at the risk of the game ending or their friend’s anger. This also creates a culture where children learn that clearly set limits don’t mean that their friend no longer wants to play or thinks that they are bad people. Limits are good things that enable happiness for everyone.

Isn’t this the exact thing we want for our children when it comes to consent in sex — to values themselves enough to say no clearly, to value others enough to respect the other’s no, to be self-aware about what they like and don’t like and confident and articulate enough to communicate that?

If we want this confidence, clarity, courage, self-awareness, and respect for themselves and others, we need to start now, daily, by supporting peer conflict mediation and respectfully parenting our children.

The Practice of Loud Time

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of Christian spirituality overvalues the distinctly spiritual and undervalues the physical. There are plenty of reasons why this is, but one of them, I’m convinced, is because we’ve silenced or tuned out the voices of people who live an embodied spirituality — women.

Think about it. When you think of great historic Christians who influenced your understanding of spirituality, who comes to mind? Lots of men, who, even if married or fathers, dedicated themselves to full-time ministry or contemplation. Maybe some women, most likely single and dedicated to a life of celibacy and contemplation. People whose days revolve around thinking, reading, praying, silence, solitude. These are the people in our pulpits and seminaries and historical narratives.

The only spiritual experiences we hear are of those whose vocation sets them apart from the physical world as much as possible. Is it any wonder that when we want a closer walk with God, we think that quiet, solitude, contemplation, and Scriptural study are not merely critical components of devotion but THE THINGS that comprise a relationship with God?

Take the ubiquitous quiet time. We’re told that’s God’s time. That’s the place we meet God. If you don’t have that in your life as the TOP PRIORITY, are you even a Christian?

Jamie Wright, in The Very Worst Missionary, recounts her visceral reaction to a Christian mom’s group that encouraged young mothers to give up even more sleep to find quiet time with Jesus. The group was shocked at Jamie’s treasonous insistence that for these moms, sleep was more important than quiet time. But Jamie wanted to know why quiet time had to be quiet.

[W]hen the group leader made that little quip about quiet time needing to be quiet, an unexpected volcano of molten outrage burst forth from the depths of my soul. …

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, then call it ‘loud time’! Call it ‘chaos time.’ Call it what it’s supposed to be, which is ‘intentional time’! … I will not be getting up any earlier. Nope. I’m gonna honor God intentionally in my sleep, because I’m pretty sure God wants me to be the very best mother I can possibly be to my boys. I will listen for God’s voice in the wilderness, and at the water park, and under McDonald’s indoor play structure, because that is my daily loud time and God is faithful to meet me in the chaos” (pages 83-85).

As that mom group demonstrates, the female spiritual life is mostly about how to fit the vocation of the celibate, the contemplative, and the clergy into the insanely busy, physical, exhausting vocations of mom, wife, and housekeeper. Our spiritual reflections are on how to carve out a quiet time or wade through a busy season of life until you can get to another season with more quiet time. Hang in there!

There’s often a sense that our work is meaningful and eternal and spiritual, but only because of its future implications. We’re the cradle-rocking hand that rocks the world — that is, all our work matters because it raises kids who will change the world. We’re the great women behind the great men — our work matters because it enables men to do great spiritual things.

And that’s true. Behind every man who “dedicates his life to God” (as if laypeople don’t), there’s another person — most likely a woman — keeping him fed and cleaning his toilet.

What we women need to realize is that this work matters and is spiritual and eternally significant not just because it enables “greater” spiritual work. This is spiritual work. It is intrinsically meaningful because the human body and the everyday good life are intrinsically meaningful.

Redemption involves saving human souls and also tidying up the living room, bringing order to chaos, bringing balance and beauty to every aspect of life. Traditional women’s work is not lesser, merely a stepping stone to greater spiritual things. It is as great and as meaningful and as dedicated to God as joining a convent or taking priestly vows or shipping off to China as a missionary.

One of the church’s strengths is drawing from the experience of people with different vocations. I’m certainly not advocating that women shouldn’t listen to those with time and energy to contemplate, pray, and study, or that they shouldn’t try to incorporate these practices and insights into their own lives. I’m saying it should go both ways.

