Maybe Our Kids Are POWs

Prisoners of war die more frequently from the loss of dignity than from starvation. And, sometimes, the only way to maintain dignity is to rebel. Maybe, sometimes, when our children fight back, they are really just fighting for their dignity… 

On Friday afternoons in May, my daughter naps in her bedroom, and her chatter sleeps with her. As the tipping sun dumps its slanting light through open windows, the dust motes dance in the breeze and the silence.

On Friday afternoons in May, my second-grade son is still in school, moving faster than I would like to admit from being his daddy’s boy to being his own man.

On Friday afternoons in May, my four-year-old son, Quinn, settles in to the endangered sanctuary of a middle child—no one is drowning him out, and the quiet opens him up. In preparation for his “rest time,” we read the books of his choosing. He gets to be in charge—telling his daddy which pages to skip and which pages to repeat.

But then he asks for another book. And then another. And then another! (You get the point, right?)

As the requests roll in, I heave a big-weary sigh.

And if I look closely, I can see the confusion and sadness sweep past his eyes. But I have to look fast, because the sadness is quickly replaced by rebellion.

He kicks a book to the floor, stomps to his room, slams the door. I hear a lock click.

I think to myself, “What just happened?”

And on a Friday afternoon in May, I receive the answer: with one heavy exhalation, I made my son feel like a prisoner of war.

Lauren Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” is the true story of Louie Zamperini, a world-class Olympic distance runner who enlisted in World War II. He was shot down at sea and set a tragic world record: he survived on a raft at sea for 47 days. He drifted 2,000 miles into enemy Japanese territory, where he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for more than two years.

It’s a story of resilience.

As a POW, Zamperini and his fellow captives were constantly on the brink of starvation, sometimes surviving for days on a cup of seaweed or a ball of rice. They walked on legs like sticks. They would eat almost anything. They tried to eat leather, but they couldn’t get it down.

But even as their bodies consumed themselves, starvation was not the most lethal threat to survival.

Prisoners died more frequently from the loss of their dignity.

The prisoners who allowed themselves to be stripped of their dignity curled up and died, regardless of their calorie intake.

The dictionary defines dignity as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” When we strip someone of their dignity, we are robbing them of their sense of honor and respect. And when we steal their honor and self-respect, when we convince them the world doesn’t need them and make them feel more like a burden than a human, we are plunging them into the deepest shame.

And shame kills. Literally.

Most of us will never know the inside of a prison camp, but our dignity can still be stripped from us in violent and cruel ways: parents beat children and shout obscenities into them, and men assault women, and on the playground kids gang-up and reject the lonely kid with glasses and a limp. And our dignity can also be stolen from us in the quiet and subtle corners of life: when we take a customer’s order and they never look us in the eye, or when we are cut off in traffic and treated as if we didn’t exist, or when our loved one’s listen to our stories with only a fraction of their attention.

Or when our parents sigh a quiet-but-oh-so-loud sigh that screams, “You are a burden to me.”

Threatened with the loss of dignity, how can we resist the shame? Louie Zamperini and his fellow captives found one particularly effective way to retain their dignity:

They rebelled.

They rebelled subtly, by stowing pictures of loved ones beneath floorboards. And they rebelled courageously by sabotaging the construction of engines and weapons parts. In their rebellion, the prisoners maintained a sense of purpose. They steadfastly insisted the world still needed them. And, in doing so, they maintained their dignity.

Maybe, sometimes, when our children rebel, they are fighting for their dignity. Maybe when we sigh and undermine their place of honor and importance in the family, they stomp into bedrooms because they are resiliently refusing the shame.

Maybe there are some kinds of rebellion we should encourage.

Several weeks ago, Caitlin was playing with her newfound language and reciting words she knows her parents can’t stand, like “dummy” and “stupid.” My fuse was short, and I raised my voice, telling her to stop. I suppose I was hoping to bully her into submission. And from opposite sides of the room, my boys jumped up and raced to their sister’s side, and Aidan exclaimed, “You can’t talk to our sister that way.”

My boys rebelled. And I smiled.

