A giant parenting soapbox*

I read the lovely Lo’s blog post the other day, because she’s interesting and funny and feisty, and I enjoy keeping up with her life.  Lo is charming and outgoing, and generous with her complements and comments on other blogs, which is one reason that I like her.  But I did have a long comment on this post, and decided it really deserved its own post.  Here goes.

Read the post yourself, but the gist is,
“I ask in all seriousness and humility, ......What the fuck is going on?  What in the hell is wrong with raising a child to fear a certain punishment under certain circumstances and thereby to avoid bad behavior and aggravating their parents beyond the bounds of sanity?”. . .
“Let us look at only one example...........the fears generated by most of the established Religions.  The fear of punishment by God (our Father, by the way) permeates every morsel of all the Religions (except, perhaps, Zen Buddhism). Most of us live in fear of some kind of hell and its endless horrible torments.  We behave in a more or less civilized way because our Religions have strict rules and punishments for disobeying which are frightening enough to keep us somewhat in line.  And, when we stray, the pain and torture of guilt self-punishes us far beyond the extent of the crime or the sin.  And still we worship the Father (and the Mother) who impose these rules and this pain and fear upon us.  Go figure.
 By living within these constraints of our fears, most of humanity behaves fairly decently at least part of the time, has managed to accomplish some great and good deeds and has not yet succeeded in destroying everything God has created.   So if it is good enough for us as adults, please tell me why isn't it good enough for our children?”

I wasn’t going to touch the religion one, because, well, it’s just so touchy.  I tend to believe that whatever it is in your life that helps us get through the days with relative peace and decency is a good thing, whether it’s a belief in god or yoga or anti-depressants or whatever. I think it’s wrong to critique whatever lifelines we all have in this tippy little journey, full of unexpected loss, suffering, and so on.  But it seems that it’s integral to my whole comment, so, here goes.

I don’t happen to believe in god, and it’s not that I haven’t tried at different points in my life.  It just doesn’t ring true to me, and I’ve decided not to spend my life trying to argue myself into that belief, or argue others out of it.  Good for them, if they have that capacity.

When I was in college, I spent a few quarters taking philosophy classes and trying to understand the nature of reality, how we know what we know, and what the meaning of life is.  I thought harder about god than I ever had before.  Being raised Unitarian, it wasn’t something we worried much about.

One weekend during that time, my parents came to visit.  I remember sitting in the back seat of their station wagon driving to Cooperstown for dinner through gorgeous upstate NY in the fall, brilliant flaming maple trees in every direction, and I remember choking back unexplainable tears.  “Do you believe in god,” I asked, perhaps a little desperately. 

Even though I knew the answer, I had to ask.  My mother answered something vague and sweet, like, “Oh, just look around at all of this beauty.  It’s a magical world.”  I understand the answer now, as a mother, of wanting to always redirect towards hope in a vague way that wouldn’t stifle anyone.  But at the time, I just thought – sheesh, answer the question already.

My father was silent for a long while, and then just said, “well, that’s not really very relevant, is it.”  Which may sound like a snotty answer if you don’t know him.

In the shorthand that families come to understand, I knew that when I asked about god, he was saying, “Oh honey.  It looks so hard, and that’s something we’ll never know.  Can you try to just get on with living your life?”

A little side story about my father, because I think in order to understand how I heard that answer, given his words, you need a little better grasp of him. 

He was a pediatrician, and at one point, he had a medical student who was at a point in his training to work directly with the patient.  The young man went into the examining room, and quickly came back out.  “Dr. M., there’s blood all over, and the boy is crying and the mother’s hysterical.”

“Well,” my father said, “why don’t you go back in the room and do something about that.”  He’s just incredibly calm and non-judgmental all of the time.

As an adult, I’ve decided that’s what I believe in.  I believe in going back in the room to try to stop the bleeding.  Not because it will always work, or because I’m particularly equipped to do so, but because that’s what there is to do.

I don’t have the stamina for looking at the big timeless questions; that tends to leave me depressed. I find that I agree, after all, with my dad.  All we know for sure is that we can try to stop the bleeding.

But back to the topic at hand, parenting.  I don’t think we serve our kids or our world well by raising children who make decisions based in fear of punishment.  The dog does sleep on the couch when you’re not home, if you see my point.

I think we want to raise people who have courage to stand up for what they care about, and disagree respectfully, but firmly.  And if that starts by saying no to brussel sprouts, well, that’s okay with me.  Blind obedience begins at home, and I don’t think we want it.

Among the top parental lectures I used is the “This is Dinner” speech, which goes, “This is dinner. Someone who loves you very much prepared this meal for you.  If you don’t care for its particular texture or flavor, I’m sorry, but please keep those comments to yourself.  Try the food, and if it isn’t to your liking, you may quietly excuse yourself and make a sandwich and return for lovely conversation, but please do not make negative comments.  Because this is dinner.”

If we want to grow children into adults who know their own mind, have courage to follow it, and have learned respectful ways to communicate it, we need to give them practice on the little things along the way.  We need to let it be okay that they don’t love tomatoes (yet), but not let it be okay to be rude to the cook.

Forcing kids to do stuff completely against their will out of fear of punishment will come back to bite us, and I’m pretty sure we don’t want that.  Think Holocaust.

When I was a parent of young kids, I had the great opportunity to spend time with one of my oldest friends, and probably the best mother I know.  She was negotiating with her quite strong-willed nephew about pants.  She suggested he get ready for a hike by getting out of his bathing suit and into long pants. He started to cry and fuss, and she persisted, explaining about how he’d be much more comfortable in the pants due to mosquitoes and so on.  I watched curiously as his protests escalated.  She stayed calm, and explained again, and he remained fierce in his protest.  I was wondering how she’d get out of this – it didn’t look like he was about to budge, and she was totally right that he’d be better off in pants.

