Most Parenting Books . . .

 . . . teach the existing system, the system of total parental control.

In previous decades, or in old-time religious communities, and still in many homes generally, total parental control was or is achieved by outright force and violence, and the parenting advice and the books taught people exactly how to do that, and that it was or is every parent’s duty to do it. Unfortunately for practitioners of this sort of child-rearing, that has gone out of fashion, especially with the police, and now that advice and those books must be provided clandestinely, under cover of darkness. Behind closed doors.

Today’s parenting books, at least in the West, at least the ones that are available in bookstores in broad daylight, are more subtle, but they’re selling the same product: total parental control. Only now the product has evolved, adapted to the environment. Now you get total control of your kids plus you get to avoid embarrassment, shame and incarceration. Forget conspiracy, or being an accessory before or after the fact; they never tell you to hit the kids. It’s all in what they don’t say. They tell you ways to manipulate, ways to make your children feel like they’re making choices, feel like they have some control over their own lives. They tell you how to put your children in situations where they truly have no choice but to do what the parents want, with the added bonus that neither they nor we are aware of the unconscious violence at the core of it.

The older method, the unabashed corporal punishment of children, that was straightforward, simple, even honest.

The new methods are more complex, they are systems, schools of thought, and they are difficult, for good reason. Today’s child-rearing advice and books have a difficult and complex task. They need to show you how to bamboozle your kids while simultaneously bamboozling you that you’re not doing it.

They Can’t Understand Most of What We Say, Part #1

It doesn’t matter that they’re babies, toddlers, or what, that they don’t understand what you’re saying; they will still understand the fact that you’re talking to them, and that’s important. Also, that is what teaching is, it’s when you tell someone something they don’t already understand. I am amazed at the ideas of ‘age-appropriate explanations,’ ‘age-appropriate information,’ and the more street level ‘talking to children on their level.’ These ideas, along with the ‘family entertainment’ phenomenon are in direct opposition to teaching and learning. Anyone practicing these concepts would seem to be working to ensure their children don’t learn. I am very opposed to it, I can’t over-stress it. Knowledge is power, and we need to empower our children; withholding information from a group of people, that is not love, that is something else. Also, you can be certain that if there are things you won’t tell your kids, you can be sure someone else will, and maybe not the way you’d like.

Telling someone something they don’t understand yet, that is what teaching is. Telling someone only what they already know? That is censorship, and not even the good kind, if there is a good kind. (“Family entertainment” is just smart enough for your three year-old, and no-one in your family is in any danger of learning anything from it. It is censorship, and censorship is always a power grab. Those who have created the format for “family entertainment” and convinced us that it’s appropriate for our children are gaining some power over our kids – over us, since kids grow up to be us.)

– here’s part #2:

Talk, Talk, Talk

                Talk, talk, talk. That is the right thing to do. Talking is how we teach, it’s how anyone learns anything when we’re too young to read. It’s how we teach when we’re not trying to also teach power dynamics and some version of ‘might is right.’ There are two ways to teach someone who can’t yet learn in the library or on the internet and they are modelling, that is, teaching by example, and talk. As to teaching by example, that will happen with kids, whether we mean for it to happen or not; they will do what you do, they are watching you. They can’t understand most of what we say when they’re very young, but they can see you. For this reason, as well as many others, don’t punish. Your kids will see it, they will see a large, powerful person imposing unpleasantness (which can mean some nasty, physical stuff, but any unpleasantness is a poor enough example) on a small, powerless person, and that is not the thing we want our children to copy. When you only talk, you are modelling non-violence – that is what we want our little ones to copy. So, talk, only talk, that is the thing to do, and the following possible objections to this advice don’t matter, or at least not enough to do anything different:

                  – they can’t understand most of what we say

                 – it doesn’t always stop the bad behaviour

                 – it doesn’t train them to listen

The Good Stuff, Part #2

                The good stuff in many parenting books is very good indeed, especially in parenting books that advocate, as I do, for no punishment of children at all, and some of them are full of real evidence resulting from real scientific research. There is a lot of wonderful advice that I cannot make any complaint about except just that: it can appear to be a lot of information, a great deal of related but assorted ideas that can start to appear too numerous to remember or integrate into the busy lives of us parents. My advice in the face of this may sound too simple to be true, but it isn’t really.

                 Don’t punish. All the rest of the good stuff flows from that.

                 If we don’t punish, we can’t be “controlling.” We can’t be “chaotic,” we can’t even be “permissive.” These are all mistakes that don’t just happen, these are not erroneous situations that arise passively – they are forced. We don’t really need to do a lot to avoid these situations, we don’t even need to learn a lot of new methods; we just need to stop actively, forcibly creating these conditions, that is the key. If we do nothing else right but don’t punish and don’t force our will, our children will be better off than any of us ever were. That’s a big change, don’t get me wrong, but it is one single change, not some complicated new “system.”