I love that kind of rebellion.

In the process of preserving their sister’s dignity, they were also asserting their own. They were showing me they have gotten the message loud and clear: as big brothers, you have a role to play in this family—your sister needs your protection and we need you to stand up for her. My boys seem to be realizing they have a respected place of honor in the world, as protectors and defenders.

Their rebellion was the sweet uprising of kids who know they are needed.

As parents, I think we get caught up in believing our job is to protect our children from all pain, or to guarantee their financial future, or to make sure they have the best of things. But maybe the most important thing we can do for our children is to preserve their dignity, by instilling in them the belief that they are needed.

Our children need to know they have an indispensable role to play in our families.

But even more importantly, they need to know a broken world needs them. This fragmented globe needs a generation of children who understand their roles

as protectors,

and healers,

and comforters,

and servants,

and justice-seekers,

and grace-givers,

and creators,

and peace-makers,

and thinkers,

and dangerous, rebellious dispensers of a redeeming love.

I think its time to quit protecting our kids from pain and hardship. Instead, we need to invest our energies into convincing our children they have a role to play in our families, and that they live in a world that needs them.

If our children have this kind of dignity bestowed upon them, they will be able to endure any kind of hardship and pain, with rebellions big and small, rebellions with purpose and meaning, rebellions that heal and restore a world in desperate need of redemption.


Share Your Comment! Have you ever been given a role in the world and experienced the dignity of it? Please feel free to share in the comments below! 

About the Blog: So, as it turns out, I can’t write shorter blog posts! I seem to be incapable of it. I will continue to post whenever I finish one, but I suspect the majority will still come on Friday evenings. I hope you enjoy your Saturday morning coffee with a good read! And, by the way, if you are a sigh-er, rest easy. You don’t sigh because you’re a bad parent. You sigh because you are living in the constant tension of having to meet everyone else’s needs, while still trying to take care of yourself. Next week (probably Friday night!), I will post again about living wisely in the tension. As always, thanks for the gift of your readership! 

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

17 thoughts on “Maybe Our Kids Are POWs

  1. I read this and was brought to tears. Thank you Dr., you are helping me grow in this life by adding light to it. I completely understand what it is to stand with no dignity to be publicly stripped of ALL you have believed save God. It has left me feeling like there is nothing under foot forcing me to live in hte moment by the moment. Something new for this ex POW.

  2. Related to the question you pose for comment — I am doing a series now about “apology” at Prozac Monologues. I aim to publish on Thursdays — like you, unable to write short pieces and hence post once a week. The next (third) one will be about how apology relates to the dignity we expect when we have had a role in the world, and what people with various mental illnesses consequently expect and receive, or not. Your post is a reminder that I am more sensitive to apologies that are withheld, perhaps because I HAVE had a role in the world. Before my disability, I was a “player” in my field, and still have people who turn to me for advice.

    Ellen Frank (developer of IPSRT, Interpersonal Social Rhythm Therapy and author of “Treating Bipolar Disorder”) says that people with bipolar have a sense of “entitlement,” because we often have experienced success. Unlike your unassuming major depression clients, we expect apologies when we think we have been treated poorly, and get irritable when they are withheld.

    Related to your post in general — One of my son’s most powerful memories is of a time I apologized to him for overreacting to something he did — in contrast to his experience of his noncustodial abusive father. His reaction made it one of my most powerful memories, too.

    • Willa, I enjoyed your last post about apology! In fact, I tried to comment from my phone, but got all the way through the process and was blocked for some reason! Apologies have tremendous power. Reading your post made me want to write one on the power of a therapist’s apology. Lovely story about you and your son. I’ll look forward to the next post!

      • Oh, do try again and add your response to the blog! I really appreciate the conversations that develop in comments, especially when between people who sit in opposite chairs in this relationship. I guess I have always been a bridge person. Having sat in both chairs, I think each side could benefit from these reflections on the experience from the other side.

        And I want to read your own post on apologies, am curious to read about what the therapist feels like while making an apology. (I have a different therapist and psychiatrist now, and know that there isn’t that rule against them.) As a mother, apologizing to my son, I felt as though I was mending a rip in the universe, as a trauma victim, that I was issuing an apology even to myself on behalf of others.

