TTUAC: The Strings That Suffocate

To Train Up a Child, chapter 4 part 1

Here we begin chapter 4, Tying Strings.

MANY STRINGS MAKE STRONG CHORDS

There is a mystical bond between caring members of a family. I can look at each of my children and feel that union. It is as if we were joined by many strings of mutual love, respect, honor, and all the good times that we have had together. The more good experiences we have together, the more strings that unite.

Where two or more people are living together, their interests, opinions and liberties sometimes clash. The strings that unite are often cut by selfishness, indifference, pride, self-will and the like. Where there is not a constant tying of new strings, family members soon find themselves separated by suspicion, distrust and criticism. The gap can grow so wide that the two can become virtual enemies.

When this happens between parent and child, it is a serious crisis. Unless new strings are tied, the two will increasingly grow apart. When a youth says something like, “My parents don’t understand me,” or “They don’t care,” it is testimony of a complete cutting of all strings.

Yes, family members are bound together by love, respect, and past good experiences. However, family members are also individuals with individual interests and opinions—if they’re not, this is a problem. Sometimes the term “codependency” is used. Indeed, children and parents should “grow apart” as children grow up. When Michael uses the word strings, he makes me think of “apron strings,” and believe it or not, those are supposed to be cut as a child grows. I actually find that the attempt to tie these bonds too tight—to deny the child any measure of physical or emotional independence—can be utterly toxic.

PAPER HEARTS

Recently, a father told us of a victory in this area. His first grader came home from school and became preoccupied drawing and cutting out paper hearts. The father and son were close and often did things together. Seeing the boy’s smitten condition, the father lightly poked fun at his activity. The child didn’t see anything amusing. He turned away and continued his labor of love. Over the next several days, the boy would conceal his endeavors from the father. The father became aware that a confidence crisis had occurred. The child was withdrawn and resisted all overtures to fellowship with his father. The strings had been cut.

If, at this point, the father had accepted this wall as just a “stage”—or worse, become irritated and contributed further to the breach—this would have been the beginning of a breach that would have grown wider with the years. But the father was wise and took positive action. After school one day, he said to his son, “Hey Jessie, you want to go out to the shop with me? We will cut out wooden hearts.” Jessie reservedly looked up and seemed to be cautiously analyzing his father’s intent. After a moment, his facial expressions changed to believing delight, and he said, “Sure Dad, that would be great.” As they worked together creating a wooden heart to be given to Jessie’s friend, the wall came down and camaraderie was restored.

I’m guessing the dad laughed at his son for being too “girly.” Bad move. Finding a way to participate and affirm the child’s interest, in contrast, was a good move. This father hurt his son, realized his mistake, and then made it right. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Michael’s “strings” analogy—I don’t like the idea of someone trying to tie me to them, it just makes me feel claustrophobic—but this is actually a really good story. It’s a story of a father disrespecting his child and then realizing that was wrong and showing his child respect. I would hope that his offer to cut out wooden hearts was accompanied by an apology to his son.

It is important that sons and daughters can trust their parents with personal, intimate knowledge. If there is a barrier in this area, when the time comes that the young man needs counsel, to whom shall he go? The feelings of a child are just as important and sacred as those of an adult. Always treat your children with respect. Never ridicule, mock or laugh at your child’s ideas, creations or ambitions. The trust you desire to have when they are older must be established and maintained when they are young. If you have an older child with whom you have failed in this area, it is not too late to apologize and reestablish that trust. It may take a while to earn their confidence, so get to it.

Oh boy. First of all, it’s important to distinguish between being someone your child can trust with their problems and worries on the one hand and demanding that your children tell you their most intimate feelings and concerns on the other. Yes, Michael says the first and not the second. However, I worry that without additional clarification on this point some readers may read what he has written and take that to mean the second. The first is healthy, the second is toxic.

