Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Defiance and the Thought Police

I am sure that the look on her face means defiance!
Of all the things that disturb me about punitive parenting, one of the most deeply alarming is the elevation of parents to prison guards over their child's emotions.  It isn't enough to punish physical disobedience--tangible action or inaction.  Fear of The Defiance Boogeyman means that parents must scrutinize every nuance in posture, voice and facial expressions for rebellion.  If they perceive defiance [disagreement], the child deserves a spanking.

We need to re-examine the whole idea of defiance. The punitive experts demand spanking for it. Parents say they know it when they see it.  According to several dictionaries, defiance is open resistance, bold disobedience or a reckless challenge. In application, though, it does not have to be nearly as flagrant as that. Somehow it becomes daring to feel or think anything in disagreement to the parent. It doesn't even have to be deliberately disrespectful in any way. Just different. In essence, kids get spanked for not feeling or thinking the same as their parents.

It doesn't even have to be conscious. Any body language that indicates stress, tension, or heaven forbid, dissent, also becomes defiance.   For many parents it is the look in their child's eye.  My mom would become infuriated when my left eye would begin to squint a little.  She considered it defiance.  I was so confused and frightened by this, because it was something I was not even aware of until I looked in a mirror once.  Even then, I couldn't always control it.  If I am very tense, my facial muscles on that side contract so that my left eye looks smaller.  It still happens as an adult, but now I can't be punished for it.

Michael Pearl gives numerous nauseating examples of hitting children so that they will be cheerful.  In chapter 13 of To Train Up a Child, he explains:
"Bad attitude is pure bad. For as a child "thinketh in his heart, so is he (Prov. 23: 7)." "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23)." If a child shows the least displeasure in response to a command or duty, it should be addressed as disobedience. If a child sticks out his lip, you should focus your training on his bad attitude. The wrong slant of the shoulders reveals a bad frame of mind. Consider this a sign to instruct, train or discipline. A cheerful, compliant spirit is the norm. Anything else is a sign of trouble." [Note: in Pearlspeak, instruction, training and discipline all mean spanking with some type of stick].
The wrong slant of the shoulders deserves a spanking.  For other authors, it not not pasting on a convincing smile.  (Because if they don't obey all the way, right away and with a smile, it isn't true obedience!)   How many four year olds, let alone toddlers, (and Pearl recommends hitting seven month old babies with a switch for fussing) have the physical awareness to even realize that their shoulder position or involuntary facial expressions are wrong, let alone the control to prevent it?  Nearly every child I know who has been spanked has similar stories of being hit for "defiance" that they were unaware of even expressing.

Here is the issue. Spanking or otherwise punishing a child for something as subjective and nebulous as defiant posture or expressions means that you are spanking them for a feeling, not an action. This goes far beyond the issue of ordinary obedience and respect for parents to punishing a child for thoughts and emotions.

The child is left with two options: lie convincingly or never question anything internally, not even to understand it better. After all, delayed obedience isn't really obedience according to these guys (whose Bibles all mysteriously omit Jesus' parable of the two brothers in Mt 21). Over years of practice, both options are exceedingly dangerous. You wind up with a compulsive people pleaser who will lie convincingly without qualm or someone who believes everything and never thinks for himself. 

Courtesy is important, sure.  Children need to learn to express disagreement respectfully.  However, that is a complex social skill with delicate nuance.  Most adults still struggle to do this successfully.  It is going to take considerable practice, teaching and perhaps scripting for a small child to be able to perform courteous disagreement, and punishing them for not getting it perfect is tantamount to punishing a toddler for not acing an algebra exam.  

Yet even respect is not enough for many parents who have bought into the defiance boogeyman.  It becomes a dangerous pride issue.  For them, regardless of how respectfully dissent is presented, the mere existence of beliefs or feelings contrary to the parent are labeled defiance.  Consider--is your child allowed to express disagreement without retaliation?  What would be necessary for it to be acceptable?  Are they allowed to feel angry?  Frustrated?  Upset in any way?  Can they show it?  Or must they pretend to be calm and cheerful?

Becoming another person's thought police or emotional prison guard is only about control. God does not give us the authority to control another individuals thoughts or feelings. A child is not required to obey you if you are asking them to sin. And this kind of parenting is definitely asking them to sin. Parents who do this are seeking to be an idol. They are claiming the place of God in their child's life.  They are grasping at privileges that God does not even take for Himself!

Over and over in the Bible, God's people poured out their hearts to Him even when it was messy.  They were honest with themselves and with God.  They even talked back and argued, and there were times when God counted that as righteousness.  He doesn't demand that we lie and pretend to follow Him.  In fact, hypocrisy seems to bother Him far more than questions or even emotional outbursts.

I would plead with all parents who punish their children for defiance to instead examine their own hearts.  Is your pride motivating you?  Fear?  Desire for control?  How is your attitude compatible with the Fruit of the Spirit?  With James 3:17?  With Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21, I Corinthians 13?  Rather than searching for splinters in the eyes of our children, we need to deal with the logs in our own eyes.  Then we can see more clearly to teach, and may discover that much of what we thought was defiance was simply our own greedy pride.

There is an interesting thread on how to deal with defiance here.  I agree with many of the posters who state that in practice, it doesn't really make a difference whether my children are inwardly defiant or not, because the response will always be to teach.  I don't have to claim to know what is in my child's heart and punish it (doesn't the Bible say that we don't always even know our own hearts, let alone someone else's?).  Instead, I have to model and teach the attitudes that I want to see.