                 If we start with that – no punishment – the rest inevitably and naturally follows. When we’ve decided that we’re not going to hurt our children to get our way, we’ll find that we need to befriend them, to bring them on-board with us, that to get cooperation we’ll have to cooperate with them. If we love them, they will love us and want to cooperate, and if we don’t hurt them, they’ll trust us and believe us when we talk. Of course babies and toddlers will make mistakes, but once they can understand what we’re saying and if we don’t terrorize and betray them with punishments, things will just get easier all the way through, as they grow in their ability to think and communicate. The opposite of that is why it’s more difficult when we punish, when make adversaries of our children: things get harder as our adversaries grow in their abilities. If we don’t hurt them, if we do the positive stuff that we need to do to make friends of them, even our teenagers won’t be the bitter monsters many of us have learned to assume they will be.

Our end of the Deal, #1 – Police

I said somewhere that the police are never going to stamp out crime, not in any disrespect to them, they are fighting it all day long, they are really trying. They are on the front line, with little time and resources for anything but putting out fires, biggest ones first. Again, no disrespect to the police, but the reason that what they do doesn’t end crime generally is because their tools and the bad guys’ tools are the same tools: force and violence. That is what the police do for us, they are a force for power for us against the forces for power that are against our interests. Long term strategies for reduction of the causes of crime, that’s not really their job.

That is our job. And we’re not holding up our end of the deal.

It is before our kids wind up as a problem for the police to deal with, with, again, the same tools as the bad guys, when they’re at home, when they’re small – that is when a different set of tools needs to be used, not the violence and force. Not punishment. So what I’m saying is, the long term reduction of crime must start in the home, and it requires something other than punishment to produce that result.

Punishments are forced, by definition. How does a person endure a punishment unless he is somehow forced to? And force is violence. A rose by any other name . . .

– here’s part #2:

The Good Stuff, Part #1

                If you own any of the popular parenting books, get that. If you don’t, go buy one, don’t borrow it. Now, reading the book by some parenting guru, some best-selling authority (the one we had when our kids were young was “kids are worth it!” by Barbara Coloroso), do all the good positive stuff in it and ignore all the crap about discipline and structure.

                That should do it.

                 Look for keywords: discipline, structure, consequences, responsibility, ownership, limits, find the parts with words like that – and rip those pages out. (Actually, on second thought, borrow one. Borrow as many as you can find, buy as many as you can afford, then rip all those pages out and give them back, give the ones you bought to charity . . . ) Of course, ‘punishment’ is on that list, it goes without saying. I want to add ‘boundaries’ to that list, but it’s just possible that some of these books might actually acknowledge the child’s boundaries and suggest that we respect those. If that is the case, then that would be part of the good stuff. So, to the good stuff:

                 Love, of course, hugs, kisses, praise and criticism, attention, stimulation, these are good things, the main things. Secondarily, food, water, shelter, medical care, security, these are also important, but not so much as the first list, the primary things. This second list is often used to support ideas like discipline, and if so, that may contravene the very first thing, love. When you’ve got to punish them in the name of safety, who’s keeping them safe from you? So, love, praise, attention, stimulation, these are the good things, these are what loving parents are supposed to bring to the situation, plus I would add communication, talk, talk, talk. These things are compatible, complimentary things, all part of the natural ‘system’ of child-rearing. Talk is the choice to make, because it’s talk or punish, communication or punishment, you can’t have them both. Anyone who tells you that you can is being less than honest.

A Messy Oasis

                While I think there are some parents who don’t love to visit our house due to the constant mess, there are also many who tell us our place is a peaceful oasis, a zone free of parent-child stress and strife. When the girls were young, I’m happy to say, adults were always delighted to meet and spend time with our unpunished children who would talk with them and not display fear and mistrust, which is just the experience that we once had that started us down this road (See ‘Story 4, The Aha Moment). To repeat something I said somewhere else, it seems that if you don’t punish early, you will never have to. The lines of communication have always been open in my family. We’ve never considered punishing, never had to consider it, not since our younger one – a hyperactive child– was a toddler. Then we considered it, but that’s all, thank goodness. She has always been tougher than us, born that way. I’m pretty sure that if we had picked a fight with her then that she’d have been kicking our asses for years by now.

Two Mindsets – and all Authoritarian

                I think there are two sorts of mindsets, one that sees things, life, as a process, or a vast bunch of interactive processes where things are all in motion. Things change, interact, and adapt with other things and the environment; things are always coming into existence, or fading from existence, if a thing exists, it is because it is being created, actively, I mean that if the processes that create a thing are not in force, the thing will not exist. Creation is a dynamic, always happening thing. Social things, in particular, exist because we create them and support them, we create our human social world continually with choices that we make, by the things that we do.

