Love Does Not Abuse: The Parenting Philosophy of bell hooks

Liberative parenting is parenting that aims to liberate children by empowering them. It is “parenting forward,” as the visionary Cindy Wang Brandt calls the post-evangelical parenting movement she helms. Parenting forward means rethinking traditional models for how parents and other adults are supposed to relate to children. It means understanding power dynamics are present in the adult-child relationship and thus people who care for children need to be working towards undercutting that power differential—by scaffolding experiences for children wherein they learn their own voice and embrace their own agency. This is liberative parenting at its core: parenting that empowers the child’s own self.

The renowned Black feminist philosopher bell hooks has written at length about liberative parenting. She describes this form of parenting in two ways: as “revolutionary parenting” as well as “feminist parenting.” Revolutionary parenting—an idea hooks looks at in her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center—is respecting children’s rights to effective, loving child care and radically restructuring society so that women are not exclusively responsible for providing that care. Feminist parenting, which hooks explores in her 2000 book Feminism is for Everybody, is raising children without sexism, which means rejecting domination as a cornerstone of patriarchal parenting. Both ways of parenting involve leveling the playing field between children and adults. In this article I want to explore hooks’s thoughts on liberative parenting and how we can relate those thoughts to the process of doing child liberation theology.

How hooks Defines Love

The starting place for understand hooks’s parenting philosophy is the concept of love. Love is an overriding concern for hooks. She wrote a book on it in 2000, aptly titled All About Love: New Visions. In this book hooks puts forth her understanding of what love is as well as what it is not. Importantly, love is nurturing another person’s growth. Much like the description of love we find in 1 Corinthians 13, hooks’ concept of love involves a constellation of ingredients: “care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest, and open communication.” hooks summarizes these as “nurturance and care.” Love is, essentially, creating a safe space for someone else to grow into their own self.

How does one create such a safe space? hooks is very specific and concrete here: you create a safe space for children to flourish and unfold into themselves by respecting their rights. Specifically, by affirming their civil and political rights. Why is this? Because, hooks says, we cannot have love without justice. Justice is a prerequisite for love. “Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children,” hooks argues, “most children will not know love.” Until we as a culture acknowledge children have rights, the home and family will remain “sphere[s] of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic.”

hooks is careful to distinguish between love and something she calls “cathexis.” Cathexis is the process of investing feelings or emotions into a person—thereby making that person feel important to one’s self. Many of us, hooks says, confuse cathexis with love: “We all know how often individuals feeling connected to someone through the process of cathecting insist that they love the other person even if they are hurting or neglecting them. Since their feeling is that of cathexis, they insist what they feel is love.” Cathexis masquerades as love in our world today. But hooks makes clear it is not love. It is something else entirely, something that can easily be warped into abuse rather than love.

So love is nurturance and care to hooks. It is not a feeling like cathexis. It is, rather, a concrete act—the act of upholding children’s basic civil rights to that nurturance and care. hooks next expands her definition of what love is not. Namely, love does not—and cannot—involve abuse or neglect. hooks argues that abuse and neglect are diametrically opposed to love; like oil and water, they repel one another and cannot co-exist. Wherever abuse and neglect is present, love cannot be. hooks writes, “We cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect are, by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care.”

But this poses a problem for hooks, as so many parents and other caretakers claim to love their children yet abuse or neglect them. hooks does not back down from the fight, though. She doubles down and argues that, “Too many of us need to cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.” While some people, especially conservatives and evangelicals, would balk at the claim that their allegedly loving parenting (which is actually based in cathexis) is in fact abusive or neglectful, hooks points to her operating definitions: love cannot include abuse and neglect. If abuse and neglect are present, that automatically means love is not. 

Justice in the Family

If love is nurturance and care, what do we make of the fact that so many parents and other adult caretakers do not practice love in their families and communities? hooks says the conclusion we should draw from this is that, if adults do not know how to love in general, then they certainly will fail to love children specifically. “Love will not be present,” she warns, “if the grown-ups who parent do not know how to love.” We need a sociopolitical revolution, therefore, so that people today no longer associate love with power and control. Rather, love should be associated with self-actualizing and empowerment. It should be associated with one person wanting another person to flourish and become who they really are. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains in Touching Peace, true love requires understanding and accepting another person for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.

This revolution begins in the home, hooks implies, describing the home as “the original school of love”—whether the home is functional or dysfunctional. Taking cues from feminist philosophers and practicians before her, hooks argues that the home is the first place where we must confront the adultism and childism rampant in contemporary culture. Youth liberationists discuss the idea of adultism, or adult supremacy, at length at the Stinney Distro zine project. Childism, the idea that there is systemic prejudice and oppression against children in our world, is explored in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Children today face these dual forces, adultism and childism, that oppress and disenfranchise them. The home is the frontlines of the battle against adultism and childism, as what parents and other adult caretakers model as ideal family behavior leaves ripples across multiple generations, either furthering a familial cycle of abuse and neglect or breaking that cycle and creating new traditions and positive memories.

