The Goldbergs is one of my favourite shows. I always love watching an episode to lift me up in that light-hearted way where you know there’s a schmaltzy, feel good ending with a valuable lesson about what it means to be a family and love each other no matter what’s said or done throughout. I admit that I’ve often cringe-smiled at the part where inevitably Murray, the father, will refer exasperatedly to his boys as ‘the morons’, while looking theatrically pained at something they’ve done or not done to affect his peace of mind and time in front of the television. All in all it’s a show that delivers what it promises; a satirical representation of how the previous generation did things.

Today most things have changed since the 80’s and as research has emerged, we generally like to think we do things better than our parents’ generation did. For one thing we wear seat belts without even thinking about it and our children’s car seats aren’t those death traps from back in the day where a legitimate form of shock-absorption used to pad out the plastic shell of a seat, was a nice bit of sponge (I remember this because my sister once ate through it as a toddler, don’t ask). A lot has changed to help parents keep children safer – at least physically.

But what about feeling safe or even relevant, mentally and emotionally? Here is where we as a society (at least some of us) seem to have gotten worse rather than better. For some reason, what I’ve been hearing a lot from the mouths of parents is verbal abuse of their child by means of swearing about them whilst making casual conversation or commiserating with other parents. E.g.: ‘Sorry I’m late, my 3 year old was such an asshole this morning, he just wouldn’t get dressed!’ or ‘Ughhh, I’m so tired, my kid was up in the middle of the night, she’s acting like such a d*ck at the moment!’

And then there’s social media. Oh the parental vitriol that’s trending on there. I recently read something and made what felt like the colossal mistake of replying to the poster in a closed group on Facebook. The particular poster was a mum who wrote an abusive one line rant about how her child was extroverted and a non-stop talker. According to her, the child wouldn’t ‘shut the f’ up’ and this was ‘ruining’ her summer. Earlier that week another poster had called their child some filthy names. The child in question was three years old. When I read the comments section an overwhelming majority of replies were what I can only interpret as a show of solidarity whereby, people had in turn referred to their own offspring in the most heartbreaking ways. All this, in a group that was supposed to be a child friendly, positive, supportive and a safe space. In fact the fundamental aim of the group is to share stories and focus on the strengths of the child and what’s most outrageous is that the founder and administrator is a prominent author on child development who expounds the virtues of respectful parenting in her book (which her online group is named after).

My mind told me to ignore and unfollow the post. My heart told me to say something to show compassion for the child and so I did. I wrote to the poster offering up that there was another perspective in this situation – that of her child. I suggested that her child would be deeply hurt knowing that his/her authentic self and presence was enough to ruin their mother’s summer. Two other posters agreed and one included a link to an article about how the way we talk about our children changes our own mindset towards them, even if we use abusive language jokingly but do it enough times. This means, if we call our children assholes, we actually start seeing them negatively.

The poster and (too many) other like-minded members immediately became disrespectful and abusive to me and the two others who’d chimed in about the importance of using respectful language about children. I was shocked but not surprised. As the thread quickly deteriorated the most memorable things I remember being called included, ‘sanctamommy’ and ‘that new mum without a sense of humour’. I apologized and started again. I clarified that I utterly felt for and appreciated the parents feeling worn out but could not see the funny side of using derogatory and disrespectful words to describe kids. It did not sit well with these particular people, that I felt abusive language towards their own children was something that was avoidable.

A few of the members even trawled my profile so they could come back with tailored quips around how I knew nothing about motherhood because my child couldn’t answer back yet because he wasn’t out of diapers. They told me that whether I like it or not, ‘three year olds are total d*cks’. A few also told me that my comment showed no compassion or empathy for the poster and that her mental health was as important as that of her child. Again, I tried reassuring them that of course I felt for her. Only, I also felt for her child. That was the wrong answer. Another member told me that the poster was looking for a safe space to vent and not to hear about her child’s apparent perspective.

I ended up leaving the group realizing that despite its upfront mandate, championing the strengths of the child wasn’t what these people were necessarily there to do. I also wrote to the author who founded the group about how unsafe the group felt but I never got a reply. I was intimidated and heartbroken for the children – I cannot imagine how being spoken to/ about so disrespectfully, day in and day out by the adults who are supposed nurture and protect them must feel and unfold in the depths of their psyches. Sadly it’ll probably cause them to do exactly the same to their own children because cycles have a habit of repeating.

