May 19, 2011

Diaper Rash, Volume 1: Shameful Shaming

A good friend of mine suggested to me that if I ever have a gripe about something and choose to share it here, I should call it "Diaper Rash". I thought this was a brilliant idea, so I'm gonna go with it. Thanks, Guy!

Not long ago, I wrote about about an incident in which I yelled at Brady and had to check myself in a big way so that I didn't do any lasting damage, and this inaugural edition of Diaper Rash has a similar theme: how not to crush your child's spirit.

Before I rant, please know that I fully understand how difficult young kids can be. I have three, and the slowly graying temples to prove it. As entertaining and endearing as my kids are, they can be exasperating in the extreme. Kids scream and yell when they don't get what they want. They often have very selective hearing, forcing us into broken record mode. They don't understand many of the verbal and body language cues intended to tell them that a conversation is over, that the answer is "no", no matter how many times we tell them so. They throw tantrums, and they often choose extremely inopportune moments to do so. There is a huge difference, however, between willful belligerence and simple childishness, and that's what many parents, myself included, have trouble with. We just want to change the behavior, not the attitude behind it, because it involves a heck of a lot less work. This is not a criticism, just a simple statement of fact. We're all guilty of it at one time or another.

But there are those who take it a step further, forgoing laziness for an outright verbal whipping that scars their kids' hearts. That is what has me on boil today.

My mom has told me about a particularly memorable nightmare trip to the grocery store she took with us kids when we were all pretty small. I don't recall all the details, but I do remember that we were the culprits in several "Clean-up in aisle nine!" incidents, and that was just the beginning. It sounds like it was Murphy's Law and The Twilight Zone all rolled into one, and I'm just grateful she allowed us to live.

The mom I saw in the store the other day with her son and daughter may have been experiencing a shopping trip similar to the one my mom endured all those years ago, or maybe she had something else on her mind, but whatever the case, it was her kids who were paying the price.

As I walked by, looking for the pretzel stix my kids love, I overheard her laying into her son, who was maybe three or four and wearing an Elmo shirt. "You are SUCH a brat," she spat, "I don't know why I even take you anywhere." The little guy, who had obviously been crying, looked pretty well cowed, but not shocked, which led me to believe this wasn't an unusual occurrence. "If you're going to be such a brat, I'm just going to leave you at home." she said, shaming him in front of anyone who happend to walk by. The more she said, the more his face and body drooped. I couldn't watch, and practically ran out the aisle while I threw the pretzel stix in my cart and ground my teeth.

I would've been okay with something as borderline as "You are acting like such a brat."; still not great, but there's an enormous difference there. This mom was telling her child she didn't approve of who he was, not how he was behaving, and this was what really steamed me, even though it was none of my business. As horrible as it sounds, I would have almost preferred that she spank him right there in aisle nine; a bruised spirit takes far longer to heal than a bruised bottom. If you tell someone what a horrible person they are enough times, they will eventually start to believe it, without fail. The boy in the Elmo shirt believed every word.

The opposite is also true. If you tell your kids how precious they are to you on a regular basis, then your occasional outbursts and lapses are the exception, not the rule, and as they grow up to learn that you're not the infallible superhuman they saw in you when they were small, this distinction makes all the difference, both for their confidence and their relationship with you. As I said in my earlier post about yelling at Brady, we are the architects of our kids' self-image, and the care and quality with which we build it when they're young is the basis for their identity for the rest of their lives. Building well is not optional, it's our duty.

As the source of my Diaper Rash, I had the irrational urge to smear Butt Paste on this woman's face and see how she liked being publicly humiliated, if only to give her son something to laugh about, but I didn't have any in my back pocket and thought I would get in slightly less trouble if I used her behavior as a cautionary tale instead of an actual object lesson. Please, I wanted to say. Don't you see what you're doing to your son? Do you even CARE? I wanted to educate her harshly on the difference between belligerence and childishness, between scolding him for who she says he is and for how he acts, but sermons and supermarkets don't mix well, and who am I, an awfully imperfect parent myself, to preach to anyone? And yet here I am. Here endeth the lesson.

So, parents, know the difference. Someday, your kids won't care a bit what you think. For now, you are their whole world.

1 comment:

  1. Aaron - I totally and absolutely agree with your rant.

    I need to add this caveat: In my 30 years of teaching ages (what's a 3rd grader...8-9 year olds) from 3rd grade through 12th, I have seen the devastating effects of the opposite extreme, ie, the child can do no wrong. I'm not kidding -- the parent who allows their child to have everything they want, to whom they bend every effort of every waking moment, who see their child as gifted/talented as near-flawless (unless the kid defies the parent) and everyone else as "enemy" and trying to thwart the child's brilliance. These parents do just a great amount of damage. While I don't for a moment believe that any of them do this on purpose, the end result is the same: a kid who is damaged and unable to function in a world where they meet disapproval and others stand in whatever "way" they feel like going. These kids get slapped down just as hard and in not much different of a way than the kid you're talking about.

    Our jobs as parents is to find the balance point between physical and verbal abuse and psychological and emotional abuse. Physical, verbal, psychological and emotional formation is essential (to say nothing of the spiritual, but that's a rash of a different color!)