Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Most Important Lesson We Can Pass On

Last weekend the “dad” community was overwhelmed by the news of the death of a child.  The two-year-old son of Adrian Peterson, winner of the NFL’s Most Valuable Player last season and someone familiar to and feared by those of us who play fantasy football, was killed, beaten by a boyfriend of the mother, someone who had a history of domestic violence. 

In case you missed the lead, this is it:  a two-year-old child was beaten to death.

When I first heard the news I looked at my three year old son and tried to figure out how one does that, not in a, “how do you do that to a child?” way, but as a serious logistical question.  

How do you go about beating a two-year-old child? 

It’s a disturbing question, I know.

We can’t separate the physics of the act from the heartbreaking brutality of it being a two-year-old.  A child.  An innocent smiling face whose only desire is to be loved.

It struck me that my three-year-olds primary goal is to please us.  Everything he does, every discovery, even every failure, is in pursuit of our approval. 

And that can lead to an insidious kind of abuse whose wounds are not visible, but last a lifetime.


A photo went viral recently, the latest in a frightening trend of parenting via public humiliation and shame. 

A father, upset that his toddler had defecated in the shower, posted a photo of her with a sign, with her face in full view.  The sign read:
I pooped in the shower and daddy had to clean it up.  I hereby sign this as permission to use in my yearbook senior year. 
 (It is signed with a scribble.) 
The segment from the Today Show asked, “Is this cruel or cute?” 

I think the answer is obvious.

This is an act of child abuse.  Shaming and humiliation are never an answer and fail, utterly, to teach anything other than shame and humiliation. 
Children are constantly learning – they learn from the behavior of those around them.  What lessons did this child learn?  Not only did this father undercut the learning process of potty training by reinforcing that poop is gross and he, as dad, is above cleaning after his toddler, he undermines the entire learning process of his child by instilling a belief that any mistake will be met with shame and public humiliation – especially in the most fragile and vulnerable time in a child’s life.

We are currently going through the hell that is potty training.  It’s a mess.  We expect a two or three year old child to know how to recognize their body’s internal signals, race to the bathroom, turn on lights, get undressed, get situated, all the while holding what’s trying to come out, clean themselves up afterward…

A toddler. 

I know adults who, after a couple drinks, can’t do this.

Initially this caused a great deal of concern and frustration, but we had an epiphany:  this is about him learning a skill.  It’s not about us.   Oue job is to guide and encourage him.  We empowered him and within weeks he was disappearing into the bathroom and announcing to the world his successes.   (We still have to help clean up…  I doubt the cleaning of poop, literal or figurative, will ever end.)

And you have to do it with a smile, a hug, and a great deal of positive energy and encouragement.

Simple?  Yes.  Easy?  No.

This is the template for how you handle every learning experience your child will encounter. 

You can face it with shame, humiliation, anger, and judgment, or you can face it with love, compassion, understanding, and encouragement.  The choice is yours. 

And that is the most important lesson you can pass on to your child.

For more information on shame and humiliation and the power of vulnerability, check out the work of Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW.

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