The Divine Within
There are many ways to twist a child’s soul. We can neglect children, hit them, make fun of them, demand perfection from them, expect them to take care of us, deny their pain, discount their emotions, hold them responsible for our feelings, bear grudges against them, insist on obedience rather than kindness, and treat them as possessions instead of seeing them as real, human, divine.
A Hindu fable tells of a time when every person was a god. People abused their divinity, however, so Brahma decided he would have to hide their god-ness someplace it could never be found. Yet where could he put this divinity so humans wouldn’t find it?
When the council of gods met to figure this out, they came up with all kinds of suggestions: hide God in the deepest ocean, bury God in the earth, stash God on top of the tallest mountain. But no matter what place they came up with, Brahma knew it wouldn’t be good enough. One day, humans would get to that place and find their divinity.
Finally, Brahma said, “I know, let us hide God in their hearts. They will never find it there.”
And so it was. Brahma put a piece of God within each of us. Now we need to learn to see it. 
If that is true, then every child is holy. What would the world be like if we treated them that way?
Lord of the Flies
It’s not likely we will ever find out, for in most societies in the world, children are hurt physically and emotionally. If we think of children as inherently sinful, we will expect them to listen and obey. Parents will feel compelled to beat the bad out of them. “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” In some cultures, physical punishment is equated with love.
Usually, that kind of parenting goes along with a black-and-white understanding of right and wrong. There is good and there is evil, and parents know the difference. When children misbehave, they deserve to be punished. If we let children do whatever they wanted, we’d end up with Lord of the Flies.
In William Golding’s novel, a group of British school boys is marooned on an island during the war. Most of the children were selfish to begin with. As their anxiety grew, they became violent. Turning into a mob, a majority of the boys killed a few of the others.
Sometimes people use this book to explain why children cannot be left on their own, for we are a bloodthirsty race of beings. We need order and discipline.
The opposite of punishment is not neglect, however. We learn the values of compassion and cooperation not because parents beat them into us, but because they model them and encourage our empathy. Golding’s book says more about who those children were when they landed on the island than about human beings in general.
A Tongan Shipwreck
In 1965, six Tongan boys shipwrecked on a remote island.  Completely alone, they managed to survive for nearly a year and a half by banding together and working as a team. Interestingly, at that time, Tongan children were hit, slapped, punched, and whipped regularly, often daily. Not only was this a way their parents relieved anger, but it was supposed to teach them to be obedient and let them know they were loved. 
In her attempt to understanding the part these punishments play in Tongan culture, Helen Kavapalu observed a Tongan village. She discovered that brutal punishment caused “physical and psychic damage to its victims.”  Yet it also helped sustain the Tongan’s hierarchical culture, their emphasis on strength and emotional restraint, and the deference children showed their elders.
Perhaps this emphasis on obedience taught these youngsters to cooperate. However, the boys ended up on the island because they’d stolen a boat and run away. Clearly, they were not the most obedient children in their village.
When Violence Is the Answer
As the Tongan people become Westernized, their views on corporal punishment change. They approve of it less and less. At the same time, they complain that their children are taking liberties, doing whatever they want to do. Their culture is changing; their children no longer respect the elders.
Is this a problem? Cultural relativity would accept corporal punishment among the Tongan as part of the their values, their society. If love is equated with aggression and husbands routinely beat their wives, if those who suffer severe punishment as children lash out with rage of their own, if bystanders laugh and make fun of the one being hit, is that all right? Is this a case of “who are we to judge”? Is it okay to say that some values are more right than others, and that some societies have it wrong?
That’s a difficult question to answer, but we can at least ask what we want our own society to be like. Of course, a country like the United States is filled with sub-cultures whose values are very different from oe another. Who gets to decide what is right?
It is not unusual, however, for us to consider violence to be a solution. As a chaplain, I have met with many patients and clients who have endured physical and emotional punishment, abuse, and torment. Some of them claimed it was good for them, that it taught them how to behave. Like the Tongan children, they equate their beatings with love.
