I lived with my mother until I was 11 years old. In all that time, she never once told me to “be good,” and I can count on one hand the number of times she ever punished me for anything. She was strict, and she often used the infuriating answer “Because I said so,” but she called us her “angels,” and we got along wonderfully.
Then one day, I was abruptly moved in with my father, against my will (and against my mother’s will). Suddenly, without understanding why, I was always in trouble. When I least expected it, I would be chastised and punished. I was not allowed boundaries – my clothes were borrowed without asking, my belongings given away to my half-siblings without asking, my mail opened and read, my phone conversations eavesdropped onto, and I was lectured regularly about the bad things I probably wanted to do and must not do and would be punished if I did them.
So I did what any sane human would do when treated like a criminal for no reason: I started lying, hiding things, and breaking rules when I could. When I graduated high school, I took several years to rebel as hard as possible and do a bunch of the risky things I had been lectured about.
The whole time, my mother just patiently loved me. She called me her “angel,” and she told me how amazed she was by how wonderful I am. And so I gradually found my way back home to her version of myself, the version that is already “good” without needing to be lectured or punished, the version that doesn’t need to lie or hide things or rebel.
So when my children came along, I had two models from which to choose. I wanted very much to choose my mother’s path, but I wanted to add even more trust and mutual respect. However, there was very little to guide me on how to create such a model. My sister and I had been working on the idea together for several years based on my experience in childcare centers and her parenting of her daughters, but there wasn’t a handy guidebook or elder role model for me to look to.
Today I asked my daughters and my husband what they think about my approach to power in parenting, and I will give their answers below. Everything my daughters said comes back over and over to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be as gentle, compassionate, respectful, honest, loving, supportive, affirming, and kind to my children as I want them to be toward me. As a Christian, I have tried my whole life to learn how to apply this principle in healthy ways. As a parent, I realized that applying it to my parenting is thoroughly feminist… and thus terrifying to many people.
Let me explain: to me, feminism is about healing the disease of patriarchy. Patriarchy is an oppressive, violent lie that defines males as more powerful and valuable than females. Under patriarchy, fathers are expected to have the most power in their households. By power, I mean both coercive (reward, punishment) and noncoercive (authority, expertise, information) forms of power. Probably the biggest challenge I face as a parent is the discomfort of other people when my children behave as though there is no inherent power imbalance in our home. That egalitarianism may be hard to imagine. I will do my best to describe how it works in this blog series. But first, here’s a look at what my family said about my parenting:
Endelyn (age 12):
-One of the things that I like best about how you parent Zawna and me is that you taught us that it is not shameful to be weird.
-I like how you let us be crazy and able to just be kids and not in a hurry to grow up.
-You say that you don’t put us in time outs because you wouldn’t want us to put you in a time out.
-If you want me to do something, and I’m not doing it, you just rub your head [look stressed out], and I do it right away.
-I love your saying, “We’re all doing our best here.” That’s, like, your catchphrase.
-I really trust you, that I can tell you anything.
-There’s no part of me that wants to make you upset. So when you are stressed out, I try my best to help you feel better and comfort you the way you help me when I’m upset. So, we have a back and forth.
-With us, we do the same things, not different things. I don’t lie to you, and you don’t punish me. Other kids get to lie, keep secrets, don’t do what they’re told, and other parents get to take away their iPad or put them in a time out, or ground them. Why would people want to do either of those things?
-Once you explained, when I was 6, that if I told the truth you wouldn’t get mad at me, and I wouldn’t be in trouble. After that, I stopped lying; I honestly cannot remember the last time I lied to you.
Zawna (age 10):
-I like how you always say things are everyone’s fault or no one’s fault, you never let it be about blaming anyone.
-It’s very important to me that you are so respectful of my fears and sensitivities.
-You talk about power, etc, but to me, it’s just my home. Mostly, it gives me work to do on myself. I end up wanting to think carefully about all my communications and relationships. If it is helping the children, it obviously must be helping me, too, right? All the work you’ve done, what you’ve figured out here benefits us all, and I just want to be the best person I can be. I could wish for more efficiency in my life, but in terms of thriving – it’s wonderful. The girls are growing up perfectly. We’re all doing great.
To be continued…
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.