The UK Government defines domestic violence as “any incident of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over… The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse.”
Did you notice that the definition stresses that domestic violence is between those aged 16 or over? What about children under the age of 16, children who surely are all the more vulnerable for their young age? You’d be forgiven for thinking the definition is even stricter for children. But actually in the UK it is still legal for parents to hit their children as a “reasonable punishment”. Yes, you read that right. For a grown man to hit a grown woman is illegal, and rightly so, but for a father to hit his daughter? Legally he’s in the clear, as long as he doesn’t use an implement, or break or bruise the skin.
It is also legal – and far more socially acceptable – for parents to threaten, shame, punish, and terrify their children. To shout at them, ignore them, belittle them. To withhold or take away their money, or confiscate their possessions. To restrict their freedom of movement, isolate them, to prevent them from seeing their friends or leaving the house. To force clothes on them when they say they are not cold. To force-feed them, control their food, or deny them food when hungry.
Substitute child in these situations for “elderly man”, “wife”, or “lover”. Would any of these be socially acceptable if they were done to another adult? If your friend told you their partner was acting in this way towards them, wouldn’t you urge them to leave? Yet all you have to do is open any parenting magazine or go to any playgroup to hear casual talk of naughty steps, time outs, grounding, or how best to ignore a tantrum. Just imagine a man giving advice to his friend on how to best ignore his wife’s sobs.
The uncomfortable truth is this: no other group in society is so successfully marginalised, oppressed, and systematically abused as children. It is an issue that cuts across class, race, and gender. I cannot think of a single child – including, I’m heartbroken to say, my own daughter – who wouldn’t truthfully be able to say “me too”.
For too long, feminism has kept quiet on this matter.
Now more than ever we need to keep fighting for an end to violence against women. But now more than ever we also need to start fighting in earnest for a redefining of, and an urgent end to, parental and societal violence against children.
How we raise children – individually and collectively – is a social justice issue. As adults we have more power than children. How we choose to use that power matters. By using our power in the home or in schools to control children, to coerce them, to bend them to our will, to make them obey, we teach them one simple truth: those with more power may legitimately use their power to control and coerce those with less power.
It is this simple truth, taught to children when they are so very young, which seamlessly paves the way for every kind of future injustice. Racism is those with more power (white people) using their power against those with less power; the woman in the supermarket making a racist comment learnt that truth early in her childhood. Violence against women is those with more power (men) using their power against those with less power; the man who batters his girlfriend learnt this truth at his mother’s knee.
How we raise children should be of concern to all feminists, and to anyone who cares about social justice and who wishes for a more peaceful, equal society. Because one thing is certain: we will never have a peaceful or just society until children are raised peacefully and fairly.
To quote Gandhi: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Just go to any playground or school and take a look around you. By Ghandi’s measure, our society is not measuring up very well at all.
Children learn from what the adults around them do, not what they say. Shouting at a child to stop shouting is, unsurprisingly, a poor way to teach them to indeed speak in a gentle tone of voice.
Telling a young man that consent in the bedroom is vital is all well and good. But if as a boy he was picked up by his parents without his consent, had his face wiped without being asked first, was strapped into a highchair when he screamed to get out, was sent to school when he begged not to go, what has been the consistent message that he’s been given on consent for his whole life?
Just as men do not own their female partners, parents do not own the children they share their lives with. Whilst they may make decisions in those children’s best interests, children are individual humans with their own right to autonomy, freedom, and self-expression.
If, as Marie Shear famously said, “feminism is the radical notion that women are people”, then peaceful parenting is the radical notion that children are people, and that as such they should be treated with the same kindness, courtesy, respect and empathy as we would treat an adult whose opinion we valued.
Modern feminism is now thankfully growing in awareness when it comes to intersectionality – the recognition that different groups experience oppression in different and sometimes layered ways, including class, age, gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, financial status – and the ways in which individuals can at once be both oppressed and oppressor. But an intersectional feminism that does not also pay attention to children’s treatment by both female and male parents and carers is not much of an intersectional feminism at all. It is a feminism that cannot ever truly achieve its aims.
Although motherhood and certain versions of neoliberal feminism sometimes feel as though they coexist in an uneasy truce, feminism needs to embrace mothers with open arms. Imagine if there was a mass shift to peaceful, feminist parenting, where children were weaned on consent, respect, self-belief, courage, and kindness? What could society be like? Who would lose out, and who would stand to gain?
Feminists – whether they are parents or not – need to start having difficult conversations about parenting, education and the way children are raised alongside the conversations we are having about the pay gap, violence against women and girls, and sexual harassment. Because unless we urgently rethink how we treat children, nothing but nothing will ever truly change for the better.
Whether we have children ourselves or not, we should all have a deep interest in how future generations are being raised. But it’s not all doom and gloom. I cannot think of anything with a more radical potential to change society for the better than an immediate shake-up of how children are seen, heart, treated, cared for, and educated.
Because just as traditional parenting, with its naughty steps, reward charts, and smacked bottoms teaches children that power inequality and control in the norm, so too can peaceful parenting teach children the values of fairness, kindness, empathy, freedom and curiosity.
Parenting that shuns mainstream methods of control and coercion in favour of authentic connection and compassion allows children to thrive and grow into their unique selves, safe in the knowledge that they are loved unconditionally and free to act with autonomy and control over their own bodies.
Not only does peaceful parenting allow individual children to truly thrive but it lays the only solid foundation possible for a peaceful society based on the values of mutual acceptance and radical kindness.
This is why, vital as it is, it is not enough just to demand an end to physical violence against children anymore. We all need to start talking about parenting in a way that actively embraces and supports peace. I believe that we can do it. The tide is shifting. The number of peaceful parenting books, blogs, parents, and teachers out there is growing by the day. Slowly these ideas are gaining traction.
I’ve witnessed first-hand hundreds of parents who are willing to put their money, time, and emotional energy where their mouth is and invest in peaceful parenting courses and coaching to support them on this journey. I’ve worked with parents who are swimming against the current of generations of coercive and violent parenting to give their children – and our society – the gift of a more peaceful childhood.
There is a lot of work to be done. But there is also hope.
Peaceful parents, teachers, and citizens may still be in the minority, but we are vocal and we are courageous and our numbers are growing.