Useful discipline vs. tyrannical violence — it’s all in how you do it

Been thinking for years on this subject and may one day talk to the video camera about it. Today I’ll write instead.

I have a fundamental problem with the notion of a Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), a term that seems to be growing popular within anarchist/libertarian groups and the like online. First off, it’s being framed by plenty (particularly Stefan Molyneux and his ilk) as a  major reason why disciplining children with spankings is unacceptable, claiming all disciplinary physical contact (and even relatively abrasive verbal and emotional communication) is always abuse other than in select cases where it’s arguably self-defense. While I comprehend people might mean well in trying to figure out some universal formula for not screwing future generations up any worse than those who came before, I view these claims and arguments as naive at best and thoroughly misguided.

And I’ll tell you why, as one who might’ve been raised by wolves but who’s observed plenty of folks (at the time or since) coming up in other types of households, both better and worse.

We all know people with fairly strict parents who weren’t afraid to use force as needed to maintain order in their households. And we all know individuals who were products of such households who actually appreciate, in hindsight, the strong-handedness their parents were willing to demonstrate in appropriate situations. Of course, on the flipside, most of us also know people who were broken emotionally and psychologically to varying degrees by coming up around straight-up violent parents. What’s the relevant distinction between these?

It appears to be all in how it’s carried out, what love is obviously present in the parents’ hearts and minds, and how much respect is reciprocated within the child/parent dynamic throughout time.

From what I can tell, a key difference between a largely loving family atmosphere where physical discipline plays a role versus an outright abusive family atmosphere comes down to respect both shown and expected. A tyrant is one who doesn’t seem to care much about actual respect, other than perhaps what they expect to receive. Too often those situations devolve into being fear-based as a result. Whereas in healthier family dynamics the goal isn’t simply to break the child’s will and spirit in a bid for deference — it’s to impart important lessons about respect and the roles of adult vs. child which cannot help but be uneven due to the former being dependent on the latter.

Look, when an adult sexually abuses you as a child, they are demonstrating a complete lack of respect for your emotional, physical and psychological well-being. Hence why this is viewed as such a heinous crime — that and its consequences often prove to be lifelong. That’s an example of the breaking or severe damaging of a person’s spirit in order to satiate the perverse needs or wants of the adult. No one respects that. The same can be said for excessive verbal abuse where the parent repeatedly and incessantly berates the child to the point where the child loses faith in him/herself long-term. No confidence is instilled but instead just the opposite. And we see when parents get drunk and beat on their kids how this too is in no way worthy of anyone’s respect.

BUT, that is not how all discipline plays out. People who’ve come up in chaotic, inconsistent, and abusive environments often seem to have trouble appreciating the distinction, probably due to our own biases there and the knee-jerk reactive response it commonly engenders.

Let me tell a story. I’ve mentioned on here before that I married a preacher’s son back in my late teens, shortly after he and I attended our freshman year in college. His paternal side of the family belonged to a Christian denomination known as Primitive Baptist, and his entire paternal side of the family lived near one another out in the countryside in our small county in Mississippi where all the kids were home-schooled. My ex-husband and all four of his siblings were schooled at home by their mother, while their father worked as a minister, a chicken farmer, and later created a construction-related business. Now, his father had early on been into drinking and doing wrong, and when he changed his ways he did so by converting strongly into this staunch Christian character who saw life in black-and-white and absolutes. Not uncommon for people to transition like this, and especially isn’t uncommon among preachers down South, from what I’ve heard.

Well, his father took a rough-handed approach to parenting, quoting scriptures to bolster the idea that his wife was beholden to him and the kids were essentially their property. That he as the man of the house had the right to treat them nearly however he wanted. And he could justify what amounted to cruel treatment as teaching them the will of God. He saw God in terms of fire and brimstone, where few were or ever could be saved and the rest were damned, and so he acted accordingly. Viewing his children as a form of property allowed him to feel it was acceptable to beat them with belts over minor infractions, even into early adulthood once they were attending college, and choke them and whatever else. Even would whip his wife. Past a certain age he began denouncing his kids and last I knew hasn’t maintained a relationship with any of them aside from maybe one from time to time, that one being arguably the most screwed up one out of the bunch who continued on into a very self-destructive adulthood.