And now we get to the real question here. Where in the world was the sacredness of the child’s feelings a dozen pages ago? There has so far been absolutely nothing about children’s feelings being sacred, or indeed about children’s feelings at all. There has also been nothing about treating children with respect. Nothing. And if he actually believed parents should see their children’s feelings or sacred or treat their children with respect, he would have led with that, instead of leading by gloating over a million stories of parents breaking their children’s wills.

Let’s look back at some quotes. 

Michael speaks of turning the home into a military camp, with children as soldiers:

When headstrong young men join the military, they are first taught to stand still. The many hours of close-order-drill are simply to teach and reinforce submission of the will. “Attention!” pronounced, “TENNN—HUTT!!” is the beginning of all maneuvers. Just think of the relief it would be if by one command you could gain the absolute, silent, concentrated attention of all your children. A sergeant can call his men to attention and then, without explanation, ignore them, and they will continue to stand frozen in that position until they fall out unconscious. The maneuvers “Right flank, Left flank, Companeeey—Halt” have no value in war except as they condition the men to instant, unquestioning obedience.

As in the military, all maneuvers in the home begin with a call to attention. Three-fourths of all home discipline problems would be instantly solved if you could at any time gain your child’s silent, unmoving attention. “TO THE REAR–MARCH” translated into family language would be: “Leave the room,” or, “Go to bed.” Without question they turn and go. This is normal in the well trained family.

Michael ascribes all sorts of terrible motives to children:

How many times have we observed the grocery store arena? A devious little kid sits up in the command seat of the shopping cart exercising his “childhood rights” to unlimited self-indulgence. The parent fearfully but hopelessly steers around the tempting “trees of knowledge of good and evil.” Too late! The child spies the object of his unbridled lust. The battle is on. The child will either get what he wants or make the parent miserable. Either way, he conquers.

Michael advises mothers not to pay any mind to their infants’ feelings:

As the mother, holding her child, leans over the crib and begins the swing downward, the infant stiffens, takes a deep breath and bellows. The battle for control has begun in earnest. Someone is going to be conditioned. Either the tender-hearted mother will cave in to this self-centered demand (thus training the child to get his way by crying) or the infant is allowed to cry (learning that crying is counterproductive). Crying because of genuine physical need is simply the infant’s only voice to the outside world; but crying in order to manipulate the adults into constant servitude should never be rewarded. Otherwise, you will reinforce the child’s growing self-centeredness, which will eventually become socially intolerable.

Michael approves of a father completely ignoring his small son’s feelings: 

As I sat talking with a local Amish fellow, a typical child training session developed. The father was holding a twelve-month-old boy who suddenly developed a compulsion to slip down onto the floor. Due to the cold floor, the father directed the child to stay in his lap. The child began to stiffen so as to make of himself a missile that would slip through to the floor. The father spoke to him in the German language (which I did not understand) and firmly placed him back in the sitting position. The child began to make dissenting noises and continued the resistant slide. The father then spanked the child and spoke what I assumed to be reproving words. Seeing his mother across the room, the child began to cry and reach for her. This was understandable in any language.

At this point, I became highly interested in the proceedings. Most fathers would have been glad to give up the child to continue their own conversation. It was obvious the child felt there would be more liberty with his mother. If he had been given over to her, the experience would have been counterproductive training. He would have been taught that when he cannot get his way with one, just go around the chain of command. The faithful mother, more concerned for her child’s training than the gratification of being clung to, ignored the child.

The father then turned the child away from his mother. The determined fellow immediately understood that the battle lines had shifted and expressed his independence by throwing his leg back over to the other side to face his mother. The father spanked the leg that the child turned to the mother and again spoke to him.

Clearly, the lines were drawn. The battle was in array. Someone was going to submit his will and learn his lesson. Either the father would confirm that this one-year-old could rule his parents or the parents would confirm their authority. Everyone’s happiness was at stake, as well as the soul of the child. The father was wise enough to know this was a test of authority. This episode had crossed over from “obedience training” to discipline for attitude.