The everyday, physical, mundane spiritual practices women have faithfully lived for millennia are critical for a relationship with God. Women’s spiritual lives give unique insight into what it means to live an embodied spirituality. Our experience as mothers provides transformative information about the nature of God as love and about a sacrificial life. What other normal Christian experiences physical, emotional, and mental sacrifices than pregnant, nursing, and primary caretaking mothers? Getting up to a day full of exciting things like scrubbing the bathtub and wiping snotty noses forms the soul in unique ways. Dutifully doing things that must be done again the next day (or five minutes later) teaches us how to live with hope of the resurrection and restoration of all things, in defiance of the fallen world’s decay. There’s no better way of understanding sin and grace and salvation than raising children with love and patience.

The holy practices of cleaning, waiting for a slow toddler, budgeting, driving to a chorus of “are we there yet?” — these things are not only a meaningful, transformative spiritual experience for the women who live them, they are meaningful, transformative spiritual practices for everyone. Even the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy.

It is patently false that the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy have the edge on spirituality. That is not how an embodied, incarnational Christian spirituality works. All of us need the spiritual experience of women who are too busy and tired from motherhood and homemaking to preach sermons or write blog posts. Not just to hear how on earth they find quiet time for Jesus every morning at the crack of dawn, but how they practice loud time and how we can practice it too.

Setting Boundaries with Children

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“Do no harm, take no sh*t.” — my new parenting philosophy, via Kay Bruner

I get stressed over hearing my baby cry or seeing a student upset after I enforce a limit. Am I being cruel and unresponsive, I fret, or am I being the calm, confident leader children need to feel secure?

One way I’ve been processing that question is by thinking in terms of boundaries. In an interview on Parenting Forward with Cindy Wang Brandt, Kay Bruner describes boundaries as “what’s me and what’s not me.”

I personally struggle with taking responsibility for children’s emotions. If my baby cries, I feel guilty. I feel like a failure. I feel like I need to stop his crying since, somehow, I caused the crying. I feel like I need to make the crying stop at any cost, including my sanity. Parenting success means my baby is tear-free as much as possible.

This is an impossible parenting goal. It’s impossible precisely because I am not responsible for my baby’s emotions. 

It’s important that we meet our children’s needs and hear their desires. Not hearing desires or not meeting needs disrespects children. But meeting every desire leads to child-centric homes and frazzled parents. In order to avoid any of those parenting pitfalls, we must distinguish between needs and desires, and even further, identify their specific need.

Take the age-old situation of moms being unable to use the bathroom alone.

When your two-year-old is pounding on the bathroom door screaming for you to let her in, you might determine that her real need has nothing to do with you in the first place; she may be hungry, tired, bored, or upset from you telling her she couldn’t eat pennies.

But maybe she really does need time with Mommy. Nevertheless, her legitimate need for quality time with Mom does not mean you need to fulfill her desire to be with Mom right then in the bathroom in violation of your legitimate desire for privacy.

In this situation, nobody’s desire is “wrong.” It’s okay for you to want to go to the bathroom by yourself. It’s okay for her to want to be in the bathroom with you right then. It’s okay for her to express extreme frustration that she’s not getting what she wants. It’s okay for you to feel annoyed at her for feeling that way.

“What’s me”: holding the limit of using the bathroom by yourself, expressing your emotions in a healthy way, acknowledging and legitimizing her needs and desires, and meeting the correctly identified need once you’re done in the restroom.

“What’s not me”: preventing her from feeling upset, preventing her from expressing that upset, or being responsible for stopping her emotions.

“I’m not letting you come into the bathroom with me. I want privacy,” you tell her through the locked door. “I hear that that makes you upset. It makes you feel like crying and yelling. It’s okay to feel upset. I will come be with you when I am done using the bathroom.”

Maybe she stops crying and tearfully says, “Okay.” Great! Maybe you find her sitting quietly outside the door waiting for you. Awesome.

Or maybe she continues to scream. Maybe she even starts kicking the door in response to your calmly set limit. That’s okay too. All outcomes are parenting successes, because you set the boundary and held to it. You did what you were supposed to do. You were never responsible for making her emotions stop in the first place. 

Janet Lansbury reiterates that our responsibility is usually just listening, accepting, and acknowledging our children’s emotions without fixing them:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard. …

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

This is why it’s important to set boundaries with our children: without boundaries, we disrespect their basic competency to navigate respectful relationships.

