Is This Bullying?

So, the other night, Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment which compiled viewers’ video responses to his latest challenge for parents to pull holiday-related trickery on their children, after his “film your kids’ reaction after telling them you ate all their Halloween candy” segment went viral last month. This challenge was to wrap up some random garbage and give it to kids as an early Christmas present.

I find this entire thing really troubling, because pranks are a form of bullying even between peers, and a prank played by someone in a position of power, especially a parent pranking a child, is bullying that can fundamentally undermine trust.

Where some people see bullying and child abuse, I see over-entitled kids who are spoiled rotten. Getting hot dogs, juice, or a book as a Christmas gift is a huge tragedy for them. I can just imagine what they will grow up into. But oh, those poor kiddies who didn’t get a mountain of expensive toys and gadgets once in their lifetimes. They are total victims of horrible, mean parents.

We all know how sensitive I am about child abuse. But giving kids a book or a carton of eggs for Christmas is NOT abusive. It teaches them a very important lesson about entitlement.

I once saw this segment on television where grandparents gave their small grand-daughter $100 wrapped in a simple white handkerchief. The kid didn’t see the $100 bill but when she got the handkerchief her face lit up. She walked around the room, showing her gift to people and looking extremely happy about it. I don’t think there is any special attachment to handkerchiefs that this child has. She just managed to retain the kind of happy, joyous attitude to receiving any gift that all children have naturally. Of course, most of them lose it because they are showered with endless expensive gifts they no longer even manage to value for more than two minutes.

These kids are old enough to know that you do not throw tantrums no matter how much you dislike any gift you have been given. Where are their manners? Where is at least a glimmer of understanding that you should not hurt the feelings of a gift-giver even if s/he failed to please you with the gift?

Co-Sleeping as a Form of Child Abuse

I want to warn everybody that this is a sensitive topic for me. So I kindly ask people not to be jerks in their comments. If you have a burning need to share the story of how you sleep in the same bed with your child and that child totally digs it, I ask you to take this story elsewhere. Here, it will bring you no applause. 

Every form of emotional abuse of children comes out of the parental incapacity to see children as separate human beings. There is nothing more dangerous to a child’s psyche than a parent who sees that child as an extension of him or herself. Parents often invade the personal space of their children in ways they would have never allowed themselves to employ in respect to other adults. Putting children to sleep in the same bed with themselves is one of the most egregious invasions of a child’s personal space that a parent can come up with.

Children start exploring their bodies and masturbating early in life. Obviously, it cannot be very healthy for a person’s developing sexuality to experience his or her first instances of sexual arousal in the same bed with the parents.

At the same time, adults normally have erotic dreams. (Whether you remember them or not is, of course, completely immaterial.) It is also hardly a good thing for a child to wake up and observe a parent who is orgasming in his or her sleep.

One of the greatest challenges on the road to a healthy sexuality for both men and women is to learn to select partners exclusively on the basis of their own sexual desire. Parents who drag children into bed with them exercise their authority over the children in order to service their own tactile needs. Later on in life, such children have absolutely no idea how to reject unwanted tactile contacts.

There is a mile-long list of justifications parents who practice the so-called co-sleeping have come up with to excuse their invasion of the personal space of their miserable children. I read such lists a couple of times and they made my hair stand on end. There are people who seriously say that sleeping with children is acceptable because it allows them to save on heating. Truly, the hypocrisy of child abusers knows no bounds.

The only real reason why adults drag children into bed with them is because they are incapable of developing a relationship with another adult(s) to satisfy their tactile needs. To put it bluntly, they can’t persuade anybody to touch them as much as they need and to share personal space with them, so they use the only people who cannot refuse them, their unfortunate children. And if those children then have to spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with the emotional and sexual problems they develop as a result, who cares?

I know that this post will make many people very angry. But as long as there is a tiniest chance that I might persuade at least one person to get out of his or her child’s bed, I have to use it.

Policing Kids

On the rare occasions I watch television, I’m always shocked at how unapologetic people often are about treating their children with utter disrespect for their privacy and personal space. Parents confess to doing things to their teenagers that they would never admit to doing to other adults. Going through the teenagers’ pockets and cell phone usage histories, controlling the music they listen to and the books they read, spying after them online, invading their Facebook pages, installing controls on their computers are just some of the measures taken against children and then gleefully discussed as examples of good parenting.