For the next weary forty-five minutes, fifteen times the child would make his legs move, and the daddy would turn him around and spank his legs. The father was as calm as a lazy porch swing on a Sunday afternoon. There was no hastiness or anger. He did not take the disobedience personally. He had trained many a horse or mule and knew the value of patient perseverance. In the end, the twelve-month-old submitted his will to his father, sat as he was placed, and became content–even cheerful.

Michael advises parents to hit small children for being curious:

Try it yourself. Place an appealing object where they can reach it, maybe in a “No-no” corner or on an apple juice table (That’s where the coffee table once sat). When they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, “No, don’t touch it.” They will already be familiar with the “No,” so they will pause, look at you in wonder and then turn around and grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, “No.” Remember, you are not disciplining, you are training. One spat with a little switch is enough. They will again pull back their hand and consider the relationship between the object, their desire, the command and the little reinforcing pain. It may take several times, but if you are consistent, they will learn to consistently obey, even in your absence.

I think I figured out why this is bugging me. It’s awesome that Michael would say that parents should place value on their children’s feelings and treat their children with respect. The trouble is, every other piece of his advice flies in the face of that. It would be like someone telling you that it’s important to respect women and value them as equals, and then giving you on all sorts of advice on how to seduce and rape them. Saying parents should treat their children with respect means nothing if you turn around and give parents advice on how to beat their children into submission. Sorry, but no.

And now, back to this week’s text.

CUT STRINGS

I would say that most parents have allowed the strings to be cut and have not made a responsible effort to tie new ones. It is most critical that you understand and take care in this area. When the strings are all cut, there can be no effective discipline or training. Without that mutual respect and honor, further discipline only angers and embitters the child.

I. What.

Go back and reread those quotes above. Nothing is ever said about the necessity of first having mutual respect and honor. In fact, nothing is ever said about the importance of parents respecting their children. The entire first section of Michael’s book, before he moved on to children’s nature and then parental anger and now this chapter, was about the importance of “training” children into absolute and complete submission. Nothing is said about needing a foundation of respect and honor, or else discipline will only lead the child to anger and bitterness.

Let’s look forward at some quotes.

Michael advises parents to beat children who resist until they offer a wounded whimper:

Some have asked, “But what if the child only screams louder, gets madder?” Know that if he is accustomed to getting his unrestricted way, you can expect just such a response. He will just continue to do what he has always done to get his way. It is his purpose to intimidate you and make you feel like a crud pile. Don’t be bullied. Give him more of the same. On the bare legs or bottom, switch him eight or ten licks; then, while waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If the crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. If the crying is still defiant, protesting and other than a response to pain, spank him again. If this is the first time he has come up against someone tougher than he, it may take a while. He must be convinced that you have truly altered your expectations.

Michael advises parents to sit on rebellious children and beat them:

However, if you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child, who runs from discipline and is too incoherent to listen, then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.

I do not understand what is going on here. You cannot say one thing, and then give three million pieces of advice that contradict it. That makes utterly no sense. And what’s hard about this is I’ve heard many a person trot out Michael’s tying strings section as a defense against those who argue that his book leads to abuse. Look, I’m sorry, but stating once an actually good principle does not somehow negate the chapter upon chapter of absolutely toxic advice.

Anyway, moving on in this week’s text.

I talk with many parents who have lost contact with their child. For every one string that might tie them together, there are two situations to cut it. Not only is there no longer a bond, but there is a cloud between them that obscures understanding. The parent takes the child’s withdrawal and resentment as rebellion (which it is) and brings out the whip lashes of the tongue and rod. Like a wild animal the child further withdraws into his own world of suspicion and distrust. Similar to the control of a warden over his prisoners, the rod can force outward compliance, but it will not mold character or tie the strings of fellowship. The parent feels the child slipping away, sometimes into the fellowship of bad habits or undesirable company. The parent’s anger or broken-heart will never stitch up the breach.

My god.

