Over the centuries, our ideas about good and bad ways to raise a child have changed. For example, in the medieval days, childhood did not really exist. As soon as a child could physically manage, they were put to work, often in roles that would be seen as slavery today. Children were not seen as pure, in fact they were seen as evil and the extraordinary corporal punishment used (which was of course considered normal and commonplace), was used to grant a child salvation and goodness. In this era, even in the most aristocratic households, instead of valuing and adoring their child, some parents took to despising their own children and deliberately belittling and abusing them, thinking it was for their own good.
In the late 1600s, history saw the birth of the punishment and reward style of parenting. Instead of pure corporeal punishment, philosopher John Locke suggested that the better way of training a child to be good would be to withdraw approval and affection by “disgracing” a child when they are bad and to “esteem” the child by rewarding the child with approval and affection when they were good.
In the early twentieth century, not much had changed. Child-rearing experts still formally denounced all romantic ideas about childhood and advocated formation of proper habits to discipline children. In fact, a 1914 U.S. Children’s Bureau pamphlet, Infant Care, urged a strict schedule and urged parents not to play with their babies. John B Watson’s Behaviorism argued that parents could train children by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior, and by following precise schedules for food, sleep, and other bodily functions.
Who could forget the bible proverb that so many parents have lived by and still live by today “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” As if discipline and corporeal punishment are one in the same. In the twentieth century, corporeal punishment began to fall out of favor in the western world. Many parents became conscious enough to see corporeal punishment for what it is, which is abuse. And so, today, while sadly there are still pockets of unconscious parents that still abuse their children in the name of discipline, the larger majority in the western world use parenting practices like timeouts as tools of discipline.
It is easy to look back over time and say that we were living in the dark ages in terms of parenting. But I will tell you that in the years to come, that is exactly how history will see parenting today. History will see many of today’s common practices as barbaric and cruel. We now know how to create a healthy physical climate for our children and for each other. But I am here to tell you that we have no idea how to create a healthy emotional climate for our children or for each other.
Of course there are rare exceptions to this rule, but over the course of human history, the emotional climate of a household has not even factored into the idea of good parenting. Today, we are emerging from a new dark age. We are emerging from the dark age of emotions and feelings. And what we are awakening to is that it is possible to be a good parent to a child on a physical level and a terrible parent to a child on an emotional level. This has vast implication when we acknowledge that emotion is the core of our life and the heart of our relationships.
In today’s world, most parenting advice ignores the world of emotion entirely. It focuses on how to correct misbehavior whilst disregarding the feelings that underlie and cause the misbehavior. Regardless of how far we have progressed, the goal of parenting is still to have a compliant and obedient child, not to raise a healthy adult. The goal is to raise a child who is “good”. Our justice system takes the exact same approach with regards to misbehavior. We are concerned with correcting misbehavior and creating good citizens whilst being unconcerned with the feelings that motivate such misbehavior. Good parenting involves emotion. Good relationships involve emotion.