                The other sort of mindset sees things as static, as existing or not. These things are, and those things are, and these other things are not; this mindset sees things as they are, in the now, and in a way, this is a very practical way to view the world. People with this sort of outlook have little trouble making decisions and getting things done. These two views correspond in some ways to all the other dichotomies of life. We could say, quite easily, that the fluid, process-based view is linked to liberalism, plus, it is apparent that the process-oriented view fits very tightly with evolutionary thinking, while the static view may easily be seen to lend itself to conservatism and even religion.

                  Of course, while avoiding politics in this book, I haven’t kept my attitude secret. The thesis of this book is more liberal than the liberals, in parenting terms, on the spectrum from permissive parenting to authoritarian parenting, I am not in between but left of left, more permissive than the permissive. From where I am on this issue, just about everyone, the permissive and the authoritarian types alike are all just more or less authoritarian. Is that clear enough? Authoritarianism and permissiveness are both the same in this: they both make the same judgment of what is right or wrong, and they both come from a place of entitlement where they feel they have the right, the power, and the responsibility to either forbid or permit. They are both based in authority, and authority is an unequal division of human rights. In terms of parenting, I think our children are not our property, nor are they our slaves or employees. In the circle of life, they are us, people like us. We were them, and they will be us; I think we have no right to make decisions for each other like that at all, and – the point of this book – certainly, absolutely no right to hurt each other to enforce those decisions.

It’s Getting Better all the Time

                In terms of what is punishment and what is abuse, the line has been drawn in a number of places through the years and across cultures. Of course it’s not so simple, but can be useful to say that there has been a progression towards humanism over the last few hundred years in European and western culture, during which time punishments have been moving toward gentler means, as well as some movement in that direction for the punishment of children, for not quite so long. It has probably been something less than one hundred years that at least in the West, children have seen their status change from something like property to something like personhood and this is a positive change for everyone, because of course, we all begin as children. Our societies are trying to move away from the corporal punishment of children, and we’re groping a little, trying to find better ways.

A Seductive Idea

                I’ve been thinking about this subject for twenty years as of this writing, sporadically writing about it, reading and blogging, and talking to and observing other parents . . . it was about that same twenty years ago when I realized that punishment, all punishment, was the primary cause of all bad things in life. I have been on-line getting feedback and practicing my arguments for this for several years, and I have been slowly collecting my thoughts for this project nearly my whole adult life, even if I was busy as a working family man and letting it develop mostly on its own schedule. Once I finally decided to attempt the book, the first several parts flowed out as fast as I could type it, despite that it was very different from my blogs and my previous writings, as I knew it would have to be. I had no writers’ blocks. I couldn’t wait to write, and I lost some sleep for not being able to stop thinking about it. But I have to say, it was at exactly this point in the book, this week, as I write this where I very nearly stalled.

                 I knew that non-physical discipline would form the central part of this thing, so I began to read about it again. Honestly, it had been a long while since I gave it enough credit to actually focus and slow-read it; fortunately it isn’t hard to find. It’s all over the ‘interwebs,’ as a niece of ours says. I had my idea of what was wrong with Positive Parenting, and what I would say, how I would refute it . . . but reading it somehow got to me. I lost my confidence. Positive Parenting very nearly won me over, and I was feeling like I had no legitimate complaints to make about it; it sounds so professional and so, well, positive. The entire four day Easter weekend came and went, and although I got some stuff done in the yard and completed and filed our income taxes, I was very worried that my book was dead. Who could critique all those professionals? Who could shout down all that beautiful, positive language? When I finally sat down to write, I chose the Gershoff article as typical as well as close to the original, I think, close to ‘from the horse’s mouth,’ no slight intended, and I started writing from fear and respect. I want to leave that bit in, I really do mean the respect, and I really do think the whole idea is a major step away from the old, violent parenting model, especially because of the cultural backlash that is always looming about it.

                 Once I got past the disclaimer though, when I started my critique, all that was over. The spell was broken; the failure of logic that I was looking at in that article was just too easy. Again, words began to pour out of me.

                The idea is incredibly seductive, insidious. I had my insight, and I have positioned myself against it for decades, and still I was seduced. That tells me a number of things: one, I was not missed, not passed over by the culture of punishment we live in. Very few are, I imagine.

                 Two, someone even more thoroughly indoctrinated in the normal system than myself is at the mercy of these ideas. Someone who has never questioned it – and they are out there, are they ever! The number of people I’ve encountered in real life and on-line who have never even dreamed of a life without punishment, a life where the people who love you don’t hurt you to prove it, it’s scary – someone who has never questioned it, has very little chance to hear it. It is going to take some very good arguments, and even if I can make them, it’s probably all for naught.