Why We Give Parents Power

One commenter on my post about whether children are an oppressed class had this to say:

You can’t give someone great responsibility without giving them equally great power. . . . If parents are going to be held responsible for their children’s actions, they must have the power to curtail their children’s actions.

This is an important point. While I don’t believe in “parental rights,” I do believe that parents have responsibilities toward their children. They are tasked with ensuring that their children are fed, clothed, cared for, educated, and kept from harm. We can’t give parents these responsibilities without ensuring that they have the ability to actually meet them.

Let me offer an example. Bobby can walk now, but he has no idea that roads and cars are dangerous. I’m forever following him toward the road, picking him up before he gets there, and hauling him back to the middle of the yard. I’m impeding his freedom of movement when I do that—what adult would stand for another adult just picking them up and hauling them off at a whim (we generally call that kidnapping)? But if I let Bobby have freedom of movement, he would end up dead.

Here’s another interesting example. If I’m at the park with a friend and I’m ready to go but my friend isn’t, I can just leave and my friend can stay longer. But if I’m at the park with Sally and she wants to stay and I’m ready to go, I can’t do that. If I left Sally alone at the park at her age, I would be shirking my responsibility to protect her and keep her safe. So if we, say, decided to let children decide how long they wanted to stay at the park rather than leaving them at their parents’ whim (just run with me here), the parents would end up at the whim of the child and have their own freedom of movement effectively curtailed.

Of course, we expect parents to give up some of their freedoms when having children. A parent is not free to go out with friends without getting a sitter, for instance. Taking up the responsibility involved with being a parent automatically means giving up certain amounts of freedom. But at the same time, becoming a parent should not mean being wholly subject to a child’s every whim. To use the ice cream example from my earlier post, it would be unfair to the parent to suggest that they should take a child for ice cream every time she asks for it, and not just because it’s bad for the child’s diet or the family pocketbook. Not giving the child any say is a problem, and so is giving the child final say regardless of the parent’s needs. That’s also not good for teaching children responsibility and self control and empathy. As a parent myself, I try to balance my needs with my children’s needs and to teach them to do the same.

While it should be obvious that older children do need more freedom, even then parents’ need to curtail certain freedoms for the protection of the child does not end. For example, if a 13 year old girl has fallen in with bad friends and has started doing things that are dangerous (dating a much older boy in what you can tell is not a healthy relationship, participating in petty theft or vandalism, trying hard drugs or driving without a license), her parents have the responsibility to protect her—and that may mean breaking off her friendships, taking away her access to multimedia, and grounding her. An 18 year old girl would be allowed to make her own mistakes, but a 13 year old girl is younger, more impressionable, and less able to protect herself—not to mention the fact that her brain has not finished developing, meaning that she may not have the ability to make fully-informed decisions and take into account all of the consequences of her actions. It is the parent’s responsibility to make sure that that child reaches adulthood safe and in one piece.

I think there are two issues I’m trying to pull together here. First, parents have a responsibility to keep their children safe and bring them to adulthood in one piece, and they need the tools to be able to do that. Second, if children are given some of the actual rights adults have (being able to choose when to go out for ice cream, or how long to stay at the park), those rights would infringe on parents’ own freedom and needs, especially so given that children may not always have the same capacity to fully understand and grasp the ramifications and consequences of their choices, or how their choices affect others.

And so it is that we give parents (nearly) absolute authority over children. They are to care for children and help them reach adulthood safely, and are trusted to fulfill those responsibilities. But while I understand why we do this, I do have a few concerns. I’m not simply talking about parents who are legally abusive—those children at least we try to help. What I’m talking about are the smaller things, the things that are actually legal. Spanking, for one. Punishing children with groundings and the loss of their possessions for small offenses or simple misunderstandings. Children who are never actually listened to and are instead simply dictated to. There are no laws banning these things, and the (nearly) absolute authority we give parents over children allows them to occur unimpeded. Does every parent do these things? No, but plenty do.

We give the government the right to protect its citizens militarily, knowing that it is better capable of doing this than we are, but we recognize that there is the potential for it to abuse this power. Think about all the recent concern about the government’s collection of phone data—we recognize that there is the possibility for the government to go too far without necessarily having nefarious aims. Abuse of power doesn’t have to be grave or the result of an evil mastermind for it to be an abuse of power. Unlike children, we the people have a way to stand up and say when we think things have gone too far. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. Children don’t have this.

How do we protect children from the smaller things that are not legally considered abuse—the sort of things that result from almost unchecked absolute power—while still ensuring that parents have the tools they need to protect their children and bring them to adulthood unharmed? Unfortunately, in all to many cases the only thing we do currently is remind the child or teen that once she turns 18, she will be free.

Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
Red Town, Blue Town
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • tesyaa

    Small point:

    if children are given some of the actual rights adults have (being able
    to choose when to go out for ice cream, or how long to stay at the
    park), those rights would infringe on parents’ own freedom and needs

    Or responsibilities. You, as the adult, are aware you have to leave the park to make dinner for the family. The child doesn’t have the responsibility to make dinner (though the child almost always expects dinner to be there when he or she is ready!). Taking time to care for the family (or to do other necessary tasks) takes away from “fun time”, and that’s actually an important lesson for a child to start learning.

  • mksMary

    I suppose one thing we can do is give the child access to a community, ideally at school or in the neighborhood, but these days probably also through the internet, which affirms that they’re not crazy, encourages them in their hopes and dreams, recognizes them for their abilities and achievements, and comforts them when they’re upset.

    Again, I don’t know if it’s really practical to enforce laws not only against abuse as currently defined, but against unreasonableness and unfairness. The definitions of unreasonable and unfair are too subjective, too context dependent, for bright line rules, and we would need millions and millions of judges to hear every case of “unfair punishment” if we were really going to try to try to enforce good parenting legally.

