Some methods of parenting should be criticized

As a gay man who has never had sex with a woman, I live a childfree existence. That means I lack the perspective parents have on raising kids. For a long time, I felt that my complete ignorance of raising children meant that I couldn’t weigh in on matters of child-rearing. After all, I thought, if I’ve never changed a diaper (and HELLO, I just now realized that I have never changed one; I’ll have to double check with my parents to be sure, as its possible I may have helped change my sisters diaper when she was a baby and I simply forgot), how can I weigh in on how much time a child should be able to use social media in a given week? How much can my opinion count when I’ve never had to deal with a child acting out in public? What the fuck do I know if I’ve never had to deal with a shoplifting teenager? But here’s the thing: my lack of experience as a parent does not preclude my commenting on the treatment of children. I’m not talking about offering my opinion on how many times a day a child should eat, or how many hours of television they should be able to watch per week, or even the appropriate age to talk to them about sex. I’m talking about discussing matters that can have negative physical, psychological, or emotional effects on children.

For instance, the anti-vaccination movement built upon the discredited bullshit peddled by Andrew Wakefield (there is no link between autism and vaccines and even if there was, it’s disgusting that many people believe it is worse for a child to have autism than a potentially life-threatening disease) has fostered a belief in many parents that they shouldn’t vaccinate their children. Despite the fact that vaccination campaigns in the U.S. have all but eliminated multiple diseases (less disease=good thing, no?), there are many parents who, acting in what they think are the best interests of their children and citing ‘parents’ rights’, opt to not vaccinate their kids. Given how easily infectious diseases can spread (remember the outbreak of measles in the US in 2014?) in an unvaccinated population, vaccination is a public health issue, not one of parents’ rights. In addition to public health concerns, the health of children is a significant concern. Globally, measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children. Pertussis (aka ‘whooping cough’) takes the lives of roughly 195,000 people across the planet each year. These deaths are entirely preventable thanks to safe and cost-effective vaccines. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children (excluding those children who cannot receive vaccines for health-related reasons) put not only the public at risk, but their offspring as well. I do not think I need to be a father to criticize parents who do not vaccinate their children. I just need to be a caring individual who advocates for improving the quality of life for others through evidence-based initiatives.

Evidence-based vaccination campaigns led to a tremendous reduction in annual morbidity in the US. (via Behance, by Leon Farrant)

Similarly, I have become highly critical of the use of corporal punishment on children. Aside from the questionable efficacy of corporal punishment and aside from its continued use helping to erode the division between punishment and abuse, there is another problem with the use of corporal punishment  as a tool for disciplining kids. Corporal punishment teaches children that violence is an acceptable means of achieving a desired outcome *and* that violence is an effective means of behavioral modification. We live in a violent society, one which glorifies-and at the same time, condemns-violence. We celebrate gun violence on the big screen in our summer blockbusters while denouncing the gun violence that occurs far too often in this country. We exalt the violent behavior of professional athletes on the field or in the ring (think football, MMA, or boxing), while rebuking such violence when it occurs in the home. Our government condemns the violent actions of terrorists, yet condones the use of enhanced interrogation techniques torture. We supply corrupt governments with arms, with full knowledge they will engage in violence, while enforcing zero-tolerance policies in our schools to ostensibly curtail violence and other anti-social activities among our youth.  No wonder we have a society in which people bounce back and forth between “violence is ok to use” and “we abhor violence”.  This country doesn’t abhor violence. This country LOVES violence.

The conflicting messages children receive about violence are further muddled when violence is used to punish them! In addition to the aforementioned examples of culturally endorsed violence, parents will tell their children not to get into fights, or that they need to use their brain and not their fists, but then turn around and smack, spank, or beat their children for any number of reasons (I’m not going to get into the reasons parents use corporal punishment, bc that’s beside the point I’m making). What message does it send to kids when the people that are supposed to protect them and ensure their safety are the ones who cause them harm? What message does it send them about managing their anger when parents lash out and spank or beat them in a moment of rage? How can children be expected to embrace non-violence as a means of resolving conflicts or to achieve their goals when their parents use violence against them? How are children to learn when violence is or is not acceptable when it is utilized in response to all manner of actions?

