“Scary Mommy:” Learning From The Religion of Coercion
Parenting is tough business. Nobody has it easy. But, we can certainly make things harder on ourselves — and our children — than they need to be.
We’ll put aside the fact that “motherhood” is an arbitrary label. Both mothers and fathers deal with the same challenges and obstacles. “Motherhood,” in this context, is just an extension of what this article is really about: victimhood.
Let me preface this with the fact that I *do* empathize with what this mother is sharing. This is not an attack on anyone. It’s simply my opinion about a publicly-shared situation, put forth as a case study that we can all learn from.
In “Without a Fight,” I outlined the five pillars of authentic leadership. As you’ll see, those pillars are missing from this situation, and likely this household. In place of the pillars, we have the religion of coercion.
The number one commandment of coercion is that if coercion fails, more coercion is necessary. This ensures that leadership faults are rarely considered and parents get to play the authority (rule-setters) and the victim (of the rule-breakers) at the same time.
I was rooting for this mother when I first read the article because I expected it to end with some sort of breakthrough or paradigm shift. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. The coercion model is blinding, which is why I felt the need to discuss it here to see how we could interpret this situation more constructively.
All the emphasized parts of the quotes are my emphasis.
I lost it this morning. Really lost it.
After the kids were all dressed for school, breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, backpacks packed, I turned on the TV. I have a rule that the kids can only watch certain channels. There is so much crap on TV – shows geared towards teens and preteens, shows that showcase kids calling other people “idiot” and “stupid” and generally behaving obnoxiously – and in all seriousness, I have a hard enough time keeping my kids under control without exposing them to those kinds of influences and role models. So the rule is, Mom sets the channel, and you don’t change it without permission.
There’s no need to completely rehash the broken rules/rewards/punishments paradigm. It’s completely outlined in “Without a Fight” and Chris and I discussed it on the first episode of the Reboot Your Kids Podcast. I did want to emphasize it though.
What’s more telling is that it’s obvious this mom legitimately cares about what her children are exposed to. No question. And nobody should ever deny that this mom doesn’t care greatly about the outcome of her children.
But this is important to identify for another reason. Again, I’m not attacking anyone, but it’s clear that she excludes herself from this important role model standard. You’ll see this clearly as we continue looking at her telling of the story. In fact, it’s obvious that her own behavior is worse than anything they would have seen on television that morning.
This is typical of coercive households. The pillar of integrity insists that authentic parents include themselves in all standards. If you care about the role models your children are exposed to, you can’t dismiss the weight of your own behavior or shed responsibility for it. This is especially true since the parent has exponentially more influence than any other person in a child’s life. Coercive households are built on a foundation of hypocrisy rather than integrity.
Annabelle never, ever, ever sticks to this rule. The moment I walk out of the room, she’s got the remote in her hand, channel-surfing, looking for some obnoxious show featuring smart-ass teenagers. It happened this morning. Within thirty seconds of my turning the TV on to Nick Jr. – really for Finn – Annabelle is changing the channel. “Leave the TV alone, Annabelle,” I said. I left the room. A few minutes later, on my way to the kitchen, I saw her there, remote in hand, channel surfing again. And I lost it.
If you have a rule that a child never, ever sticks to, and the defiance of the rule leads to you losing it, then why does the rule continue to exist?
Annabelle’s age is undisclosed, but we do know that she’s one of seven children. I can imagine that it’s hard for a mom to give adequate time and attention to each child, especially when one is special needs (her younger brother, I believe).
The level of pent up frustration inside Annabelle, the number of needs she has that aren’t being met, and the potential gap between her age and the self-control she’s truly capable of should all be in question. I can only speculate on these things, but the point is that behavior is communication.
One aspect of the blindness of coerciveness is this: where I see frustration, unmet needs, and a capability gap, coercive parents tend to see defiance, disobedience, and an uncaring nature.
It’s insinuated that Annabelle doesn’t give half a shit about her down syndrome brother. She only cares about herself and is thus “channel surfing” for “some obnoxious show” in defiance of “the rule.”
To care enough to forego her own needs and not change the channel, Annabelle would need empathy, compassion, and a strong connection with her brother. But those things are opposed to the behavior that’s modeled in coercive households. Instead of those things, she’s given arbitrary rules.
Screaming and yelling ensued. Swearing. “I’VE TOLD YOU A THOUSAND TIMES TO LEAVE THE TV ALONE!!” I shouted. “GO TO YOUR ROOM! GO SIT IN YOUR ROOM UNTIL IT’S TIME TO LEAVE FOR SCHOOL. NOW!!!” She just stood there staring at me, not moving a muscle. “GO!!” I yelled. All the kids froze in their tracks while I chased – literally chased – Annabelle into her room. She beat me by a half a second and locked the door against me. Locked the door! “I’m going to kill her!” I muttered. “MOM! Are you really going to kill Annabelle? Did you really just say that?!” Daisy shrieked. “OPEN THIS GODDAMN DOOR!” I yelled. Annabelle unlocked the door. “Don’t you ever lock the door against me again! Do you hear me?!” I yelled at her.