    But maybe we can enforce a rule about giving the child an opportunity to interact with a community outside their parents’ control. Can we require that homeschooled children have some unsupervised internet access? Hmm… I guess I can see some potential problems with that, with the news telling us all the time that parents should supervise their kids on the internet. Is there some way to define “too much isolation” and require that kids not be too isolated?

    • smrnda

      I wish there was a way to prevent isolation, though the ‘right to isolate my kids from anyone I don’t like’ is seen as a sacred thing by a lot of people.

      Having contact with lots of other adults, families, and people is a great way for kids to realize how subjective and arbitrary life in their families can be. I wish you could also mandate that adults not remain isolated – in the face of more mature, even-handed adults, lots of authoritarian parents are going to look pretty ridiculous.

      • http://preciousscars.wordpress.com/2012/06/page/2/ pi31415

        “I wish you could also mandate that adults not remain isolated,” Yeah, I’ll keep my natural introversion, tyvm, and assume you didn’t mean to imply that there was something wrong with people who don’t enjoy socializing with others.

        Mandating social interactions indeed. My god, I hope that’s not what you meant.

      • smrnda

        I wouldn’t force introverts to socialize, I was thinking more about someone who holes up in a bunker full of guns, raising their kids to fight in some kind of apocalyptic ‘end times’ battle. In terms of parents with children, something like this is kind of a bad model. I view kids as having a right to contact with the outside world that can stand at odds with the parent’s desire to isolate them.

        In terms of parents with children, it’s also that I worry that naturally introverted or less sociable adults can deprive their kids of contact with others that they might want or need, just as I’d also worry that outgoing adults often force kids into situations they don’t feel comfortable with.

    • http://preciousscars.wordpress.com/2012/06/page/2/ pi31415

      Too much isolation: Anything that goes against a child’s natural gregariousness. I have two very outgoing children. I’ve never tried to curtail those tendencies. If I did, I’d be enforcing isolation on them, which would not be healthy. I also have one very introverted child. I encourage but do not force socialization because he prefers to be alone, reading or otherwise entertaining himself. I would not call him “too isolated” simply because he’s introverted. It’s just his nature.

      Requiring more interaction from him would not only be ignoring his natural needs but also absolutely unnecessary. You just cannot mandate these things because you, an outsider, have no real way of gauging what is really going on in that child’s mind. A parent, a halfway decent parent, anyway, is almost always going to understand his/her child than any government agency.

      • Gillianren

        Even introverted kids need to learn how to interact with people.

      • http://preciousscars.wordpress.com/2012/06/page/2/ pi31415

        Sure. Which is why I said that I encourage socialization. But I sure as heck am not going to force him to go to a party or other event that I know will make his skin crawl. *shrug*

      • mksMary

        “Too much isolation: Anything that goes against a child’s natural gregariousness. I have two very outgoing children.”
        That is way too individual and subjective to be a legal standard. I was hoping there was some way to define too much islolation in some objective way, so that you could have laws with the effect of “We’re not going to tell you how to raise your kid, but we are going to tell you that you have to let your kid interact with broader society in some way so that, just in case you are a bad parent, they have access to some kind of support network.”
        Not that we would require kids to socialize, just that they have the opportunity to do so.
        But it still seems really hard from a legal POV. First, even if you banned homeschooling, school is not necessarily the ideal place to find such a community. (In the movie “Carrie,” the girls at school didn’t really help Carrie cope with her horrible home life, did they?) Second, what about peple who just live in very remote places? Are we going to make it illegal to live too far out in the country? If not, how can we require that their kids have access to other people? Which is why I thought, “maybe the internet” — but if the parents are supervising, kids can’t really get the support to help them cope with the parents’ bad behavior. And you have to let parents supervise. Third, I could imagine parents arguing that their church (or cult) counts as a community under a hypothetical law like this, but that kind of community would not necessarily provide the “santity check” that I had in mind for a law like this — they might be just as messed up as the parents.
        What I was trying to get at, though, was that if we can’t stop parents from treating their children badly (because we just don’t have the resources to examine every parent child dispute and determine who is at fault), it would be nice if there were some way to at least ensure that the kids have enough access to broader society to know that they’re being treated badly, and believe that they’ll be “free” some day. Some access to other people who can tell them “this is not normal.”
        But even that seems impractical, the more I think about it. So how can we expect to do more than that, to actually intervene, for kids who may not ever interact with “normal” society at all? How would we even know there was a problem?

      • The_L1985

        We could perhaps say:

        Parents are not allowed to deliberately and completely isolate their children from others.

        This would have the nice effect of criminalizing the act of locking your kid in a basement for life or forbidding her to ever leave the house, without making it a crime to live in very rural areas where there might not be other kids around.

      • mksMary

        I think locking your kids up is already illegal under child abuse laws. But what about people who don’t lock their kids up, but police their interactions with others so thoroughly, and limit the people with whom they can interact so carefully, that the kids never get to hear any counter-narrative to the constant stream of “You are worthless/lazy/dirty” messages that bad (yet not technically abusive) parents send?

      • Rachel Heston-Davis

        This is a very interesting thought…but still might be too subjective to be useful. Like in Libby Anne’s hypothetical case of the 13-year-old who’s fallen in with bad friends, what’s to stop her from using the “deliberately and completely” law to claim that her parents shouldn’t be allowed to stop her from seeing that particular group of friends? Also, I can see parents finding excuses to make lifestyle changes that would impact their children’s social lives (like moving out to the country) that would actually be deliberate attempts, but would be disguised as something else.

  • victoria

    I can think of techniques that parents can use to give their kids more of a voice without endangering them or disrupting the fabric of the family. They’re more and more useful as kids get older. Mandating in some way that all parents use those techniques, though, I would not be in favor of.