Without boundaries, we model an anxious, exhausting, unsustainable relationship.

Without boundaries, we teach them that it’s other people’s job to prevent their emotions and solve their problems, a textbook lesson in co-dependency.

Without boundaries, we imply that having emotions is undesirable, that a good life involves no tears, no inconveniences, and no disappointments.

It’s not about being a “tough” parent. It’s not even about putting on your own proverbial oxygen mask in order to help your child strap on his. It’s about supporting your child through the hard and necessary process of developing healthy relationships with others and with his own emotions.

In order to teach him respect for others, he needs to respect your needs and desires. In order to teach him respect for himself, he needs to see you respecting your needs and desires.

Of course, relationships are give and take, even parent/child relationships. Sometimes you say, “I’m not reading the Peppa Pig book again tonight because if I read it one more time, I will literally go insane.” And sometimes you read that Peppa Pig book again even though you will literally go insane.

Obviously, children require our support, especially the younger they are. They are more immature and less self-regulated, easily overwhelmed by their needs, desires, and the emotions accompanying them. If we ignore their bids for attention and support, we cripple them emotionally. But children are not helpless, and they rarely need our help in the form of fixing or eliminating their problems.

Yesterday, a student was building a spinner exclusively out of black Brain Flakes. He needed just a few more to complete his spinner, but another friend had the last three black Brain Flakes. She declined to part with them.

“Ugh, I want the black ones!” he cried.

“You could use different colors,” another friend suggested.

“No, I wanted it all black!” He looked to me, hoping I’d use my Magical Teacher Powers to force his friend into sharing the black ones.

I really wanted to. I knew how frustrating and disappointing it was to spend so much time creating something only to have it fall through. I could easily demand that his friend hand over the pieces, getting rid of the problem and his negative emotions in one fell swoop. It might spare me the annoyance of defusing a tantrum, too. But it’s important to me that children share willingly (another type of boundary) and that students not use my authority to coerce their friends into giving them what they want.

Trying to support him through this problem, I said, “That’s too bad that she won’t share with you. You could either use different colors like your friend suggested, or if you want your spinner to be all one color, you could start over with a new color.”

He sighed, visibly upset. Then he perked up and said, “I’m going to make an orange spinner!”

And he did.

Spanking Didn’t Traumatize Me, and I Still Won’t Do It

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I’m just going to say it: spanking goes against everything I believe as a parent, educator, and human being. Even as a kid, I felt in my gut that spanking is unethical, harmful, and a violation of children’s rights.

Oh, great. One of those special snowflakes claiming that spanking traumatizes children. Look, what’s wrong with kids today is that they need a good whipping. None of this time out, trying to reason with them stuff. You can’t reason with kids. The only thing they listen to is a swat on the hiney. My parents spanked me when I was growing up, I spanked my kids, and you know what? None of us were traumatized. In fact, we all grew up to be respectful, well-behaved people. I’m glad I was spanked.  

This is many people’s experience: spanking is either neutral or positive. It didn’t harm them, it didn’t harm their kids, and they credit spanking with their development as decent human beings. Even though the American Psychological Association claims there’s a strong case against any benefits to spanking, these pro-spanking anecdata are compelling enough for many spanked children to grow up and spank their own kids.

And I’ll be frank: I don’t consider myself traumatized from spanking. I view it as unnecessary, ineffective, and deeply hurtful, but not traumatic. I don’t credit spanking with making me who I am today, but I don’t credit spanking for making my adult life problematic.

The thing is, spanking doesn’t need to be traumatic in order for it to be wrong.

The idea of purposefully hitting a child with a hand or an object, the idea of intentionally causing pain, goes against my ethical beliefs. “Do no harm” is a mantra of mine that of course extends to the vulnerable children under my care. Yes, (emotional) pain happens during discipline of any sort, but I believe it is never appropriate to intentionally cause pain, whether emotional or physical, or to leverage pain as punishment.

It’s such a slippery slope. When does spanking become hitting, beating, violence, or abuse? When it leaves a mark? What if you meant well and it leaves a mark accidentally? When it causes too much pain? Why is too much pain bad if pain is the thing that turns your child into a good human? And how do you determine too much pain? When your child cries or begs you to stop? Isn’t the whole point to cause them enough pain to get a strong emotional response so that they never do wrong again?