Twisting A Child’s Spirit
Yet these people’s lives were not going well. To cope, they resorted to substance abuse and other addictions. They reacted to triggers with aggression of their own, or they entered into relationships with people who would recreate the violence of their childhoods. Though some were wealthy and some had friends and family, most of those who grew up with controlling parents and corporal punishment were poor, sick, lonely, bitter, and barely holding things together. This might be true in a society like the Tongan’s where everyone is raised the same way.
In the United States, however, abusive parenting styles have negative consequences. Children raised in these environments might view them as normal. When they grow up, they might not be able to admit that their parents had done something wrong in raising them. But those who look at their lives from the outside can probably tell that they were wounded.
Were the beatings alone to blame for this? Surely not. Every wounded adult, and all of us are wounded to one degree or another, has endured multiple wounds of many kinds. But when we hit children in the name of goodness and love, we teach them that violence is an answer, that failure is unacceptable, that punishment is preferable to accountability. When punishment is the solution to misdeed, we have no opportunity to set things right. We might pay, but we do not receive the opportunity to restore justice or mend relationships. In the name of instilling values in our children, we twist their spirits and harm their souls.
The Narrow Path
This angry and abusive style of parenting has been labeled “authoritarian.” Neglectful and permissive parents also cause harm by denying love and care, by confusing children about the rules, by abandoning them. Yet one type of parenting stands out as the most effective way to teach children to manage their behavior with grace and to respect others as well as themselves. That is authoritative parenting. It is also the hardest to sustain.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt 7:13-14).
This is true in many areas of our lives. It’s not just a literal statement about destruction and life. It is also a metaphor. Are we trying to get clean and sober? That is choosing life, and it is hard. Are we trying to discern our true path, face our inner fears, be honest in all dealings? This is choosing life, and it is hard.
Being a good father is also hard. There is a narrow road one must take to guide children toward life, joy, wisdom, integrity, vitality. Good fathers, whether biological or not, make it easy for their offspring to find their way, to do the work they are meant to do in the world, to be the people they are meant to be.
All About Control
Unfortunately, destruction is easy. When fathers hold themselves aloof so they can maintain their dignity and moral authority, or assert their masculinity by controlling their wives and children, relationships fray and dysfunction becomes rampant. Fathers may claim they are teaching obedience and inner control, and to some degree children to learn these values when fathers use power over them, but that’s probably not what drives a father to be strict. Strict fathers care about control. They care about looking good, about their own comfort, about their needs and whims and grudges.
Authoritarian parents don’t indulge their children; they indulge themselves.
Coercion and control rarely work, however. If we threaten our children enough, we can make them do what we say. At least, for the moment. In the end, however, we will lose them. Even if they continue to live with us, the relationship will be false, empty, distant.
Although in some cultures, even today, children are thought to be property, in the United States, most of believe they are individuals who deserve to be able to pursue their own desires, goals, dreams, and needs.
On a spiritual level, everything is one. There is no separation. God is within us all. Some would say, we are God. If we could see our children that way, if we treated them as little gods, what would be different?
Passing It On
I’m not talking here about worshiping our children or catering to them. Authoritarian parenting is about ownership, and it destroys the soul. But the soul withers, as well, when we refuse to set boundaries. Perhaps we fear we will alienate our children. Maybe we long to be their friend. Sometimes we ignore them completely. All of this destroys souls.
If we cherish our children and treat them with respect, if we model respectability and generosity, that is what our children will learn. If we punish them harshly and abandon them, they will learn to do this to themselves or others.
In my work as a chaplain, I see this over and over again.
There was the woman whose daughter was dying of alcoholism. The mother grew up in an abusive home, with an alcoholic father who neglected her and a controlling mother who abused her. Trying to escape from the misery of that household, she married young. She chose a man who beat her, ridiculed her, blamed her for everything that went wrong. Their children grew up in the shadow of this abuse. Is it any wonder the daughter died from drinking?