All of these efforts have no practical purpose except giving parents an illusion of control over their children. There is no actual possibility nowadays to control what anybody does online, talks about, reads or listens to. Every instance of spying on children and trying to prevent them from exploring the world the way they want to pushes teenagers further into despising their parents and destroys any form of legitimate human contact.

If you are a parent bent on controlling your teenager or if you know a parent like that, please read this great post on strategies a smart teenager used to fool her controlling parents. Read the post and ask yourself whether there is really any pressing need to force a kid to develop all these mechanisms to protect their privacy from you. If you are a teenager who is controlled “for your own good,” this post will show you how to escape from the unhealthy behavior of your controlling and disrespectful parents.

When I was raising my teenage sister, I knew that the most important thing was to preserve an honest human connection between us. She’d leave her diary and her backpack all over our apartment and she never deleted her ICQ (this was in the late 1990s) history because she knew that I would never stoop to policing her. She also knew that whatever happened and no matter how much she messed up (that’s what teenagers do, they mess up. It’s an important part of their growth), she could always share with me and expect to be treated with respect. This is why today, thirteen years later, we have a very profound, close relationship.

Small Children and Personal Space

My niece Klubnikis is not a cuddly child. Even as a small baby, she almost never felt like being cuddled or held for purposes other than breast-feeding. Today, when she is almost two, one has to ask her permission to kiss and hug her. More often than not, the answer is a decisive “No!”

Klubnikis’s mother thought she found a way of sneaking a kiss or two by her daughter. Last night, she came by Klubnikis’s bed and tried kissing her in her sleep. The little girl, however, was vigilant even then.

“No, Mama! Kisses no!” she muttered without waking up.

I have to tell you, it’s a struggle to refrain from kissing this child. She has these velvety apple-like cheeks that seem to beg to be kissed. Klubnikis’s parents, however, realize that their daughter is not a toy or a pet. From the moment she was born, she was a human being with her own rights and needs that have to be respected. A child’s need for personal space has to hold a greater priority than her parents’ and relatives’ understandable longing to cuddle her and cover her with kisses.

As much as we all want to kiss Klubnikis, we always remember that she needs to be brought up in an environment where her personal space and her body integrity are respected. She needs to know that she can always refuse physical contact and expect her wishes not to be dismissed or even questioned.

Often, when a child grows up, parents start offering her lectures about the importance of knowing how to say “no.” Such lectures, however, are completely useless if the kid’s boundaries were constantly violated by those very parents since her infancy.

An Anti-Child Abuse Video Banned in Ireland

Sometimes, this blog’s readers kindly send to me suggestions about topics I could use for my posts. Reader Kinjal sent me a link to this article today:

Ireland’s advertising watchdog has made itself a laughingstock—except nobody’s laughing—by banning an anti-child-abuse PSA that was powerful enough to get noticed worldwide. The brutal spot by Ogilvy Dublin, which Adweek covered at length here, shows a boy being beaten up while still articulating, in grown-up language, a manifesto for children’s rights. After getting 13 complaints, the country’s Advertising Standards Authority has banned the spot from all “Irish media” (this does not include YouTube) because it supposedly breaches gender-equality rules. “Complainants objected to the advertisement on the basis that it was unbalanced in its treatment of the subject of abuse in the home. The advertisement only depicted a male as being the aggressor, and the complainants considered this to be unbalanced,” the ASA ruled, according to Adland. The stupidity of such a ruling is self-evident. It means you couldn’t dramatize abuse without having both a man and a woman whaling on the kid at once—which would be weird and completely shift the focus of the ad from the abused to the abusers.

I understand that the objections people voiced to the video sound ludicrous. However, if we analyze the PSA in question in a wider context, it becomes clear that there is a lot of truth behind the objections. In a recent post, I shared with my readers a series of posters that are part of a campaign against domestic violence. In every single poster, the abuser is male and the victim is female. The campaign addresses emotional and verbal abuse but at no point suggests that women can – and do! – abuse men.

More often than not, we imagine a rapist as a scary stranger lurking in the bushes, even though the absolute majority of rapes are perpetrated by people who know their victims and take place at home. This way of constructing the image of a rapist makes it a lot harder to prove that spousal rape and date rape are just as horrible and traumatic as being assaulted by a complete stranger in the street.

In the same way, domestic abuse and child abuse keep getting portrayed as being perpetrated exclusively by men. What lies behind this completely skewed portrayal is a belief that women are not only “the weaker sex” incapable of being abusive but also that women have some magic access to good parenting skills and some kind of a deeper love for their children than men do.

