Fear-Based Parenting

Another excellent progressive parenting piece was featured on MamaWorldForum this morning, and once again, the fear-based freakout began. The article could have been better titled-- for this relatively conservative forum group, the tag line "When to Give In To Your Child" probably elicted a countrywide CLUNK!!! ,or as my friend Donna says, "The sound of a mind slamming shut".

While I am not going to go into all the particulars, I have noticed a trend in responses to these more progressive parenting posts. While there are some who support the content of the piece or thank the author, there's a lot of defensive, hyperbolic language and bad/non-critical thinking applied whilst making one's point. Some of this falls into the category of derision, which looks like "What kind of idiot would assert this opinion? It was so stupid, I couldn't even read the whole thing, but now I'm going to ass-out by showing my ire at something I don't know the half about."

Then there's that other bastion of defensive handwringers, who think that letting a child say "no" or assert any autonomy "is the reason this country is going to hell in a handbasket". Really? Gee, I didn't think it was my son expressing himself...I thought it was the poor, under-considered decisions our lawmakers and elected officials make. Keep underfunding those schools and cutting options...Let's pin the tail on that donkey, shall we, and not blame parents who allow their children to act age-appropriately, heaven forbid. (Notice that I did not say "act out age-appropriately" here.)

Now we come to the oft-bandied about "Well, if you rob a bank, the judge isn't going to talk about your feelings, he's going to send you to jail." Um, here's my question to those who feel this is an actual point: are you worried that your child is going to become a bank robber?! If you are, then yes, but then you have other things you should be spending your time on besides forums. Children who have options and feel capable of problem-solving --perhaps because their parents are approachable and flexible and help them to make good choices through inclusion in the decision process and education-- are not likely to grow up to become desperate bank robbers. Just my gut instinct here...

And what about that most circumscribe and flawed of points many parents make: "I was (spanked, fed sugar, allowed to watch endless television, etc.) and I'm fine. So it's fine for everyone else." This seems laughable until one considers that we aren't living in a country known for its practice of self-reflection. Instead, we explain away a questioned aspect of our parenting without deeper thought as to why we feel that this works for us.

And we are so quick to thoughtlessly defend ourselves. Last week, a woman asked a forum question about finding information regarding the negative effects of TV on young children--she mentioned that her daughter was 16 months old and that she needed information to present to family members. Seemingly few members of the forum conversation noticed that she was asking about television in regard to a child Not Yet Two--instead came the onslaught of "I grew up with TV and I'm fine". Well, apparently not, if you are Not Reading the Question (the poster didn't ask how others felt or for convincing that TV was right) and just standing on the mountaintop, beating your chest all in an effort to say "My Parenting is Fine! Don't Challenge My Thinking!"

And it's all fear-based. I think much of this put-down, push-around commenting is rooted in fear that perhaps we aren't as confident in ourselves as we'd like to think we are. I don't view this as a realm exclusive to more authoritarian, conservative parenting--I see this in fear in permissive parenting as well. One is steeped in tradition: if we don't rule over them, they'll rule over us. (Great philosophy for more feudal times if we are to quell the serf uprising, but sucks as a parenting philosophy.) The other fear is "If I say no, if I impose guidelines and boundaries, my kid will hate me." Yep, healthy parenting involves copious amounts of your kid being completely pissed off at you. It's part of being human and having one person qualified to make the majority of the decisions.

I'm the last person to say that children should be left in charge of themselves at all times, but there's that authoratative middle ground between Authoritarian and Permissive that we might seek.

We modern folks are often people of extremes. I'm striving to find the middle ground every day; I'm not immune. A lot of old parenting beliefs(some ancient, really) are being dragged into the light of present day and openly challenged by more child-centered philosophies, and the old guard is not happy with the proposed changes to the status quo. Instead of either 'side' standing back and trying to suss out why each other thinks the way that they think, both mutually decide that the other is wrong, all wrong, entirely wrong--without any real thoughtfulness about it.

I, for myself, know why I think what I think. I used to believe that spanking, time outs and punishment were good tools because that's what I grew up with. The fact of the matter was, I wasn't fine. Working with children forced me to learn how to discipline without spanking or grounding (although some forms of Time Out are close), but there were still some skills, some pieces missing. 20 years ago, I was cringing at the helpless feeling of "what do I do if I can't punish them enough for them to comply?" and hating my work. And it didn't change by my becoming permissive--what changed things was critically examining both my own childhood and the areas I experienced the most fear and discomfort within the context of my relationships with other people, including children. Add to this the desire to understand how children think and their development-- all of this led me to the conclusions I have in regard to working with and parenting children.

It was fear that kept me unhappy, miserable and uneffective at the start of my career; it was addressing those fears that has helped me become capable of having healthy, balanced relationships with the children in my life.

We have to get past those fears when we feel challenged in regard to our parenting. We also have to acknowledge the progress that's coming out of the Early Childhood Ed community, because it holds valuable possibilities for our future as a nation. While we happily embrace progress in our computers, medicine, cars, and consumer goods, we seem less interested in learning about new ideas in child-rearing. Fear of the unfamiliar and a perceived challenge to one's beliefs (and the subsequent desire to defend them, sword swinging) will keep us from living up to our potential.

I think conventional parenting has a lot of good to offer, too. I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. I'm just saying that when it comes to parenting, let's not be paralyzed by fear. Immobility is not progress. It's just being stuck.


Thank you for your post! I had not seen the comments and I was a little surprised that an article suggesting that parents ask the question “How can we both get what we want” caused so many to disagree. It is sad that those minds are closed shut on the opportunity of having a happy, harmonious home where everyone gets consideration.
Lori said…
LOVE your post! Thank you for addressing ALL of the common myths about respectful parenting.

I haven't even read the article you are referring to yet, but as a mom and parent educator who promotes non-punitive discipline and compassionate communication - I am well aware of the fear and opinions out there.

Thanks for shining the light in such point-blank (and entertaining) way and visit my facebook page if you want to visit a community who has dared to visit the darker parts of themselves to become better parents.

All the best,
Lori Petro
TEACH through Love
Thanks so much for your comments and feedback, Danielle and Lori. I think there's a lot of work to be done in regard to building bridges between parenting styles (finding common ground), and it's hard to see rich, meaningful writing about childrearing being abused on a daily basis. Thanks to both of you, and keep doing the good work for kids that you do!


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