For generations back in this woman’s family, children had been hounded and demeaned, their souls shattered. They grew up to be either victims or perpetrators, sometimes both. It is a common cycle, this abuse passed down through the generations.
Needing to Be Perfect
In other families, perhaps those that look more respectable, children are taught to be perfect as God is perfect.
Recently, I met with a man who felt distraught because his illness kept him from working, from taking care of others. He’d been taught that he was to do as Jesus did, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and heal the sick. It never occurred to him that one day he might be hungry or naked or sick. He never imagined he would be in need, and he didn’t like it. He felt vulnerable and unworthy.
As child, he learned that to be loved, he had to be good. He was taught to think of others before himself. His father instilled Christian values, and for this, the man was grateful. Unfortunately, his education was heavy on obedience and duty, but light on love and grace. He had a hard time being taken care of.
Learning to Love
There are worse things. Overall, the man’s life was simple, meaningful, comfortable. His family was kind and generous, and so was he. Yet a harshness lay beneath that kindness. Instead of a grace that invited love, the man experienced a firmness that expected perfection. He felt he could never do enough. This man’s internal withering may have been less painful than the alcoholic daughter’s or the bereaved mother’s. Maybe. But how do you measure pain or compare misery? Some wounds are more obvious than others. Does that mean they hurt less?
Often we don’t see the depth of a person’s pain until a crisis occurs. The mother who could not find a way to leave her husband grieves a lifetime of suffering as she sits and watches her daughter die. When the authoritarian husband and father gets sick, his family abandon him as he did them. He will die alone.
Had the parents of this mother and this father, of this alcoholic and this dutiful son, taught them to love themselves and others, to forgive, to care, to accept their own weakness, to repent, to offer grace, these children would have grown up able to embrace the fullness of who they are. They would have grown up knowing their holiness. The god within would have shone. This cycle would have been passed instead of the cycle of ugliness and pain.
The Golden Rule
The golden rule teaches us to treat others as we would be treated. This is not an unusual value for fathers to want to pass onto their children. Of course, some fathers don’t hold that value at all. They want their sons to treat women as possession, for their children to be tough, belligerent, successful by the standards of a society that loves money and power and bling. If this is what one wants, then neglectful and authoritarian parenting is the way to go.
No matter what a father does, he passes his values on to his children. He can’t help it. We are who we are, and if we have not healed at least some of our own wounds, we will wound our children in a similar way.
So what will we choose? Will we give our children life or give them death?
But a father is not the only one who teaches his children values. A mother does, a grandparent, a guardian, a teacher, a coach. Social media and television inform their values, as well.
Nor can anyone raise a child alone. We need extended family, partners, community centers, caring and enriching schools and childcare centers. The lack of institutional support for parents in the United States increases stress, making it hard to be the father one might wish to be. Especially as our society becomes more fragmented, all those who raise children need help from neighbors and governments. If we, as a society, want our citizens to care about the common good, to work and love and laugh and tend gardens, then we need to support fathers as they parent. Especially if they didn’t receive guidance, support, and compassion as children, fathers need that as adults.
If we can help fathers to feel whole and worthy, if we can nurture them so they nurture their children, if we can guide them rather coerce them, that will make a big difference. By supporting families of all kinds, by making sure they have enough food, shelter, and love, we will help fathers raised children who are blessed. Then, our children will thrive.
If individual fathers, and our entire country of fathers, and every other adult, chose life, what a world this could be.
In faith and fondness,
- Anonymous, “According To An Old Hindu Legend,” naute.com/stories/hideout.phtml, accessed 6/19/21 and “Where to Hide God?,” The Sower’s Seeds, Brian Cavanaugh, ed., New York: Paulist Press, 1990, 49.
- “Tongan Castaways,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_castaways, accessed 6/19/21.
- Kavapalu, Helen, “Dealing with the Dark Side in the Ethnography of Children: Child Punishment in Tonga,” Oceania, June 1993, Vol 63, No 4, pp. 313-329.
- Ibid 325.
Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved