Those who are triggered by references to gun violence may wish to skip the article this week.
A 17-year-old eats a hamburger. Her parents – – religious adherents, vehement vegetarians, or perhaps just miserable human beings to begin with – – beat her. Mom and dad take turns hitting their child. Not spanking her. Which would be bad enough. Punching her. Criminal child abuse.
Everyone reading my weekly articles is justifiably horrified. This otherwise respectful and obedient child ate a hamburger. That was her “crime.” I have to think that disobedience not menu choice is the fundamental issue. But why are her parents so out of control and horrible?
All of us who think deeply about parenting, about how to bring up healthy children in this toxic world, agree that raising a hand to a child is always a mistake. No exceptions. It’s never okay to hit your kids. If your family has gotten to a place where violence is the answer, you’re asking the wrong question. And have been for some time.
It is easy to predict the hamburger eating child’s subsequent relationship with her parents. She left home as soon as she could, somehow managed to support herself, and never spoke to them again. I don’t know whether she attended the funerals of her mom and dad. My guess is that she did not, but I don’t know the details of the story perfectly.
I do know that the next time I hear an adult say, “my parents abused, me but it was for my own good and I grew up to appreciate being smacked around” will be the first. “Tough love” has to be almost 100 % love and only a tiny fraction of tough to have a chance of being effective. There’s enough tough in the world outside your home.
But I’m not writing this week about the low hanging fruit of not perpetuating violence throughout the generations. I’m wondering where the violence comes from.
Research is clear. You’re more like to be an asshole to your kids if your parents were assholes to you. Violence begets violence. But child abusers for the most part think they’re doing the right thing. How can this be?
Without being sympathetic to people who hit their kids, can the behavior be explained if not excused? Could these parents be feeling out of control themselves? Could their own dysregulation inspire them to hit their children, children whom they profess to love? Do these parents even pretend to believe that eating a hamburger is in some way worse than getting beaten by the people who are supposed to love and protect you?
Consider once again the unspeakable tragedy in Uvalde, Texas and the countless other attacks on our young ones. (Again, those who are triggered by gun violence and harm to children may wish to skip the rest of this article.) Reading about and seeing images of the slaughter of innocents doesn’t make me want to hit my kids. To the contrary thinking about the inexpressible loss of those parents makes me want to forbid my kids to ever leave the house. I just want to sit with them on the couch watching cartoons or reading books. I want to have family game night all day every day. Knowing that 19 children and two teachers were murdered doesn’t make me feel angry in the long term. It’s my anxiety that remains and takes center stage.
My rational brain knows that I have to trust my kids to leave the house, to find their own way, to “fall down seven times and stand up eight.” My coherent self internalizes that I can’t protect my kids forever, that they have to go to school, learn to deal with unpleasant people, maybe get their hearts broken, overcome adversity on their own.
When I read out our beloved children being shot, all I want to do is hug my kids and never let them out of my sight.
Maybe it’s a stretch but could there be a relationship between those horrific parents beating their child ostensibly because she ate a hamburger and my irrational desire to keep my kids home? Is it possible that we are both desperately grasping for control in a world in which we have none?