Many parenting ‘discipline’ strategies are in fact abuse
One of the toughest, potentially most painful, potentially most rewarding parts of being a parent is sorting through what you experienced yourself as a child. As soon as you start raising a child of your own, you have to figure out which parts of your childhood you want to live out with your own kids, and which parts you want to leave behind forever. Everybody goes through this, whether consciously or not.
The huge, unwieldy question of “How will I discipline my kids?” is especially tough. It strikes at the heart of so many profound issues, and the stakes are so high.
“There are all too many parenting philosophies calling themselves ‘discipline’ that are really abuse”
Like most of the really tough things in life, there are perils on both sides. If you’re either too harsh or too lenient in how you discipline your child, it could truly harm them, and that harm can ripple out to affect their relationships with other people and even with God.
So yes, it’s important to get it right. But there’s some comfort in knowing it’s not actually possible to get it completely right. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to be inconsistent, and give mixed messages to your kids. This is just how humans act, and I’ve never seen even really wonderful parents get it exactly right.
But I’m here to tell you this: If you are going to err, it’s far better to err on the side of laxity than on the side of harshness. This is not because being spoiled isn’t bad for kids. It is.
But if your child is going to have to recover from one extreme or the other as an adult, is far easier to recover from spoiling than it is from abuse. And there are all too many parenting philosophies calling themselves “discipline” that are really abuse.
Any parenting approach that sees children as inherently naughty or inherently deficient, anything that relies heavily on instilling fear, anything that prizes complete control and obedience above any other virtue, and anything that involves the constant threat or use of physical discipline, is almost certainly some form of abuse. And it is so much harder to recover from being abused than it is to recover from being spoiled.
I am painting with a broad brush, here, and no doubt you will be able to think of exceptions. But in general, here is what I have observed.
I have met people who were raised like princes and princesses…when they left their parents’ home and had to begin their independent lives, most of them eventually hit a wall.
I have met people who were raised like princes and princesses. They were given everything they wanted, and very little was demanded of them. When they left their parents’ home and had to begin their independent lives, most of them eventually hit a wall.
They had a horribly rude awakening, discovering that not everyone saw them as exceptional, not everyone was willing to wait on them, and the realities of everyday life as an adult required them to shape up in a hurry. Some of them simply found spouses (most often wives) who were willing to spoil them, so they didn’t have to change.
But most of them, willingly or unwillingly, began the work of un-spoiling themselves. It’s hard, but it’s possible to do, and those who transform themselves from being soft, undisciplined, and selfish into a being hard-working, resilient, and capable find a lot of peace and pride in their accomplishments.
I have also met people who were raised with the kind of discipline that’s really abuse. When they reached adulthood, first they had to do the work of realising that what they suffered was actually abuse, and then they had to grapple with what this kind of upbringing did to their relationship with their parents, their idea of their place in the world, their relationship with God, and the self-worth, and their sense of self in general.
The work can be done. It is very possible to rise above an abusive childhood and to change the pattern with your own children and spouse. But even in “success stories”, where people learn that they are worthy of love and that they don’t have to live in a constant state of fear and tension, an excessively harsh childhood always seems to leave a deep, unyielding scar on the psyche.
People who have been abused often face a lifelong struggle to avoid abusing their own children and other vulnerable people, or abusing themselves, even if only inwardly. It leaves a wound of sadness and anger and worthlessness that, for many people, never fully heals.
It’s reasonable to fear what will become of our children. The world is very avid to turn them away from what is good, true, and beautiful. But no matter what you do, there will come a time when your children will leave you and will have to make choices for themselves. Let them go into that battle armed with the knowledge that they are worthy of love.
If you are haunted by the fear that you’re being too soft on your kids, and wondering if you’d get better results by following some childrearing philosophy that deliberately breaks children’s spirits in the name of discipline: You probably will get better results. But the cost is too high. Rebuke that fear.
The very fact that you’re concerned shows that you’re probably a connected parent who cares for your child, and that care is what you need to convey most of all. Don’t be afraid to let your child feel loved and cherished. Don’t be afraid to show mercy.
There is a lot more to be said about this topic, but that’s the main thing: Don’t be afraid to show mercy to your children. Mercy comes from God.
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