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Shame and words having consequences

Yesterday was one of our monthly obstetrics appointments. Baby Barrett and Flesh of My Flesh are healthy, so far as anybody can tell, and today represents “Kitten”‘s (as we have taken to calling the thus-far gender-ambiguous next generation) first time on a plane, as Megan travels to Seattle to be with her mom after knee-replacement surgery.

Something that I’ve been giving thought to in terms of parenting challenges to come is, how do you pass on your convictions about certain matters while also conveying to your child that it’s not their business to judge anybody who doesn’t have the same convictions? Is that even possible? Can you teach a child that X is wrong, but that in and of itself doesn’t make the people who do X evil? Or can that only be a contradiction for all practical purposes, so that either the action is wrong and therefore the actors are wrong, or the actors are perfectly acceptable as people and therefore the action is completely okay? To put it another way, is it at all possible to teach a child to hate the sin but love the sinner, or is that simply too subtle of a nuance to pass on? What are our responsibilities as parents when it comes to passing on what we believe? What are our responsibilities as mature adults to be aware of our own biases and shortcomings?

I’m not going to comment on the whole Sandra Fluke business as such, but I do want to make some mention of this.

I pulled into the parking lot and saw that she was standing inside the doors at school, her head down and shoulders shaking- I thought she was laughing at something someone said or was looking at her phone reading something funny. I honked and waived to motion her out, not sure if she saw me. She never looked up, just pushed open the door and practically ran to the car. She flung open the door and I started to say something about the wind and rain, but stopped mid sentence because of the look on my child’s face! She was sobbing, face streaked with tears, cheeks red and eyes so swollen I could hardly see her beautiful brown eyes- I slammed the car into park right in the middle of the parking lot and asked her what was wrong.

Read the whole thing.

First off, I read that article and think to myself, you know what, I don’t recall prescriptions being anything that the school ever had to be involved with. Of course, that was 18+ years ago (I graduated high school in 1994), but it’s still a difference in experience that leaps off the page at me.

That said, I certainly remember there being both teachers and students who were self-professed Limbaugh “dittoheads” (which I’ve always thought ironic, since theoretically Limbaugh is supposed to be a proponent of “independent thought”), and there were other Highly Influential Adults in my life who definitely gravitated towards him.

I can recall conversations during my sophomore year, the year I had started hanging out with the theater crowd. These were people who were surprisingly open and candid about lots of colorful topics. I didn’t have a whole heck of a lot to be open and candid about, so I neither had much to say nor much of a context for what to do with what these friends of mine were talking about, but something that came up with a couple of girls was that they were on birth control pills for reasons other than sexual activity. I had never heard of such a thing; of course, it was not terribly surprising that I had never heard of such a thing, because the very idea that a girl would be in the same room as me and discussing their sexual status at all was a possibility that had not previously presented itself, and I was aware of this, so while it struck me as a previously unknown concept, it did not seem necessarily odd. Particularly given other details that other participants in those conversations were completely open about, I also felt I had no particular reason to doubt the veracity of the claim to be on the Pill for medical reasons.

However, when I later mentioned to one of the Highly Influential Adults in my life that there were girls in my social circle who said that they were on birth control pills for those kinds of causes, that particular Adult got something of a smirk on their face, rolled their eyes, and said, “Richard. Come on. Use your brain. Do you honestly believe that? There’s only one reason why a girl goes on the Pill, and I don’t care what they tell you their doctor says.”

Now, inflammatory opinions were very much a predictable occurrence with this individual, and I knew enough to be able to understand that this particular point of view was myopic and biased at best, so I was able to dismiss it in fairly short order (as well as add the topic to the list of things to not discuss with this individual). (To put it in some context, this was a person who looked for sexual innuendo everywhere they looked; they insisted that band names like Hammerbox and Pearl Jam were obvious sexual references, and if I didn’t understand, it must have just been because I was naive, and they weren’t going to explain.) Nonetheless, I got the picture in crystal clarity that there was a worldview that said, You’re either a good girl or you aren’t. If you aren’t, then you’re going to need these things, and you’re probably not going to be honest about why you need them, either. Tommy Smothers could go on TV in 1988, make a joke about “Wearing a condom is a form of responsibility” and have everybody laugh, but a high school girl in 1991 being on birth control meant that “medical reasons” could only be a disingenuous euphemism for “being sexually active”, and they deserve on some level to shamed to at least some degree for it. To this day, I can only hear the reference to birth control and other healthcare issues that deal with sexual matters as “lifestyle-related” as a subtle (sort of) form of that shaming, as code for, You only need that if you’re so out of control that you can’t just keep your legs crossed.

What is evident to me, as somebody who is about to be a parent, is that words have consequences. What makes somebody like Rush Limbaugh so dangerous is not that he says what he says, or even that he has an audience; what makes him dangerous is that his audience is made up of people who seem to be desperate to feed on what he says and regurgitate it in its entirety. For whatever reason, we are so eager to be told whom we are supposed to judge that we give that kind of person exactly the kind of attention, power, influence, and money that he craves. Perhaps we do so because we are afraid that there are not adequate bellwethers otherwise in our society, but I think about the Circus Factions and wonder sometimes if we don’t simply instinctively need some way to define ourselves against others, even if that way is obviously meaningless. Whatever the reason, when parents reflexively spit up what they’ve been spoonfed, most kids will take it as the Gospel, and they will act on it.

