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  • Lori K Walters

How being punished as kids follows us into our parenting



When I was growing up, there was, in our house, a clear delineation between acceptable and shameful behaviour. Between being a good person or bad. If I didn’t follow the rules and meet expectations, I was given extra chores, humiliated, scolded, criticized, spanked and/or shunned. It was supposed to make me stay on the right path. But punishment didn’t make me more obedient; it just made me sneakier. I devised plans and did things behind my mom’s back, all the while feeling the awful stress of trying not to get caught. And I learned to lie, enlisting alibis and inventing alternative versions of the story. And that made me feel like even more of a ‘bad’ person. I know firsthand how the impacts of being punished follow us into adulthood; I still catch myself sometimes wanting to conceal my bad choices. As a teenager, I rebelled and broke the rules. Sometimes I even acted against my own instincts, just to undermine my mom’s control and righteousness. That’s another result: years of rebuilding my ability to hear and trust my own instincts. Being raised on shame and punishment destabilized my trust in my mom. Her expectations were unrealistic and her treatments unkind and all I could do was close my heart to her. I lost interest in pleasing her (except when sucking up would get me off the hook). I developed a sort of pride in being difficult to manage, though it actually just caused me more pain. Looking back now, I think that the threat of punishment deprived little me of learning how to set my own limits. As a young woman, my reasons for behaving a certain way came from outside — friends, partners, bosses, social norms — instead of from within. And even now, reconnecting with my inner compass can be elusive and I sometimes abandon my intuition to follow others who might know better than me. The other impact of a childhood punishment that I’m keenly aware of was the constant feeling that there was something fundamentally unacceptable about me. That’s been the big one for me. The inner work of my 20’s and 30’s was all about that — trying to find and fix that objectionable, intolerable part of me with the help of elders, shamans, healers, friends, writers, etc. No one can unhear ‘you’re bad. No one whose sense of their own goodness has been diminished can easily rekindle it. And I know I’m not alone… This is a tender area, for sure. If this feels like an ok time for you to take a closer look at your relationship with punishment, please remember this: there are many wounds that don’t need to be poked or lanced but are better healed by massaging soothingly around them, but by bit. Please go slowly and gently with yourself. This is part of breaking the cycle — being willing to admit you were hurt, say it out loud, call it what it was and name the effects it had on you. It’s scary, achy and sad… And then it’s liberating and empowering. And you go love yourself and others all the more fervently.

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And now we’re adults with kids of our own. How does being raised with punishment surface when you’re parenting?


1. Your automatic reaction to your kids’ mistakes is to punish them. You have thoughts about doing something to make them see that they’ve gone wrong and feel bad about it. Rescind a privilege, make some rough comments or turn away from them. You can feel the punishment pattern trying to come through you, even if you’re not as harsh as your parents were. Some part of you knows that your kids are conducting their lives to avoid your punishments, instead of learning how to make wise choices based on their own criteria and intuition.


2. You have a tendency towards yelling and bullying. You try to get your kid to see and do things your way. You’re pushy and inflexible. You’re not willing to wait for them to come to you when they’re having trouble seeing the right thing to do — you jump in and force your opinions on them. It’s hard to admit but you may be intimidating for them or just more hassle than they want to deal with.


3. You shame your kids when they mess up. ‘You should’ve known better. You should’ve asked me. How could you have been so stupid? What made you think that would work?” Maybe you say it out loud or maybe it’s indirect, but the result is the same: to avoid the cuts and burns of your reactions, they tell you less and less about what’s going on in their lives. You are distrusted.


4. You lie to your kids or refuse to admit when you’ve made a blunder if the pattern of being sneaky and concealing your mistakes is still with you. And, while you may think you’re hiding it well, your kids absorb the energy of your dishonesty and the belief that mistakes and misdemeanors must be hidden becomes part of their worldview.


5. You struggle to be vulnerable with your kids and show that side of you that hurts and doubts yourself. And what they learn is that they need to be cautious about sharing their feelings, misgivings and questions too.


6. You are submissive to authority. In a way, you’re still following orders, though instead of your parents, it’s a particular belief system, philosophy or set of guidelines you follow to the letter. You may feel out of sync with your internal parenting instincts when you yield to what someone else says is right. You end up dismissing what your kid really needs.


7. Or you regularly defy authority. “No one is going to make me do that.” And while challenging the rules is a good thing for kids to learn, a habitual rejection of authority might teach your kids that the rules of the world don’t really matter and rob them of the ability to discern when to comply, when to negotiate and when to resist.


8. You punish yourself. You constantly ruminate on your mistakes, berate yourself for your (so-called) flaws and reconfirm your unacceptability. Your kids pick up your self-devaluation from what you say, the choices you make, and even the way you carry yourself. They learn what you model.


9. Your kids fight against your control — a lot. You think you’re pointing them in the right direction and helping them avoid mistakes, but they are ignoring, contradicting, defying your instructions. You lie awake at night planning your next strategy (which might be a euphemism for punishment). And your kids learn to be wary of your next move and plan strategies of their own. Around it goes.


10. There is a part of your heart that is cut off from your kids. You are aware of some limit on your love or something that holds you back from fully connecting with them. Being punished as a kid created a barrier that you just can’t quite cross. You don’t know how to open your heart completely to them. And they feel it.

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I invite you to consider how you may be punishing your kids, either directly or passively, and assess if your actions and words are aligned with your true intentions. When your son or daughter’s decisions trigger your childhood wounds, when you feel again what you lost by being punished — dignity, belonging, safety, trust, love — take a breath, dear one, and bring yourself out of the past and into the present. You break the cycle when you activate your support for your kids to learn from their mistakes and make choices that work better for them next time. When you give the kind of support you needed back then. You break the cycle when you inspire them to cultivate their connection to their inner wisdom. Ask them how they know a decision is right for them. What it feels like in their heart or their belly when they ‘know’. How they experience the energy of their instincts. Help them discover how they access that inner place. You set the new pattern when you see them as good no matter what they do. Because, like you, they are perfectly imperfect bundles of earth and stardust that bring unique beauty into the world.


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