6/7/2015 1 Comment
By, Bedford Palmer II, Ph.D.
If you’ve followed this page for a while, or you know me through other media, you know that I feel a particular sort of way about abusing children in the name of discipline. More specifically I just cannot stand the idea that emotional abuse is the only way to make children and teens understand boundaries and responsibility. This sentiment comes from the simple knowledge that just because one has the power to enforce their will on a child, it does not justify abuse of that power. Moreover, solutions that seem easy tend to not be solutions at all. In fact, the act of humiliating a child is only an act of retribution, which might make the parent feel better, but does nothing to curb a problematic behavior, or encourage a valued behavior.
In the United States we have a long and varied history of using humiliation and torture in order to exact revenge on individuals that do not conform to authoritarian rule. The Puritans believed that the father was the master of his home, and his wife and his children were absolutely subject to his rule. Beatings, humiliation, and other punishments were common and encouraged. During the enslavement of people of African descent, this tradition of authoritarian rule was manifested in terms of flogging, rapes, mutilation, and lynching. This continued during American Jim Crow and is still present in the brutality of policing where challenging authority, especially while being a Black person, can cost you your life.
I give you this historical context in order to help make clear that this idea of valuing punishment and humiliation springs from our shared cultural history. From a cultural perspective, it makes sense that people who developed in this context would continue to value this type of practice. However, the fact that one grew up in a context does not justify the continuance of said context (i.e., just because your parents did it to you, does not justify you doing it to your kids).
Now if understanding the problematic history of authoritarian interactions does not move one to modify their parenting methodology, then I would ask that you think about the fact that punishment does not change behavior outside the influence of the punishment situation (i.e., if you are not with your children at all times, your punishments will not stop them from acting out). Moreover problematic behaviors do not materialize from nowhere. If children act out, it is for a reason. Which are for the most part environmental and either spring from dynamics at home, or from interactions at school.
A child who is performing poorly in school might be having difficulty with motivation due to experiencing high levels of anxiety or from feeling depressed. Among other reasons this might be due to interactions with bullies, family conflicts, mistreatment by teachers, or difficulties adjusting to their environment. A child might also be dealing with undiagnosed learning differences, ADHD, or other psychological disorders. Keeping these possibilities in mind, one might ask one’s self: “how does making a child’s life unnecessarily more humiliating equate to better behavior?” The answer is that it does not. In fact, you would likely cause worse behavior. Moreover, you would likely miss the actual cause of your child distress.
There are those who would make the argument that, particularly for children of African descent, it is of paramount importance that they are prepared for a hard world. The assumption is that one must attempt to ensure their child’s survival “by any means necessary,” as much worse awaits Black children in a world governed by White supremacy. This might be the case, however I question the utility of teaching our children to be quiet victims of abuse, or worse future perpetrators of abuse.
Instead of focusing on authoritarian control, I contend that we should spend our time building our children’s ability to understand and predict the natural consequences of their actions. The understanding of natural consequences, and subsequently being able to read situations and adjust to circumstances accordingly is a skill set that can be built through a more authoritative process of learning (Palmer, 2011). An authoritative parenting style is focused on providing a predictable structure that is focused on reasonable expectations (McAdoo, 1988). From this perspective consequences of poor behavior spring from the reality of the behavior (i.e., TV is available only after homework is complete), as opposed the authoritarian retribution focused style of consequences (i.e., because you did not do your homework, I am angry at you and I am restricting your access to TV for the week). Within an authoritative framework, the child dictates their access to privilege based on their own actions, leaving parents to maintain the structure as apposed to impose their authority.
The current trend of using the internet in order to shame one’s child is only a recent iteration of the authoritarian humiliation that was discussed above. The use of video in order to document emotionally abusive behavior is a particularly abhorrent practice in that it has absolutely no purpose other than the glorification of the abuser who is depicted in the video. This seems to lead to an amplification of the behavior as these abusive individuals try to out do each other, competing for the approval of online viewers who are detached from the human consequences of the abuse depicted in these videos. In effect, abusive authoritarian parenting has become a popularized trend at the expense of the dignity of everyone involved.
The New York Daily News reported that a 13-year-old girl jumped from a bridge, and that she was the subject of a video depicting her being chastised while her father cuts off her hair as a punishment. It is unlikely that the death of the young girl in this article was due to her father’s shaming video and the cutting of her hair. It was most likely a horrible experience for her, but suicide is more complicated than one bad experience. The reason that I linked this article is to show what can happen if the real problems that our children face are not addressed by the adults who are responsible for them.
In discussions of child abuse, emotional abuse is generally spoken of in terms of the dyad of “Emotional Abuse & Neglect.” Neglect refers to inaction in terms of addressing the needs of one’s child. Within an authoritarian context, the needs of children are not actually important. In terms of the use of humiliation, parents are opting to punish rather than take the time to address the needs of their child. Frequently when addressing punishment, whether corporal or psychological, I have confronted parents with alternatives such as observing a child’s class, and accounting for behavior through direct observation. The usual response is that this is time consuming and difficult, which implies that a one-time punishment is easier. When I am exposed to this type of argument I think of some friends and cousins who would talk about “taking the whoopin,” as a way to get punishment over with, as well as how they never actually changed their behaviors.
As in most things, the short cut or the easy way tends to lead to a much more difficult path. Conversely taking an authoritative stance means that parenting becomes a proactive process. One does not wait for problematic behaviors to occur, and then act in order to correct them. Instead an involved parent pays attention to their child’s daily experience and attempts to anticipate the difficulties that they might have (i.e., a child comes home seeming sad and their parent talks to them about how their day, attempting to figure out what happened). In order to effectively take an authoritative stance, one must make a commitment being an active participant in all aspects of their child’s life.
This is not to say that one must be a perfect parent. That one must never become angry, or that one should become hover over their child like a helicopter. In fact, the key to authoritative parenting is to create an illusion of independence, which becomes more of a reality as your child matures. Parenting is the process of guiding a human being through their early, most vulnerable period of development. Our actions directly impact what type of human emerges into adulthood. Conversely your approach to parenting also speaks the kind of person that you are. It speaks to your personal character. When thinking about your approach to parenting, I would ask that you not focus on what you, or your parents have done in the past, but to instead focus on what kind of person/parent you aspire to be.
McAdoo, J. L., (1988). Changing perspectives on the role of the Black father. In P. Bronstein & C. Cowan (Ed.), Fatherhood today: Men’s changing role in the family (pp. 79-92). Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.
Palmer, B. E. F. (2011). Man-to-Boy Becoming Man-to-Man: A Son’s Perspective. In M. E. Connor, J. L. White (Eds.), Black fathers: An invisible presence in America (2nd ed.) (pp. 129-141). Routledge Academic.
About the Author...
I'm an African American man with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. I'm married. I am a professor, a clinician, a social justice advocate, a multicultural competence trainer, a dog owner, an ex-professional photographer (i.e., people paid me, lol), and a self proclaimed nerd, who loves Sci-Fi, Anime, Zombie fiction, cooking shows, character studies, anti-heroes, and telling people about things that I like...
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