Spanking advocates often point to the emotional state of the parent as the thing that draws the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate corporal punishment. Never spank in anger is the rule.

Personally, I find it downright chilling that any loving parent could calmly and quietly spank their children, especially if the child is crying out in pain. I find it less disturbing that a parent would strike their child out of anger and frustration, then realize with horror what they did. Instead, with this model, parents make a calculated decision to inflict physical pain upon their children, with no remorse whatsoever.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t loving parents spanking their children. Of course there are. The overwhelming majority of parents spanking their children do so out love and fear for their child’s future, not because they enjoy seeing their child suffer. But that makes it all the worse: their love and empathy, their strong parental instinct to protect their child from harm, gets turned off and replaced with a conviction that physically harming their child is the most loving thing to do. This is one instance where that niggling mom guilt is right on the money.

On a personal note, I am not perfect enough as a mother to have spanking in my discipline arsenal without risking a harmful outburst. I am not always patient, kind, or self-controlled. This is why I cannot have corporal punishment of any kind as an option, even as a last resort. I can’t risk spanking my child in anger, accidentally hitting too hard, or unknowingly harming the innocent party if I misinterpret a negative interaction. Instead of allowing myself the possibility of spanking, I actively work on safer, gentler approaches.

Lauding physical harm as an ethical method of discipline is an anachronism in today’s world. We decry excessive police violence. We are appalled at anyone in a position of authority using their position to physically correct a subordinate. We expect children not to hit their siblings and friends. We don’t beat even convicted criminals.

Yet it’s tolerated and encouraged for parents to hit, thrash, beat, whoop, smack, pinch, whack, swat, or slap their children, their babies, the smallest, most defenseless, most powerless people.

Even if the line between spanking and abuse weren’t so thin, even if the danger of physically or emotionally bruising children weren’t so present, I still wouldn’t spank my children.

There’s another way.

It irks me, actually, when parents say things like, “Spanking is the only way to get them to listen.”

As a teacher, I can’t tap into the instantaneous submission that spanking brings. I must work to gain respect and authority through other, gentler means. It’s tough, but it works.

And I didn’t work with angels all the time. I worked with difficult children. You bet I sometimes stood shaking in frustration, thanking God through gritted teeth that spanking wasn’t allowed or else that kid would be hurting right now. I am not an angel myself.

But if teachers can keep a large class of students in some semblance of order without spanking, parents can handle their handful of children too without resorting to physical harm.

If spanking really were the only way to get to the hardest, most defiant kid to listen, I can understand the parenting philosophy of using spanking as a last resort punishment. But I know from experience that spanking is not the only way, and that it is the very opposite of more effective ways of disciplining.

And if there’s another way, why wouldn’t I choose an option that didn’t involve physically harming my children — even if spanking didn’t cause trauma?

A Definition of Egalitarian Parenting

In interpreting Ephesians 5:21-6:9, egalitarians argue that the gospel erases hierarchical lines between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All are equal before Christ. All mutually submit to one another. And this makes sense — what qualitative difference do Jews have over Gentiles to make them spiritually superior? What do men have over women, or one adult over another?

But in the middle of all these adult equals, Paul addresses the parent/child relationship: “Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

Does the gospel change the nature of the parent/child relationship? Does it, in fact, elevate children to the level of equals, tearing down the authoritative hierarchy between parent and child?

I’ve thought about this. It makes no sense that the gospel would leave the parent/child relationship unaffected and untransformed, but children as equals to their parents? The parent/child relationship is the only relationship out of the three that Paul addresses here where there is a qualitative difference between the two parties.

Adults possess more wisdom and experience, and are explicitly charged with guiding their children. Children eat Tide pods, leave their chores undone, and get caught up in peer pressure. Due to their immaturity, children cannot stand alone as equals in the way a slave or a wife can. How could the gospel break down the hierarchy of parent over child in a way that still allows a parent to fully guide, care, and take responsibility for their children?

After thinking about this, I would argue that egalitarian parenting ought to treat the parent/child relationship how complementarians explain their marriages: equals with different roles, with the parents laying down their lives in service to their children and children receiving the instruction and guidance of their parents, all under the higher guidance of God.

Let me provide a contrasting example first.

