"I feel like a thing non-queer ppl seem to often not get is the importance of protecting children from their parents" -- mcclure111 on TwitterI was glad to read this tweet by mcclure111 because it's a truth that's deeply known by many of us who are queer, or abuse survivors, or both. It's a truth that's as rarely stated as it is deeply known.
But the tweet provoked as much discomfort in others as relief in me. This reply is a representative example of the things people say to survivors speaking uncomfortable truths:
"(kids definitely need protecting from parental harm, but many parents I know, including my own, are Really Good)"
"Many parents are good" is a statement devoid of denotation. When somebody utters a sequence of words that say nothing, I have to ask what they are trying to do by saying those words. Are they trying to take control of the conversation? Are they putting the speaker in their place? Are they expressing discomfort at having their belief in a just world disrupted? Whatever the motivation, direct verbal communication isn't it.
"Many parents... are Really Good" may seem shallow and obvious, but when I ask what those words do rather than what they mean, there's a lot to unpack. Ultimately, "many parents are good" has little to do with the character of the unnamed individuals being defended and much to do with defending the practice of authoritarian parenting.
Competing NarrativesAn assertion like "many parents are good" does a lot of work:
- It posits good parents as the rule and bad parents as the exception.
- It reinforces "good parents" as the product we can naturally expect from the social institution of The Family, and constructs bad parents as deviant individuals.
- It tells us we are safe expecting to find that parents are good, because good parents are the pattern, are assured to come out of gendered social power structures; it tells us we won't often find bad parents and that when we do, they are anomalous individuals, outliers, defiers of any pattern.
It's not a defense of parents, even, but of the abstract notion of the family. The family does not produce deviants; the family does not produce abusers; family is inherently good and can only produce good people. To be bad is to deviate from social structures. What's more, when parents do behave well, their virtue is counted towards the success of The Family as an institution, whereas bad parents are taken as lone actors.
When you respond to a criticism of a corrupt social structure by defending individuals, it's a non sequitur that reveals your commitment to defending that social structure. "Not all parents!" deliberately mischaracterizes criticism of the corrupt institution of the family with criticism of individual parents. It's disingenuous.
("The family" may have its potential as a concept, but in my culture it's inextricable from authoritarian parenting, and that is what I address when I talk about "the family.")
You also look like you're asking for reassurance, if not about yourself, then about your parents, or about people you know. Rather than placing this emotional labor upon survivors who talk about their experiences, consider examining your own past or present in the company of peers or a trained therapist.
Defending Parents is Defending AuthoritarianismEven if you accept that "many parents are good" is not a defense of individuals' virtue but rather of a system, you might disagree with me that that system is corrupt. Aren't most parents benevolent stewards of the massive amounts of trust we collectively place in them to nurture children?
Where I live, in the United States, children are property. All of the following things are true about people who are not yet legally adults (aka "children", though the legal age of majority varies state-by-state) in some parts of the US, and in some cases, in all of the US.
- Parents can deny their children medical care if they say it's for religious reasons.
- (CW: violence, murder) Parents of disabled or chronically ill children are often able to deny their children medical care at their discretion, at least if those parents are white and otherwise socially privileged enough to receive sympathy. Parents who kill their autistic children, children with cerebral palsy often evade criminal justice because their right to live without the supposed burden of a disabled child is viewed as more important than the child's right to life. The sympathy many of these parents receive, even in the cases where they receive jail time, doubtless contributes to the continued phenomenon of violence against disabled children by parents.
- If a child becomes pregnant, their parents can force that child to give birth.
- If a child has a job, their parents have the right to take all of their money.
- Parents can stop their children from leaving their home and going to live with somebody else.
- Parents can stop their children from seeing their friends or family members other than their parents.
- Parents can physically assault their children as long as they don't inflict severe injuries.
- Parents can force their children to attend religious services or prevent their children from attending the religious services of their choice.
Checks and balances on parental power are few. It's difficult for parents to be forced to surrender parental rights except in cases of extreme, verifiable abuse (and even then, it's not always easy). At the same time, parents who are poor and/or Black are far more likely to lose their parental rights than white and upper/middle-class parents, suggesting that the child protection system in the US prioritizes sustaining race and class hierarchy over protecting children. We live under a judicial and legislative regime that favors parents' rights to continue to use their children as they like ahead of childrens' rights to bodily and psychological autonomy. It also amplifies the effects of race and class privilege for parents who hold those privileges, which means children lose no matter what: if they're born into white and affluent families, they have little protection from their parents; if they're born into Black and/or poor families, what protection from their parents they are afforded means placement in a foster care system that is also frequently harmful to them.
The meaning of "there are some good parents" cannot be separated, then, from the context of the unchecked power that parents, especially privileged parents, have over their children. "There are some good parents", then, translates to "There exist people who deserve such a level of control over another human being." It means that some people can be unconditionally trusted not to abuse the power they're granted over their children. If you believe that, then I find you frightening and untrustworthy.
