|Photo by ripkas on Flickr|
"Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?', for it is not wise to ask such questions."
~ Ecclesiastes 7:10 NIV
As a child, I loved playing with sunglasses and seeing the different ways they tinted my view of the world. Some were a pretty neutral grayish, others green or yellow, some brownish. When I first got a pair of 3-D glasses (the old fashioned kind made out of cardboard, with one blue lens and one red lens), I was in heaven! I actually never could get them to do the 3-D thing too well, but I had endless fun making my world look red or blue, depending on which lens I looked through.
As grown-ups, we still have our sophisticated mental lenses to tint the way we see things, including parenting. If you look back, even thousands of years ago, the older generations were lamenting the indulgence and lack of discipline in the younger generation. Across cultures and millenia, we think that the world is going to Hades in a handbasket because the youth of the next generation are so much more coddled than we were, or than our parents were.
I recently read Robin Grille's fantastic book Parenting for a Peaceful World. Among other things, it contains an extensive cross-cultural review of childhood and parenting from ancient times up to today. Parts of it were incredibly disturbing. Historically, levels of childhood abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) were astronomically high. Despite the rose-tinted view we cherish of the "good old days", they weren't that good for children or adults.
Once we are older, I believe that we often wind up vacillating between two different lenses, much the way I did when playing with the 3-D glasses. On the one hand, we want to see the good in the way our parents parented us. We love them, and know that we were loved, even when they made mistakes. Sometimes, that lens is so desperate to emphasize the love that we tend to gloss over the mistakes part. After all, "I turned out fine". Except many didn't.
Most of us grew up with messages about shame, perfectionism and secrets, both explicit and implicit. Proponents of spanking now generally agree that it is not abuse and should never leave any physical damage beyond a temporary sting. I would agree that in most cases, there isn't any lasting, visible harm. Science has learned a lot more about what goes on in our brains, however. Our skin may be fine, but our rates of anxiety and depression are high. Many girls start cutting as teens because they are so accustomed to physical pain as a release from their shame and negative feelings. Adults who were spanked as children often have such a deep sense of shame that they are vulnerable to domestic abuse. They learned too well that those who love you hit you sometimes, and that they "deserve it".
Extremely well documented, but less talked about are the sexual implications of equating pain and love. Most spanking fetishists were hit as children and as the erogenous areas of the buttocks were stimulated they began to feel a deeper shame than "just a spanking". Others find that as adults, they struggle to relax with their partners because of the anxiety and body-memories of pain. I know that most parents who spank would never dream of molesting their children, but that doesn't mean that there are never unintended consequences that their children never tell them about.
Not everyone is affected the same way, of course, but the statistics are sobering. Even in those who didn't experience any of the more extreme negative consequences associated with punitive parenting, there are still internalized messages of shame, a struggle with perfectionism and self-worth. For those who were never given acceptable ways to express strong emotions of anger, fear, disappointment or anything other than "calm and happy", it may be difficult to be authentic and honest as an adult. Conflict may be avoided at all costs until an explosion occurs.
So on the one hand, we want to view things with a rosier view than may actually be the case. Yet, the other lens is a blue, negative view of the generation that isn't suffering as much as we did. They are spoiled, because compared to how we were raised, they get off easy. I think that at times there may be just a tinge of fear, because if we acknowledge that the punishments and hardships that we endured in the name of discipline weren't really beneficial, then we will have to confront our own pain and anger. We might have to face old hurts that still affect us, and that is a scary thing. Even worse, we might have to face ways that we have hurt our own children.
I have wonderful parents and grandparents. They are caring, Godly people who deeply love others. Yet, as much as I respect and love my grandparents, I know that my parents showed greater gentleness to me than they received themselves as children. And my grandparents were kinder, better parents to my parents than their parents were to them. Each generation has grown progressively more gentle. My choice to parent my own children non-punitively is not a statement against my parents. Rather, it is thanks to their more gentle, peaceful and loving way of parenting me that I was able to have greater tools and resources to parent my own children even more gently.
Let's take off the glasses and see the true colors of how we have been shaped by previous generations and how we are shaping the next generation. Chances are good that your parents did the best they could with you, and that you were able to give your own children a healthier childhood than you had in some ways. You have equipped them to develop healthier relationships with your grandchildren. Let go of any shame (Grace is for mamas, too!) and instead of fearing for our future, enjoy the opportunity to bring greater peace, love and respect in our children and the children yet to be born.