Monday, March 1, 2010

The problem with Cheerfully Punitive Parenting

I'm of the opinion that manufactured cheerfulness, in parenting and all other relationships, is worth exactly an ounce of manure. Perhaps a little less, depending on the kind of manure and how much nitrogen my flowers need. ;O)

I've heard it stated repeatedly that a person can treat someone with disrespect and lack of due empathy while appearing loving and cheerful to attain the right balance of "tough love". This assumption has it's foundation poured deeply into the idea that we can disconnect our actions and our attitude and thereby foster any amount of health in another individual.

One of the current main proponents of such cheerfulness, Micheal Pearl (if you chose to look him up, I strongly suggest reading his charismatic material with's nicely wrapped in relational phrases, but it's actual content is quite toxic), suggest discipline such as this:

If you think it is appropriate and you spank him make sure that it is not a token spanking. Light, swatting spankings, done in anger without courtroom dignity will make children mad because they sense that they have been bullied by an antagonists. A proper spanking leaves children without breath to complain. If he should tell you that the spanking makes him madder, spank him again. If he is still mad.... He desperately needs an unswayable authority, a cold rock of justice.

Tough love certainly has it's place in the repertoire of relational tools, but the degree of how loving our toughness can be is tightly lashed to our understanding of the effectiveness of human retribution and revenge. Gentleness cannot be modeled by a gently smiling person wielding a paddle. Kindness is not modeled by "training" that fails to acknowledge the sacredness of another's heart and body. Humility can not be personified by someone delving out pain like an angry god whose fragile sense of righteousness has been violated. As cathartic or fulfilling punishment may feel in the moment for the punisher, the sense of relief it seems to give to punished (from what I've experienced and observed) is taught rather than natural. In fact, it often deepens the wound that sparked the infraction in the first place.

If you drown puppies while crying in remorse, the puppies still, in fact, die. The damage is not less to the victim, especially a victim who lacks the capacity for abstract thought.

Truthfully, one could imagine that it's easier for a child (or an adult, for that matter) to understand and forgive someone who harms them out of obvious passion or frustration and admits later with a humble heart that it was human error while asking forgiveness. This child learns something about being a human as a collective: we are all prone to weakness, and can learn from our mistakes. Love and relationship can be restored, and I want to make myself trustworthy. In contrast, a child that is punished with a confident, "loving", unrepentant face and manner learns something about himself: "It's fine for me to hurt you, because I am older than you. In fact, God wants me to hurt you, because it's the only way your evil nature and stupid heart can learn. You deserve to be hurt, and it's for your own good. You may not hit, but I may, because I'm older and bigger. This is normal."

Not only does the latter damage the child's sense of worth (not to mention breaking down the boundaries in the soul that prevent violence), it also the potential to teach a damaging emotional disconnect that can be carried throughout life. I've met more than one child who happily tauted the benefits of spanking while under parental pressure to disconnect from emotional pain, only to realize as an adult the massive damage that lay beneath the purposefully veneered surface.

The act of punishment isn't the only place the doctrine of cheer surfaces, unfortunately. Pollyanna pervades much of the way a "cheerful" person responds to life in general. (Please understand that I'm not hating on people who are prone to laid back or effervescent dispositions, I'm talking about intentional forced smiling and stuffing of any negative emotion). The "cheerful" person puts forth a display of fabricated happiness that belies painful life situations that are easily observed by others. Not only is this just plain creepy, is often undercuts the compassion and honesty that they might otherwise give others or receive for themselves. Rather than the intended shining beacon of cheer, it becomes a painful clog in the person's emotional plumbing that deprives the individual emotional health and community, and frankly looks weird and confusing to others who desire to enjoy relationship with a real person.

Emotions spring from our hearts, rather than our hearts springing from our emotions. The assumption that pretended emotions can be the cause of goodness is erroneous. We can't force things to happen with plastic emotion or words, simply because we will it to be so. It's a rather ass backwards way of approaching life in general, as emotions tend to inform us of inner and outer problems that warrant our attention. If we limit our information ("happy is the only acceptable emotion, cheerfulness the only acceptable attitude"), then we limit understanding of our problems, and ultimately restrict our solutions to merely pretending our problems don't exist.

A representative quote from the school of thought that views behavior born of need as a sin that needs to be absolved or "cleansed" by the parent is this by author Gary Ezzo:

"A child knows when he has broken the rules, and his guilt continually reminds him of his violation. Guilt is the reminder of sin. Chastisement (spanking) is the price paid to remove the guilt thus [sic] free the child from his burden. If the parents do not remove the guilt, the child lives under the weight of sin. When an offense calls for chastisement, parents should chastise. If they substitute a lesser punishment, the guilt remains, and the child will suppress it. That, in turn, leads to more antisocial behavior."

Rather addressing with compassion why a child feels jealous/angry/demanding and therefore the underlying need, we send information out that the child is defective or sinful for possessing a negative feeling, and write out an RX for simply acting better! One can only imagine that this does very little to equip the individual with the skills needed to cope with their own personal struggles and blind spots, and teaches instead the skill of wallpapering over pain and stress and insecurity. That it's delivered with an attitude of cheery authority must be incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to the recipient.

I'd assert that not a single fruit of the Spirit can be actually developed without knowing the full extent of emotional safety, compassion and love. "Sin" is never overcome by punishment or fear, especially when it's viewed as a tangible contaminant, rather than the result of a real unmet need inside the individual. Starving a plant and blaming "Death" as a mysterious entity isn't so much effective for a flourishing garden. Starving a person's heart and blaming sin is just as ridiculous. We'd be much better off viewing sin as deficit, or a problem that warrants a compassionate (and sometimes very slow) solution. In our family relationships, we're hardly afforded the luxury of our loved ones only having problems that are solved simply and quickly, and sometimes, the only thing we can easily contribute is the willingness to wait until healing is accomplished. (My good friend likes to call this the "Tincture of Time", and I rather like that phrase.)

I personally am making it my goal to not only express my real feelings early and often to my children, but also to make our home that's a safe place for them to feel the full range of emotions that they're able to feel. Anger as the solution to a problem is damaging, but anger expressed appropriately and freely spurs us to action and informs our solution. Sadness as a solution is damaging, but grieving a loss or disappointment is a process in emotional health, and therefore very acceptable. If I'm feeling sad or discontent, which is more useful? Cheerfulness as a rule (with a storm beneath the surface), or allowing my children to observe me processing discontent to a real, viable solution? Which is more useful long-term: dictating instant compliance and happiness, or empowering children to be an integral part of finding their own way to out of a struggle? One teaches life long conformity through fear of authority, the other teaches actual autonomy and value.

Death to plastic smiles and artificial absolution. Long live organic, messy process. :o)


  1. Bravo!! Thanks for saying this so well!

  2. Excellent, excellent post. :)

  3. *applause* Well done! Well Done!
    I always joke with my husband that the pearls are my favorite family I love to disagree with. Some things they mention are so good--ie, herbs, fun "school" type activities, but when it boils down to it, I just disagree with so much.
    I'm so happy to read this post!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. (above comment was deleted for being chinese porn, not because someone disagreed with me! ;OP I welcome good discussion, just not random naked people. Specific naked people are allowed at times, just not on my blog ;OP)

  6. What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for posting this.

  7. Would it maybe be ok if I linked to this? From fb? I know it's an older post... but it's just sooo lovely <3