    One example: Family meetings. My child has generally had very, very little screen time. When she was little we generally just didn’t do it; when she got to be school-aged we decided that she could have more freedom to determine how much she used, but that we would intervene if screen time started to push out other things. That worked fine for a couple years — she might ask to watch something on the iPad or play a game once a week or so. But over the last month or two, she’s started watching a lot more and I feel like we’ve gotten to that point.

    I would’ve been well within my rights to set a strict limit of some sort, but instead we had a family meeting last night where we discussed whether there even was a problem (the kiddo herself was the first to volunteer that it was — she was frustrated at just how easy it was to watch a whole bunch of videos and felt like she’d rather be doing other stuff) and how to solve it. The solution we came to was not the one I would’ve unilaterally imposed–but it’s a plausible solution of the kiddo’s own making, so we’re going with it.

  • Mel

    Punishing children with groundings and the loss of their possessions for small offenses or simple misunderstandings. Children who are never actually listened to and are instead simply dictated to…while still ensuring that parents have the tools they need to protect their children and bring them to adulthood unharmed?

    I think most of the parents who raise their kids with overly authoritarian methods of parenting do so because they lack the tools they need to bring their kids to adulthood. While all families have occasional mistakes, families that consistently use these methods do not understand basic childhood development milestones or psychology. When we see this in a school situation, we strongly recommend that parents take a parenting class through a local service agency. (We vet the programs to avoid any programs like Abusing Your Children: The Pearl Method.) For home-schooled families, this would mean that members of their community help monitor and support families.

    The majority of families who take parenting classes show improvement – especially if there is not another major problem involved like substance abuse or untreated mental illness. Those that don’t, we can start to look for other root causes.

    • Machintelligence

      Frequently the authoritarian methods end badly once the child reaches 18. One family I am familiar with because we used to carpool to school was very fundamentalist (no Harry Potter books or movies, missionary trips in the summer, etc.) and had a daughter my kids age who was very gifted in mathematics. She was also apparently somewhat of a handful in the behavior department, frequently getting grounded for not doing her schoolwork and so forth. She went away to college and got pregnant with twins in her sophomore year.

      • http://preciousscars.wordpress.com/2012/06/page/2/ pi31415

        Authoritarian parenting ends badly because the children never learn how to make healthy, positive decisions. When you respect your kids enough to not just give but also explain their options, they learn how to make good decisions.

      • Gillianren

        Yeah, I’ve had friends who were that strictly regulated. Pretty much without fail, they either rebelled and made all sorts of unwise decisions or else were so under their parents’ thumbs that they were never able to make any decisions. One person I knew would do things she didn’t want to just because you’d asked her, not because she had any good reason to. She just never learned how to say no.

      • The_L1985

        It’s doubly frustrating when parents say, “Do this because I said so!” and then turn around when someone takes advantage of you and ask, “Why didn’t you just say no to that instead of letting them treat you like a doormat?”

        Because my friend told me to do this thing; it isn’t something clearly immoral, like cheating on a test; and you yourself always said to always do what I’m told unless I’m asked to do something immoral.

        Small wonder kids would have me turn in their lunch trays (I always brought lunch from home) or carry things for them, or whatever else they could get me to do. I didn’t have a concept of “I don’t want to” or “You have legs; do it yourself!” being at all OK.

      • Ella Warnock

        Oh yeah, that was one of The. Most. Frustrating. things about my mother. Obey her unquestioningly, but still somehow understand and have the ability to stand up for myself. If I couldn’t say “no” at home, what made her think I could say it anywhere else? I got a lot older than I care to admit before I figured out that I don’t need a reason to refuse to do anything, other than, “just don’t wanna.”

      • Nancy Shrew

        If they had just let her read Harry Potter.

        Really, though, I agree that the overly-authoritarian approach tends to end badly once the kid hits the teens. My friend had a neighbor who was maybe thirteen and fourteen and his parents were very strict, religious; basically the kind of parents we read about here but they let their kids go to public school. Anyway, he started sneaking out, etc. and he got sent to boarding school as a result.

      • Sally

        My theory is that if the parents are overly authoritarian and homeschool in an isolated way, they likely won’t have rebellious teens (but maybe some rebellious young adults). If they’re overly authoritarian but send their kids to school or otherwise expose them to general society enough, they will likely rebel. I think this is a primary motivation for isolated homeschooling.

    • http://preciousscars.wordpress.com/2012/06/page/2/ pi31415

      I wonder if parenting classes could be — if not mandated — strongly encouraged somehow.

      In a perfect world, people would choose to take these classes. But many don’t, so incentivizing seems like a good idea.

      • Rosa

        where I live there are early childhood education classes available for free to every parent, they’re somehow sponsored by both the county and the public schools. The county publicizes them pretty widely (we got mailings about them after my son was born, and they do radio PSAs). These are mainly social opportunities for parents, ways to get together with similar parents of near-age kids, but the facilitators do quite a bit of education at the same time. One of my relatives got kind of drummed out of a church-based moms group and switched to the local public early childhood education one and was super happy, plus the other moms have been a great support network for her as she’s home with several young kids. Another friend is a stay at home dad and goes to a dads-only ECFE group.

        I know in the UK similar groups are offered by NIH and new parents get a phone call or door knock inviting them to go. I assume other countries with public health services have something similar.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        It could be a HS class like home-economics

      • Rosa

        I actually took a high school class like that, but it’s a lot more helpful in small increments close to the time your child is that age.

      • stacey

        I don’t know where you live, but where I live services like this are all being cut.
        Nice idea, if you don’t mind paying for it. And too many people fail to see this as an investment.

    • Rosa

      our entire concept of how families work has changed over time, and is still changing, and has cultural & geographic variations within that change. This kind of education & peer support is part of that change. But not every parent WANTS to raise independent adults (the Pearls certainly don’t, and Libby Anne’s parents didn’t want to raise independent adult women) and even in groups that say they do, many limit that – we want to raise autonomous adults who still feel a responsibility to support their parents in old age, for instance.

