2 min read

On threatening children

Retributive justice begins in the home, alongside the lesson that there are bad and good ways to be. The rules are set: do X and you go to your room, don't do Y and you'll lose Z, and the child is given the freedom of choice (choice as much as they can be conscious and intentional, at least).

What is the implicit lesson communicated by an environment filled with consequence? Everything has stakes. Failure is dangerous. Mistakes are unacceptable. (It's no surprise that I spent my childhood inside the safe confines of a computer screen.)

I'm not suggesting parenting without establishing boundaries, or even without punishment. But often it seems like the answer to "What is a parent" is more focused on establishing these boundaries and carrying out consequences than it is on making an environment in which these things are the exception rather than the norm.

Put another way: parents are often expected to have constant control over their children. Beyond that, if a child misbehaves then consequences are enacted on the parent. Their self-image comes under attack, the school or childcare threatens expulsion or abandonment, or their own hopes and dreams for their child become the object of doubt and fear.

The parent finds themselves in a very similar situation to the child! And often they pass the responsibility down: You, kiddo, are the one who needs to behave for this to work. We teach what we know, what we have internalized about goodness, badness, and responsibility.

How could it be different? What would it look like for a parent to take responsibility--not always, but more often than not--for their child's mistakes? Suppose if the child acts out and breaks something, how does one take a moment to reflect on if they gave them enough attention today, or if they got time outside to run around, rather than jumping to blame, punishment, and foisting all responsibility upon the child.

Let's give them a chance to fail, to make mistakes, to take risks, to explore. Just as we might give parents that chance, so when a child does something "bad" we can have compassion not just for them, but also for the parent.

I recognize this adds work to an already impossible task. The energy management of parenting looks more difficult than just about anything.

But maybe not needing to be constantly in control of a child could help make it a bit easier, more fun, less stressful. Yes, it's new, and probably as such quite scary. But for any parents out there reading this far: it's okay for you, too, to make mistakes, to fail. No matter how much you were raised to believe the contrary.

May we grow by having compassion for our failures, and the failures of others. Be they children, spouses, other parents, or our own. In that forgiveness is the allowance to attempt and to change. In that space, perhaps, there is room for a childhood.