        And I would like my readers to find your blog.

        • Thank you Willa and Doc…good thread. I read the artilcle on apologies and was left with a few questions:

          In regards to Bipolar persons, will they hear the apologies when given, if they don’t feel it is “enough?”

          I loved the portion in the article about “good” and “no-so-good” apologies, so what is the next step when you have truly apologized to another and it is not accepted? What is appropriate at that point?

          • I think this comment is directed more to my post at Prozac Monologues, and less to Untangled. So I’ll respond. I am enjoying the cross-fertilization.

            But I don’t feel adequate to the question. I am a blogger, not a doctor, but I haven’t run across anything that says that people with bipolar have any more difficulty “hearing” an apology than anybody else, unless perhaps in the midst of a manic episode, when we might have difficulty hearing anything. In that case, simply try again when sanity has returned. Not being able to accept an apology is not unique to a particular diagnosis or lack of diagnosis.

            If I had done my best to apologize to somebody who could not forgive me, then I would concentrate on letting each member of the party own his/her part. The apologizer has to release the other
            person to work through his/her stuff to get to forgiveness in his/her time, or not. Neither side can force the other.

  3. This week I reached a dark place in my parenting. The political situations in Egypt, where I reside and Kenya, my home country seem very bleak. I looked at my two children who are toddlers and asked my husband, what exactly is our role as parents in the difficult times we live in? Making sure that our kids have a stable financial future or a good education does not seem to suffice as the goals of parenting. I thought that there should be more to it. My soul reached out to God for answers to these nagging questions. I wondered if protecting them from difficulty was the key and yet troubles and problems abound and as a mother, I will not be able to totally protect them. I needed to have a sense of re-direction in the roles we are to play in our age. Your blog is an answer to a soul reaching out to God for wisdom in parenting. For sure, our roles as parents is to show them that they are indispensable and that a broken world does need them.

    • Harriet, In so many places in the U.S., we are insulated from the issues you are describing. Thank you, thank you for interrupting that with such a powerful reminder. And I am so grateful the blog was able to speak into your uncertainty. Blessings to you and your husband and your children.

  4. re: “can’t write shorter blog posts!” – Whew! I was afraid you would have to be leaving out what you needed to say and what I need to read just to make them shorter.

    • Merle, Thanks for this affirmation. I’ve decided that I’ll write what is in me, regardless of the length!

  5. Wow! Your post made me think that in some cases children are POWs at school. Bullying can make going to school tough going. Personally I hated school because lessons were boring and the classmates were mostly awful to one another including me. Sticking up for yourself ended up with coping detention. For me school was like a 12 jail term with no hope for parole.

    • Sadie, peer victimization is an often overlooked area where children are stripped of their dignity. Thank you for bringing attention to it! Glad your sentence is over. 🙂

  6. I found myself intrigued by this idea of POWS!
    It certainly takes a lot of attention and self knowledge to be able to feel and hear our kids. We are certainly from different worlds and it is easy to see them through our world as opposed to see them in theirs.The one lesson that stands out in your discussion, is that we must try to instill in them that the world needs them, no matter what anyone (including parents! ) says. Everyone was created for a purpose and that purpose can be found by looking within, not without.

    • Yes, Edith! Our kids need us to mirror for them the critical role they have to play in the world. Doing that successfully makes up for a lot of exasperation! 🙂

  7. we have been struggling so much with our almost 5 year old daughter. she rebells. at everything. all day. all night. she always has. it’s exhausting. it brings me to tears to think that this may be where’s she’s at. a small problem snowballing into this close-to-unmanageable child. i’m not sure where to go from here, but i guess i’ll wipe my tears and start over – with another perspective. thank you.

    • Kaleigh, Feeling sincerely helpless is a horrible place to be. I hope the perspective in the post is helpful. But as I often tell parents with children that try them, you need support, as well. I hope your getting it, through friends, or family, or a counselor. Best to you on this parenting journey.

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