Feminist Parenting: How you treat children is how you see yourself – Part 1 by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir


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.

Eric (husband):

-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.



Categories: Childhood, Children, Gender and Power, parenting

Tags: ,

25 replies

  1. Being punished when you cross an invisible line is the worst!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Parenting has been very complicated and very difficult for most people.
    It is true, there is no proper information on how to take care of children.
    I come from a step family, it has been hard growing up because of favoritism, but I have learnt many lessons from that, and now my husband and child are happy people.
    I thank God everyday.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is life affirming to read what your children have said… good parenting works – I unfortunately had no clue…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful post! I’m so glad to see your model getting publicized. As you say, there is little out there to really guide parents on how to raise children in a positive way. I look forward to your next parts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Carolyn! I hope the series proves to be useful overall – there’s a lot more info now than there was twelve years ago, anyway, but we each have our own priorities, too. I look forward to your thoughts going forward! :)

      Like

  5. Yes, we need guides to nonpatriarchal parenting. I think children need rules, but what they don’t need is abuse, which includes having no boundaries so your clothes and your whole life are stolen from you. How did you get away from that stepmother?

    I think the whole world needs to read your lessons on parenting. Brava! Bright blessings to good parents.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Barbara!! Bright blessings to you as well. Your bright blessings always make me feel particularly blessed! I want to note that my stepmother and I are very close, and I admire her greatly. She has always been a tremendous role model for me, especially with regards to faith, feminism, environmentalism, and progressive politics. She’s really a huge reason I’m a feminist. My struggles living with my father and stepmother were not because I had a terrible stepmother – I think really both my father and stepmother tried their best under a challenging situation. My stepmother married a man who saw his children only on school vacations, and then suddenly, when she was trying to work full time and care for her own baby, out of the blue she had three stepdaughters to care for all year, ages 11, 11, and 13. I cannot begin to imagine the stress. Add to that, my father was emotionally abusive and a very hard person for any woman to be married to. I don’t have a lot of words allowed per blog post, as you know, so the nuance can get lost, it can be hard to give a full picture sometimes. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about my stepmother. Every parent has their strong points and their less strong points, and I am sure she could tell plenty of stories about how hard I was to live with through my teenage years. My memories of her are of someone who was always in motion, always doing housework or professional work or work managing my difficult father, and… gah, I have often felt as though I could barely cope raising two children without working full time and with an incredibly supportive and safe husband… I cannot imagine the stress she was under, and I love and admire her tremendously. My father is the one who listened in to my phone calls and opened my mail and gave away my belongings, and punished me all the time. I think he wanted her to take her cues from him for the most part, but she tried really, really hard to be loving and to support us in doing all our school activities etc. So I should probably change my blog wording because I really would not want her to experience this post as an attack on her or as painful. My Dad was wonderful, but he was the central source of the abuse, and he and I had to do a lot of work on that before he died. We did work on it, and we came to a place of wonderful healing and peace. My stepmother and I did not have much work to do. We get along great, and she is a wonderful person. <3 <3

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad you had a good stepmother. Mine was awful, though I was Long grown up and teaching a hundred miles from Ferguson when she glommed onto my father at my mother’s funeral and then drove my brother and me away. Forever. I’m always glad to hear about good stepmothers also because of the ones in the fairy tales. A stepmother has to work really hard to, so to speak, catch up. I think many of them succeed.

        And we all know there are many kinds of abuse, including being cold to children. Does this also arise from patriarchal so-called culture?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Oh, that’s awful, Barbara. How painful for you and your brother. Ugh, that’s just terrible. :( I’m so sorry you went through that. Coldness… hm. Interesting question. To me, that’s another form of coercive power – a punishment by denying something, withholding what a child needs to thrive. What would cause a parent to withhold a basic necessity like that… how much of an individual’s psychological wound is caused by patriarchy, and how much by human fallibility, which exists no matter how egalitarian the community… patriarchy does seem to me to be a central, root poison because it inserts a power imbalance between half of humanity and the other half, at minimum. Power imbalance is inherently violent. So I’m sure patriarchy affects it and shapes it, that abuse of coldness, which is a form of abandonment. Individuals will become abusive due to different causes, but usually it is because they had a basic need that was unmet, chronically. Usually the need for physical and/or emotional safety. Perhaps seeing a partner as a surrogate parent who can meet that unmet need, the stepchildren are seen as competitors, like siblings, competing for that parent’s attention and affection, which is existentially terrifying to the inner wounded, traumatized child inside the cold stepparent, who finally feels as though she’s found a safe, loving parent (partner), and is afraid these other people will use up the limited resource of that parent-partner’s affection. I’m not a therapist, but those are my initial thoughts. In our shame based culture, we are trained to feel the need to earn every bit of affirmation and validation we ever receive… and protect it… if our culture did not have that underlying power imbalance, there would be less of a sense of scarcity, that those who have power must hang on to it, and those who do not must try to get it however possible, even at the expense of their own stepchildren or children. You’ve got my wheels turning, Barbara!! <3 <3

          Liked by 2 people

  6. What an inspiring, moving post. I probably join many older parents in wishing I could go back and do some things differently. I also felt I had no role models, and interestingly I think my mother felt the same way. We both improved on the parenting we received, and we both made mistakes of our own.

    Lovely to hear from your daughters and husband. I look forward to the next installment!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elizabeth. I know I have learned a lot over the past 12 years, and improved a lot, and I agree – all my parents felt the same way. I know my daughters will have things they wish I had done differently, too. I look forward to your continued thoughts! <3

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you Trelawney, once again your post has made me weep – and learning from what you have written previously about tears I have let myself weep rather than got on with doing something else.

    I find your posts speak to my vulnerabilities and bring delight and I am very grateful.

    You are a marvel and I am glad you resource our community and are working on this series

    Margaret

    Liked by 1 person

    • How lovely to read your open-hearted response, Margaret. I am grateful for your sharing here, it helps me keep working away writing even when it can be hard to find time and strength for it. Bless your tears, I feel deeply honored by them. I look forward to hearing your thoughts going forward. Blessings to you, sister. <3

      Like

  8. Ach, we are all trying so hard to be good parents and transcend the bad parenting we received (just as our father and stepmother were.) One of my biggest parenting lessons is how to admit when I’ve made a mistake and apologize. It turns out, that’s good modeling of the whole ‘do unto others’ thing, too. Thank you for this important work! Grateful to be learning together as we go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes indeed, thanks for sharing those two thoughts. I do honor the sincere effort my parents made, and I know their mistakes were not for want of trying their best. And nothing has humbled me more than parenting!!! Hardest job I’ve ever known. I miss our conversations, hope we can talk soon! <3

      Like

  9. What an incredible life journey you have had – are having! The seeds your mother planted are so strong that they were able to germinate even in dark times and sprout again when lightness reigned. I am so inspired by that.

    And your family – well I just love your family. And in honor of your mother and who you are as a person you are planting some pretty strong seeds in your own daughters now. Wow, more impressed there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trelawney, I was going about my day thinking of nothing special when it popped into my head how proud your mother must be of you (whatever side of the veil she is on) for your strength, your love and your ability to share all that with your family and with the world.

      Like

      • Dear Janet, I have been holding your comments close to my heart for the past few weeks. They really mean a lot. It is a hard time of year, missing my mother – her birthday was last week – and I’m grateful for your loving thoughts here. They bring me comfort. Thank you, friend. <3 <3

        Like

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