My ex-husband was the baby of the family. He grew up witnessing all of this, knowing no different until exposed to a wide variety of other types of kids and family dynamics beginning in his teenage years once his mother finally divorced his father and allowed him to attend public school for the first time ever. I listened to his stories on this matter for several years and have met all of his siblings and his mother on many occasions, his father on a couple of occasions. It was a tumultuous upbringing that wound up creating a lot of internal strife and rebellion in those kids, though 3 of them did graduate from college (which I accept as a testament to how effective home-schooling actually can be — they were advanced beyond their peers in public schools, most definitely).

Now, that’s obviously the downside and an example of an abusive environment. BUT, right down the road lived his Uncle and Aunt and their kids. Same religious beliefs, same denomination, yet totally different home environment. Still into home-schooling. Still into the notion of patriarchy. And yet his Uncle and Aunt had a loving relationship with their kids and, while they utilized disciplinary techniques, they did not break their children’s spirits or create havoc that would lead to self-destructive tendencies among them later in life. When we’d go over to their house, it felt warm and inviting. You could feel the good vibes, literally. They loved one another and showed their children respect and concern for their well-being.

This tells me the problem wasn’t simply in the religious views held since that apparently comes down to one’s own perception and then how it’s carried out and/or used as a means to rationalize one’s own warped preferences. It wasn’t simply that physical punishment was used in the households either. It was a matter of how much, to what extent, why, and what else gelled the family together beyond that. The physically and psychologically abusive household had little else to hold it together aside from fear and threats and a tyrannical father imposing his will. A loving family atmosphere shares a respect that flows in all directions to where people feel like they actually belong and are accepted and valued members of that family unit.

This is very important for people to comprehend. Because the knee-jerk reactive response to denounce all forms of physical punishment as abuse is guaranteed to have repercussions in its own right. Beginning with children believing they can behave any which way and face no real consequences to their actions. They can hit you but you may not hit them back. They can curse at you and your spouse and your hands are tied in reacting. They can pick up bad habits at school and from peers and you, the parent, are powerless to stop them. OR, a more likely outcome, rather than use physical means parents will switch over to more emotional, verbal, and psychological means of controlling their children, some of which are as bad, if not worse, than the physical discipline we’re so concerned about.

I grew up dealing more with emotional neglect and psychological game-playing. It’s not some utopian fantasy by comparison. It can be every bit as raw and painful and can skew a person’s perception of reality severely. The loving atmosphere provided by my grandparents is what saved me, and though they did not employ corporal punishment hardly at all toward me, I knew they could and would if needed. But we had more respect flowing in all directions between us. I loved and needed them. They loved and wished to care for me. We fought to be together and through doing so demonstrated our love for one another. That really mattered in my life. Because otherwise I would’ve been left with a mother who was extremely inconsistent to the point of being completely baffling and physical punishment that came on a whim due to her or my stepdad being in a bad mood that day, plus being abandoned to be raised by others when they weren’t satisfied. I grew up hearing from her how I was a problem, a burden, an inconvenience, and many times I’ve wondered how much different it would be had she just hit me rather than spew so many cruel words and accusations when I was too young to make sense of them. Never will know. Either way would’ve been bad, though, in any non-nurturing, non-loving environment.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot again in recent years while dating a man who came from a family where his parents were perpetually unhappy and drank entirely too much. Used to be a violent atmosphere when he was younger. By all accounts of those who knew him behind closed doors, his dad could be pretty scary. Throwing dishes during holiday meals. The man talking down to his wife all the time. Putting my former companion in the position of trying to protect his younger sisters and sympathize with his mom. But there’s resentment still brewing toward both parents for allowing that situation to continue, for staying together while not resolving their conflicts, for burdening their kids with the chaos and pain. Two of their kids have grown up to be alcoholics themselves. One has several related charges, as well as one for physical assault on her former husband, plus the revocation of custody of both of her kids. And the cycle continues…

The problem here isn’t simply about physicality. It’s about abuse and letting pain pay forward. It’s about not getting real with yourself and justifying poor behavior, marrying the wrong person and remaining with them even when it’s nothing but a huge battle, not liking oneself and thereby taking it out on close others. It’s about perverse ways of looking at the world, often learned from one’s own childhood and upbringing. It’s a cycle of pain…and that cycle keeps right on whether it’s perpetuated by physical means or emotional and psychological means or by the parent relying on destructive substances in order to cope which then alters their perception further. It’s a very tangled web, but I do believe respect is the main question at its core. Non-aggression principles alone cannot address this issue sufficiently.

If you ask me, the best thing a lot of us could do is choose to not have kids and instead put our energy toward building ourselves up into better people, lest we continue what’s already in motion, regardless of how good we may believe our intentions to be.

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