My friend and her partner recently had a baby. They are both highly-educated, feminist, and progressive people. Still, from day one, the father of the baby kept saying to the mother, “I have no idea how to burp her / change her diaper / put her to sleep / get her to stop crying, etc. You do it.”

“What makes you think I know any better?” my friend would always respond. “I never had any children before either.”

Women don’t have any kind of a “maternal instinct” that is unavailable to men. Mothers are just as likely to engage in child abuse as fathers. Until we allow ourselves to imagine maternal abuse as something that does happen quite often, however, we will not be able to address it.

A little while ago, a female blogger wrote a comment on this blog that said,

Please lay off those of us who choose to “lop off parts” of our sons’ penises.

She then got extremely huffy when I told her off and organized a silly anti-Clarissa campaign during which other female bloggers ridiculed me for caring too much about child abuse. As hard as I try, I honestly cannot imagine any male scientist, college professor and intellectual who would feel comfortable making this kind of remark about any part of his daughter’s body in public and then proceeding to make light of child abuse. This doesn’t mean that men don’t abuse children. Of course, they do. But they don’t act about it in such a cavalier way because they know they will be condemned for it.

We need to start having discussions, articles, posters, videos, etc. about maternal abuse, too.

What’s the Best Age to Discuss Painful Realities?

When do you think is the best age to start talking to a child about the sad realities of our existence, such as racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, etc.?

In my opinion, it makes sense to tell a kid that these things exist at around the age of 9-10.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a regime that my parents hated passionately. They experienced anti-Semitism and read forbidden authors. My father listened in a clandestine manner to the BBC and Voice of America at night. However, they never shared their feelings about the regime with me. They let me grow up believing that we lived in the best country possible. I devoured children’s stories about the kind Grandpa Lenin who loved little kids and saved sick hedgehogs. I was a happy child who wasn’t tortured by insecurities and anxieties about things I was yet not equipped to understand.

When I was 10, my mother had the first cautious talk with me about the history of the Soviet Union. She talked to me in a way that made me understand certain things about our historic legacy but that didn’t scare me or make me feel despondent.

I know people whose parents talked to them about the life in the Soviet Union in very negative terms from a very early age. I honestly don’t see how these hard, painful truths enriched those kids’ existences.

“A child needs to know that she lives in a happy, warm, welcoming universe,” my father always says. “Then, when she grows up, the realization that bad things exist will not break her. She will still have her memories of happiness and security that will carry her through the rest of her life.”

What do you think?

How to Raise Loving Siblings?, Part III

3. Use the plural, not singular. For my parents, it was always “both of you” plural and not “you” singular. (In Russian we have singular and plural forms of the pronoun “you.”) Whenever one of us messed up in any way, both were blamed. Even today, my mother always says automatically,

“Your sister and you never listen to my advice on how to feed the baby!”

I’m not the one with the baby, my sister is. I haven’t fed any babies for over two decades. For my mother, however, it is impossible to single out one of us as being in the wrong.

In childhood, if one of us got a bad grade (which, in our family, was anything lower than an A), both were condemned as horrible students who’d end up in the gutter.

“Mom,” I’d say indignantly, “Molly is the one who got a B. I’m a straight A student. Why are you yelling at me?”

“Yes? And what have you done to help her not get the B? Huh? Both of you are disappointing me right now!”

People are always horrified to hear that we would both be punished for the mistakes of one of us. “But that is so unfair!” they say. “Why should a person be punished for what somebody else did?”

I strongly believe, however, that it was a brilliant strategy. Those childhood punishments seem so unimportant today when compared to the kind of solidarity that it created between us. Today, Molly and I lead very different lives. I have a lot more degrees but she makes a lot more money. She has her own thriving business but I have a lot of free time. She has many friends but I have a popular blog. I’m married, she isn’t. I’m childless, she is not. I weigh a lot more than she has. She can drive but I can’t. I’m autistic, and she is the epitome of NT. However, none of these differences have ever caused any kind of competitiveness between us. Since childhood, we saw each other as a team. It was never me versus her, but, rather, us against the world.

And that, I believe, is beautiful.

How to Raise Loving Siblings?, Part II

2. Don’t arbitrate. All siblings have petty fights and squabbles about trivial things that they perceive as hugely important. Of course, they turn to their parents to arbitrate their conflicts. Our parents, however, refused to do this every single time.

