Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The World’s Worst Parent - Becoming a Better Parent

Upon reading the title of this posting an image appeared in your head instantly of who you perceive to be the world’s worst parent. If you can consciously hold onto or retrieve that vision do so. If the world’s worst parent you envisioned has not yet appeared visually to you then try to bring that image to your conscious awareness now. Become transfixed by this paragon of parenting shame.

Many of my readers may hold a familiarity bias which portrays their partner in creating a child as a paradigm of the world’s worst parent. If such a nemesis who engaged in a vicious custody battle appears try to again conjure an image of what you objectively feel is the world’s worst parent. This can be a fictional representation. It can be that same person, but more likely, the person with whom you disagree so vehemently and who holds such contempt for you has not plummeted to the depths of the parenting abyss.

Now take a moment to note the measurable objective qualities which earns this person the title of World’s Worst Parent. Although making an objective determination as to the worst parent may seem to contradict the opinion of who has the worst behaviour it nonetheless is calculable.

I am taking the philosophical position that parenting is not an act in itself -- an ends -- but that it is a step in the process of facilitating the healthy development of a child. It’s akin to cooking and feeding; where cooking, which is merely the preparation of the selected foods, is the ends. Feeding however involves selecting the foods, cooking and ensuring delivery which will properly nourish the body. So, as feeding is to properly nourishing the body, parenting is to facilitating the healthy development of a child.

The visage of the world’s worst parent which appears in my mind comes from the movie Dead Poet’s Society.

Kurtwood Smith stands in the role of father to Neil, played by Robert Sean Leonard, a young man at an all boys cult based preparatory school. Robin Williams is the literature teacher who encourages the young men to explore their passions and develop their essence individually. In short, he is their guide to becoming whole people.

Early in the story Neil evinces that he exist under the proscriptions of his father who has been described as “a killer of emotions.”[en1] When Neil takes an interest in acting and earns the lead role in a play he conceals this from his father. Soon his father unexpectedly appears in Neil’s dormitory room awaiting his return. Neil observes the scowl on his father’s face and attempts to proffer his justification for the deception. The father responds, “Don’t dare talk back to me.” He continues to derogate Neil saying, “It’s bad enough that you’ve wasted your time with this absurd acting business” which impugns Neil’s motives and character. As Neil attempts to justify his participation in the play, explaining that he maintains all A’s in his classes he is met with “How did you expect to get away with this?” by his father. The implicit message here is that Neil has made a moral transgression by acting in a play.

The father exposes his motive for the visit relaying that a family friend revealed to him that her niece is also in the play with Neil to which he responded, “No, no, no, you must be mistaken, my son is not in a play.” He then shouts at Neil, “You made a liar out of me Neil. Tomorrow you go to them and you tell them that you are quitting.”

After the stricture concludes and the father is leaving the room he pauses to expound; “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here Neil. And you will not let me down.” The messages here are clear -- Neil is indebted to his father and the only purpose his father has for him is to be a monument to the father’s achievements.

In the scene that follows Neil laments to Williams, “He’s planning the rest of my life for me and he’s never asked me what I want.” Williams responds, “You are not an indentured servant.” After additional discussion about how Neil must confront his father Neil closes with, “I’m trapped.” As I note below an Indiana child felt the same way and solemnly revealed, "I just want to kill myself."

Neil participates in the play the following evening and although his father was supposedly away on business and unable to attend he does arrive, late. After the play the father whisks Neil home where he reveals that Neil will be withdrawn from the preparatory school and enrolled in a military academy. The father exclaims, “We are not going to let you ruin your life” while the mother stands in the corner terrified displaying the emotion of someone witnessing the life in her child being extinguished in much the way she has obviously experienced.

“You’re going to Harvard and you’re going to be a doctor,” proclaims the father. “You have opportunities that I never even dreamt of and I am not going to let you waste them.” Neil, as he previously proclaimed to Williams, has yet to be asked by his father about his desires, ambitions, dreams, or wants. It does come, superficially, in this same scene. “Tell me what you feel. Is it more of this acting business because you can forget that” Neils father queries. But his inquisitiveness as to Neil’s feelings is disingenuous at best and in reality is more mocking or sarcastic in its delivery.

As the parents retire to bed the camera pans away and a slight crying gasp is heard from the mother, who realizes that the father has just delivered the death knell to their son, to which he then responds, “it’s going to be alright.”

The father is awakened by a gunshot which is inaudible to the viewer . He explores the house to find that Neil is in the study and has suffered a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound. Kurtwood Smith in just one moment acts brilliantly by displaying in demeanor, grace, and expression the intense grief he feels at the loss of the object to which he could claim success for building, the disdain and hatred for his son for depriving him of that glory, and the anger over realizing that he will be seen as a failure for having a son who killed himself.

When told “Neil is dead” a classmate responds, “It was his father, his father did it.”

So what makes Smith’s character the World’s Worst Parent? He is not like Susan Smith, the Texas mother who plunged her car into a lake with the two small children in the back. He is not one of the many parents who savagely beat their children. He is not like the mothers who prostitute their infant daughters.[en2] He is far worse than all combined.

In Teaching your Children about Santa Claus, or; Why it's best to Beat your Child with a Stick I was addressing the harmful effects of violating a child’s trust by lying to him and how deceptions are disrespectful. In deriding parents who do not invest time in providing knowledge to children and instead emotionally abuse them by relying upon fairy tales of reward and punishments I said, “Instead children are told what to do, when to do it and how to feel about. ’I told you to do that now and you'll be happy about it.’ But that robs children of a voice, a sense of belonging, and respect.”

