In the most recent post, I recounted personal experiences of adults using their authority to intimidate and belittle me and other children.
On the heels of that post, it feels important to tell an older story that echoed within my own childhood. Recently, my dad recounted his memory of a story his mom (my grandmother) told him about a parenting success she and my grandfather had when my dad was a little boy.
First, some background. My dad’s father (my grandfather) was an Evangelical Quaker* minister, the son of two Evangelical Quaker ministers. His parents were strict and morally upright people.
Evangelical Quakers believe humans beings are sinful by nature, that heaven, hell, and Satan exist, that to get into heaven one must be born again, and that dancing, alcohol and other recreational drugs, smoking, and most earthly pleasures are dangerous temptations that interfere with a personal relationship with capital-G God.
My grandmother grew up with a dad that she described as strict, but loving. Because she always described him that way, my mother wonders if my grandmother struggled all her life to convince herself of the loving part. She also had a strict, evangelical religious upbringing in rural Idaho.
My dad doesn’t remember exactly how old he was when his mother described their successful parenting technique, but he believes it was probably when he was a young adult. Since he was 23 when I was born, I suspect she was passing on what she believed was useful advice to her son, the new parent.
As my dad remembers it, his mom described how my dad as a young child had frequent tantrums. She and my grandfather tried all kinds of things to stop the tantrums. The technique that finally worked was this: as my dad screamed and thrashed on the floor they stood above him and laughed. My grandmother reported that my dad stopped screaming, got up looking sheepish, and retreated to his room.
Apparently, my aunt (Dad’s younger sister) was also prone to tantrums, but the laughing technique didn’t work on her. Instead, my grandparents picked her up, put her in the tub and dumped ice water on her. That worked like a charm.
I am struck by three things about my dad’s story: 1) both he and his sister had a lot of tantrums (or at least my grandparents believed it was a lot); 2) my grandmother believed that humiliation was a viable technique that my dad would find helpful as a parent; and 3) my dad remembers neither the tantrums nor the punishment.
When he recounts the story, my dad exhibits little emotion. It is like telling someone else’s history. He remembers other punishments, including corporal punishment with a willow switch to the his legs. He remembers being made to kneel with his dad and pray to God for forgiveness after any number of childhood infractions, which were ridiculously minor from my point of view.
According to my dad, his parents were worried about his and his sister’s immortal souls and believed that their tantrums were an expression of their sinful natures. The children’s anguish, shock and humiliation after punishment might have been regrettable, but were insignificant when weighed against the value of winning another battle with sin.
On the heels of these brutal experiences, it is beyond amazing and wonderful that my dad, with my mom, consciously chose other role models and kinder parenting philosophies that my sister and I benefited from in our later childhoods. I doubt that my dad ever experienced forgiveness, not to mention acceptance, from his parents for youthful sins. That is a tragedy. My dad is unfailingly kind and generous to other people, although he finds it difficult to extend the same kindness to himself. Judgment and punishment endure.
I loved my grandparents. They cherished me, their first grandchild, and only treated me with kindness and indulgence. I also feel revulsion at my grandparents’ abuse of my dad and aunt, though they would never have thought of it that way.
Beyond the childhood punishments, what strikes me is how closely my dad and aunt were watched and how little it took to be judged wanting in the eyes of their parents–and by extension–in the eyes of God. It would be helpful beyond measure if we adults would pay attention to how closely we watch the children in our lives, what we choose to pay attention to, what kinds of judgments we make, and how we act on them.
Although my origin story may not resemble the ones in your family, it was not unusual or strange to people in my grandparents’ or parents’ generations. Our culture has a history of viewing children as selfish, manipulative, and mean, flawed clay to be molded into a more perfect shape, sinful creatures to be punished into moral ones. Most of us are products of that culture. Awareness of our heritage, and willingness to look for unconscious ways that we may be perpetuating it, will move us into a more compassionate future.
I leave you with a quote from Alice Miller (thank you, Amanda), whose many books advocated for treating children with compassion and respect. During my teenage years, her books were both revelation and inspiration for my dad. It is a great and sad irony that despite the horrors of her own childhood and a lifetime spent writing about and condemning toxic parenting practices, she was unable to follow her own advice with her children.
Theoretically, I can imagine that someday we will regard our children not as creatures to manipulate or to change but rather as messengers from a world we once deeply knew, but which we have long since forgotten, who can reveal to us more about the true secrets of life, and also our own lives, than our parents were ever able to.
We do not need to be told whether to be strict or permissive with our children. What we do need is to have respect for their needs, their feelings, and their individuality, as well as for our own.
*It is a little known fact that there are two main branches of Quakerism in the US: the silent meeting, pacifist, politically liberal branch, and the Evangelical, politically conservative branch that emerged from the Holiness movement and Second Great Awakening during the first half of the 19th century. Doctrinally, Evangelical Quakers have much in common with fundamentalist churches such as the Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and Southern Baptists. Unconsciously breaking the first commandment against idolatry, my grandfather idolized Billy Graham.