A Non-Egalitarian Approach: Authoritarian Parenting

In many so-called “Biblical” parenting paradigms, the point of parenting is maintaining a strict hierarchy — even without using those exact words. Parents are unquestioningly at the top, dispensing their views and desires. Children are unquestioningly at the bottom, obeying their parents’ every word as law and meeting their parents’ every desire.

In this paradigm, the key virtues of childhood are instant, cheerful, unquestioning obedience, and respect and honor toward parents. “Because I said so” is a valid and often-repeated justification for whatever the parent requests. There is no recourse for the child beyond that — no appeal to reason, emotion, or another authority. Parents are further encouraged to make their word law and be consistent, even if their initial demand was unreasonable. After all, the point is maintaining an appearance of control at all costs.

Parents train children to come on command. Defiance or disrespect are the worst of all offenses, punishable by painful and humiliating strikes across the buttocks or other shaming tactics. Parents are encouraged to hit the defiant child until her will breaks. “Talking back,” whining, even trying to explain one’s point of view — any emotion or communication that doesn’t show cheerful compliance — is not allowed, and also qualifies a child for any sort of painful, embarrassing, or harsh punishment the parent deems necessary.

According to this parenting model, children owe parents respect and honor simply because their parents are their parents. No matter how unreasonable, unkind, or even unlawful their parents’ actions may be, children are required to respond with superhuman respect. Natural feelings of frustration, injustice, fear, or hurt are interpreted as disrespect and a threat to the parents’ authority. Maintaining the hierarchical system is what’s important here — the system of parental authority and a child’s compliance is what produces happy, well-regulated, respectful adults, regardless of the way that system is implemented or maintained.

Since the desired outcome of this parenting style is the maintenance and adherence to a strict hierarchical system, parents view their children’s actions as a direct commentary on their parenting. Since controlling another human being is impossible without utterly breaking her spirit, this inspires a constant, fearful insecurity in one’s parenting that shames parents. It also justifies even stronger reactions to their child’s misbehavior, since parents are told that their child’s behavior is something well within a parents’ control.

If their children are for the most part obedient and respectful, they feel that they have succeeded in parenting and take the credit for raising well-behaved kids. If their children struggle with emotional outbursts, defiance, or rebellion (whether real or perceived), parents feel like failures. With their own reputation at stake, parents often find amusement and vindication in seeing their child as embarrassed, disrespected, or hurt as they feel.

Even if parents feel inclined to give themselves or their kids a more generous pass, critics will blame and shame parents when their children throw tantrums in the grocery store or can’t sit still in church. And parents dare not justify these breaches of obedience with reasons like, “She was tired and hungry.” It’s expected that parents keep their children reined in and respectful at all times, no exceptions, no excuses.

It’s no wonder that many children under these hierarchical rules experience abuse of all kinds and sometimes even death. And many parents feel frustrated, defeated, and inadequate due to the impossible demands of breaking the spirit of individual little humans who have their own reasons, opinions, and feelings.

I would argue that this hierarchical structure of parenting is the most predominant understanding of the parent/child relationship today. It might take the more extreme forms of come-when-I-whistle servitude, but it most often appears as “common sense” parenting that interprets most misbehavior as disrespect, which only a strong parental hand (that is, shame, punishment, and spanking) can break.

If you take a look at some of these images, you’ll see what I mean:

This isn’t to say that respect isn’t a virtue or that children shouldn’t listen to their parents. But just as complementarians zero in on “wives, submit to your husbands” and interpret “husbands, love your wives” as authority over their wives, this hierarchical view of parenting is all “children, obey your parents” and no “fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

If we look at child development, we’ll see that many of the underlying assumptions about and responses to children and their (mis)behavior often exasperate children. I’ve used my research into child development and the theology of relationships to craft a new, egalitarian paradigm of parenting.

Toward an Egalitarian Understanding of Parenting

In egalitarian parenting, children are fundamentally human and thus entitled to the same respect, understanding, and influence adults accord to other adults. This is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and respectful parenting: while respectful parents do guide with authority, they do so not to maintain a hierarchy but to help children regulate their emotions and actions in accordance with their own beliefs and interests.

Instead of demanding unquestioning obedience, egalitarian parents foster self-regulation. This is the ultimate virtue of egalitarian parenting: self-regulation. This allows space for children’s questions, explanations, and differing opinions. This allows for parents to be wrong and children to be right about their own experiences and emotions. In short, the pursuit of self-regulation allows children to be independent of their parents rather than reflections or servants of their parents.