      • Gillianren

        Hey, my mother made me promise I’d put her in a home if she needs it. She knows I can’t support her!

      • Theo Darling


        When I left my parents’ home for college (at age 24!) my mother took it as an indication that they had failed raising me. None of my siblings have ever left or attempted to leave before, including the oldest, who’s nearing 30. One of them actually wants to build a little cabin on the grounds and live there /with his potential future spouse/ someday.

    • The_L1985

      I wish someone had pointed this out to my dad. He literally could not understand the concept of any method of parenting that is neither authoritarian nor totally permissive. (My cousin appears to also misunderstand the terms, but she understands that the way Dad did things isn’t a right way, and that there are other good ways to do things.) Our house was like boot camp.

      Guess who has general anxiety disorder! :D

  • luckyducky

    I think there is a reasonable balance to be had and that in searching for something different than authoritarianism, there is a danger it going too far in the other direction and giving enough structure and expecting enough of them in terms of polite behavior (I am not talking about seen-not-heard “politeness,” I am talking about being courteous and respectful of others’ time, space, and possessions).

    Problematic behavior should have consequences — that is how we learn and not enforcing or rescuing a child from consequences is a parenting failure. I’ve watch an acquaintance do this twice — she fixed her children’s school problems all the way thru, never let them actually suffer the consequences of not turning in homework or sleeping through a test first by micromanaging and negotiating for make-up. Both time, they go to the point where she couldn’t do that any more — university — and they both failed out in their first semester.

    Being grounded or losing possessions can be reasonable consequences as long as their are logically connected to whatever the action the child is getting in trouble for and proportional for the problematic behavior. Not behaving responsibly when out with friends–the logical consequence is that parents don’t trust child to go out (aka grounded). Failing to take care of possessions (being their own or others’) — a logical consequence is losing that or similar possession (i.e., my child was not treating the tablet with the care it needs, so he isn’t allowed to use the tablet and similar for a while).

    • The_L1985

      “Problematic behavior should have consequences — that is how we learn.”

      Yes. If you break your toy, the consequence is that you no longer have that (now-broken) toy. If you stay up too late on a school night, the consequence is that you’re too sleepy to focus in school the next day. Consequences don’t have to be set by the parents in order to be effective.

      As for not being careful with the tablet, you could say things like, “Be very careful with it” when you hand the child the tablet, and stuff like “No, you can’t have juice while you’re playing with the tablet. You might spill the juice, and electrical stuff breaks when it gets wet. If you want juice, you need to put the tablet away first.”

      • Christine

        Not everything has natural consequences. My sister, as a young child, found some chocolate bars that my mother had bought for the family as a treat, and ate them. If my mom hadn’t required her to replace them out of her own money (she also had to make it up to my mom for having to make a second trip the store), there really wouldn’t have been consequences, beyond everyone being upset with her, and when there’s a 3.5 year gap between you and your older sister, there’s a lot of stress to begin with.

        There are also times where parents needs to set logical consequences in lieu of natural ones, because allowing the situation to continue to the point where the natural consequences kick in is dangerous. This would be something like Libby’s example of a 13-year-old falling in with a “bad” crowd. The life-long consequences if you get arrested for marijuana possession are too large, too delayed and too permanent to act as a good learning opportunity, so parents need to step in and stop the behaviour.

      • Rosa

        that last is an example of how even non-authoritarian parents are functioning in a largely authoritarian society, which is a big source of this tension.

      • Christine

        Good point. That isn’t actually natural consequences either. But the argument would still hold if I had a 17-year-old who was drinking & then driving/swimming/otherwise putting themselves at risk of serious injury.

      • http://preciousscars.wordpress.com/2012/06/page/2/ pi31415

        Replacing the chocolate bars (reparations) is a natural consequence, imo.

      • Sally

        I think what’s she’s trying to say is that you need both natural and logical consequences as tools. Natural consequences happen “naturally” without your intervention (get stomach ache from too much candy). Logical consequences require an intervention from the parent. Logical consequences are logical if the “punishment fits the crime.” So making the girl pay for the candy bars “fits the crime” in that it makes sense, but it’s not a natural consequence because it didn’t happen “naturally” without parent intervention.
        Some people call both types of consequences all natural or all logical. But it can be helpful as a parent to recognize the difference.

      • Nurse Bee

        What about when children are fighting with each other? If my children are hitting each other, I will separate them and often place one (or both) in time out. If I left them to work it out (they are 4 and 2), they would see it as acceptable behavior.

      • The_L1985

        I did not say that parents should never set consequences. I simply said that sometimes natural consequences are enough. Those two statements are not the same thing.

      • luckyducky

        I was talking a friend of my about parenting. We both have “easy” older children. By easy I mean they are all very verbal and fairly to highly motivated to please others so talking through your feelings, what you as a parent want/expect, what are reasonable compromises and likely consequences is pretty effective and getting children to do what you want/need.

        And we both have far more “difficult” younger/-est children. By difficult I mean not verbal (not as in non-verbal but that they are not auditory learners and are not terribly verbally expressive, possibly have auditory processing difficulties), not very motivated to please others, and, in my case, highly skeptical (inborn trait not learned and not person-specific). Talking things through is still important but it is just not going to get him to be “very careful” with anything… I’ve explained to him MANY times that just because he hasn’t been hit by a car YET doesn’t mean he won’t ever be hit by a car and so we still need to hold hands across the street and not run around the parking lot. And despite this, I still regularly have to catch him by the arm before he jumps out in the street immediately after asking him to hold my hand and then come up with a consequence for not following safety rules.

