Consent in Everyday Life: Parents

June 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

A while back I read this blog post called “Schrödinger’s Rapist” about the ways in which men communicate respect or lack of respect for consent in everyday, nonsexual interactions.  Straying from the original intent of the post, it was an important experience for me to find a discussion of consent ethics outside of just sex and to begin to apply radical feminist moral ethics to everyday life.  Consent, and in contrast coercion, I found could form a strong basis for a moral ethic and clarify many moral questions and make the process easy to articulate.  And, like in the case of sex, it can be seen that coercion goes far beyond the individual or even small group interaction into a broader scale.  I found myself asking more and more, What’s going on with consent in this situation?  This will be a series of posts on consent in everyday life (so not just sex).

For this first post, I want to focus on an area that has been very prominent in my life lately, how parents relate to their children.  I first heard someone state plainly that children are seen as the property of parents and denied basic human rights in our culture reading bell hooks.  I learned later how much second wave feminism had focused on the rights of children, the most powerless and subjugated group in our culture, and increased consciousness and law regarding child abuse.  Children are at the very bottom of the totem pole when it comes to hierarchies of power.

And we all begin here, at the bottom.  I think this is where we learn a lot of our lessons about cruelty and despair and abuse of power.  I believe abusers learn to abuse from suffering injustices.  This is not tantamount to excusing abusive behavior, but a lens for perceiving models of restorative rather than retributive justice, for creating actual change and not just perpetual cycles of abuse.

Harriet Taylor Mill once stated that women were the only group in the world subjugated and told that this is their privilege and blessing.  I think there is one other group – children.  Children are supposed to be grateful to their parents.  It seems the prevalent ideology is that in being born, children owe a debt owe a debt to their parents they will spend the rest of their lives repaying.

I have a friend who is fifty.  He’s been everywhere in life, from Howard Zinn lectures to real estate fortunes to crack addiction, violent crime, and prison.  He has been forced by circumstances and also led by his own search to deal with a lot of confused parts of his psyche.  He told me a story about his childhood once.  His father had beaten him with a belt so severely, he bled through his shirt the next day at school. He went to the bathroom to look.  When he pulled up his shirt, he saw a friend’s reaction in the mirror and realized for the first time there was something abnormal in his experience at home. Today, he talks about his parents with no anger in his voice.  He still visits them on holidays and supports them when he can.  He feels sympathy for them, much more than he ever does for himself.  If he shows any strong feeling in telling stories of his abuse, it is shame.

Many people will take it as a sign of his character that he still “loves” his parents after all he suffered.  If I described this same behavior in a woman who related to an abusive husband in this way, I think the critical lens we’d use would be quite different.  Yet a child in possession of abusive parents is even more helpless than a adult caught up in an abusive relationship.  We still think, however, that everything parents do is excusable, that children should and must still “love” and “honor” their parents, who in many cases never loved or honored them.  It’s a bizarre to me really.  As bizarre as the mental gymnastics and compartmentalized paradoxes of systemic sexism and very similar, in fact.

My close friend and lover, Valerie, introduced me to the work of Alice Miller, an essential part of her way of interpreting the world.  Miller does work on how child suppress trauma and carry on patterns of abuse and the roots of violence on an individual and societal scale.  I think we need to face the facts that a lot of parents are abusive and begin to untangle the threads of how this has become commonplace and how we can no longer even see it in our current frame.  The entitlement that parents exhibit towards their adult children has become quite shocking to me as I look around my life now and a sign of something very wrong with the way parents relate to their children.

Last year, I had the flu and was talking to my father on the phone.  He was ranting about a news broadcast, which he often does, and I said, “Listen, I’m trying to keep up with you, but I’m not feeling up to speed like usual.  Can you just slow down a little and take it easy and keep talking about what you’re telling me?”  He said yes and continued in exactly the same vain.  I repeated the rest two more times in different ways, always getting a sympathetic agreement before he continued in exactly the same behavior.  I finally just got off the phone and the distinct thought, “That is more overriding of my consent I’d tolerate from anyone else in the world.”

