Sunday, December 19, 2010

This hurts me as much as it hurts you...

The rod and correction give wisdom: but a child who is not guided is a cause of shame to his mother. ~ Proverbs 29:15

I believe that in some ways, the most damaging result from punitive parenting methods is the deep and abiding sense of shame that it produces. It is natural to focus on the shame that grows in the children who are parented that way, but they are not the only ones. The feelings of inadequacy and shame are just as damaging and just as deep in many of the parents who employ those methods.

When I was a child, my mom had copies of Dobson's "Dare to Discipline" in both Spanish and English. She read them both faithfully. But, she had difficulty in completely following the advice. It went counter to her own instincts. She is extremely tender-hearted, and while she was capable of punishing in anger if very provoked, calmly and deliberately hitting us when she wasn't upset was much harder.

Then, too, I have always been "strong-willed", and she told me recently that even by the age of four, she recognized that my stubbornness and endurance would outlast her determination to keep spanking. She could also see that instead of producing fruits of righteousness, it increased my anger and "defiance". It simply didn't work like the books said it would.

It wasn't just discipline issues. As I had my own babies and fed them whenever they wanted, held them as much as possible, never let them cry it out, etc., she was torn. She told me over and over of all the times when she had wanted to do that with me and my siblings, but how it went against all the advice from people she respected to feed every three hours (or four), to not hold us too much, to have us cry it out in a crib. She recounted the agony she felt when I would cry two hours after my last feeding and how she would watch the clock in tears herself. Sometimes she would "give in" and nurse me anyway, and then feel horribly guilty for not being "strong enough" and "consistent enough" with the program. I was honestly surprised to see how deep the feelings of inadequacy and shame are in her, decades later, for being caught between two different standards. The message she had absorbed from the punitive teachers was that she was failing by not getting the results promised by the books, and for letting her heart doubt their advice at times.

I've heard so many variations of this, covering many aspects of parenting. We are programed with God-given instincts to respond to our babies, to comfort and cuddle and meet every need that we can. Then "experts" tell us to go against that, and it begins a cycle of shame and guilt. Punitive parenting sets up unrealistic expectations for both parents and children. Then, when the results don't live up to the promises, all blame is placed on the parents for not following the advice consistently enough. Any problem is all their fault, never the fault of the advice they were given.

The shamed parent, perhaps already feeling guilt for being "double-minded" (which they are if they ever harbor any doubts as to the program), vows to try harder, to be firmer and more consistent. Maybe it "works" and the child becomes compliant, at least outwardly. Even then, though, there is still the constant sense of having to live up to others' expectations. Have you ever had your child misbehave in a public place and know that others are watching and judging you? Have you felt a silent pressure to respond more harshly out of your own embarrassment? That can become a familiar feeling if you are trying to balance your own instincts with a punitive paradigm. You might even resent your children for "making you" punish them. The punitive model is always lurking in the background, ready to heap disapproval on you for any deviations.

And if it doesn't "work" and the child remains unbroken and defiant, then what? How far do you go? Letting them cry for an hour or two, perhaps even vomiting from crying so hard? How many swats, how hard and with what implement? Even when you agree with CIO or spanking, you may feel guilty or that you crossed a line. Punitive parenting often encourages parents to act from pride, selfishness and anger. Then the parent is left with guilt for not following their own conscience. Once again, they are caught between different convictions when their ideals don't fit with the prescribed treatment of children.

The message that you are not good enough, that your instincts are all wrong and that you just aren't doing anything right attacks both children and parents. Hurting people don't act right, and hurting parents who are full of doubt and shame can't always see how to break that cycle or how to view their childrens' actions objectively. They buy into the notion that their children are acting from evil motives. Living with the continual, subtle idea that your children are your adversaries, and that you must watch out for any signs of insubordination takes a toll on the entire family. It cripples parents in many ways by eroding connection, and then blames the parent for the rebellion that it creates. Then families who deeply love each other become trapped into viewing each other's actions through a distorting lens of fear and suspicion, and themselves with disgust and disapproval.

The rod of correction doesn't mean a stick to beat our children--it refers to our presence and guidance in their lives. And wisdom grows in the parents as well as the children as we humbly live life together. Please check out Barefoot Betsy's post for a more thorough look at this verse and other rod passages.

One of my favorite messages from grace-based discipline is that grace is for mamas, too. If your instincts are telling you to ignore advice you are given, chances are pretty good that the advice is wrong. If you feel pulled against the punitive advice you have received, don't berate yourself. It isn't that you are inadequate. Trust the love you have for your children.  Listen to the instinct to protect, nurture and cherish them, even if, especially if, it is going against the advice of those around you.  Yes, we all need information and support as we grow into the parents that we want to be, but that should be a source of encouragement, not shame. Perhaps you just need a new perspective, or a cheer-leader to help you follow your heart. Shame off you! Grace on you!


Maggi said...

Wow, that was pretty eye-opening. I can see looking back how my mom was hard on herself.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

So I was wondering how you were going to explain the meaning of the scripture at the top. But you didn't.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - I'm not the author of this article, but I wrote a post a while back exploring the possible meanings of that verse and the other 4 "rod" verses in proverbs. If you are interested in reading it, you can find it here:


dulce de leche said...

I believe that the meaning of that verse is that the active presence and guidance of a parent in a child's life produce wisdom (in the parents, not just the child, if they are humble enough to learn). Neglecting to guide or actively model for our children would be true reason to be ashamed.

If you are interested in the rod verses, I highly recommend


dulce de leche said...

barefootbetsy, Thank you so much! I love your posts! <3

rachel said...

Thank you for this - it was spot on. I've seen this played out in my own life, felt the shame that even just a few months of punitive parenting brought about. Finding grace for my children and grace for myself has been a very intertwined process. I'm so grateful for those like you who write about this and share your hearts and experiences! It has made such a difference for me.

dulce de leche said...

Hugs to you, Rachel, and thank you so much for the encouragement!