        While I would love to stick with natural consequences, sometimes they are just too high and/or too removed in time for a 6yo to be able to link them to his actions. If I did limit myself to natural consequences and what is required to save life and limb, my 6yo would be a little tyrant because far too often he’d do whatever he wanted regardless of their impact on others — because at 6yo, it is normal for empathy to be pretty hit-and-miss and for children to not appreciate not only how how but that their actions affect others. I don’t think that is responsible parenting.

        Anyway, the friend and I decided the younger/-est child are meant to teach us to be less judgmental of other parents because with our older children, we had it easy and didn’t realize it. It was very easy to pontificate on how successful your parenting style is when you start with a straight flush… that style may fail to stand up when one is dealt a more challenging hand.

      • Sally

        “Anyway, the friend and I decided the younger/-est child are meant to teach us to be less judgmental of other parents because with our older children, we had it easy and didn’t realize it. It was very easy to pontificate on how successful your parenting style is when you start with a straight flush… that style may fail to stand up when one is dealt a more challenging hand.”
        I’m with you on that!

      • staceyjw

        That’s all good and well, but sometimes the tablet just needs taken away. Material things cost money, and I don’t see any benefit to letting a careless child ruin them as a teaching tool.

      • The_L1985

        True. OTOH, even young children can be surprisingly gentle with fragile objects when you tell them they’re fragile. However, this is one of those things that varies from child to child. :)

    • Mewslie

      I think behaviour should have reasons, not consequences. I find kids to be very logical, they just see less because of the lack of experience. That’s where parents and society come in; second hand experience is a good source too. Focusing on consequences gives you the illusion of being able to control external things when in reality, the only thing you can control is yourself, the way you think.

      • Sally

        In an ideal world, parents wouldn’t need to impose consequences. But I’m afraid there are many, many times when reason just doesn’t work (more with some kids than others). I have a neighbor who thought she could do it all with reason. Then at some point she said, “I’m realizing we’re going to have to use consequences. I thought we could do it all with … love and reason.”

        If parents don’t have a plan as to what to do when reason doesn’t work, many end up lying/tricking and/or yelling. I’ve heard it said that yelling is the new spanking. I’d argue lying/tricking and yelling are the new spanking.

        Reasoning is a great place to start, but parents need a plan B so they don’t end up with lying/tricking & yelling as the default when they thought they’d never, ever do such a thing.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    All I know is that I wanted consistent rules and enforcement as a child. There were rules, they were enforced… but I feel like my younger sister got away with (metaphorical) murder, while I spent a lot of time in my room.

    • The_L1985

      And developmentally-appropriate punishments if you’re going to punish, please. When my brother was 8 or 9, my parents moved from spanking to taking away toys and privileges until he began to behave. When I was 16, I was still being spanked. I never once felt that this was fair, and was always terrified that the other kids at school would find out that I was still being spanked.

      My parents basically figured out when I was 3 that other forms of punishment didn’t work on me then, and for some reason they just sort of assumed that this would never change as I grew older.

    • Gillianren

      My younger sister is a sociopath. There’s nothing Mom could have done to change that, of course, but she didn’t have to make it easier by so rarely bothering to punish her. I got punished more often and misbehaved less. Not fair. And my sister, who’s 32, still lives at home, because she’s going to take care of Mom in her old age. Or anyway, Mom believes that; no one else seems to.

  • Alice

    The first example of how most adults don’t treat other adults reminded me of the a-hole preacher who, among MANY other misogynistic comments, talked about how every day he picks up his wife and carries her through the house to remind her he’s stronger than her and he’s the boss. He /claims/ it’s lighthearted for both of them, but UGGGGGH. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/03/15/christian-pastor-i-carry-my-wife-around-the-house-every-day-to-show-her-whos-boss/

  • Beth Clarkson

    It’s an interesting conundrum, where to draw the line between intervention and not, particularly when the behavior is not considered abuse. It seems to me that we define ‘abuse’ as parental behavior that warrants intervention from the outside. Spanking was normal parenting practice in the era I grew up in. Now it’s illegal in many countries. In a way, it’s as if we can watch our societal mores change with the laws that define what is and isn’t abuse, rape, etc.

    At any rate, interesting post and good questions to ponder. I don’t think there are any definitive answers other than deciding collectively what kind of society we want to live in. One where parents can spank their children or one where children can potentially be taken away from their parents for the crime of spanking them.

    Speaking as a spanked child who grew up in a culture where such behavior was normal and with parents who were not abusive, I don’t find it troublesome that parents can spank. My husband convinced me that it wasn’t good parenting and after some thought, I decided he was right. But I am very uncomfortable about the idea of parents like mine losing custody of their kids because they spank them, so I don’t support anti-spanking laws. Voluntary parenting classes, on the other hand, are a great idea to reduce the use of spanking through non-authoritarian methods.

    BTW, regarding the discussion of boys who race around parking lots. I found my son really responded to the idea of protecting me from the cars. I couldn’t keep up with him! I started asking him to hold my hand so I wouldn’t be scared, he was usually willing to do that.

    • stacey

      ” I found my son really responded to the idea of protecting me from the cars. I couldn’t keep up with him! I started asking him to hold my hand so I wouldn’t be scared, he was usually willing to do that.”

      This is a GREAT idea, I am totally going to use it! Thanks.

      • Sally

        I don’t mean to be a big jerk here, but I never lie to or try to trick my kids. For me, telling my child I need him to hold my hand because I”m scared might work, but it’s across that line I set for myself.

        IMO, lying/tricking has become a common way for parents to handle kids these days in light of the fact that a lot of us are trying to avoid authoritarianism so we have to use reason more. But when the child can’t be reasoned with, lying/tricking becomes the new “easy button.”