Since the home is ground zero for the fight for justice, as so many children experience abuse and neglect from the adults in their lives, we must begin our struggle towards justice with the family unit. The feminist philosopher Susan Moller Okin expresses this well: “If families are not themselves governed by principles of justice, how can they morally educate citizens fit to sustain a just society?” We must think about how we use relationships of marginalization and oppression within the family to justify such relationships outside the family—for example, how we infantilize Black people and other people of color in order to justify our horrendous treatment of them. This happens because the adult-child relationship forms the foundation of how we think about all other relationships involving power differentials. As the Stinney Distro project states, “Every hierarchy, every abuse, every act of domination that seeks to justify or excuse itself appeals through analogy to the rule of adults over children.” So if how we think about the adult-child relationship is off, if we entertain or allow any form of abuse or neglect to exist in that relationship, it will have far-spreading ramifications for all other relationships in our world.

Love in Adult-Child Relationships

So what does love look like in practice in the family? How does true love manifest within adult-child relationships? In her incisive writings, hooks speaks to these questions. Love within the family, she argues, manifests as rejecting the manipulative, selfish use of familial power differentials. It means, much like how God emptied Themself to become a human child in the Incarnation, that adults intentionally and actively divest themselves of power in the parenting or caretaking relationship so that children start learning how to actualize their own interests and desires and feel their selves empowered. As mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz writes in Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, “The liberative use of power is a use of power that seeks to bring about its own obsolescence by means of the empowerment of the subordinate.”

In the context of a family, power divestment can and should take numerous forms, hooks argues. First, fathers and other male caretakers need to actively fight against sexism in their family context. hooks gets very practical on this issue: Men need to take on parenting and caretaking as much as women—”not just to create gender equity,” hooks clarifies, “but to build better relationships with children.” Men need to champion feminism as much as women. Men need to enter the child care profession at equal numbers as women. Men need to support tax-funded public child care. Men need to model healthy, not toxic, masculinity for their children.

Additionally, part of undoing patriarchy in the context of a family must involve rejecting the use of domination as a parenting or caretaking principle. “Whenever domination is present,” hooks warns, “love is lacking.” Domination comes from living in “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal cultures,” where “children do not have rights.” hooks urges parents and caretakers to move away from tools grounded in domination, in power and control, and towards tools grounded in cooperation and partnership. This is something all parents, irregardless of gender, need to work on, as hooks points out that, “We have all been socialized to embrace patriarchal thinking, to embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have the right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them.”

Second, familial power divestment should take the form of mothers and other female caretakers understanding that they, too, can perpetuate abuse and neglect in families. Indeed, hooks identifies that, “Women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers.” While familial abuse and neglect most often have their roots in patriarchy, a worldview in which power and control are regarded highly and domination—rather than partnership—is the preferred tool of both connection and discipline, women can be just as guilty of perpetuating patriarchy as men. In fact, women are often experts at passing on patriarchal ideas and practices to their children. As hooks explains, “One of the primary difficulties feminist thinkers faced when confronting sexism within families was that more often than not female parents were the transmitters of sexist thinking.” Women therefore need to reject the use of power and control as well as domination as parenting tools just as much as men need to.

Third, familial power divestment should take the form of ceasing corporal punishment and using non-violent alternatives to discipline. Corporal punishment, which involves a more powerful person inflicting physical pain on a less powerful person in order to get a desired result, cannot be justified in a parenting system where children are on an equal footing with adults with regards to their bodily autonomy. Just as a husband has no right to inflict pain on his wife through physical punishment to get what he wants, so too do parents lack the right to inflict pain on their children through physical punishment. Similarly, if a child has the right to say “No” to a hug (which is a cornerstone principle of child protection best practices), how much more of a right should they have to say no to painful touch? hooks discusses corporal punishment numerous times in her parenting works, and every time she resoundingly condemns it on these bases. She points out, in fact, that tolerating parents hurting their children can very well lead those children to become adults in abusive relationships. The United Methodist theologian Sarah Moon also makes this connection between corporal punishment and domestic violence explicit based on hooks’s writings: “Perhaps the most abusive and damaging aspect of spanking is in the way it teaches children that someone can hurt you like that, and it can be rightly called love… The thought patterns that kept me from trying to leave had begun to develop years beforehand, when I was spanked as a child.”