Look above at the two paragraphs I quote from later in the book.  Does Michael even read his own book?! I just—what? What?! What?! I do not understand what is going on here, I really and honestly do not.

The parent who resorts to sympathy tactics: “If you loved me,” or “You hurt me so much,” or “Why do you do this to me?” may elicit token compliance, but will only cause the youth to yearn for the day when he or she can get away and be free. Many parents have thus driven their young daughter into the arms of an unwholesome lover.

Once again, right on the money.

But this brings up something else. What is Michael suggesting parents do instead? Michael is saying that parents should not either beat or emotionally manipulate a rebellious child (contradicting the rest of his book, of course!), but he never says what parents should do.

My landlady told me this story about her daughter, who got involved with an abusive guy when she was around twenty. My landlady told me that let her daughter know her concerns, and then didn’t mention it again. She told me she knew that if she continually brought up her disapproval of the relationship, it would only drive a wedge between her and her daughter, and make her daughter cling to the guy more tightly. She told me she knew her daughter had to be the one to choose to leave the relationship, and that she knew she couldn’t make her daughter do that. And you know what? When the daughter finally realized the relationship was bad, and finally decided to leave, the first person she went to was her mom, who uttered nary an I told you so and was instead just willing to help in whatever way she could.

And I think this anecdote helps reveal the problem here. Michael doesn’t actually offer parents any practical advice. If parents aren’t supposed to say “Why are you doing this to me?”  when a teen or young adult becomes “rebellious,” what are they supposed to do? I mean obviously, I have my own answers to this, and I rather think my landlady had a god approach. But the thing is, Michael’s talking to a specific audience here, an audience that is, he admits, alienating their independent-minded children. And while Michael’s saying you’re doing it wrong, he’s not actually offering any positive tools as a substitute.

The small child is often neglected and mishandled with little concern on the part of the parent because the child doesn’t possess the means to manifest his hurt. By the time the parent is forced to admit there is a problem, there is a war zone of obstacles between them. What a child is at four he will be at fourteen, only many times magnified. Your two-year-old whiner will be a twelve-year-old whiner. The intemperate five-year-old will be an intemperate fifteen-year-old.

Oh, Michael. Look in the mirror. You are the one advising parents to neglect and mishandle their small children. Also, nope, sorry, but what a child is at four is not what that child will be at fourteen. Children develop a lot emotionally, mentally, and psychologically during those years. Michael really needs a course on child development.

STRINGS LEFT UNTIED

A mother came to us concerned for her fourteen-year-old daughter. She had been reared in a very protected environment and was outwardly obedient, but the parents felt that there was a breach in the family ties. When given a chore, the girl would obey, but with a sullen attitude. It seemed to this mother that her daughter was tolerating the family and was not at all pleased with the company. There were periods of withdrawal. She seemed to have her own little world. With no outward disobedience, there was nothing for which to reprimand the teenager. This mother had lost fellowship with her daughter. The strings had long ago been cut. Rebuke or discipline would be fruitless, even harmful, until the strings of mutual respect and trust were tied.

I’m pretty sure this is the same story that Michael went over in more detail in the end of the previous chapter. First, I’m disturbed with the lack of ability to give a child emotional freedom. It’s bad enough that they would completely rob a child of physical freedom by enforcing complete obedience on her, but when they go for her mind and her emotional state, I start to lose it. I remember being on the receiving side of that, and it is not pretty.

And then, once again, there is no actual practical advice here. Build mutual respect and trust—and this coming from a man who says that yes, a child wanting independence is rebellion. How do you build respect or trust when that is the foundation? How could that ever not feel like manipulation to a child? Honestly, this whole tying strings bit just sounds so suffocating. And you know why? Because the strings have strings attached. We’re not talking about parents simply loving and accepting children, we’re talking about parents pulling out all the stops to get their children to follow one very specific path in life. Michael may take issue with some parents’ methods, but he does agree with their ultimate goal—to train up a child in the way he should go.