        I have neighbors who lied to their kids all the time. You want to write with this permanent marker when you’re only 3? Oh look, I just can’t get it open. Uhh, Uhh. Sorry, it’s stuck! Those two kids both grew to be very sneaky and manipulative with their parents. The parents think they’re getting away with it. But there comes a moment where they catch on before the parents and then the jig is up (and new light is shed on their entire childhood so far). Or they see what the parent is doing to a younger sibling, and realize it was done to them. Kids catch on and learn from the master very, very suddenly and quickly, imo.

        Sorry for the long speech, but this is a pet peeve of mine in our current society. I just want to encourage you both to maybe rethink using this method even though it makes things easier right now.

      • Christine

        I agree with you that it’s a bad idea to lie to your kids, but I’m not sure that I’d say “please hold my hand so I’m not scared” would be lying. It could be done as such, but frankly, I’m terrified that my daughter is going to run in front of a car. If she keeps a good grip on my hand, I’m much less nervous. I wouldn’t phrase it that way to an adult, but it’s simplifying the situation to a point where the child can understand.

      • Sally

        Well, a couple of people have responded suggesting it’s OK to say “so I’m not scared” and let the child interpret that how they will. I was responding to the original example which says,” I found my son really responded to the idea of protecting me from the cars.”

        In principle I’m arguing that telling your child he’s protecting you from cars or saying it in a vague way so he might think you mean he’s protecting you from cars is deceptive and, if done regularly, will likely set up an unspoken rule in the family that the way to get your way when honesty doesn’t work is to be sneaky (which I consider manipulative).

        But ultimately if you’re in a situation where your kid might get hit by a car, to heck with my ideals, protect the kid however you have to.

        That said, if you really have a child who refuses to hold your hand, I wouldn’t even count on his thinking he’s protecting you. I might make him stay strapped in a large jogging stroller until he can be trusted, or find a way to be tethered to him. So what I’m saying is, safety first. But if he’s really so unsafe that you feel you have to trick him, then the tricking probably isn’t safe enough either. Otherwise, I’d use other methods. Tricking can become such an easy habit to avoid tantrums and arguments and gain cooperation. But if someone tricked their kid once in the middle of a busy street to keep him safe and it never became a habit, well, the parent probably did the right thing, imo.
        But if you’re arguing that it’s a fine line, imo, you’re crossing the line.

      • Christine

        Oh, I wouldn’t want to tell a child that it was for them to protect me. I missed that detail when reading the original comment, and just straight out responded to yours. If I could find anything else that worked, I’d stick with that instead, definitely.

      • Beth Clarkson

        Actually, I phrased it more like ‘I’m not as scared when you hold my hand’. I just didn’t spend any time worrying about the exact phrasing, either here or then. My son’s 14 now, so parking lots with fast cars are no longer an issue.

      • sylvia_rachel

        It’s a fine line. “I’m scared” can also mean “I’m scared you’ll be hit by a car if you don’t hold my hand” … which, when my DD was that age, I genuinely sometimes was. I don’t remember ever using this strategy; but then, I was in the fortunate situation of having a slightly built child whom I could still easily pick up and carry when she was 3 and 4 and even 5 years old, which meant that at the really dangerous running-out-into-traffic age, I could credibly say “You can hold my hand or I can carry you. Up to you.” When your kid is too big to carry, or you have your hands full with a younger one, or whatever, you can’t do that. What I *have* said many times over the years is: “There are a lot of people here, and it would be really easy for us to lose each other, so I need you to {hold my hand / stay by me / stay within hailing distance / hang onto my backpack strap / etc.}.” It worked okay, most of the time. With my kid. YMMV.

        On lying to kids: Over this past year my 10yo figured out that Daddy is Santa Claus and Mummy is the Tooth Fairy. She approached me first with “Is Santa Claus really Dad? I think Santa Claus isn’t real and it’s Dad putting the stuff in my stocking.” The first time, I deflected it by telling her Santa Claus is Daddy’s department, not mine. (I am Jewish, but DH is … I dunno, culturally Christian? Anyway, our home is basically Jewish-but-with-Xmas-presents.) But the very next thing I did was talk to DH and say, more or less, look, she’s figured it out and I am not comfortable lying to her — in fact, I was never super comfortable with the whole Santa Claus thing, but it was important to him, and as long as she was happily believing, it was hard to see the harm. He was reluctant to let go of the Santa Claus deal, but it finally became clear to him that this was a serious trust issue for DD, and he sat her down and explained things. Then he made her promise not to spoil it for her littler cousins, and she promised, and was much happier. It was frustrating to me that he had to be talked into telling her the truth … but it turns out he was traumatized as a kid by older cousins’ pulling aside the curtain on Santa, and was just trying to keep the magic alive for DD, or whatever. So he meant well … but I’m still glad we’re all in on the secret now.

        When DD then, a couple of months later, came right out and said “Mom, you’re the Tooth Fairy, right?” I just said yes. Then I had to show her all the teeth. The next time she lost a tooth, instead of putting it under her pillow, she just handed it to me, and I gave her a loonie — much easier than trying to sneak in and exchange loonie for tooth-under-pillow without waking sleeping kid!

        Anyway, I think there’s a fine line sometimes between lying and pretending, but at the point where the kid calls you on the pretending, you have to be honest or you’ve lost all credibility.

      • http://Thechurchproject.me/ Tracey

        I have a huge beef with the Santa Claus nonsense and have decided not to lie to my child in this fashion. My reason? I felt upset at being lied to about something I saw as a basic proof of goodness in the universe. I absolutely knew Santa could be counted on as a force for good. It made me so sad to learn this wasn’t true. For a long time I bought into the idea that its best to give the kid at least a few years of belief. But now it seems to me a better idea to show an impressionable child some real goodness in the world that won’t go away, rather than fake goodness that’s really just a hoax.

