Friday, June 20, 2014

Fear Your Children For Fun and Profit

“Moms of America,” the matronly voice intones from the radio, “stand up! And stop taking abuse from your kids.” Several women’s voices follows, “pledging” to squelch their adolescents’ disruptive behavior through the Total Transformation Program, which you can receive, FOR FREE, by calling a toll-free number. Just in time, too, since these moms are “living in fear of my son’s anger” and “letting my child’s behavior ruin my house.”

This ad frequently dominates radio programming in off-peak hours, especially on stations with older base audiences. You’ll also find ads on basic cable’s seedier stations, where promotional rates come cheap. It encourages parents, feeling overwhelmed, to purchase the Total Transformation Program, which markets at $350 outright, plus a further $50 monthly for 24-hour on-call support. Customer reviews on assorted websites suggest purchasers either wholly love or outright hate this program.

Quite apart from whether the program works (feedback from child development professionals is decidedly mixed), the ad’s content makes my skin crawl. By characterizing adolescent rebellion as “abuse,” it encourages customers to regard their own children as enemies, and their behavior not as bad conduct, but as relationship violence. It forces us to re-examine a word we often throw around somewhat flippantly. What, exactly, is “abuse”?

Consider other situations we call “abuse.” We may say that parents abuse their children, either through action or neglect, and adults in peer relationships may behave abusively. Capitalists, politicians, and media figures may abuse their authority. We also speak of “parental abuse” or “elder abuse” when grown children exploit or maltreat elderly parents in their care. Abuse happens when the powerful selfishly or maliciously misuse authority over peers or subordinates.

Teenagers and dependent youths have no authority. Mostly-grown kids descend into oppositional defiant behavior because they recognize that autonomy exists, and they don’t have it, but they don’t understand why. They rebel, lashing out in ways they’ll regret in only five or seven years, because they have no other visible options. Teenage tantrums occur because kids lack power, even over themselves. How, then, can they abuse anybody?

Short of outright violence, teenagers cannot abuse their parents, because they have only what authority their parents bestow. Kids may disrupt their homes and act like royal shits, but because parents have the ability to close access to autonomy, childhood revolt has limited shelf life. Your rebellious kid may exit the house stomping, but when dinnertime rolls around and restaurants prove prohibitively expensive, expect many tear-streaked apologies, and soon.

How, then, to interpret Total Transformation’s advertising campaign? Parents certainly fear their children’s temper, especially today, when economics and culture have extended the arc of infantile dependence well into adulthood. Many “children” remain reliant on their parents’ financial support, even long after they have their own spouses and kids. If sixteen-year-olds balk at living under their parents’ roof, try telling them they’ll still be there when they turn thirty.

Instead of accepting adolescent rebellion as a necessary stage of impending maturity, Total Transformation encourages parents to consider it “abuse.” When we speak of child abuse, spousal abuse, or abuse of public trust, we’re describing prosecutable crimes. Unless, again, a teen’s misconduct escalates to violence, it misses this fundamental criterion. Yet Total Transformation encourages us to think in those terms, and it’s a short step from thinking to action.

While teenage misbehavior is hardly mandatory, it’s certainly common. Many kids must defy authority to understand why authority circumscribes their behavior. They need firsthand experience to recognize that rules exist for their protection, not to oppress or limit them. While some youth accept authority figures’ benevolent intentions, or find productive ways to assert their individual identity, others need a few bruises to grasp why they must limit their youthful impulses.

Instead, Total Transformation encourages parents to see defiant kids as criminals, foes whose lawlessness they must crush. They conflate compliance with goodness, resistance with evil. Docile, obedient kids are your allies; angry, lippy kids are invading barbarians who upset your stable home. Give us your personal phone, credit card information, and trust, they say, and we’ll teach you how to silence your children like the villains they are.

Back in the 1980s, various behavior modification programs offered to reprogram rebellious teenagers. Bad grades, crude language, and routine rule-breaking were redefined, often by non-specialists, as diagnostic of significant mental disorders. Kids got institutionalized for (no kidding) not loving their parents enough. The AMA and the National Institutes of Health called these programs “child abuse,” their graduates not so much obedient as suffering Stockholm Syndrome.

Whether Total Transformation’s program actually resurrects these attitudes, I don’t know. Some parents swear by it. But Total Transformation’s advertising actively courts the same mentality, the assumption that parents should effortlessly manage kids’ actions, that motivated torture facilities like Tranquility Bay. By encouraging parents to view their own children as enemies and criminals, I fear this campaign presages much grimmer trends in mental health.

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