“The world is a cruel place.”
“Our kids need tough love so they can learn how to face the world.”
“Children need timeouts so they can learn to self-soothe.”
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Our society hands us so many damaging stories and limiting beliefs. We’re led to believe that the real world is brutal, and it’s easy to buy in. We see the reality of human cruelty every day. From the horrific war crimes of the twentieth century and the persistent weight of racism and hatred, to the brutality of cyber-bullying and the long-lasting effects of verbal and emotional abuse, there’s so much we’d love to protect our kids from. No wonder we tell ourselves the world is cruel.
The power structures of our society not only encourage cruelty, they were built on it. So many of our institutions were built to uphold the authority of those in power– wealthy white men. When you live in a world that denies your dignity and even your humanity, accepting cruelty as a given makes a lot of sense.
Is human cruelty undeniable, or has it just been such a part of our indoctrination that we accept it as truth? Are we doomed to continue the patterns of cruelty established by generations past, or is there potential for change?
We have a choice in what we believe and how we move forward.
We can choose to believe the world is cruel and cannot be changed. We can choose to follow the models of parenting embraced by our ancestors in an effort to prepare children for the reality of a cruel world. We can continue to enact harsh punishments on our children because we believe that anything the world would dish out to them would be much harsher.
We can acknowledge that the cruelty that burdens us is a byproduct of a long history of marginalization, institutionalized hatred and aggression. When we make that choice, we create space for the belief that our societal patterns of cruelty can be altered, too.
When we draw this distinction, refusing to ignore or accept hatred as a part of the enduring fabric of our society, we take on a new responsibility. We commit to teaching our children kindness and compassion while showing them how to smash the patriarchy and confront inequity head on.
We aren’t going to dismantle and reconstruct our damaging systems by teaching our kids to fear or to hate. Tough love and fear of the harsh reality of the world does nothing to nourish the spirit of change-making in our children and future generations.
Parenting for Social Justice
To become the change-makers our world needs, our children must learn to speak up and listen. They need us to show them how to invite dialogue even when they are uncomfortable. If we align ourselves with social justice, it is our duty to recognize our own implicit biases and do the work of processing them. We have to understand how our own beliefs and actions feed into the destructive power dynamics at play in our society. This is the work that equips us to be the guides our children need as they navigate the cruelty of the world. It’s through this work that we empower ourselves and our children to bring light into a world that is full of darkness and shadows.
This is heavy and important work. It can take years or even decades to shake off the stories and biases that we’ve integrated into ourselves. It’s important for us to model this inquiry for our children as they grow, but we can begin to teach our children about social justice and equity before they have the experience and perspective to understand the social injustices we see everyday in the world around us.
The choices we make as parents and the conversations we have with our kids every day are the foundation for their understanding of grown up concepts like equity and justice. The way we respond to our children determines how they will treat people outside of our homes. When we respect their need for autonomy and honor the depth of their emotions, we boost their capacity for empathy, and the strength we display in advocating for them draws attention to the power of advocating for others.
Commit yourself to growth, not perfection.
None of this means that you have to be a perfect parent. You’ll still get frustrated and you might say or do things you’ll regret. It doesn’t mean you must be invulnerable to doubt either. What it does mean is that you must be committed to growth and self-examination. When you are, you give yourself permission to make mistakes and own them, demonstrating for your children the power of taking responsibility for your actions.
Your children need you to commit to learning to guide them through their emotions and moral dilemmas without judgement or punitive measures. That doesn’t mean you have to spoil your child or let them get away with things. Parenting for social justice does not mean parenting permissively. It means establishing boundaries and helping your child through so they can develop their own inner compass. It means making decisions that allow them to feel empowered and supported in making good choices. Remarkably, when they feel empowered to make the choice themselves, they learn to make solid choices even when you aren’t around.
The Power and Pervasiveness of Microagressions
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. – Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D.
Aside from abandoning punitive measures in our families, one of the best ways we can change the messages our children receive about their worth as individuals is to reflect on the microaggressions we engage in unconsciously. We have to learn to recognize and reverse the microaggressions that we have let seep into our family life. The way we treat our children is reflected in the way we treat others. So often we are unaware of the small gestures that our children are internalizing and reflecting back into the world.
Engaging in one or more of these does not mean you are a bad parent. It means you are human.
I offer this not as a condemnation, but as a mirror. This is an invitation to take the time to consider each of these and how they factor into your own family life. I hope this encourages you to consider the inadvertent messages you are sending when check your phone in the middle of a conversation or talk about your child’s bad behavior as if they weren’t standing a few feet away.
This is one of my own areas of growth. I am working on identifying the ways that microaggressions surface in my own parenting, too. It’s a process, and it’s a very personal one. So, take this article as a lantern and go forth into the darkness. Hold up the light and look closely. Look for the subtle messages you are sending and clear the pathway for change.
Common Parenting Microaggressions
What follows are some common verbal and nonverbal microaggressions parents have been known to adopt. The list is by no means exhaustive; it’s simply a starting point to steer you in your self-inquiry.
Why can’t you be like your sister/brother?
I never did that when I was a kid.
What were you thinking?
You’re getting too big for your britches.
“Big kid” talk. i.e., “big kids use the potty,” or “big kids don’t cry”
Teasing or joking about your child, especially if it results in hurt feelings.
Talking in third person about your child, i.e., “Somebody’s grumpy…”
Ignoring a child’s “no” or request to stop.
Phone use at dinner, during play time, or when carrying on a conversation.
The silent treatment– especially silently and passive aggressively completing a task that was your child’s responsibility.
If any of these hit close to home, remember that awareness is the first step in changing your patterns. You can turn these patterns around by looking for ways to affirm your child’s worth. One of my favorites is apologizing when I catch myself in the midst of a microaggression.
Messing with my phone when my daughter’s trying to tell me something’s a great example. When this happens, I put down the phone and turn my attention to her. Then I say, “I’m sorry, I was distracted. I’ve put my phone down because I really want to hear what you have to say.”
By doing this, I am both owning my actions and telling her that she is worthy of my full attention. Acknowledging and apologizing for our shortcomings gives our children permission to be less than perfect and models for them the self-awareness that is necessary to truly connect with others.
The Inner Work of Parenting
Holding a mirror up to our selves is the true work of parenting. It can be a lonely process, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve created a new membership community dedicated to guiding and supporting parents on the inner journey of parenting. It’s full of great resources to support you as you journey inward. Plus, it will connect you with other parents who are committed to doing this inner work. To learn more, sign up for the VIP wait list today. I’ll notify you when enrollment opens and send you a few sneak peaks of the unique content I’ll be sharing.