Finally, we know that children learn best by example ("Be imitators of me like beloved children").  If we are rude, disrespectful and arrogant in our attitudes toward our children, how can we have any right to expect their attitudes toward us to be any different?  "Do to others as you would have them do to you" does not have an exemption if the "others" are children.

We are not called to police the thoughts and emotions of our children, to force their feelings underground, or to exact vengeance if they do not cater to our pride.  Instead, we called to teach them in love, gentleness and humility so that they will be able to find healthy and acceptable ways to express their God given individuality.


Shianne said...

Of all the articles and research I've read on this topic (and I've been reading everything I can get my hands on!!), this post makes top, top 3!! Love it!!

ThirtySomethingGal said...

Thank you so much for this post! Whenever I am getting on to my children for their defiance, I have this horrible feeling in my gut that the problem is not their attitude, but mine. And that they have learned defiance from me. This article has really brought what I've been feeling in my heart into perspective. But fighting against how we've been taught to discipline for so long, is proving to be very challenging.

It's all about what's in our hearts, and it starts with what's in mine.

Again, thank you so much for writing this.

Libby Anne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is just EXCELLENT. Well done.


SusanJ said...

Wonderful !!! Thank you !! How dare any person discipline anyone especially a child, by merely 'thinking' they know what that person / child is thinking? After all, is that adult psychic ?? They know, without a shadow of a doubt what that child is thinking just by the pout, or the shoulders... or pulling some type of face or other ?? We might THINK we know, but in truth there is NO way we do.

Libby Anne - that is so great that you are asking your child what is going on inside her head. Trying to understand and getting HER to understand and be able to verbalize it all will pay off so beautifully!! I have never understood why children don't seem to have the right to their own thoughts, and feelings !!! [BTW - you stole my granddaughter's name but added an 'e' !!! :) ]

Enigma said...

"In essence, kids get spanked for not feeling or thinking the same as their parents"

This is SO true. I was spanked all the time for a "bad attitude." It taught me that emotions of any kind were unacceptable. I became an expert at ignoring my feelings. So much so that i went years without ever crying. I was extremely emotionally unhealthy. It has taken me YEARS to stop squelching my feelings and being ashamed of my emotions.

Thanks for posting this! I hope it reaches as many parents as possible!

Sheila said...

This is an excellent post! I was just talking to my mother about this issue yesterday. I'm in the unusual situation of giving my mom advice about my much-younger siblings. She was asking me if I remembered how I felt about being disciplined for various things.

I told her, "The worst thing I remember was being told, 'I know why you are doing X, and it's a bad reason.'" For example, once my dad was yelling at me and I broke into a coughing fit. He told me, "Quit trying to get sympathy from me for your coughing." I was SO angry. I was coughing because I was choking from trying to hold back my tears. I had no interest whatsoever in gaining his sympathy. But then I started to think, "Maybe he knows better than I do. Maybe I am a horrible, awful faker who convinces herself she isn't faking, even when she is." It was the most horrible feeling.

I felt the same when my mom would punish me for rolling my eyes at her. Believe it or not, I had no awareness of whether my eyes were rolling or not. I never meant to do it. But she would say that I was being disrespectful. It just seemed so unfair that I could be punished for something I didn't mean to do. The same goes for "tone of voice" -- I honestly couldn't tell what was the matter with my tone of voice when my mom told me it was disrespectful. I just think I hadn't yet developed an awareness of subtleties like expression and tone.

Not to mention the mind-reading. I get this most of all from other moms. They say, "Oh, you know that expression they get where they know they're disobeying, and they're definitely challenging you." Well, I can't read my son's mind. But when he gets that "look," it seems to me that he is thinking, "I seem to remember last time I did this, a certain reaction happened. I wonder if it will happen again? I'll watch Mom's face carefully while I do it, and if she gets mad again, then I'll know it's connected." He's trying to learn something. He smiles when he does it because learning is fun for him. So I try to rise to the occasion and just teach him -- preferably without the getting mad part.

I just think -- who am I to say I can read my son's mind? I can barely understand his toddlerese. And who am I to insist that he not show his negative emotions? I lose my temper often, and those around me are understanding and forgiving. Doesn't he deserve as much, when he has decades less experience controlling his temper than I have?

dulce de leche said...

Thank you all so very, very much for sharing your thoughts and stories, and for the courage and compassion you are showing with your own children <3 <3 <3 I feel so honored to be sharing this journey with you. :)

Sarah said...

Bright, shining STAR of a post!!!!

Karyn said...

When my 4yo son yells at us we remind him that it's not okay to yell, please use his quiet voice to tell us why he's mad. In return, we have the same rule: if we're yelling at him, he has full right to remind us to use our nice voices. Because you're right, we have to MODEL what is okay, and it's not fair to demand behavior from him that we are not willing to exhibit ourselves.

Similarly, when he fusses (or whines, or complains, or argues, etc.) about not wanting to do something we've asked him to do, I remind him that Mommy and Daddy have to do things we don't want to do sometimes, too, and even though he doesn't want to, thank you for doing it anyway. (It works part of the time...) I also tell him that when he's the dad, he'll probably ask his kids to do things they don't like to do, too.

...Admittedly sometimes this is simply shortened to, "Are you seriously arguing with me over this? Go do it. We'll do something for you later."