There are no good parents any more than there are any good police officers. The issue isn't individuals' character but whether it's possible for an individual to be a trustworthy steward of unchecked power over other people's lives and deaths. It's not. There is no person who never needs to be held accountable for their actions.
If you are a good parent, you are still a parent who can choose to become a bad parent any time you want to, with no consequences to yourself. I refuse to accept that most parents are good because I refuse to concede that anybody can be trusted with the level of power that modern liberal democracies grant parents over children.
So the subtext behind "many parents are good" is not just "authoritarian parenting is a-ok, don't question it" but also "to the extent that parents have power, it's because they've done something to earn or deserve it." I don't accept that. If you defend the institution of authoritarian parenting as it is, you oppose bodily autonomy for people below a certain age (by the way, if you're inclined to defend children's lack of autonomy on the basis of dubious popular-science narratives about brain development, miss me unless you're arguing to raise the legal mininum age for drinking, voting, driving, and marriage to 25.)
Convenient Shame, Inconvenient TruthsWhat harm do you do by defending the institution of the family? You make it more difficult for children who are currently enduring abuse to come forward and to be believed, since you shift the benefit of the doubt so that more powerful people (parents) get more of it while children get disbelieved. You also harm adult survivors by causing us to relive the experience of being young and powerless.
As a survivor, when somebody says something like:
"many parents I know, including my own, are Really Good"
I feel that I am being scolded for sharing my lived experience because it makes people who aren't abuse survivors uncomfortable. I feel shame at daring to intrude upon the comfort of the more fortunate with the truth of my experience. I feel the same unwillingness to listen, to recognize me as a person with subjective feelings and preferences, that I felt as a child living with a parent who abused me.
When you say "but not all parents," we hear "your experience makes me uncomfortable, so let's talk about mine for a while."
It's fine for you to talk about how good your parents are -- on your own time, in your own spaces, in your own conversations. But if you feel the need to interrupt survivors having conversations with each other, or to reply to a survivor talking about some uncomfortable truths, by trying to re-center the conversation on your good experiences, with "but my parents were ok", ask yourself why you feel that way. If you preface your remarks with, "I know this is very 'not all parents,' but," that actually makes you look worse and not better, because you're saying that you know better than to say what you're about to say but are deliberately forcing your way into a conversation regardless.
Some ExcusesThe idea that "many parents are good" is so widely accepted that it rarely requires justification. Nevertheless, the existence of abusive parents must be acknowledged, as much as many people try to minimize abuse or frame it as an anomaly. To explain abuse, some people intimate that abuse by parents is never really all that bad because it's redeemed by the unconditional love all parents are said to have for their children. Another excuse is that no matter how badly parents treat their children, it's for their own good, and hence justifiable.
Unconditional Love, Conditional Respect
It's hard to use either the unconditional-love defense or the for-your-own-good defense to defend parents who, for example, sexually assault their children or abandon them completely. Nevertheless, to see the iron hand of power underneath the velvet glove of sentimentality, we have to look at what that glove is knit from. Some of the threads are tropes like "unconditional love" and "for your own good",
You hear a lot about the unconditional love that parents have for their children. It may well be true that all parents love their children and love them unconditionally. But the reason that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ isn't that they have parents who don't love their queer and trans kids. Those parents may well love their kids. Or, at least, love the imaginary people who they thought their kids were. These parents, however, don't respect their kids. Queer youth who experience abuse, up to the point of abandonment, by our parents, know that there is no such thing as unconditional respect -- not from parents to children, not from anybody to anybody else.
Love is a feeling. Feelings don't keep children (or adults) fed, clothed, or warm at night. Others' feelings don't keep children physically safe or psychologically whole: actions do. I'm referring to all children, but especially to lesbian, gay, bi, gender-variant, gender-non-normative, transsexual, or transgender youth who experience abandonment or grievous harm (or both) by their parents. Love dictates no particular course of action. People who love their children also abuse their children; people who abuse their children also love their children. It's a cliche to tell people enduring abuse, "If that person loved you, they wouldn't abuse you!" It's also a lie. Love is more complicated than that. Love isn't necessarily healthy or nurturing, nor does it automatically come in a form that promotes the love object's ability to survive and thrive. Love doesn't grant insight; it doesn't confer the magical ability to see a person for who they really are.
Do homophobic parents love their kids but not know what's best for them? Are they not competent at loving as a verb even if they feel as much love-as-a-noun as anybody else? Do they not love their kids at all, but rather, the imaginary idealized heterosexual children they wish they'd brought into the world? I think ultimately, debating these questions is a way to try to argue homeless queer youth out of existence. The abstract notion of love is not an epistemic weapon to neutralize statements of lived experience of those of us who were raised by abusive narcissists.
In general, that parents get to pick and choose which children are good or deserving of love -- with queer, trans and disabled children being frequent targets for neglect and abuse up to the point of homicide -- shows how the institution of the family is carefully crafted around the management of stigma and the maintenance of power, in ways that primarily benefit parents who are privileged along various axes.