“Oh, I see how important it is for you to choose your clothes,” she said.  “I didn’t understand that at first.  Why don’t you pick something that will make you happy to wear on the hike.”

I know.  That’s the kind of mother she is.  She didn’t force him, and she didn’t cower and give up, she offered her point of view, acknowledged his strong feelings, and let it go.  Just the way we’d want an adult to behave, eh? 

What I want for my kids is this: I want them to know, to truly know, that life is beautiful and rich and grand, and they can make good things happen, and they should laugh every single day, and when they get to parts in their lives that are hard, sad, lonely, scary, or just boring, that there are still a million reasons to get up each day and give it their best shot.  And they should do this stuff with other people, and they should work at making good friends by being one, and they should struggle to be honest and kind to people, because it matters.  And they should do things just because they're fun, and they should spend their childhood figuring out what they love, and maybe, if they're lucky, why they love it.

And they don’t learn this stuff through fear of punishment, but by being well-loved and respected. People learn to be respectful by having the experience of being respected, and they learn to be empathetic by having the experience of being understood, and they learn to be kind by receiving kindness. 

I think our kids deserve for us to be their biggest fans, and work as hard as we can at seeing the best in them, even when it isn’t obvious, and gently guiding them towards polishing that best into something unique and outstanding, because isn’t that what the world needs?

Thanks Lo, for giving me a chance to go on a giant soapbox about one of my favorite topics.  :-)


  1. Wow! I think I have started something dubious with my blog and I may have to go back into the room and try to fix it.

    Thanks, Betsy, for this wise, beautifully articulated response to my wild ranting. Oddly enough, I agree with you about most of what you have said.

    Before I re-blog in earnest, let me just say that I did not mean to advocate torture and punishment as the way to raise a child. Thanks for making me aware of how powerful a blogged phrase can be.

  2. Hi Betsy,

    I came here from the very blog you are responding to, and I enjoy your outlook. I can relate to a lot of what you've said here in raising my own kids.

    I have a variation of the "This is Dinner" speech, (although 'making a sandwich' isn't an option.. it's usually, 'if you don't like it, you can wait until the next meal' - because they won't starve) but otherwise it's pretty similar. As a formerly picky eater and the mother of one picky eater and one not-picky, I can understand both my child's frustration and my mothers frustration with me when I wouldn't eat.

    Anyway though, I enjoy your outlook. I've tried to teach my kids to be good decent people because.. well, why would anyone want to be a jerk? It sounds overly simplistic, but so far it's working.

  3. I have never had children but I am guessing from the research that has already been done, that fear doesn't really allow the assimilation of values as one's own. It's like you said, the dog on the couch thing. Intrinsic vs Extrinsic.

    As far as the god thing....I do have a faith but it doesn't include putting the fear in anyone or being "preachy" either.... I have trouble with those who feel their "religion" is the right one...

    Anyone who bothers to have children should be careful with that responsibility and not take it lightly....and I sometimes shudder when I see the neglect and the abuse that I encounter in the field I work in. So sad.

    I loved the part of your blog where you describe what you wish for for your own children: it needs to be posted on every parent's mirror where they see it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

  4. I'm not keen to weigh in on the issue itself, but I did come over from Lo's to see what she was referencing and yes, a very eloquent response indeed.

    "The dog does sleep on the couch when you’re not home, if you see my point." <--- I thought that was a point particularly charmingly made.

  5. I agree w/ your points, Betsy, though I tend not to be as kind re: "this is dinner," and go along Yandie's course.
    As for "fear of God," I think a very relevant point is the difference between guilt and shame, at least how I functionally define them. I believe guilt is a gift, just like hunger or the urge to pee.
    Let me explain: we have alarm bells from deep within us from mechanisms that vigilantly watch out for our needs, ALL of them, which are all on different schedules, and remind us when we are busy sorting out other things, usually in pursuit of other needs. So when you are busy working your job to assure that you can provide for yourself and loved ones food, clothing, and shelter, from time to time an alarm bell will tell you that it's also time to eat or pee. Maybe I'm being a bit obtuse, but you get the point?
    Guilt tells us, "Don't do that---it's not good for you or someone else." Like the nagging voice that says, "Yes, go back and put the empty soda can in the recycling, not the trash." or "No matter how angry, you can't go and hit someone else car because they took 'your' parking spot." And yes, this does remind us to be better people.
    Shame, on the other hand is paralyzing, it says, "Whatever you did or didn't do, is SOOOO bad, that you are less legitimate to pursue your needs." That feeling that you might as well just 'die;' which is about accurate, though luckily most people don't give up and do. Our survival instinct is too strong, thank goodness. But it still makes people walk around with this inner desperation, and I am firmly committed to the belief that the reason our leaders, religious and otherwise, have instilled this in most of us is because it makes us very controllable.
    I agree w/ Betsy, we don't want blind obedience in our children, but society does. It wants them to be blind: blind consumers, blind voters, and most sorrowfully, blind soldiers.
    So I'm trying to raise my son to have his eyes open, and let him know that he's loved no matter what, so maybe he will have one less need threatened on a regular basis. I'm hoping that helps him be reasonable, and have the inner peace to take a breath, and say something to his kids someday like, "This is dinner."

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  7. RE: "Forcing kids to do stuff completely against their will out of fear of punishment will come back to bite us, and I’m pretty sure we don’t want that. Think Holocaust."

    I think it was more the propaganda that instilled the fear of other people rather than punishment. Think Jews.

    Perhaps this quote says it better than I can: "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." -Hermann Goering

  8. If you don't thing it's true just remember how Bush manipulated that asses, oops I meant masses by telling everyone there were Weapons of Mass destruction everywhere...


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