In National Childrens Mental Health Awareness Day I impart the long term harms to children’s emotional well-being by neglectful parents who, again, are not willing to invest time in their children because they are too selfish. There I wrote about how to facilitating positive emotional development.

Not just in parental relations but in all aspects of life children need a voice. The concept of 'children should be seen and not heard' is abuse. Giving children a voice does NOT mean letting them decide. It means hearing them. Giving children a voice is asking not telling. Their 'voice' comes in many forms including sitting in silence – that is saying something. It may be through athletic interest, artistic expression [drawing especially for the youngest] clothing selections or the way in which their bedroom is kept or decorated. Ask what the expression means to them or represents. Asking why is the boy in the drawing blue is stifling the child's expression. Instead stay 'tell me about this figure'. You may find out that the 'monster' is blue cause he is sad that no one plays with him. That boy representing a monster says loads, don't ignore it.”

In The Subtle Art of Communication I expounded more on the subject of emotional neglect of children.

Children thrive when they have two of the emotional needs related to communication met. First, they want to be heard in the sense of listening. It is a mixed blessing for me that when I get around some youngsters that they immediately attach themselves to me and start telling a story or recite their experiences for the past week. They know I will divert my attention to them and listen. It often demonstrates that no one else listens to them. Second, they need to have the feeling that they are not powerless.

Children need to be heard and have a feeling of power. I instilled into my son at an early age -- around two years -- that he would be heard and had power. As we would peruse the grocery store aisles I would tell him to grab whatever he wants or to tell me. Items continued to flow in and out of the cart. He had the power to choose what he wanted while I retained authority to limit what he acquired. He was able to express his desires and those guided our conversation about healthy foods, well-being and the influence of marketing.

The command question -- "You want to go to the park today" -- is damaging in two ways. First, it tells the child that not only does he or she not have a say in his or her outcome -- which can be quite reasonable -- but that his or her "want" or opinion will not be considered. The child is not heard. To compound the problem, the child is also told that you do not own your thoughts. That ownership is critical to well-being for a child. The child is not only commanded that he or she will be going to the park -- reasonable in and of itself -- but additionally that the parent owns his or her thoughts because even though the child may desire the contrary the parent has declared what the child wants.

In Why Judicial Officers must Understand the Elements of Child Abuse I concentrated on a case where a judge focused on the physical abuse of a child rather than the more prominent psychological torture.

As to the injuries these are not “minor” except when strictly limited in scope to the physical impact upon the boy's body. The serious injuries to this child are to his emotional well-being and his character and consciousness which are forming at this age.

While the physical wounds which [Judge] Palmer refers to as “minor” will readily heal while the child is properly nourished the psychological scars will run much deeper and greater in duration. It will take the assistance of many people to mitigate this damage and give this boy the zest for life that most hold and forever let the days be in the past in which he says "I just want to kill myself."

The child abuse and neglect treatment and advocacy community has largely ignored the emotional neglect of children which I have long lamented and sought to be elevated in status as a priority concern. The emotional abuse of children is worse than the physical or sexual abuse that children have faced. This is what makes the Kurtwood Smith character the World’s Worst Parent. That character and parents like him who psychologically abuse their children by depriving the children of ownership of their own feelings, wants, desires, and outcomes are creating situations that are far worse than any physical abuse would have inflicted.

The American Psychological Association on 08 October 2014[en3] finally recognized that, as I have contended, psychological torture of children is more harmful than physical or sexual abuse.

Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused, yet psychological abuse is rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

“Given the prevalence of childhood psychological abuse and the severity of harm to young victims, it should be at the forefront of mental health and social service training,” said study lead author Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, of The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts.

The character Neil did not kill himself but rather, I contend, that he was murdered by his father in a form of generational suicide. That is, the father killed off his own bloodline by inducing his child to take the action of terminating his corporeal life in an effort to establish congruence with the spiritual life that the father had already extinguished.

In both the Dead Poet’s Society and the case Judge Palmer presided over these children had fathers who hated them for not being what the father wanted, for demonstrating a will to express their own essence. Similar to other parent’s who deprive children of ownership of their own feelings -- like parents who force a child to ‘say you’re sorry’ -- these parents inflicts the most painful and long lasting harm upon their children. That is what makes each of them the World’s Worst Parent.

[1] Tim Lammers, StrictlyCinema.com Obtained from http://www.kcci.com/entertainment/Kurtwood-Smith-remains-grateful-for-Dead-Poets-Society/8269302 on 20 April 2015
[2] Parents Who Pimp Their Children - http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3691604
Shaniya Davis, 5, sold into prostitution by her own mother hunted by U.S. police - www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1227989/Shaniya-Davis-5-sold-prostitution-mother-hunted-U-S-police.html#ixzz3XyAwBnuq
Mom Prostitutes Daughters, Key Witness Speaks - www.wowt.com/news/itspersonal/headlines/Exclusive-Details-Mom-Prostitutes-Daughters-New-Arrests-267261151.html
[3] Childhood Psychological Abuse as Harmful as Sexual or Physical Abuse - Children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused. Obtained from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/10/psychological-abuse.aspx on 20 April 2015

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