I’m left with a sense of profound sadness and some lingering questions:

Since when is it sanctimonious for someone to suggest that the authentic version of a child is a beautiful and amazing thing?

Since when is it sanctimonious to politely suggest that mum and dad refrain from swearing like sailors when talking to or about their own child?

How and why is it a given that advocating for respect towards children is something that automatically insults parents?

If we as parents cannot even enjoy our children’s childhood, it is us who need to change something and not our child.

If all this comes across as something that comes only from the mouths of ‘sanctimommies’, then something’s clearly very wrong. There’s a serious flaw in thinking where on one hand, it’s harsh/ judgmental to call out parents who berate their children. Yet, it’s wholly acceptable for parents to treat children as if they are the biggest unwanted nuisances who warrant such harsh judgement for behaving like kids.

I’ve noticed that foul language often flows freely when:

  1. i) The offending child expresses an untimely (and hence inconvenient) need and;
  2. ii) When a child is perceived to be ‘acting out’ (i.e. being a normal child with their own unique personality).

In terms of the former, let’s take a moment to imagine how it would feel if you and your spouse were due to go to a friend’s house for dinner and you needed to go to the bathroom before you left home. As a result of what is often a knock-on effect, you both arrive later than expected to your friend’s house. At some point during the evening, you overhear your spouse referring to you as a total asshole, one that just had to go to the bathroom. Eye rolling follows an irritated apology that your spouse utters. Your spouse acts outraged that everyone had to deal with and be impacted by the bullshit of your basic human needs. When you’re both finally back at home, you’re still feeling sore about the humiliation you suffered at the hands of someone who’s supposed to love and respect you. You then see their post on Facebook and Twitter that you’re just a self-centered little sh*t who threw off the entire evening with your ridiculous antics. There’s an angry faced emoticon because they also felt the need to illustrate that your behaviour is exhausting and always drives everyone nuts.

Would you feel respected and loved? How would you react to or even describe such an exchange? – I would describe it as toxic and emotionally abusive and say that anyone in that situation needs to leave it at an accelerated pace. But imagine that you couldn’t leave because the person severely name-calling you was your whole world and you had to depend on them for everything from sustenance and shelter to love, security, self-esteem and connection. Wouldn’t that be terrible and twisted? And yet for some reason as a society we’re okay to put our children in that kind of environment every day. One that leads to psychological suffering and mental illness.

As adults, we have a lot of choice and we routinely exercise the power to make choices. We choose to bring our children into the world. We choose to be the ones to raise them. Apparently, some of us then choose to name-call our child and berate them at their slightest expression of autonomy if it’s out of sync with how our life would look if we were childless (incidentally a choice that wasn’t made).

The lack of respect and tolerance towards our children is disgusting. There may be people reading this who do use degrading language and believe they’re just letting off steam or that they don’t really mean anything by it and it’s no big deal.

But words are so powerful.

Words can be used to build someone up or as a weapon to dehumanize and belittle and ultimately to tear someone down. Many parents who talk so negatively about their child will say they do so behind their backs so the child is oblivious to the names he or she is called. But that doesn’t matter because your children will become what they behold and if you see them as assholes behind their backs, chances are that’s how you see them when they’re in front of you. And because you do, they see it too.

Despite the comparably mild but still disparaging language used by the dad in The Goldbergs, the overall sense that one gets from watching the show is one of reassurance – family is annoying and yet at the same time, awesome. There is a certain connectedness between the family of characters on the show that real families where verbal abuse and negative language are commonplace, lack in spades. In reality, we don’t aggressively swear at or about the people we feel connected to.

In real life the parent who is okay calling their child names (the reason doesn’t matter because there really is no justification strong enough), does so not with comical bemusement but with an anger and bitterness that seems to always lurk beneath the surface, just waiting to come out. There’s no warmth and where there’s no warmth, there’s no connection. There are just children trying to be children and do their best to grow into the bigger versions of who they are today. And bigger does not have to mean broken unless parents are unable and unwilling to accept and honour these little humans who reside with them. And my wish for these little humans is not sanctimonious, it’s simple: that their parents treat them as children and not as assholes.

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