Evidence of our Culture of Punishment

While most readers of the viral blog, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (http://is.gd/37Hw8n) were overcome with empathy for this mother of a reportedly mentally ill son and christened her a national heroine, I had a different take. I could not help but see it all from her son’s perspective.

The author, Liza Long, and mother of “Michael,” makes a strong case for mental health advocacy. Mental illness must be confronted. Policy change is long over due. These children need help. While I hope the Newtown tragedy heightens this conversation, I have a more complex bone to pick. If we are to lay blame for the Newtown tragedy, it needs to go to our parenting culture of punishment.

Long’s son undoubtedly has impulse problems, uncontrollable anger, a possible mental condition, and as she says, “The chaotic environment exacerbates MichaelYelling’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli…” He appears to be a highly volatile child who desperately needs sensitive care.

However what he received, as his mother writes, is threat after threat—the go-to technique to get children to obey, thanks to our culture of punishment. From time immemorial, parents have been influenced to use manipulative, coercive techniques (time out, grounding, threatening, taking privileges,) to get children to do our bidding.

Long first threatened her son with taking away his electronics when he impulsively swore at her in anger over not getting to wear his blue pants. He attempted to get her to renege with an apology, which was not accepted. When her continued threat provoked, “Then I’m going to kill myself,” she threatened to take him to the mental hospital, at which point he screamed, “No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

Long took Michael to the hospital where the police took him in, kicking and screaming. While we can all identify with Long’s frustration, exhaustion, and anger, Michael’s terror was palpable to me. The Michaels of the world need a different response from their most important people. We cannot retaliate and expect our children to be the adults first.

We are a society of walking wounded—victims of our culture of punishment, taught from an early age that bad behavior means a bad child. It is from these wounds that we pass the punishment torch on to the next generation—and so it goes. Parents are ashamed to admit that blame, criticism and manipulation never work.

Had Liza Long accessed parent education and a supportive network in her son’s early childhood, she could acknowledge—not blame—his frustration, short fuse, and volatile nature; and thus be more likely to help him contain it. With compassion and awareness of warning signs, she might understand the dangers he perceives, and offer support and safety. But not until she feels supported and safe.

Michael will never be an easy child, but if his behavior was seen as a clue to deep hurt and fear, he might be able to learn coping skills, and his mother wouldn’t fear his future as a mass murderer.

Every public school must offer affordable parent education for every parent. It needs to become ubiquitous. Parenting is a hard job. It often feels impossible because our culture has a stigma about parenting. As long as we see parent education as only needed for “that” parent, the “bad” parent, society will not change. The job of parenting deserves all the help and education our society can offer.


2 thoughts on “Evidence of our Culture of Punishment

  1. I have been reading your blogs and trying to change my thinking about parenting. Although I have seen some changes and am generally a lot more contented and satisfied with life with my kids, I still sometimes feel a bit confused when it comes to what society/school says about consequences and boundaries. For example, what does allowing feelings and expressions of anger mean when a teen shouts and calls you names? Of course, I tell him that it is OK to feel frustrated but it’s not OK to shout and call me “stupid”. But friends tell me that if I don’t impose consequences, I am letting him “get away” with it. Then recently, my 11 year old son hit me repeatedly when he was frustrated about being told to put away his plate. I understand that my kids are hyper-sensitive to blame because of traumatic incidences from the past, with an angry and controlling father. But sometimes I don’t know how to balance that knowledge with giving them the message that hitting and yelling are not OK, apart from verbally telling them that.

    1. Annie – this is where parenting must turn to us. You can tell your kids over and over that its not ok to call you names or hit you. But you must be clear that within yourself that you do not deserve this treatment. Stop it in the moment and say, “I will not allow you to hit me and I certainly hope you do not ever allow anyone to hit you.” You must be strong, firm and clear that you will not take it from them–the same way you would be if a friend suddenly hit you. Allowing their feelings in no way means subverting your own.

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