        PS. My computer is a phone and it’s hard to tell where to nudge the screen properly. I’m trying really hard not to accidentally down vote. Apologies if I fail :(

      • victoria

        Our strategy on the whole Santa Claus thing was to not encourage belief and not to lie, but not to deliberately squash those beliefs if they came up (through cultural osmosis) either. (We did/do a stocking and a couple “Santa presents” that arrive after she goes to sleep on Christmas Eve, but I don’t conceal the handwriting on the tag or use different wrapping paper, and the big presents are always from Mom & Dad.)

        In practice, what that meant was that “Santa Claus is watching you!” was never, ever, ever used as a reason to behave; we didn’t push media on her that extolled the wonders of Santa Claus; and the answer to “Is Santa Claus real?” was always “What do you think?” until she started saying something like “I don’t think so, and I want you to tell me the truth!,” in which case we said that it’s a fun Christmas tradition and that it was important not to ruin the fun for other kids who hadn’t figured it out yet.

        Interestingly enough, the kiddo started out quite certain that Santa Claus wasn’t real (one of the kids she’s been close to since she was a toddler is Jewish, so that was a big clue right there), then deciding that he “probably isn’t real, but I want to believe anyway, so I do,” then in recent years going along with it with a big, charming wink. Asking “Santa” to cook her breakfast in the morning, wink-wink.

        Dale McGowan has a good article on this topic too.

  • gtg950w

    I was spanked as a child and I turned out perfectly fine. Sure, the practice can lead itself to abuses, but if done right and judiciously by the Parents can produce meaningful and productive results. Taking spankings off the table completely is like taking birth control off the table completely when trying to reduce the number of abortions – it’s counter-productive. It’s also important to note that spankings are more effective on boys than girls; girls at a young age can often be reasoned with and convinced of their wrongdoing, whereas boys do not develop this mental capacity until a much later age (for me it was around 10 years of age).

    • Christine

      “Taking spankings off the table completely is like taking birth control
      off the table completely when trying to reduce the number of abortions -
      it’s counter-productive.”
      To what goal? Even if we could assure that everyone who spanked their children did so in a non-abusive manner, spanking still teaches the child that they need to listen because the other person is bigger than them. It teaches that hitting can be an appropriate response. Basically, it’s inherently authoritarian.

      Even aside from that, it doesn’t work nearly as well as conventional techniques for teaching children what to do. So aside from preventing children from getting hurt, not teaching them that Realpolitik is a good framework to use, and respecting their autonomy, spanking produces “better” behaviour. What’s the downside?

      • gtg950w

        “To what goal?” – Um, to teach them what they just did was wrong/unacceptable. Just like touching a hot stove teaches them that touching a hot stove is wrong by burning them, spanking provides a physical connection to whatever action/statement they committed/said.
        “spanking still teaches the child that they need to listen because the other person is bigger than them.” – If that were true, every adult would be allowed to spank every child, but they’re not. Spanking is/should be reserved for the direct parents of a child. Therefore, spanking teaches the child that they need to listen because the other person is their parent, as they should. I would hate to live in a world where children did not have to obey their parents; we would end up with a lot of dead children on our hands if that were the case.
        “It teaches that hitting can be an appropriate response” – Once again, if that were true then we wouldn’t spank/reprimand them (the child) for hitting someone else, but obviously we do.
        Yes, it’s authoritarian, but that is exactly one of the roles of being a parent. It’s not to say you cannot be nurturing as well. It’s all about balance.
        “conventional techniques”? – Conventional implies that something is widely practiced. Last time I checked, that still includes spanking/grounding. If anything, the “no spanking” parenting technique is still new; so I believe the phrase you were looking for is “novel”.
        “respecting their autonomy” – I’m sorry, call me old fashioned, but I don’t believe a 6 year old has any right to any autonomy aside from what color crayon they use. That’s not to say they shouldn’t gain autonomy as they age, but one is not afforded complete autonomy at birth. It is gained over time with wisdom/experience/maturity/development.
        If spanking is something that makes you personally uncomfortable as a parent, that’s fine; you are perfectly within your right as a parent to raise your child as you see fit (excepting for obvious cases of abuse/neglect). But to rule out certain parenting techniques for everyone else, especially when those techniques have worked for countless generations, is wrong.

      • Christine

        I am very impressed that, despite you being 8 years behind in cause & effect, you were able to appreciate such narrow definitions in when something is ok, especially when you were so much younger than everyone else is when they figure that sort of thing out.

        I expected you to disagree with me on whether or not authoritarianism is ok, and whether or not hitting is. But I was hoping that you might attempt to actually address the fact that spanking doesn’t actually acomplish anything that can’t be more easily done in the manner that most people do it. (I am respecting your desire to not allow something to be both conventional and novel). Your original statement said that not spanking would be counterproductive, with no context given for that. You appear to have now claimed that it makes children behave less well, in defiance of all the evidence that the opposite is true. Perhaps you could actually take the time to explain what you mean, rather than taking all the throw-aways and pretending that they are my main point.

      • gtg950w

        “8 years behind in cause & effect” – In what way? There are an infinite number of causes with an infinite number of effects. Do you honestly expect a 2 year old to know all of them?
        “spanking doesn’t actually accomplish anything that can’t be more easily done in the manner that most people do it.” – Once again, I love how you assume what “most” people’s parenting techniques are these days. Do you have surveys/polls to back this up? If so I’ll admit my error, but until then I’ll continue to assume that a variety of parents have a variety of parenting techniques, one no worse than the other. Also, have you ever tried to reason with a 3 year old? Maybe you can have success with some more than others, but their brains literally are not developed fully enough to the point where you can reason with them as you could an adult; this is a scientific fact.

        “Your original statement said that not spanking would be counterproductive” – No, my original statement said that taking spankings completely off the table would be counterproductive; once again, a variety of parents have a variety of parenting techniques, one no worse than the other.
        All I am saying is that spanking, when done properly, is still a valid method of parenting, no different than any other parenting technique. It all comes down to the individual parents and their personal preferences. But claiming that proper spanking/grounding is detrimental to ALL children in ALL circumstances is both narrow-minded and groundless.