Since children intrinsically deserve the same sort of respect that adults do, egalitarian parenting requires the parent to follow every command in Scripture about interacting with other humans: doing unto others as we would have them do to us, responding to anger with gentle words, outdoing one another in showing honor, living with understanding, being patient with the weaker ones among us, responding with blessing when we are wronged instead of revenge.

Egalitarian parenting decriminalizes children’s — and parents’! — misbehavior. The parent/child relationship is a relationship dependent on mutual respect, not on an authoritative system to obey. This means that if a child loses her temper and shouts, “I hate you!” at her mother, the damage is relational and requires a relational — not a punitive — response.

What do we do when an adult loses her cool and says something you know she doesn’t mean? We maintain our cool. We deescalate the situation. We calmly and firmly express our hurt and/or walk away from the situation if we’re getting upset ourselves. We model the kind of behavior we want the other person to emulate, and eventually, ashamed, the other person calms down, apologizes, and the conversation often gets at the heart of what’s really going on. 

And if we do respond back in anger and shout something equally rude? Well, in egalitarian parenting, we’re not trying to maintain an impossible facade of rigid authority. Our authority is maintained by mutual, organic respect, not imposed obedience, which means we can apologize or change our minds if we said something unkind or issued a consequence that isn’t fair, and not worry that our children will lose respect for us.

This relieves a huge burden from the parents’ shoulders: they are not responsible for controlling their children, an impossible task. They are merely responsible for controlling their own behavior and maintaining their own end of the relationship — a powerful, magnetic force that draws wayward children into better ways of behaving. 

Egalitarian parenting isn’t passive parenting, however. In a relationship of equals, personal boundaries are key. Parents are allowed to be human and to set their own boundaries when they’re tired, annoyed, hurt, or inconvenienced. If a toddler continues to hit his mother, the mother is fully within her right to set the toddler down and walk away until he can use gentler hands. If a teenager refuses to be responsible with her tasks, her father is fully within his right to not save her from the consequences — unwashed clothes, a messy room, missed deadlines. But the consequences are natural, not punitive, and not meant to reestablish a parent’s hierarchical authority over their child or shame their child into compliance. 

Again, this is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and egalitarian parenting: any consequence or parental response is meant to aid the child in regulating herself and restoring their relationship, not reminding the child who’s boss and wrestling them into begrudging compliance. In egalitarian parenting, parents are not maintaining a hierarchical system. They are maintaining a mutually respectful relationship where parents seek to serve and build up the child into mature independence. 

In another post, I will break down some typical examples of authoritarian parenting and suggest more egalitarian, respectful ways to firmly and compassionately handle children’s undesirable behavior.

Listening to the Mom Guilt

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Children need kind, consistent, well-informed parents. Whatever parenting beliefs a mom holds, if they’re backed up in fact (good advice, careful observation, and thoughtful research) and implemented kindly and consistently, children will turn out okay.

All of this requires confidence. I find that when I’m feeling worried, guilty, or unsure, I don’t apply my beliefs or approaches consistently or kindly. I get frustrated, and that frustration can come out on my child. I waffle back and forth on how to do things, confusing my child who needs consistency to navigate his world.

Have you ever noticed that the most volatile of parents are also the most easily swayed? A lack of confidence in one’s discipline methods, for instance, can turn a kid whining for candy in the checkout line into the end of the world for the parent, too. Flustered and at her wit’s end, the mom starts yelling at her child to stop whining. When the whining inevitably escalates into all-out tantrumming, the mom will scream, “Fine! Have the candy!”

Without confidence, our worry, guilt, and uncertainty makes us lose our cool and our parenting approaches that made much more sense when we read that article a few days ago.

Unfortunately for moms, this uncertainty crops up everywhere, sometimes even right after we’ve gained certainty. I’ll study out an issue and come to a satisfying conclusion, only to hit a roadblock with my baby (or a well-meaning online comment) that sends me reeling back to the drawing board. More often than not, this uncertainty feels like guilt — mom guilt.

Since we carry around mom guilt about the smallest, craziest of things, we think that the guilt is something to get rid of. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s certainly something moms shouldn’t listen to.

