On the Little Cruelties Parents Inflict On Children
There was a time when I did not get along with my parents. I say this as an adult who has a pretty strong relationship with her dad, and a somewhat-shaky-but-almost-decent-give-it-a-few-more-years relationship with her mom. My parents are better than most. They gave me freedom when most of my peers were forced to stay home after dark. They gave me a pretty big allowance, once a month. From them, I inherited a strong, stubborn attitude which put me at odds with them but has served me well through my life thus far.
But they're not perfect. Who is, right? I'm going to talk about one of those Imperfect Times.
For context, when I was a kid, we made a chocolate drink called Milo with chocolate malt powder of that brand, milk powder, and sugar. ... OK, I still do, when my family has moved on to drinking it without the milk powder and sugar. For a while we didn't use milk powder and sugar, but sweetened condensed milk. I'm not sure if there was a reason for this shift, but anyway, when we got down to the last dregs of the condensed milk, we filled it with hot water and swirled it around to dilute the condensed milk, and whoever made Milo next had to use that diluted condensed milk.
My dad was pretty strict about this sort of thing. Seriously hardassed about it. No one in the family liked how he disciplined us into doing certain things which the rest of us simply did not see as a big deal. In my home, Mom was the sloppy one, and Dad did most of the housework that the maids did not do. He made us do certain chores so the house would be kept clean and neat.
One evening, I made Milo for myself, and opened a new can of condensed milk. My dad happened to come into the kitchen at the time and saw this. "Why are you opening a new can?!" he demanded.
"Because... there isn't any left?" I replied. I knew that we had been running low, and when I looked into the fridge, I didn't see any can of condensed milk in the place where we normally placed it.
He opened the door and found it in a corner of the fridge which I hitherto had not noticed it being. "There. Now finish it."
"But I'm almost done my Milo?" I half-protested, half-whimpered.
He shoved it into my face then, right at my mouth, to get me to drink it. It hit my nose. Some of it spilled down. He must have expected me to take it from him, because it fell down on the floor, and I stared at it, crying and feeling completely humiliated for having missed it, and more than that, completely not understanding why this was a big fucking deal.
"Now clean that up!"
Ask a weepy, upset 11-year-old to do something that they're not used to doing, such as clean up diluted sweetened condensed milk that has just been shoved into their face by a the parent they consider the "friendlier" parent, and you'll find they just stand there dumbly, unable to move except to wail.
My mother came in and demanded to know what the hell was going on. I forget what my dad replied, but it had something to do with the spilt milk. Adding insult to injury, my mother warned me, "stop crying. You should be ashamed of yourself, big girl crying like that."
When I was younger, I would revisit this moment with abject confusion, and anger. I didn't know why I was so angry. I felt bad for being so angry, at times, because I loved my parents, even while I hated them, and wanted to cut ties with them, and wanting to run away from home despite being too scared to.
But now I know why it was so hurtful. That was a cruel thing to say to a child - telling them to repress what's a normal way of expressing a certain emotion. It was my way of releasing my upset and showing it to them, and they dismissed it out of hand as not being important. I was upset because the condensed milk was so important, it was necessary to humiliate me for it. Of course, my dad probably saw it as a case of disciplining me, but to my brain, I thought it was about the condensed milk. I had no context for where the sudden cruelty came from, except that my dad was frustrated at me for doing something so stupid, and he physically lashed out.
This may sound like it's me excusing him. It's not an excuse. I say it because I've done it before. I did it to my dog once; she had a habit of running away and not coming back for a long time. One time, when she had finally come home, I took a stick to her and knocked her with it, on her head, and on her tailbone, and even on the spine. I shouted at her for being a bad dog, for not listening to me.
I'm crying while I'm writing this, because despite that, I loved my dog, and I miss her a lot. But it's to give context for what I'm talking about: there are times when people get frustrated, or stressed, or whatever, and what they do is take it out on other people, even if they're otherwise perfectly nice people on ordinary days. And I think my dad was having one of those non-ordinary, shitty days, and seeing me mess up his perfect domestic discipline drove him over his limits that day.
Part of the barbarism of everyday life like this, I think, stems from the fact that we don't teach each other or ourselves how to deal with stress. That's why counsellors are paid so much, because there's so much work to do. Parents take out their frustrations about not having control of their lives on their children over whom they do have control, fucking their children up in due process who internalize this method of dealing, and it carries on to the next generation.
So, what I did to my dog there? Same thing as what my dad did to me.
It's not right, and it's downright cruel. It was cruel of my dad to shove the can into my face like that and humiliate me the way he did. it was cruel of my mom to dismiss my pain.
It fucking sucks, because parents are the first ones who are supposed to build you up. Then when they show you these hate-filled sides of themselves, it's the first and ultimate betrayal. And we say nothing and if all goes well, we grow up and get over it and have perfectly decent relationships with our parents who mellow out as they grow older.
I still get angry thinking about this, despite the fact that I do have a really great relationship with my dad right now. Because that moment did nothing to help me when I was growing up. It wasn't a teachable moment. If anything, today, I see it as evidence that even a great guy like my dad can do horrible things, i.e. be cruel to a child, and my dad is not really full of Fail as a dad! He does a whole lot better than most parents I know! Yet it was alienating, and damaging, to me, growing up, especially since it was happening at that delicate time when I was starting to wrestle with identity and figuring out who I was.
I get mad not at my dad, although there is some residual anger about it. I get mad because I know there are other kids like me out there, who could use so much more kindness in navigating that really treacherous phase of adolescence, and they're irrevocably damaged, little bit by little bit, by the little cruelties of parents who don't realize that their children are human beings, ends unto themselves.
Rationally, this should make sense, except of course, there's always that reasoning that parents are there to mold and guide children into becoming better people. But that reasoning falls apart when we consider certain methods of guidance and molding. I, for one, am for spanking. A quick swat, to young children, a pinch.
But we don't stop there, do we? Being scared of being failures as parents, trying to get the children to Do What We Want, unable to find the ways or methods to communicate to the child how we would like them to behave, unable to express our frustration because we Have To Appear Strong - of course the little swats escalate into violence. And thus, without meaning to, we inflict cruelties on the very people we're supposed to protect and nurture, leaving behind a wound they have to get over, usually by themselves.
I am so lucky to have decent parents. I know this. That's why I get angry at this sort of thing. Because this shit is completely unnecessary. Hurting other people is rarely ever necessary. And yet it happens on a daily basis. And I'm supposed to accept it because it's "a part of life". But that's another rant for another day.
The bottomline is: children are hurt in small little ways like this everyday, and it shouldn't have to happen. I didn't become a better person for my father having shoved a can into my face and my mother telling me to suck it up. I highly doubt anyone does.
And while we mostly grow up to "get over" these little cruelties? We shouldn't have had to suffer them in the first place.