For Your Own Good?The other excuse is the "for your own good" defense: "Parents just want what's best for their kids."
This claim may or may not be true. It's hard to know, since claims about intentions are unfalsifiable. But even if we accepted that parents want to do what's best, we're not obliged to accept that their wants endow them with special skills at knowing what actually is best for their children (much less doing it.) This is especially true in situations where parents who wanted an idealized, abled, cis, het child get confronted with a real child who's disabled, trans, and/or queer.
"For your own good" is really a variant on the "unconditional love" defense: it abuses the concept of unconditional love or unconditional good will to obtain unconditional power.
Parents can use their power over children to dominate their children or to guide their children (most likely, most do some of both.) Domination gratifies the parent rather than benefiting the child, while guidance benefits the child. (For more on the culture of parenting practices that serve parents' emotional needs and desires at the expense of children, see For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller.) The institution of the family is structured to empower parents to dominate their children in the name of guidance (also known as "discipline".) Power corrupts.
No parent is trustworthy enough that we can simply conclude without evidence that they are using their power only to guide and teach and never to fulfill their own emotional needs.
The Impossibility of Good ParentingPerhaps you see that more parental behavior is indefensible than you'd previously thought. But you might still think this behavior is rare. That bad parents are anomalies while good parents are the norm.
When bad parenting is the norm, how can parents be good even if they want to? When there's an entire subculture -- the childfree community -- whose common bond is the desire for children to be more frequently beaten in public for acting like children, how can you stand up to normalized bullying and say that no, you will not hit your child? When divorce courts take custody rights away from parents who want to let their trans children transition, and award custody to parents who force their children to undergo life-destroying conversion therapy to attempt to force them to be cis, are you ready to lose your child for attempting to do what's right by them? When there is no chance that your parental rights will be stripped away from you unless you do extreme, lasting, and observable harm to your child, where's your incentive to do the hard work of showing love rather than just feeling it? To say that "most parents are good" is an insult to parents who do resist the norm of authoritarian, violent child-rearing practices.
Non-abusive parents, we hear, are not necessarily perfect, but "good enough." But when I hear "most parents are good," I hear a usage of "good" that evokes a higher level of virtue than merely "good enough." Perhaps we should deprecate the "good enough" language altogether, as it suggests that as long as you are good enough, you as a parent don't need to check your own privilege constantly and always keep trying harder to make sure you aren't abusing your power.
We often hear that it's impolite to criticize other people's parenting, that we can't possibly understand the struggles of another parent and that certainly, if we are not ourselves parents, we have no authority with which to speak about how children have a right to be treated. But it's important to hear these etiquette tropes for what they are: messaging that says that parents' egos must be protected and are more worthy of such protection than children's inner selves.
It's not possible for good parents to be the norm, because non-authoritarian parenting is nearly impossible to imagine without radical change to how we think about the family and how we allocate civil rights between adults and children.
Yes, All ParentsYes, all parents deserve scrutiny. No parent is good enough to merit trust in their responsible use of their power over their children (what does responsible domination of another person looks like.) When someone asserts that they, as a parent, are that good, run.
No, there are no parents who deserve the power they currently have over their children; who don't need to be watched by people outside their nuclear families. No one is that trustworthy. No one can be trusted to isolate their children that much, to create a cult of two or three or four.
To you, adult survivors' distrust of parents may seem like a joke or childish or alarming. For us, that distrust is what has kept us safe and continues to keep us safe from people who would assert themselves as authorities over us even now. When you try to talk us out of that distrust, you're trying to make us less safe.
So "not all parents" tells us that you don't want us to be safe, because it's more important to you to feel good about yourself than for us to be safe or to be seen and heard. Good parents listen and believe: to their children and to other people who are vulnerable, because they don't fear vulnerability. They love who they were when they were vulnerable and thus are able to not just love their children, but translate that love into action. By saying "most parents are good" to people who have no reason to believe, based on firsthand experience, that this could be true, you prove that you are not a good parent. You already know you're talking to someone with no firsthand experience of being parented well if you have to say this. So what are you accomplishing by insisting that they view your experience as normative while disregarding their own?
Children are more likely to be harmed by their parents than by anybody else. This isn't because of the existence of a few "monstrous" parents whose origins are shrouded in mystery. It's because we've built the institution of the family so that it routinely engenders and rewards monstrous behavior. Parenting as we know it is a threat to children; that some parents respect their children's boundaries and that some children survive childhood relatively unscathed is in spite of the institution of the family, not because of it.
When I say "yes, all parents," you may feel attacked, or you may feel like people you regard highly are being attacked. But if so, I encourage you to think more structurally and distinguish attacks on individuals from critique of, challenges of, and resistance to social structures of domination.
Thanks to the people who read a draft of this post and contributed feedback that helped me make it better, particularly alt_kia.
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