      • Christine

        Yes, I do expect 2-year-olds to understand cause and effect. Just because you can’t spank/use time outs with younger children doesn’t mean that you aren’t explaining cause and effect to them. Failure to meet developmental milestones due to neglect is still failure to meet milestones.

        20 years ago, only 80% of kids were spanked even once. The vast majority were spanked “rarely” or “sometimes” – not a sign that it’s being used as a disciplinary tactic. And that’s in one of the few countries where spanking is legal. There was a definitely downward trend over time (I only have the one study, but because they divide by age group it approximates the effect of a longitudinal study). http://www.cmaj.ca/content/161/7/805/T1.expansion (And that’s ignoring the fact that spanking is completely socially unacceptable these days – anecdotally even people who grew up when it was standard don’t normally advocate for it).

        I would like to apologise for misunderstanding you. I had honestly thought you were trying to say that spanking was more effective than other techniques. Sure, if done cautiously it’s not necessarily going to cause a lot of harm (especially in the case of someone who is using an authoritarian childrearing style, as the harm that spanking could cause is already being done). But given that it’s a less effective way to change children’s behaviour, it’s very hard to argue that we need to keep it as a technique. Nor is it valid to say that a parenting technique which so often and easily gets used as a cover for abuse should be seen as being as good as any other.

      • gtg950w

        I think we have two definitions of authoritarian here. You seem to be confusing authoritarianism for abuse. I’m not saying someone cannot use authoritarianism to abuse someone else, but I am saying the two are intrinsictly separate. As a parent it is your job to teach your child right from wrong, and you cannot do that as an equal. And in either case, you are not equal in any biological/scientific sense of the word; your brain is either fully developed or close to fully developed, whereas their brain is just beginning to develop. That’s not to say that as the child ages/develops that you don’t loosen the reins a bit, but you cannot say that the reins don’t exist to begin with.

      • Christine

        It is a little unfair for me to say that authoritarianism is intrinsically abusive. However, I will flat out state that it is wrong. And while it is not, in and of itself abuse, it makes it much much easier for a child to be abused (either by a parent or someone else) if they are brought up with an authoritarian mindset. I consider one of my biggest jobs as a parent to be to make sure I teach my daughter to not be an authoritarian. It’s a fine line – I consider my daughter having to listen to me to be different than having to listen because I’m Mommy. (This will be less of a difficult balance once she’s old enough to raise objections, but we already manage most of the time to make it about the actions that need to be done, not about doing what I say.)

        I’m not quite sure I see how any of the rest of what you said has any bearing on authoritarianism though, so I think I’m missing a segue somewhere.

    • Jayn

      I think the analogy would work better if you reversed it–there are alternatives to spanking that should be used first, but personally I’m unwilling to take it off the table as a last resort. (The one area where I might use it as a first resort has to do with hurting other people) It’s certainly not my ideal form of discipline, though I do wonder how would be best to deal with children who aren’t quite old enough to be reasoned with–I watched my nieces frequently when the older one was 2, and attempts to explain when she did something wrong were usually met with a blank stare.

      • gtg950w

        Agreed. Spanking should be a last resort, or if the child has physically hurt someone. As we got older, my parents only used spanking whenever we had done something that could have/did result in injury to one/all of us. It’s also something that should be phased out as the child ages/develops.

  • gtg950w

    I feel like a lot of the commenters here are confusing authoritarianism with abuse. Yes, the author of this blog faced some extreme examples of authoritarianism growing up, but I find that to be in the minority, not the majority. The fact is that as a fully developed adult human being, you are NOT equal to your child, especially in their younger years. You DO know what is good for them and what is not. That’s not to say you are infallible and can make mistakes, but to treat your child as your friend rather than as your child is a mistake. No wonder the Millenials are so messed up right now.

    • Anat

      I think you are the one who is confused. See Parenting Styles. Another term for Authoritarian Parenting is Totalitarian Parenting. It is parenting that demands obedience and does not respond to the needs of the child.


      Authoritarian parenting, also called strict parenting,[16]
      is characterized by high expectations of conformity and compliance to
      parental rules and directions, while allowing little open dialogue
      between parent and child. Authoritarian parenting is a restrictive,
      punitive parenting style in which parents make their children follow
      their directions and respect their work and effort.[1] Authoritarian parents expect much of their child, but generally do not explain the reasoning for the rules or boundaries.[20]
      Authoritarian parents are less responsive to their child’s needs, and
      are more likely to ground their child rather than discuss the problem.[21]
      Authoritarian parenting deals with low parental responsiveness and high
      parental demand, the parents tend to demand obedience without
      explanation and focus on status.[18]

      • gtg950w

        I suppose I am “confusing” authoritarian parenting with authoritative parenting. I put confusing in quotes because from a connotation perspective, authoritarian and authoritative are so similar it’s not even funny, yet from a parenting style perspective their definitions are almost mirror opposites. So I apologize for my “confusion”. And you’re right, totalitarian would be a better choice of word instead of authoritarian.

    • Anat

      Also, you are creating a false dichotomy between authoritarian parenting and treating one’s child as a friend. There are many other options. Please read Libby Anne’s posts on parenting for some ideas. You can see how she uses her experience as an older human being while at the same time considering the needs of her children as independent human beings – all the while promoting everyday learning of cause and effect, and morality.

      The problem with authoritarian parenting is that it fails to teach children how to make decisions on their own, in new situations. All it does is tell them that certain behaviors should be avoided in order not to provoke the people who are currently in charge. What happens when someone else is in charge? Or when nobody is in charge? Is avoiding punishment really sufficient as a guideline for behavior?

      As for the Millenials, what evidence do you have for them being messed up?