Image text: Christmas tip: Wrap empty boxes for presents and when your child misbehaves or doesn’t listen throw one in the fire.
The above meme is one of many that was going around Facebook last week. As someone who strives to practice positive parenting—or peaceful parenting, or gentle parenting—I found it upsetting, and I wasn’t the only one. A number of my Facebook friends posted about the meme in concern, sharing stories of times their parents destroyed or otherwise threatened their presents, and the grief and trauma they suffered as a result, and still feel today.
As they listened to these stories, others asked where the line was—could a parent whose children had snooped on their presents put the presents aside for a future occasion, or was that cruel or abusive too? The accepted that the behavior suggested in the meme was wrong, but they were trying to work out out exactly why it was wrong.
When I first saw the above meme, I was immediately reminded of the father who shot a hole in his daughter’s laptop and posted the video to Youtube, and the father who made his daughter stand by the road holding a humiliating sign. I have a serious problem with punishments designed to elicit terror or shame in children.
I am a parent myself. I try to parent using natural consequences rather than more detached forms of punishment. If my children are fighting I may send them to their rooms to cool down, telling them that their row is disrupting the rest of the household and that they can come out when they’re willing to work it out peacefully. Another parent might put them in a timeout for a specific amount of time, or have them write sentences, or even spank them. I want my children to understand how their actions impact others, though, and why we as a society sanction certain behaviors.
A parent can be authoritarian without being intentionally or unpredictably unkind. My own parents were. Obedience had to be immediate, cheerful, and complete, always, but punishments were never intentionally cruel or designed to create shame.
The eighth amendment of our Constitution bans “cruel and unusual punishment.” This only applies to the government, of course, but parents should take a moment to consider why the government is forbidden from meting out such punishments. If parents use a punishment designed to induce abject terror—such as throwing wrapped boxes children think are presents in the fire—something is seriously wrong.Let me make a comparison.
Earlier this year I realized that my daughter, Sally, was putting off her elementary school homework to watch Youtube videos on her laptop. I cleared a space at the table for her school books, took her laptop and told her she could have it back when she finished her homework, and was on hand to help as needed. Sally was upset. It was her laptop, after all, and I had taken it. But after taking some time to calm down, she completed her homework and retrieved her laptop. Since then, she has studiously completed her homework before turning on her laptop.
A more authoritarian parent might have told their child they had lost laptop access for a week, or a month, rather than just until her homework was finished. This would be more than was necessary, but it would not be intentionally cruel or specifically shame inducing. Taking that laptop and shooting a hole in it and posting a video of it to Youtube, though—that is cruel and unusual. Parents can be strict without being cruel.
Parents’ role is to prepare children for adulthood. As such, they must teach their children skills, provide them with knowledge, and provide them with tools them to navigate the adult world. In the adult world, children will still face consequences and, in some cases, punishment. If they refuse to do the work assigned to them, they will lose their job. If they park in the wrong place, they will get a fine. If they take something that belongs to someone else, they may find themselves in court and facing a possible prison sentence (depending on the severity of the offense).
But if the government is banned from meting out cruel and unusual punishment, it should be patently obvious that parents should not do so either.
Parents need to understand how powerless children can feel. In many ways, children are at their parents’ mercy. They only have the amount of control over their own lives that their parents are willing to give them. Our law bans abuse, but the threshold for what is considered abuse is generally quite high.
Nine times out of ten I can resolve a parenting conflict simply by talking with my children. Why? Because they trust me. Because they know I listen to them. Because they know I deal fairly with them. Because they believe that what I say is true. Because they know I value them, and their needs. This is the stuff parenting should be built of.
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