I finally realized how intense this pattern was when, after two years of not visiting home, I had told my father a number things about both my and my brother’s experiences of our mother.  My parents are separated and have no contact with each other now.  I told him stories he had never heard that shocked and angered him. I told him I wasn’t having contact with my mother and finally gained his support in the decision, despite his religious trepidations about honoring parents and forgiveness, and convinced him to stop encouraging my brother to have contact with our mother, as well.  I was coming back to visit, and I asked if the rest of the family knew my brother and I weren’t going to see our mother or if they would be shocked.  He said they knew and wouldn’t question or judge us.  And before I even got there, he had invited my mother over to his house to spend time with me against my explicit, repeated, consistent, and even impassioned expression of non-consent.

Valerie recently spoke to her mother after three years of ceasing all contact.  She was confused by the experience of having a lot of experiences her mother had denied in the past confirmed.  It seemed like things had changed.  The conversation began after her mother called her 13 times in half and hour, leaving her six messages, and sending her several texts.  And during the conversation, Valerie had said she didn’t want to discuss certain topics, which her mother would agree to and then continue to bring up until they were discussed.  I said to her, “If you think of it in the terms of feminist sexual ethics, it seems like you had an experience of someone verbally showing support for your emotional well-being and consent and blatantly disregarding them both with actions.  Seems like that’s not different, just advancement to Nice Guy ™ tactics.”

I am sure early feminists went through the mental struggles with terror that asserting their rights against abusive behavior would break down the way society functioned, eradicate their bonds with men, make them less “loving” and bad people, drive them mad, and leave them dangerously alone.  Yet they were brave enough to shape a new world where they struggles to keep the things they valued without the compromise of submitting to a system of dominance and abuse.  I feel like today we’re on the cusp of a similar upheaval surrounding parents’ abusive relationships to children, at least in communities of people similar to my own.  And I think that, even when I can’t fully envision it and feel terrified, the end result will be a world that still functions just fine without relying on the commonality of abuse.


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§ 3 Responses to Consent in Everyday Life: Parents

  • Miriam says:

    This isn’t quite what you’re talking about here, but the topic of consent as it relates to parents and children always reminds me of the ethical issue of parents refusing medical care for their children on religious grounds. I took a class on bioethics in which we discussed issue of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose beliefs prohibit blood transfusions, and for a while I was left so confused about it. After all, those parents fervently believe that blood transfusions will cause their children to go to hell after they die, but refusing those transfusions leads to certain death. However, if the hospital does the transfusion against the parents’ wishes, then they are stuck for the rest of their lives believing that their children will go to hell.

    Ultimately, though, I agree with the Supreme Court decision on this issue, which is that parents are free to make martyrs of themselves, but not of their children. Really, this is an issue of consent and what parents should be allowed to do to their children.

    I’m too lazy to cite sources at the moment, but if you’re curious, let me know and I’ll look them up.

  • I think that is along the same lines as this issue I’m bringing up, especially your struggle with the issue once it was brought up. I often feel “caught” and have an overload of cognitive dissonance when confronted with my own confusion about the rights of children. We don’t really seem to have the rights of parents and the rights of children sorted out in this culture. I remember reading a bell hooks book where she pointed out that if you saw a man hit his girlfriend in a store, you’d be horrified and get involved, but when a parent hits their child in the same scenario, you’re passive even if you feel uncomfortable because you don’t want to interfere with how they raise “their children.” You don’t think it’s your right to assert the child’s rights; you identify on the side of the parent, which is where I think Alice Miller radically deviates from the norm. bell hooks points out how children are seen as property more than people, and considering that many of us were treated this way by our parents, I think it’s hard to see clearly, especially when we’re at risk of losing faith or a sense of being loved by the people who raised us. I’m definitely still a work in progress on the area of children’s rights, even in my personal life, as this post shows.

  • […] are not in the habit of giving children much choice in anything. For the most part, we don’t engage them in a culture of consent. Many children (are privileged enough to) have no big life decisions until they finish […]

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