But maybe it isn’t.

Whenever I feel mom guilt, I’ve found leaning into that feeling to be productive and insightful. Even though the feeling manifests as guilt and often begins in response to a less-than-gracious question or rant, it’s drawing on many of those other underlying mom emotions. I don’t feel mom guilt about the things I confidently believe and have seen successfully implemented. It never feels good to hear another philosophy or parent questioning your style, but I put that in a different category than mom guilt.

I feel mom guilt about the new things, the uncertain things, the things I’m not quite sure I understand or am doing correctly, the things that I think I should do according to the parenting philosophy I follow but that don’t feel right.

When I lean into the mom guilt, I hear what my gut is truly saying: I’m not sure this is working for my baby. I’m not sure this is working for me. I still have questions and concerns that bother me more than I want to admit. 

This is a matter of confidence. The mom guilt clues me in that I am not confident about some aspect of my parenting and that I should start troubleshooting the issue.

Sometimes I just need reassurance, either from a mom friend who’s been there and done that, or from my husband who’s ready to back me up when I chicken out, or from my own experience seeing a parenting decision work out well for our family. Being a mom is hard. It’s easy to lose perspective amidst the sea of options and potential disasters stemming from those options. Feeling confused turns into feeling inadequate — and that’s when good husbands, sisters, friends, mentors, and my own mother step in to remind me that I am a good mom and I will get through this.

Sometimes I need more research or thought. I’m analytical and systematic in my approach to parenting; I need to understand things conceptually in order to implement them practically, or I’m lost. Plus, there’s so much I don’t know! I thought babies would be more straightforward, but ever since the first moment when I held Emmerich and hoped to goodness I didn’t drop him, I’ve been Googling the most basic of things. Mom advice is indispensable in sorting through all the expert opinions and data, but the expert opinions and data still need to be sorted — including the personal data of observing my own baby more closely.

What I try not to do is stuff the mom guilt away. It’s right that we empower moms to listen to their motherly intuition, and that’s why it’s important to listen to the mom guilt: mom guilt is part of that motherly intuition. It’s not the comforting side where mom knows best. It’s the side that reminds you that you don’t always know best, especially in the particular situation making you uneasy.

Moms, like any humans, get caught up in their lofty parenting goals or limited perspectives or sleep deprivation or stress and fail to see their children clearly. We don’t know all the answers off the top of our head. We haven’t done all the research possible. Mom guilt reminds us of our humanity. While we need to respond to mom guilt with so much grace, we need to listen to the mom guilt when it shows us where we might have gone wrong — whether it’s as benign as losing confidence or not understanding our children or the issue or it’s as serious as potentially wronging our children.

All of us can think of loving, devoted mothers doing something from less-than-ideal information or ideology, even some truly horrible things like hitting children with plumbers’ pipe for punishment or yelling at their children, not apologizing, and then blaming their loss of temper on the children’s bad behavior. I would venture to guess that the majority of parents who hit their children or yell feel guilty about their actions, but instead of leaning into the guilt, they stuff it away with excuses and beliefs that led them to believe hitting or yelling is okay in the first place. How many broken parent/child relationships could have been saved if parents were encouraged to listen to the guilt they felt after inflicting overly harsh punishment or insensitively communicating?

A mom who doesn’t listen to her mom guilt can build up problems in her relationship with her children. As I said above, a lack of confidence often leads to a loss of the firm, kind, consistent parental leadership children need. Some parents let that lack of confidence and uncertainty fester into a feeling of inadequacy, lashing out at others — their children, their nosy relatives, the random people of the internet. Some parents overcompensate for their lack of confidence by putting on a show and justifying their behavior without true introspection.

It’s difficult to allow ourselves the possibility of being wrong as we interact with and care for the people we love most. Leaning in to the mom guilt requires (ironically) a level of confidence in our self-worth, and that’s hard to come by, especially for moms in a parenting culture of shame and way too much information.

But the grace we need is that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to try something else. It’s okay to feel guilty, or uncertain, or clueless. We need to believe that for ourselves and for other moms so much that we’re empowered to admit when we’re wrong or unsure, and make the necessary change.

Kids don’t need perfect moms to turn out well. They need kind, consistent, well-informed moms — and all of us are capable of being that if we listen to our mom guilt and try again.