The first thing I do in parenting courses is ask students their most basic beliefs about children. Students are startled by this opening slide, “what are children?” The obvious, knee-jerk response to the question, “Are children human?” is “Of course!” It seems like an unnecessary, bizarre question to ask.
However, many parents and societies treat children as though they are not fully human. Children are valuable, but they are not given the respect, trust, and basic human rights that we generally say humans should receive. Actually, most people treat children with coercion, humiliation, and distrust – as though children are willfully bad and thoughtless. Every time parents give a “consequence” (imposed punishment) for “bad behavior,” they are telling the child that she is a bad person, who needs to be “kept in line” by punitive measures. Every time parents tell children to eat this before they can eat that, or that they must put on a coat if they are to go outside, parents are sending the message that children do not deserve bodily autonomy, do not have the right to make basic decisions about their own bodies, are incompetent. That is anti-feminist parenting.
Humans learn by doing. To learn risk assessment and self-regulation, children must be allowed to experience the true natural consequences of the choices they make. They need to get cold (or not) from being out without a coat, fall down (or not) from jumping on the couch, and get tummy aches (or not) from eating jelly beans for supper.
Whenever I advocate for feminist parenting, someone will respond, ‘What insanity! Should I just allow my toddler to cross a busy street by herself?!’ This kind of response demonstrates an inability to distinguish between domination vs responsibilities and healthy boundaries. In mammalian communities, different individuals assume different roles for the common good. Male zebras are not expected to become pregnant or nurse young. Newborn wolf pups do not hunt. Chimps pay extra attention when elders speak. Of course we adult mammals must keep our offspring safe from danger, that’s Evolution 101.
Furthermore, the Common Good requires boundaries to be placed on harmful behaviors. Treating children as fully human does not mean never interfering with their desire to do whatever they want. We intervene to prevent adults from causing harm, too. Healthy communities have covenants, social contracts, to establish guidelines that promote thriving. My Methodist faith tradition teaches that covenantal relationships are inherent to the human purpose of mutual thriving. As I said in Part 1, and as my sister Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee has also written, we try to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Tallessyn’s linked essay discusses many of the themes in this ongoing Feminist Parenting blog series, and I encourage you to check it out. We have been collaborating on this topic for decades, and it is always a team effort.
Back to the toddler in immediate danger; following the Golden Rule:
Yes, we shout and/or pull back the toddler who is about to step into the street.
No, we do not shame her afterwards, yell at her, hit her, take away her toy, put her in a “time out,” or chastise her with a scowling face and angry tone. If you accidentally started to step into a busy street, would you want your spouse to assault you, humiliate you, or take away your iPhone? No? Golden Rule.
If my toddler almost stepped into a busy street, that is not her fault. It is not a toddler’s responsibility to understand traffic safety. She is extremely busy and distracted constantly learning countless new, important things, such as how to step on and off of a curb, or the word for “fire hydrant,” or how to chew. That is her job, her responsibility. It is my responsibility to keep her safe from situations she doesn’t understand. Maybe that means having her wear a toddler harness, or always holding her hand, or using a stroller on busy streets until she is older.
She does not owe me an apology. I owe her an apology. I’m the one responsible.
Of course, parents are utterly terrified by a close brush with catastrophe. Our fear can make us react by getting angry. That’s something else we can apologize for afterward, and promise to try not to do in future. Even when she is older and more responsible for her safety, there is no need to shame her. I don’t know about you, but if I almost stepped into traffic, I would want my husband to pull me into a hug, tell me how much he loves me, talk urgently about how frightened he was by what just happened, and think together about ways we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.
It’s important to remember that living in a patriarchal, misogynist society hinders our ability to parent without violence (including emotional violence such as shaming — “You spilled your drink AGAIN?!”). When I discuss bullet point 2 on my slide – “What do children symbolize about my identity?” – I always note that our culture has simultaneously isolated parents from necessary support, and demanded that parents deliver docile, conformist, productive workers to the capitalist machine.
We all parrot “it takes a village to raise a child,” but we do not have villages. Instead, we have prohibitively expensive child care centers full of strangers, elders forced to work rather than retire, a lack of jobs with living wages, unaffordable health care and mental health care, and an outdated school system designed like prison, created to socialize children as obedient factory workers for the industrial revolution. Moreover, how can we do the necessary emotional labor to heal from our own childhood wounds when we haven’t the time or money for therapy, support groups, or a decent night’s sleep? No wonder we snap at our kids.
As usual, capitalist-patriarchy simply blames females. Our society defines any lack of thriving in a child as a character flaw and failure of the child’s mother. We mothers are so used to being criticized, shamed, and even jailed for not having the village we need to parent the way we would choose, that we internalize that shame and end up passing it on to our children: yelling at them because we are so afraid that we have let them down. We are shamed, so we shame our children. We are bullied, so we bully our children. Parenting itself has no value in capitalism, only a desired product: contributing, compliant workers. So mothers get no support, only criticism and pressure to produce. We dehumanize our children because we ourselves have been dehumanized.
Breaking that cycle of shame, realizing that our children do NOT have to symbolize our successful compliance with capitalist patriarchy, is a form of feminist liberation that heals ourselves and future generations. What if we were to band together in parenting support villages, with covenants of thriving, where no one shames parents, and parents never shame children? Can you imagine being so freed from shame, that you never shame your children again?
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.