And then there’s the *other* problem with corporal punishment: it’s a form of domestic violence.

And not only is it a type of domestic violence, it’s a form of DV deemed acceptable by millions of people in the United States (more than that, if we expand the discussion to the use of corporal punishment around the world). Across the country, if an adult hits another adult, there are consequences. There are laws in place to punish such actions. But there are no such laws in place for children. Obviously, there are laws in place that criminalize child abuse, but corporal punishment isn’t deemed child abuse, which is part of the problem-it should be. It shouldn’t matter that the hitting comes from a parent. What should matter is that one human being is hitting another. In the absence of sufficient justification-i.e. self-defense, or in the defense of others-we wouldn’t accept one adult hitting another adult. We should not accept it when it’s an adult hitting a child. Moreover, we ought to be more sensitive and attentive to corporal punishment, bc as the above meme points out, children are among the most vulnerable members of society. They need *extra* protection. They can’t defend themselves from adults who are harming them under the guise of “your own good” or “because you lied” or any number of other reasons parents offer as justification for harming their child.

Punishing children can take on many forms, some of which are not harmful on a physical level. But harm can also occur on a psychological or emotional level (both of which occur concurrently with physical harm, as in the emotional toll corporal punishment can have on a child), as when parents publicly shame their children. One popular method of child-shaming is shaving off their hair:

Supporters say it’s the perfect punishment for misbehaving kids who want to “act grown.”

Fredrick, the A-1 Kutz co-owner and a 34-year-old father of three, said he decided to advertise the cut after he used the unique disciplinary measure on his 12-year-old son, Rushawn, last fall — and saw immediate results. Rushawn’s grades, which had fallen, “dramatically skyrocketed” after he got his old-man haircut, Frederick said.

The boss barber said he has already had one parent take him up on the offer. And there has been a surge of interest from other parents, especially after Fredrick posted before, during and after photos of his second “Benjamin Button” subject on social media last week. The images were shared widely on Facebook and Instagram, where Fredrick goes by the name “Rusty Fred,” and picked up by the popular gossip website Mediatakeout.com.

Reaction has been mostly positive, Fredrick told The Post. “There are a few people that are saying it’s emotional abuse; but on average, everyone is applauding the mother that brought the child in — and applauding me as well.”

Parents embracing this technique of punishment do so without an awareness of the psychological and emotional toll it can take on their child. I find it disheartening that Fredrick is so dismissive of these consequences. One psychotherapist doesn’t find this method of discipline to be particularly helpful:

Xanthia Bianca Johnson, a Washington-based psychotherapist who works closely with adolescents and families, told The Post that in her experience, using shame as a disciplinary tool is often counterproductive. When children misbehave, she said, they’re letting parents know that they’re in distress. The goal of effective discipline, she said, is giving children an opportunity to reflect on their mistakes; that, she said, becomes increasingly hard to do if they’re “distracted” by blame and shame.

“There’s lots of research that supports the fact that when a child is blamed or shamed it triggers their nervous system, and when the nervous system is shut down, it is directly connected to the brain,” she said. “The part of the brain that processes logic gets shut off and it can actually stunt physical and emotional growth.”

So yeah, parents need to consider the impact shaming can have on their child. And to do that, they need to be informed of the possible consequences. They need to know that such an action could have adverse effects on the development of a child. They also need to be aware that publicly shaming their children can lead to tragedy.

Recently, another method of public shaming came to my attention (this post was crafted in response to this story). A South Carolina mother dressed her son in drag and paraded him around Walmart. She was punishing him for making anti-gay comments and fighting.

Herald Online reports police were called to the Wal-Mart in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Sunday in response to a call from store workers who were alarmed about an extreme punishment a mother was putting her child through.