Michael’s trying to calm me. “Leave me alone!” I yelled at him. “I do EVERYTHING for you people – including YOU! – and you all treat me like shit! Every last one of you!”
The end result of failed coercion is almost always rage, extreme fear, and threats of violence. Annabelle’s frozen moment at the beginning of the rage was her triggered fight or flight response (which actually has a third component — freeze). Only when this much larger, raging adult actually approached her did the flight response kick in.
Locking the door was certainly the instruction of her subconscious, biological defense mechanism. Of course, disconnected parents can easily interpret that as more defiance. How dare you! Her wording, “locked the door against me,” and the subsequent, “don’t you ever…” are classic lines of authoritarianism that are symptomatic of an adult who cares about arbitrary hierarchy more than the needs of their children.
Worse, she’s forced — by the threat of heightened violence — to open the door and face her attacker. To say this is a traumatic situation is an understatement.
Remember, before this all started a “rule” existed that prevented Annabelle from finding bad role models on television. Her defiance of that rule resulted in having a scary, raging, insulting, threatening parent in her living room screaming words like “goddamn” and threatening violence.
This is completely hypocritical. And highly destructive.
You might say that she didn’t threaten violence, but when you tell a child, “don’t you ever…” and you’re currently raging at them, what should they think? Should they think that if they ever do it again, you’ll just rage again? Or should they think, “Wow, this is serious. If I do it again, they’re going to escalate. I wonder what comes after rage…?”
Michael’s trying to calm me. “Leave me alone!” I yelled at him. “I do EVERYTHING for you people – including YOU! – and you all treat me like shit! Every last one of you!”
In the final act of rage, a truth escapes. This isn’t about channels on a television. This is about a mother’s feeling of not being appreciated. She’s giving and giving and giving and seemingly not getting.
Coercion is opposition-based leadership. It means that you’re on one side and your children are on another. Every coercive act damages the connection between parent and child. It makes what mom truly wants and needs, deep down, utterly impossible to get.
But really, of course it’s not just about that. That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back this morning. It was my eight-year old changing the channel after I told her not to – again. It was dealing with Finn tantruming his way through breakfast – again. It was Joey throwing a dramatic tantrum and copping a major attitude last night when I said no, he could not have an Instagram account (he’s ten, for crying out loud!). It’s the bickering and tattling all the time. It’s the “I want, I want, I want” all the time, and the lack of willingness to do much of anything I ask. Ask somebody to set the table for dinner? Tell them to clean up their room? Oh my GOD! You would think I’m asking them to pull their own fingernails out!
There’s an underlying theme of, “I own and control you. Why aren’t you doing what I say?” I don’t know a single human being on planet Earth that would willingly comply with that.
She’s complaining about her Down Syndrome child throwing a tantrum and noting how often it happens by saying, “again.” Rather than searching for the needs of her children that aren’t being met or analyzing their practical capability in different situations, she puts herself in a position where she simply has to “deal with it.”
When her son asks about Instagram and ends up throwing a tantrum, she describes it as “dramatic” and “having a major attitude.” I can’t imagine where he got that attitude from. If I had a raging, controlling mother who refused to negotiate, my only option would be to tantrum. It’s the only safe way to express my feelings. Trying to negotiate is typically seen as “talking back” or “having an attitude.” In an unpredictable environment, those things can easily trigger rage in authoritative parents.
Ten year olds who have refined and well-worn negotiation skills, healthy emotional processing, and peaceful, connected leadership don’t melt down into tantrums. That’s a symptom of lacking healthy relational skills.
It’s my husband being gone so much of the time and me feeling utterly alone, like I’m dealing with all of this single handedly.
There are legitimate needs that mom has, which aren’t being met. I don’t want to deny or overlook that. 7 children and a husband that’s away is an impossible situation. That’s not to say that she didn’t create the situation, but it’s a major stressor to her, nonetheless.
The problem occurs when she fails to address her unmet needs and instead turns each child into an emotional garbage can that she can repeatedly vomit in. If I can’t have my needs met, then nobody will have their needs met.
Her disconnection and subscription to coercion has created a vicious cycle where she attempts to force her children to do things, they push back, she rages, and then she feels isolated and unappreciated.
Do what I say or else! Oh, you think you’re brave, do you? Rage! Why the fuck don’t you appreciate me! Fuck you AND your father.
I’m not excusing my losing it this morning. I’m ashamed. I wish I held it together better, I really, really do. And lest I start to sound like my own mother who seemed to believe that her kids were responsible for her happiness/unhappiness but she, the adult, was not responsible for theirs, let me just say that I know kids are kids, they don’t actually mean anything personal by their behavior – I know that, I really do.
It goes without saying that this style of parenting is almost always the extension of a trauma cycle. Her mother lathered on the emotional incest (that’s all we know, but can safely assume that’s not all there is to this trauma story) and the cycle is repeating, even though mom claims to know that “kids are kids.”
Unfortunately, she extends that and says that they don’t actually mean anything by their behavior. In fact, they do. As I said earlier, behavior is kids communicating in the most effective way they know how. And it’s very personal. And when it’s misinterpreted, it’s tragic.