What if somebody like Rush Limbaugh were to use their influence to tell their listeners, “You should assume that your responsibility is to treat other human beings with love and respect and as though they have intrinsic worth”? I suppose that through such a move this kind of personality would, as Dave Barry once said about Walter Mondale, immediately earn the support more than half the members of his immediate family, but it seems like it would be an experiment worth trying.

But let’s assume that there’s a genuine conviction that the parents in question are trying to convey here, that sex is supposed to be reserved for marriage, and that “dittoing” Rush Limbaugh is in their heads an honest, if clumsy and too-easy, attempt to communicate that conviction. What’s the better way to pass along that conviction, and, as I started out by asking, is there a way to do it without it seeming to imply that the proof of the child having been impressed with that conviction is to shame those whom they perceive as not living up to it? To hypothetically talk about a boy for a moment — can a father tell his son, “It’s your job to keep it in the pants, but it’s not your job to judge anybody else who doesn’t”? Does that work? Or is also passing along the obligation to be cruel those not meeting the ideal necessary to reinforce the conviction, if for no other reason than it at least suggests that it’s what’s in store for them if they don’t comply?

To be clear, it seems to me that shame may well be a necessary instrument when it comes to teaching behavior, but I don’t have a clear idea about to what extent or at what level of society. I wonder if we haven’t eschewed shame at our own peril. Negative reinforcement seems just as necessary as positive reinforcement under many circumstances. I nonetheless am horrified when I see it employed as a primary measure.

The hard answer seems to be that if we’re going to try to convey that kind of nuance to our children, then we have to be prepared to live it ourselves, to be constantly aware of what our children are learning from us, and to be vigilant for when they’ve gotten it wrong. I don’t know that in this world, we have the luxury to just be interpersonal transmitters for Limbaugh and his kind.

But, you know, I could very well be wrong about that; I’ll check back with you in about sixteen years and we’ll see where we stand.

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3 Responses to “Shame and words having consequences”


  1. 1 Chris Jones 7 March 2012 at 3:13 pm

    “Can you teach a child that X is wrong, but that in and of itself doesn’t make the people who do X evil?”

    Well, at the end of the post you answer your own question (the way I was going to answer it): The hard answer seems to be that … we have to be prepared to live it ourselves. You’re right, it’s a difficult and subtle distinction between hating the sin and hating the sinner. You cannot explain to them how it works, but you can show them what it looks like.

    One point that I have found helpful in this regard is to remember that it’s not so much whether a person may be judged to be evil (or good), it’s who gets to make that judgment (i.e., not me). Even if I know perfectly well that something Bob did is “objectively wrong,” it’s Bob (not me) who will answer for it on Judgment Day, and it won’t be me sitting in the Judgment Seat.

  2. 2 melxiopp 8 March 2012 at 11:26 am

    Thought I’d share this relatively new father’s way of seeing things. It is perhaps more pertinent in my family as I am quite religious while my wife (and the mother of our two young boys) is not.

    I think the way through your question is the way we understand God’s respect for our free will. His allowance of our sin is not His legitimation of that sin. Our ignorance and wrong-headedness is not proof His knowledge is wrong, and His forebearance in correcting us is not his imprimatur on our error (thus undermining His own authority).

    That is, saying ‘we believe this’ does not require us to say “they are wrong” nor does it require us to go tell them “you are wrong”. Not saying something to those who believe differently need not be the start of a descent into relativity either, nor is it an admission that we don’t really care one way or the other – or that we don’t care about their salvation. It’s simply a respect for their free will, their path through life from where they were to now to where they will be. I often think that Orthodoxy and Christianity (in its purity as well as in its contemporary incarnations) may actually be damaging to some people with certain kinds of backgrounds. We may do more harm to the other in trying to hash out our differences and convert them than we would have if we’d just let each other alone and been friendly, caring, etc. There’s a lot of hurt in the religious world and that needs to be taken into account when discussing religion, and neither Orthodoxy nor Christianity have always been guiltless in those hurts.

    Not sure if that makes sense, is helpful, or even welcome, but those are some general thoughts on fatherhood in a diverse, mainly heterodox and/or non-Christian world (and home).

  3. 3 Lucas 9 March 2012 at 3:58 pm

    I wonder, however, if this dilemma isn’t a consequence of the popular (and understandable) view of sin as “offense against the Legislator”, rather than as “sickness”. I realize ‘therapeutic’ v. ‘juridical’ receives a lot of play, but I find it particularly pertinent here.

    If I tell my son that fornication (to follow the linked article’s underlying issue) is wrong because it is an offense against Divine Law, then it is hard to maintain the distinction about which you inquire.

    If, however, I tell my son that fornication introduces a poison to those involved–and that it ultimately causes harm to the soul (and, perhaps, the body) that neither party may ever fully understand, but will certainly feel–if I say this, then I hope his reaction to another’s fall won’t be judgment, but compassion. Not the hypocritical ‘pity’ judgmentally condescending, but true compassion that grieves at another’s sickness & genuinely wants the other’s healing.


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