When officers arrived on the scene, they found a 10-year-old boy dressed in a tutu, women’s boots, a women’s undergarment and a T-shirt with permanent marker writing underneath. The child’s head was shaved with a “patch of wig on the front of his head” and the word “BAD” written in marker on the back of his head, according to the police report.

The mother told police that she was “punishing her son for fighting and making homophobic remarks in school.” The report also states that she said that “corporal punishment has been ineffective, so she was attempting to embarrass” her son as punishment.

Aside from the public humiliation her child had to endure, I have another problem with her chosen method of punishment. As a gay man, I do appreciate when people step up and challenge or criticize homophobia. But when people do so, they should ensure they’re not perpetuating other harmful stereotypes. Unfortunately the mother has done this very thing. She’s perpetuating harmful tropes related to masculinity and femininity. She’s emasculating her son, trying to impugn his manhood by dressing him as a girl. In our culture, that’s a huge insult to many men and boys-you don’t call a man a girl. Real men don’t wear pink or dresses or look like women or possess feminine traits. The problem with that (one of them anyway) is that dressing a particular way or acting a particular way should not be gendered to begin with. People should be able to act as they want and dress as they want without being criticized for being “too girly”. There’s nothing wrong with males behaving in ways that are traditionally feminine, nor wearing clothes that are typically feminine. No one is harmed. But in our society, what is feminine is typically disparaged. That’s why insults that make use of women’s genitalia are so prevalent. That’s why we have comments like “you throw like a girl”. Our society is suffused with sexism, misogyny, and toxic beliefs about how girls/women and boys/men are to behave and that crap needs to end. It is not healthy for anyone to have their identities boxed in and constrained. 

Here’s what I didn’t understand for years: criticizing the methods parents use to discipline their children is not fundamentally different than weighing in on how adults are treated by other adults. Anyone who knows me knows that I regularly speak out about all kinds of negative social behaviors-racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia, biphobia, homophobia-perpetrated by adults against each other. I’m also critical of authoritarianism, the encroaching police state, gun culture, and the culture of violence that all exist in the US.  At the end of the day, my criticism of the actions or attitudes of others stems from a desire for people to treat one another equitably and respectfully. Last time I checked, children are people, so when children are affected in a negative way, there is no reason I should remain silent. I don’t need to be a parent to talk about how children should be treated with respect and decency. I’m an empathetic and compassionate human being who advocates for treating all humans with dignity, respect, and equity. And that’s all I need.

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Some methods of parenting should be criticized
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4 thoughts on “Some methods of parenting should be criticized

  1. 1

    “But you’re not a PAAAAAAARENT! You don’t UNDERSTAAAAAAND!”
    /s

    I just love how “it takes a village” whenever the parent(s) want their kid accommodated, but the second you dare to tell a child “Hey, don’t do [dangerous thing]” parents are all, “HOW DARE YOU!”

  2. 2

    Don’t worry, Tony, you’re fine here (I’m obviously on the pro-vaccination anti corporal punishment side).
    Honestly, when it comes to unsolicited advice, parents and non-parents aren’t that different and by that I mean equally bad.

  3. 3

    Excellent article, Tony, and I especially could not agree more about the message it sends when parents use violence or public shaming to “discipline” their children. It’s completely unnecessary and completely counterproductive, and I say this as (imo) half of a couple of very ordinary, fallible parents who have been OK at some things and rubbish at others – no magic solutions or anything, but never ever had “discipline problems” (there were some very difficult times early on because of the severe communication disorder, and that sure as hell would only have been made worse by violence! We all worked our arses off at improving communication instead, and that person is now (imo) a totally excellent young adult).

  4. 4

    Tony!
    As usual, a fine post.
    Children really are people.

    Me and the SO don’t have any of our own but we’ve been teaching physical skills to children (karate) for more than 20 years. Maybe 800 to 1000 kids.
    As far as physical punishment and/or shaming, we don’t do it anything beyond,
    “Go sit down on the side for a few minutes.”
    SO says, “If you can’t out-think a child, you’re an idiot.”

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