Sometimes motherhood just feels like a big, fat Fuck You, though. This is why people say that motherhood is a hard job. Not because it’s especially intellectually challenging or physically demanding – I mean it is those things, but there are certainly other pursuits that require for far more intellectual and/or physical output than motherhood. Not because it requires a great deal of bravery – of course, it does call for that, too, but certainly not as much as being a soldier or a police officer, for instance. No, it’s not those things. It’s because it’s so fucking emotionally taxing. It’s because it’s so incredibly thankless so much of the time. It’s because I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much of myself for them, and they don’t appreciate it. It’s because I do and do and do for them, constantly, and it often seems like all I get in return is complaining that it’s not enough – or just outright ignored. I’m not looking for accolades or awards or fanfare. I’m not even looking for “thank you.” It would just be nice to get a little cooperation. A little respect for the rules – rules which aren’t onerous or unreasonable for crap’s sake!
In the beginning I mentioned that I was rooting for a paradigm shift from this mom as I read the article the first time. Instead, we get, “ALL I want is cooperation and respect for the rules.”
She’s doubling down on coercion and the rage and disconnection that come with it. Not once has she stopped to ask, “what are my kids not getting that they need?” or “what is the resistance to the rules and unwillingness to cooperate born out of?”
Her “solution” to all this is to have kids that shut the fuck up and fall in line. Kids who ignore their needs. Kids who act in opposition to their deepest desires. Kids who hear a rule and say, “yes mother, can I have another?”
Because, you know, the rules aren’t unreasonable or anything. None of this is unreasonable. Just do what I say and nobody gets hurt.
Rules are a funny thing. The people who make them always insist they’re reasonable. The people who are forced to follow them by threat of violence or coercion…not so much.
I’ll add again that *parenting* is hard. Not motherhood. Not fatherhood. Parenting in general. In her paradigm, though, fatherhood is easy, you just have to be absent. Specifying “motherhood” is an emotional reaction. An extension of her victimhood.
After I got back from dropping the kids off at school this morning, I discovered that Annabelle had left her lunch at home. Who do you think packed the baby and Finn back into the truck to drive her lunch to school?
Because that’s what moms do.
Unfortunately, this is the story of the vast majority of households in America. When the article ended, I did what I always do and scrolled down to the commentary.
I’d like to highlight some of the comments from the echo chamber of parenting Hell that is the comment section at scarymommy.com:
Is it me or does KShaw seem to be a little pleased that she “scared her son into listening?” Smh.
So a parental meltdown is necessary? And even though she’s not proud of it, she’s already acknowledging that she’s going to do it again. You know, because finding a more productive way of leading children would be beyond the standard of doing your best.
Facepalm. This notion of “not being perfect” keeps being repeated on this site ad nauseum. I hate to break to anyone who doesn’t already know, but there things called principles and it really helps when people live by them.
A husband can’t smack his wife in a fit of rage, blog about it, and then say, “but you know, nobody is perfect!” A man can’t go on five failed dates and resort to rape on the 6th out of frustration and say, “nobody is perfect!” There are behaviors in life that are wholly unacceptable.
“Nobody is perfect” is a fucking cop out, bullshit excuse.
I guess I’ll be the only one to say, yes, she is wrong. And let’s dispose of this word “judged.” Everyone is judged for everything. It’s actually an involuntary, biologically-programmed aspect of life. What people really mean is that people shouldn’t be judgmental, or overly critical. And I agree. There’s no need to nitpick people’s parenting.
I’m not perfect and neither is anyone else. But calling out people for wholly unacceptable behavior is not being “overly critical” or “judgmental.” At some point, someone needs to start calling out this behavior as unacceptable rather than joining the pity party of victimhood. That’s how progress is made.
Right, because my child’s emotional wellbeing is worth less than $12…
Okay, I can’t go on any further. You can read more for yourself if you want. There are currently over 2000 of them.
Comments here are open. Perhaps you feel I’m not be constructive enough. Perhaps you feel I’m being too judgmental. Perhaps you agree completely. I’m up for a discussion about it…
Kevin GearyAll stories by: Kevin Geary
As a mom who formally “lost her shit” fairly consistently…I am shocked to read through those comments and the article and realize…that WAS ME!! My poor kids…good Lord forgive me for being that way. However, since my divorce and moving out on my own…it is a non issue. Without the pressure, stress and intensity of my ex-husband in the house, I have learned how to maintain my own composure. Being able to control myself as enabled me to handle my children at their worst and use my own calm and quiet way with them and it brings them to a calm state much quicker and we are able to resolve whatever the challenge may be. Afte r 2 years, I am not at a point where I can tell my teenager to do something like take the garbage out (not a usual job for him, just ask him for a favor) and he starts to ask why and push back and I simply say, “because I asked you to” with a smile on my face and he does it. 2 years ago…it would have been a fight…it would have been a whine from him with a disrespectful tone, which would have resulted in “don’t talk to me like that” from me and so on and so forth until we were both screaming. I guess it isn’t until you can see where you used to be until you can see how far you have come.