I once had a radio host comment to me, “You have to be very brave to do all of this talking about how we discipline our children.”
And anybody who has followed along with the comments feed for many of my articles about discipline might tend to come to the same conclusion. There is nothing like talking about something as hot-button as disciplining children to incite the ire of all sorts of people. You can literally feel the seething anger or the epic disdain oozing out of their comments – sarcastic, accusatory, belittling, caustic and otherwise.
With all of this backlash, you might think that I must be saying some pretty awful stuff about kids or about parents. However, I am not advocating for cruel and horrible punishment for children, nor smacking parents with pious or self-righteous advice as an almighty expert.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
My goal is to weave together the science of child development with our methods of child-raising to figure out how it is all meant to sort out. I come at it humbly, with copious admissions of my own imperfections. And I come at it passionately, with a deeply rooted hopefulness that children everywhere will be given the best shot at this thing called life. My words are always about connection, compassion, and belonging as we strive to grow our children.
So how do we go from connection, compassion and belonging to seething anger, epic disdain, and caustic comments?
One word: vulnerability.
Or perhaps more pointedly, shame.
As the visionary Brene Brown described in her culture-shifting Ted Talk on the topic, vulnerability has at its core the counter-forces of shame and self-worth.
When we feel shame, we have a terrifying fear of rejection.
When we feel worthy, we trust in the opposite of rejection – we have a sense of acceptance and belonging.
Vulnerability is the state we exist in when we can hold onto both fear of rejection AND a sense of self-worth.
All of this is central to why I think I’ve got me some haters. For many parents, there are simply too many overt and covert messages in the parenting milieu that have us worrying we might be doing it all wrong. Case in point, Leonard Sax’s recent panic-inducing publication pompously titled “The Collapse of Parenting.”
That worry has us landing on all that we might lack.
That lack makes us feel shame.
That shame has us terrified of rejection and judgment.
And the fear of rejection and judgment is one that we cannot handle. It is contrary to who we are as human beings.
So what do we do? We turn it off. We tune it out. We numb ourselves.
We don’t want to look at it or consciously address it, so we rage against it. We define harsh zones of “all right” and “all wrong.” We belittle. We defend staunchly and without sound reason. We shut down.
Unfortunately, there is a seedy underbelly to this kind of protective response. When we turn off in this way, it is sort of like taking a giant sledgehammer and beating all of your feelings and emotions into submission. It does not happen delicately and selectively. You don’t get to just turn off shame but continue to feel all of the other emotions – like happiness, joy, peace, and gratitude. Nope – you lose them all.
And then you close your laptop, after reading the latest parenting expert post on what a terrible parent you are, and you walk back into your life. As a parent. With your children. With your heart turned off. Now what?
I can’t really say for sure what “now what” might look like. It is bound to be as unique as each of us are. But it probably includes operating from a survival place in your brain, being governed not by cognition and rational thought, but rather by reactivity. In this state, what dangerously lurks is a knee-jerk return to what we have always done. And this is so, even if what we have always done is more informed by misguided historical biases about who children are and what they truly need, than it is by any kind of contemporary science or enlightened understanding.
And round and round we go. We all become mired in our “obviously correct” approaches. Our children become stifled as our own fear and shame about messing it up leaks out of us and onto them. We helicopter parent, we tune out wisdom, we throw our hands up in surrender. We read more articles trying to find that magic list of steps or tricks or strategies we can use to finally make this feel better.
But we only feel worse. We escalate into being even more unsure, numbed out, tuned out, and turned off. This is as intolerable to our children as it is to us, and so they too turn off and numb out. And then they grow up and become parents, and it all begins again.
Of course, in between and amongst all of this, life happens. Soccer games are played. Trees are climbed. Spelling tests are passed. Birthday photos of toothless grins are snapped with pride. But go underneath that and what do we really see? Judging by the epidemic proportions of anxiety, screen addictions, and depression in our children, it appears that there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Now for the million dollar question – What is the way through?
And my vulnerable answer is, I don’t know.
I have some idea that it has to do with us as parents finding our own sense of vulnerability in our role as parents. How can we create a culture around child-raising that has us able to tolerate the discomfort of our possible lacks? How can we empower each other as parents with words and gestures that support and reassure? How can we safely move from parenting informed by historical bias to parenting that resonates with both heart and science?
Let’s face it – did you get the manual when you became a parent?
We are all going to misstep along the way and struggle to figure out different aspects of our role as parents. It is just part of being a parent. It comes with the territory. We HAVE to be open to seeing that we might “lack” at times. All of us. Even the so-called parenting experts.
But wow. That right there takes some serious vulnerability.
Brene Brown also said, “Vulnerability appears to be the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.” I want to parent with THAT! I want my boys to know that! Imagine what it would be like for our children to grow up marinating in that?!
So all of you parents, and all of you other people walking alongside parents, what if we did this…what if our plan was to find a way to create a space for vulnerability to exist in the parenting pop-culture?
Right now this culture seems to be full of defensive and defended parenting. What if we all owned what we owned and championed others in doing the same? What if we all loved with reckless abandon, knowing that it might or might not work out? What if we could see at the same time the things that unravel us AND that which holds us together? What if we could just know, as parents or otherwise, that we’ve got this? We were made for this. We can do this.
Yes. That. Let’s do that.
See you on the journey.