Apart from familial power divestment on behalf of children, true love also manifests in adult-child relationships in several other important ways. One way is by taking children’s emotions and pain seriously. In one of her poignant passages about corporal punishment in All About Love, hooks discusses how confusing it is for children when the adults in their lives hurt them, cause them pain, but then say “It’s for your own good” or “I’m doing this because I love you” or—worst of all—”It hurts me more than it hurts you.” These are of course lies, but they are also thought-terminating cliches: they are meant to shut down children’s emotions and say that the pain children feel is not legitimate, it is not valid. This is really just a form of gaslighting. It is meant to assuage the cognitive dissonance children experience when someone says love can include abuse. hooks declares, “There is nothing that creates more confusion about love in the minds and hearts of children than unkind and/or cruel punishment meted out by the grown-ups they have been taught they should love and respect.”

A third and final way that true love manifests in adult-child relationships, according to hooks, is to advocate for the rights of children. And hooks means this literally: adults must advocate for the civil and political rights of children.  “Unlike women,” hooks points out, “who can organize to protest sexist domination, demanding both equal rights and justice, children can only rely on well-meaning adults to assist them if they are being exploited and oppressed on their home.” This means we as adults must be on the offensive, must take a proactive role in guaranteeing children a safe, loving home environment, and must educate ourselves so that we can identify when abuse and neglect is happening. And hooks argues this even applies to childfree and childless adults: “Child care is a responsibility that can be shared with other childrearers, with people who do not live with children.” hooks calls this village-approach to parenting “revolutionary,” because “it takes place in opposition to the idea that parents, especially mothers, should be the only childrearers.” 

Liberative Parenting and Child Liberation Theology

How can we apply hooks’s liberative parenting philosophy to child liberation theology? I can think of at least three ways. First and foremost, I think we need to carefully map hooks’s definition of love onto our theological concepts of love. Love does not abuse. If this is true, this means that if God is love, God does not and will not abuse us, no matter how omnipotent or omniscient God is. Similarly, if adult-child relationships are to be mirrored after the God-human relationship, that mirroring must out of necessity be grounded in love and respect, not power and control. And love and respect demand that every human child be treated not as “the property of parenting adults to do with as they wish” but as their own person with their own rights. “When we love children,” hooks reminds us, “we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights—that we respect and uphold their rights.”

Second, hooks’s call for a village-wide approach to parenting and child care—one that includes and respects childfree and childless adults—is one that faith communities in the United States would do well to listen to. hooks’s belief that all adults should be invested in not only children in general, but all children specifically, is a concrete example of 1 Corinthians 12:12, or how every member of the body has an important role to play in making one’s faith community thrive. Many churches, unfortunately, would have to change a lot to better model themselves after hooks’ ideas. Many churches currently quarantine children away in separate programs, programs run by either only women (because women are unfairly prohibited from preaching to adults) or the lesser-experienced pastors. This essentially ghettoizes children’s spiritual experiences in their faith community  and makes it seem like children are separate from the rest of the church and are someone else’s concern.

Third and finally, hooks’s emphasis on children’s rights reminds us child liberation theology must be focused on praxis, on concrete, practical solutions to real-life problems. Unlike other child-centered theological movements like the child theology movement, child liberation theology unequivocally affirms the civil and political rights of children. Affirmation of these rights is essential to solving the real-life problems children face everyday. Child liberation theology also must, as hooks does, unequivocally condemn domination as a cornerstone of parenting. Domination comes from patriarchy and thus liberative parenting rejects it. “Ending patriarchal domination, by men or women,” hooks says, “is the only way to make the family a place where children can be safe, where they can be free, where they can know love.”

In addition to affirming children’s rights as essential to the process of liberating children, we must also fight for a transformation of our nation’s fiscal priorities. This is, like the affirmation of children’s rights, one of the most concrete and practical ways we can revolutionize the way we value and protect children. This is something hooks calls for as well: for people to “rally together to demand that tax money spent on the arms race and other militaristic goals be spent on improving the quality of parenting and child care in this society.” How we spend our money reflects our values. If we value children, if we really think they are the future, we must start investing in them far more than we currently do.

Conclusion

It is my hope that more progressive activists and thinkers will reflect on parenting and child care just as hooks has. We desperately need more resources on these subjects that take liberation of children as their goal, that understand nurturance and care—not power and control—should be the cornerstones of childrearing. Liberative parenting is nothing new; as we saw, hooks and other feminist philosophers have strove to bring attention to it for decades. Unfortunately, many Christian faith communities in the United States are far behind these philosophers. This makes the work of child liberation theology that much more urgent.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and the co-founder of Homeschoolers Anonymous. Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

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