“Dad!” I would holler. “Molly tore my dress / bit off the nose of my favorite toy piglet / ate my homework / pushed me / spit on my book! Are you going to tell her that she is wrong and that she is a brat???”

“Go back to your sister and figure this out with her,” my father would invariably respond.

“But she is WRONG!!!” I would vociferate indignantly.

“I don’t care,” he’d say. “This is all between you.”

Of course, I would immediately be overcome with a sense of a huge injustice being done to me. Those useless adults! They never wanted to help one, even when one was absolutely right. What was the point of having them around anyways?

This intense dislike of unfair horrible adults needed to be shared with a compassionate listener who would understand my grievance. I’d go back to the room I shared with my sister.

“So what did Dad say?” she’d inquire.

“Well, you know how they are. Never willing to do anything one asks them!”

“I know!” Molly would say. “Remember that time when you hid my doll? They never wanted to punish you for that.”

“Useless people.”

“So true.”

United in our dislike of heartless adults, we would go back to playing together in perfect harmony.

How to Raise Loving Siblings?, Part I

Here, I described my relationship with my sister which is absolutely the best and the closest sibling relationship I have ever had a chance to observe. I’m sure there are people who have just as great a bond with their brother or sister, but I am convinced that nobody in the world has a stronger one. I simply do not believe this is possible.

So what can the parents do to ensure that their children develop such a relationship? Here is a list of things my parents did. They obviously worked* because the result is spectacular:

1. Address sibling rivalry. When a child is used to being the one and only in her parents’ life, it might be traumatic to see a baby join the family and get the bulk of everybody’s attention. As a result, sibling rivalry might arise with an older sibling trying to divert the love and the attention back to herself. When Molly was born, I was old enough to notice that I wasn’t the center of my parents’ universe any longer and, of course, I was very jealous. My mother addressed this issue once and for all with the following conversation (which she doesn’t even remember any more but which had an absolutely life-changing importance to a 6-year-old me):

“You must have noticed that I spend all of my time with Molly now, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I responded petulantly. “You don’t even play with me any more.”

“You see, ” my mother said. “I’ve known and loved you for six years longer than her. And this will never change. No matter how old you and Molly get to be, my love for you will always be six years longer.”

“Really??” I asked. “What about when I’m 28?” (That was the age of real senility in my 6-year-old mind.)

“Yes, when you are 28 and 48 and 68. Which is why right now I’m trying to make this up for her in a way by spending all this time with her. She is little and she might not understand this as well as you do. Do you want to help me make her feel almost as loved as you are?”

From that moment on, any jealousy I felt simply evaporated. I started feeling sorry for the little baby who was six endless years less loved than I was.

* I am not addressing a relationship between twins because it is very special and different from one between regular siblings, and I simply have no knowledge about how it works.

How to Raise a Teenager?, Part II

4. This is not about you. There will be days (or weeks) where all you get from your teenager will be a resentful glare, an eye roll, and – if you are lucky – an angry growl. The teenager will address you with completely spontaneous, “I hate you!” on regular occasions. Remember: it isn’t you he hates. It’s the hormonal storm that is driving him nuts and that he can’t verbalize or comprehend. Please, see point 1 of the first post in this series for suggestions as to what to do.

5. Provide assistance that is being asked of you. Don’t try to correct the teenager’s mess-ups according to what you think will be a good way to do so. At this point, the help that matters is the kind that has been explicitly asked of you.

A real-life example: Once, Molly called me on the phone at 11 pm.

“My boyfriend is a jerk!” she declared. “Can you tell him he is a jerk and scream at him if I hand him the phone?”

Molly’s boyfriend was always extremely polite and respectful to me. As for me, contrary to what people might believe after reading my blog, I don’t walk around insulting people and screaming at them. However, if that’s what the kid needed at that point, that’s what I had to provide. She passed the phone to the boyfriend.

“You stupid MF, FY from here to hell!” I ranted. “You, horrible, nasty jerk!” I swore at the poor guy for five minutes and then asked him to give the phone to Molly.

“Cool,” she said. “Thanks.”

When she came back home, I didn’t ask any questions, of course. (See rule 1.)

“My boyfriend and I made up,” she informed me. “Thanks for putting him in his place.”

It is very difficult to restrain oneself from lecturing and sharing one’s profound wisdom. You have to do that, though, if you want to preserve your relationship with the kid and not just have them call you on Christmas and Mother’s Day.