Gentle Parenting around the Relatives

Gentle Parenting around the Relatives January 4, 2012

I have to say, the #1 hardest time to gentle parent is when I’m around Pearl-following relatives. It’s actually one of the things I dread about visiting my parents house, because I know they will be watching my daughter for any error and chalking it up to the failure of my gentle parenting methods.

The problem is that the things they interpret as failure I interpret as success. They believe that immediate obedience and complete submission should be expected from children of all ages, and that training for this begins before the child can walk and should be basically complete in a child Sally’s age. The thing is, if Sally practiced immediate obedience and always submitted completely to my will, I would wonder what was wrong with her, where her fast developing mind and her desire to understand or find a compromise rather than to simply obey had disappeared to. And this difference means that no matter how successful I feel gentle parenting is being, my parents will always – always – see my parenting as a failure. 

I’ve had people express skepticism that my parents could really be that upset that I’ve decided not to spank. In my experience, most adults I know who have been or are parents think spanking is okay but should be used sparingly – only on a particularly intransigent child or perhaps to teach a child to stay away from roads, etc. Most people see spanking as just one tool available to parents, and one that should be used infrequently. If my parents were like most people, they might not understand my belief that spanking is wrong but they wouldn’t have a problem with my decision not to spank. Not so my parents.

Michael Pearl has many followers, and by far his most central issue involves the discipline of children. Under his child training views, children must be spanked for any act of disobedience, and spanked until they show submission. They must be expected to obey immediately and without question, and must be forced to submit their wills to their parents. Pearl explicitly teaches that children’s wills must be broken, and that if they are not, those children will grow up to be rebellious, unruly, miserable, and hateful. The key to successfully raising children is to break their wills in early childhood, and spanking, even beginning before a child can walk, is key to this process.

Because my parents are Pearl followers, I can say “I’m not going to spank Sally, I’m going to use gentle parenting” and what they hear is “I’m going to ruin Sally, causing her to grow up into a miserable, destructive, hateful person.” Is it any wonder, then, that they are so upset and concerned that I am not spanking?

The things Pearl tells his followers are lies, but I think they reason they can take root so firmly in people like my parents is that there are some parents who eschew training and teaching their children altogether and simple let them become selfish and self-centered. Think of the Dursleys in the first Harry Potter book. Dudley is given everything he wants, and pampered and petted by his over-indulgent parents, but he is still ungrateful, angry towards his parents, and completely unhappy. This sort of family has become a stereotype, a cultural meme, and for my parents this sort of permissiveness embodies all that is wrong with society.  The Pearls, then, convince parents that anyone not using Pearl methods – spanking and breaking their children’s will – will end up with children who are ungrateful, screaming, unhappy brats.

I sometimes think that parenting is a continuum between two poles. Obviously this is simplistic, but on the one side you have the parents’ needs and the parents’ desires held as most important and the child’s needs and child’s desires deemed irrelevant while on the other side you have the parents’ needs and the parents’ desires held as irrelevant while the child’s needs and the child’s desires are most important. Thus Pearl parents run roughshod over their children, requiring immediate obedience to parental commands and not allowing questions or objections, and the overly-permissive parents on the other side of the spectrum let their children run roughshod over the parents’ needs and desires, making life only and always about what the children want. Gentle parenting inhabits a middle ground on this spectrum, where the parents’ needs and desires and the children’s needs and desires are balanced. Gentle parenting is built on mutual respect and compromise. It means both parties need to give, both need to come to the middle and seek to understand what the other is saying.

At home, the sort of compromise and mutual respect I aim to achieve works fairly well. Sally doesn’t always get what she wants, but we don’t always get what we want either, and both sides listen to each other and try to understand. For example, a few weeks ago Sally wanted to take her hot chocolate upstairs. I told her no, because I was afraid she would spill it on the way upstairs. Her response? “How about mommy carry hot chocolate upstairs.” And I was proud of her. Sally is still very young, but already she knows to take my concerns into account and understands how to compromise. When we are at my parents’ house, though, this sort of compromise appears to be me accepting defeat. I said no, that should have meant no. What Sally did when she suggested a compromise my parents see as outright manipulation.

When I communicate with my daughter, trying to understand her concerns and find an acceptable compromise, my parents see me letting her rule me instead of insisting on her immediate obedience to my commands. While I see an occasional temper tantrum as natural for her age (and experts agree), my parents see any amount of fuss on my daughter’s part as a result of my failure to break her will. While I see Sally making suggestions and attempting to find a middle ground as a good thing, as her exercising her mind and thinking, taking my concerns into account and looking for a mutually acceptable compromise, my parents see it as my daughter manipulating me. I simply can’t win.

In the end, I know that what they think of my parenting doesn’t matter, and I find so much joy in gentle parenting – the joy of turning parenting into a journey of mutual understanding rather than a battle of my will against my daughter’s – that my parents disapproval quickly fades into the background. It’s just unfortunate to feel like the people who should be my biggest cheerleaders as I embark on the adventure of raising a child simply, well, aren’t.

I think that a large part of why my parents’ parenting views differ from mine stems from what they value. For fundamentalist Christians who believe in the importance of absolute obedience to God and upholding the patriarchal order, blind obedience and submission are actually upheld as values. In contrast, I value mutual understanding, an ability find compromise, and independent and critical thinking. It’s no wonder we look for different things in our children.

I still remember the moment, a few years ago, when I suddenly realized that blind obedience was actually a bad thing, not a good thing. My parents taught me growing up that obedience was a virtue. It’s not. Obedience for obedience’ sake means nothing. Why do I obey the law? Because I understand why the law exists and I know the consequences I would face if I did not. Why do I obey my husband? Oh wait. I don’t. Instead, we communicate, cooperate, and compromise. Why does an employee obey her boss? Because it’s in her job description, its necessary to run the company, and if she didn’t she’d get fired – oh, and sometimes she shouldn’t obey her boss, such as when her boss asks for her to do something unethical. There is nothing – nothing – valuable about obedience for its own sake. When I realized this, it was mind blowing.  And so, when I go to my parents house, I have to be aware of what I’m walking into, and prepared for it. I have to brace myself for the looks and the unspoken disapproval. Rather than simply enjoying their granddaughter, I have to be aware that my parents will be scrutinizing her every move, looking for something to disapprove of, something to prove that their parenting methods are right and mine are a failure, and since they value such different things than I do, they will find what they are looking for. I’d like to bring them this darling little girl of mine and simply see pride in their eyes, but I need to realize that that will not, cannot, happen, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

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