Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discipline, Punishment, or Abuse? You Decide

I just finished reading an interesting article that you can find here:

Basically, the article discusses parents who have taken to publicly shaming and humiliating their children (or using rather creative but cruel means) as discipline tactics for their children's misbehavior.  The expert they interviewed, who has a daily column on the web, describes these behaviors as "bullying and narcissistic".  Parents, basically, are bullying their children into compliance to make themselves look better.

The term "narcissistic personality" is actually a diagnosis listed in the DSM-IV manual of psychological disorders.  Typically, narcissism involves one's focus on oneself and in the belief that not only is one right, but better than those around him or her.

I think it's clear from the examples given in the articles that parental behavior is unreasonable and unacceptable.  But I also think we have become a society in which terms such as "narcissistic" and "abusive" get tossed around far too easily.

I'd be the first person to state that all of the examples given in the article--hot sauce on the tongue, a child holding a sign with his GPA on it on a public street, and a mother taking pictures of her crying sons as they hold bags of their beyblades up for auction on ebay hardly qualify for parent of the year.  And yes, some of these actions could even be considered--and meet the definition--of child abuse.  Most states define child abuse as the purposeful harm to a child.  But I have to ask myself, are these parents making these choices because they're narcissistic, bullying, child abusers?  Or are they parents who have simply reached their limits and don't know any other way to discipline?

While I do wonder where the mother was when her children were busting up her bathroom, I also understand these things can (and do!) happen.  I'll never forget one year when my money was tight and I had just purchased contact lenses.  I left them in their new case in the bathroom, but was insanely sick and my attention wasn't where it should have been--on my four-year old, who found the container extremely interesting and dumped my new contacts down the drain.  This was the same child who, a few days later, locked a door on the inside and shut it, forcing us to call a locksmith to get it open.  Granted, it's not a $500 bill for fixing a tub (which, by the way, I don't consider a necessity), but I do remember how angry and distraught I was.  I, an educator trained to work with children birth to eight, was absolutely livid with this child.  Of course I didn't photograph  his sad little crying face and share it on facebook, nor did I have him gather his toys and auction them off on ebay.  But I remember the feeling.  And I don't think it was a feeling of being bullied or that I'm a crazy narcissist.  It was a feeling of frustration, with myself AND my child, and a fear of loss.  How would I pay for these things?  Our money was so tight.  Maybe because I am an early childhood educator or maybe for some other reason, the worst my child suffered as a consequence was missing out on a day trip with his Pop (grandfather) to a museum he had wanted to visit.  The money that would have gone toward the trip went to the locksmith, and we explained to my child that this was why he could not go on the trip, and we hoped he wouldn't make a choice like that again.

Here's my point:  it's super easy for most of us to point fingers at parents who do crazy hijinks with their kids.  Do I think it's okay to hot sauce a child's mouth?  Absolutely not, ever, but no more than I think the mother in question deserves to lose her child or spend time in jail.  She needs stronger and better parenting skills and someone to monitor her interactions with her child for awhile.

While I would like to say I would never engage in public humiliation of my child, I can understand the frustration of parents who do, and encourage ANY parent who is frustrated to reach out for help.  It would be wonderful to have programs that all parents can reach out to for support.  When I first became a mom, I was fourteen hundred miles away from my family with no real friends or support system.  Even  having a strong education in the field of early childhood wasn't enough.  I needed people I could count on, to call and to release my stress, to watch my children while I took a break, to go with me and the kids to the park.  Many parents these days are isolated in ways that are different than in past years.  There is no extended family to lean on, and most parents are terrified to call and ask for help, for fear their children will be taken from them.  Our whole system, instead of being proactive, is designed as a punitive one--ironically punishing parents in ways that we don't want our children to be treated.

It's time to change the system.  Until parents have more support and education, I fear we'll hear more stories of child humiliation--not due to narcissism or bullying, but due to ignorance and frustration.  And when that happens, whole families suffer.

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