When I was fresh out of high school I rented the upstairs of a house from a married couple that were friends of the family. I had grown up in an authoritarian parenting household and this was my first taste of freedom and control over my life. Like anyone experiencing independence for the first time, I was taking full advantage of it. I was out most of the time with friends, spent money like it didn’t exist, and rarely got a full night of sleep. I was trying to figure out who I was and now had access to the world. The personality traits I had acquired from trauma and authoritarian parents still lived within me, but I was unable to recognize it.
One day I had agreed to help the married couple put a fence up around their yard. We went out early in the morning, digging holes for the posts, and began building the fence section by section. My job was to hold the chain link fencing and remain as still as possible while they were attaching it to the post to ensure it was not crooked. They told me not to move, no matter what, otherwise it could bring the whole fence down and we might have to start over. I took my job very seriously, as I did not want to be at fault if the fence were to fail.
We got to the halfway point and were putting in what felt like the 100th fence post when I heard them both say “uh oh” and back away simultaneously. I asked, “What was wrong?” As I asked the question, hundreds of bees started to swarm out of the hole. They both took off running toward the house, but I stood there holding my roll of fence while the bees started to gather on my body. I could feel the stinging but refused to drop the fence because I was told not to under any circumstances.
The woman yelled over at me, “What are you doing?”
I cried out, “You told me not to drop the fence!” She looked astounded and told me to drop it and run, so I did just that. I could feel the bees stinging my back as I ran toward the house, and I was frantically brushing them off before I got to the porch.
She asked, “Why didn’t you run right away?” I thought about it for a second and replied, “You told me not to drop the fence, so I didn’t drop it.”
She went on to explain how dangerous that was and how at 18 years old I should know when to drop the fence and run. This was that time. Luckily, I didn’t have an allergy to bee stings, but with the many stings all over my body, I had a reaction and survived the rest of the day with a dose of Benadryl and a good, long nap.
So why didn’t I drop the fence? I didn’t understand this at the time, but I had been conditioned my entire life to not drop that fence when the time came. Through trauma, I learned that I did not matter. I was disposable. My body had been used as if it were an object, and I didn’t see it as something of value. Through the use of authoritarian parenting, I learned that respecting my elders meant obeying every command or request from a person older than me. I learned to never trust myself without having an adult there to permit me. I placed the value of the fence over my own. I put my safety and health second to a chain link fence.
This might seem silly and naive to those who have not been conditioned in this way. However, for those who have endured trauma and controlling parenting styles, this is their reality. It takes years to reverse the mental implications this upbringing can have on the ability of people to understand their intrinsic value.
This is why we need to teach children their intrinsic value starting as soon as they enter our lives. It is imperative to their future to treat all children with value, dignity, and respect, as we would expect for adults. Not only do they need to know when it is okay to drop the fence and run, but they deserve to know to avoid healing from the pain of the bee stings. As parents, we are hardwired to protect our kids, but sometimes that can present as controlling or authoritarian. It can be tough, but it is important to take a step back and view our parenting from the child’s perspective and understand how it will affect them as adults. We parent not for their childhood obedience, but rather for the life they will live when they don’t have us there to protect them every step of the way. Prevention begins with parenting.