The other day my 9-year-old son asked me if it was harder to be a kid or a father. I told him it was more difficult to be a father, and gave him the litany of adult problems and concerns in raising children. The more I thought about it, the less certain I was of my words.
It’s been a very long time since anybody hit me, spanked me or shouted at me. How many of our children fare as well? It’s difficult to go through an entire day in our community without hearing about some crime against our children. Our children are now becoming the victims and the perpetrators of driveby shootings. What in the world is going on?
Everywhere we look these days, there is a story about violence. We are desperate to find the solutions. We feel certain that it is only a matter of time before it will affect our own families. We desperately look around to place the responsibility on someone, something. We point to the inadequacies of law enforcement. We bemoan the irresponsibility of the entertainment industry. We say schools don’t teach our kids correctly. We criticize the news media for showing and telling us too much bad news. We preach that drugs and alcohol are to blame. Science keeps hinting that maybe our genes are not wired properly. We’ve implicated everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Nintendo.
With all this blame going around, is it any wonder that we have learned to protect ourselves from the pain of criticism? We have learned to place the responsibility outside of ourselves. Certain religious leaders tell us that we are basically evil. So we work even harder to cover up who we are. Some social agencies abuse and blame parents for abusing children. And the beat goes on. …
If we are to begin to resolve the issue of violence in our society, we must agree on a few simple truths. The first simple truth is that the way we raise our children is at the root of violence. If we cannot agree on this, focus on it and admit it, we will always flounder about the solutions.
Another simple truth is that we will repeat the violence that has been done to us. Childhood developmentalists have been telling us this for decades. My 28 years of experience as a therapist tell me that the person who is violent has first been violated. We repeat this violence not because we have been violated, but because we lose the awareness that it ever happened to us. We deny it. A terrorist would never terrorize if he or she could remember the agony of being terrorized. A child molester would not molest if he or she could feel the torment of his or her own abuse.
This is not about blaming parents. I believe that it is more difficult to be a good enough parent than it is to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon. This is not about blaming anyone, but rather, simply telling the truth. It should be clear to us that blaming does not heal. The problem is that we don’t want to admit that we make mistakes as parents. Who would not make mistakes in performing the most important, most intense, most difficult job on the face of the earth? We are only human, imperfect and vulnerable. The first step to healing mistakes is to admit them.
In my work, I have been fortunate to witness parents who face their own violence and stop violence toward their children. The issue they have the most difficulty with is telling the truth about what happened to them. Their denial is frequently couched in the words “My parents were not perfect, but they did the best they could under the circumstances.” Or: “The past is past and it doesn’t do any good to go over it because you can’t change the past.” These are true enough statements, to be sure. I call them the “Jewels of Denial.” They are ways of heading off the anguish of remembering our own suffering. If we forget our own torment, we will most assuredly repeat the abuse in some way.
However, if our own pain is in our faces, we will not abuse anyone. We will remember and feel the pain which was inflicted upon us, and we will not have the stomach to hurt anyone. Our parents learned to “spare the rod and spoil the child.” How could they have known that swatting, spanking, hitting, yelling, devaluing, threatening and the like would have caused damage in children? Our parents could not have known unless they remembered their own childhood afflictions.
We’ve bought the idea that these forms of punishment were “good for us.” How can it be that acting out our anger physically or in harmful language can ever be good? Acting aggressively in self-defense may be good, but toward a child is never right or just.
So what are we to do? As a good friend of mine says, take a journey in that Fifth Direction: inward. Listen to the pain in there, tell someone about it until we are fully aware of it. Once we are aware, we’ll almost never pass on the abuse that was done to us. We can stop the legacy of violence by starting with ourselves, by always remembering our own experiences of childhood pain.
Understanding is a good beginning, but it is not enough. True learning about pain comes from our willingness to feel it, to experience it.
Wallowing in pain is not the same. Wallowing is remembering the pain, but refusing to experience it and learning nothing from it.
Working through our pain means experiencing the anguish. The true test of putting our past aside is to never, never pass it on to our children.
MEMO: John Brennan is a therapist at Marycliff Institute in Spokane.