This post is not about children, or even parenting, although it will discuss both children and parenting quite a lot. The content is mostly new, but will start off with a recycled anecdote from Twitter about children, emotional pain, and boundaries:
Parenting analogy for community and reconciliation: my daughter drags her feet when we go for walks, but she wants to hold my hand. When she does this, she pulls my arm back and it hurts my arm, so I let go. Sometimes she cries then because she is sad about not holding my hand. But I explain to her that I have a rule: I am happy to hold her hand if she walks next to me, but when she falls back and pulls my arm, I’m going to let go.
Just because she is sad doesn’t mean I have to let her hurt my arm. She understands what she had to do to hold my hand and I always set my pace so that she can keep up if she wants. I miss holding her hand when I let go, because she’s small and she’s not going to want to hold hands forever. But it’s about modeling healthy boundaries; your emotional pain does not require me to allow you to hurt me.
It is okay and healthy to set boundaries around how someone may interact with you. If my five year old can learn this lesson, so can you.
Now hold that thought for a minute, because we’re going to circle back to it.
Genius Predators are mostly outnumbered by Emotional Seven-Year-Olds
One of the things that continually amazes me is that many of the concepts I talk about when educating people about and community dynamics of predation and abuse are the same concepts that come up in parenting. I find it fascinating that problems that are easily dealt with by most parents suddenly, somehow, become “too difficult” to manage when the same dynamic is replicated in a group of adults. Especially when you’re dealing with a diffuse and largely informally-organized community such as gaming.
Now it’s true that predators, true predators exist – and that there is a small minority of predators who are terrifyingly intelligent at manipulating social dynamics to provide cover for them to abuse people with impunity for years or even decades. And dealing with Genius Predators is a problem that continues to stump even the savviest community organizers. So I’m going to be clear and say that Genius Predators are a distinct problem that we’ll set aside for the purposes of talking about a second, far more numerous group – Emotional Seven-Year-Olds: harmful people who don’t necessarily intend to be harmful, but have been put in a position where they possess great amounts of privilege and/or social capital combined with a lack of empathy and the socialization that they don’t need to center anyone else’s feelings but their own. These people are most often, but not always, cisgender white dudes.
Now, the thing about actual seven-year-olds is that, unlike toddlers, they can be shockingly good and selfless. Toddlers are tiny sociopaths, but seven-year-olds have an ingrained sense of fair play and genuinely care about helping people and making the world a better place. Concepts that seem “complicated” and “difficult” to adults – like ‘trans women are women’ and ‘gay people are people’ are simple for children to grasp, because they’re less burdened by prejudice and acculturation than adults.
That said, there’s a reason we don’t put seven-year-olds in charge of everything, aside from the issue of being generally too small and uneducated. Seven-year-olds are (to varying degrees) emotionally sub-literate and are shit at emotional regulation. So while they’re great and dandy in the normal course of things, when they’ve actually done something wrong and you need to correct them on it? Lord help you, because you are in for some tears.
Now, any moderately adept parent knows that’s just part of the territory. Most seven-year-olds don’t yet know how to tell the difference between “you made me feel bad” and “I feel bad because I did something bad”, so they jump straight from “I feel bad because I did something bad” to “you are bad because you’re making me feel worse”. Which is why it can require a lot of patience dealing with a crying seven-year-old as you calmly explain why it is that they still need to apologize and that you are not the bad guy for making them confront their bad choices. And yet, this is a situation that anyone who cares for children on a regular basis will be familiar with.
Many, many adults never get past “you are bad for making me feel bad about doing something bad”
The thing is, the exact same dynamic occurs when dealing with adults who are Emotional Seven-Year-Olds when they cause problems in our community. The things that unintentionally harmful people do are the same things that seven-year-olds do, and the responses are the same if you ever try to call them on it.
Take for example a recent incident that happened with a child (not mine) in my care. We had my daughter’s friend over while I was getting ready to go visit a friend. I said goodbye to my daughter, and my daughter’s friend approached me with her arms out after I gave my own daughter a hug and a kiss. My daughter’s friend was sick, so I said firmly that she could have a hug – to which she responded by giving me both a hug and a kiss. Nor was this the first time such a thing had happened; we have had repeated issues with this child not respecting boundaries around touch in our household. So I gently-but-firmly told her that behavior was unacceptable, and that she was to apologize for touching me in a way that I did not wish to be touched. At which point my daughter’s friend burst into very loud and melodramatic sobs.
She hadn’t meant to hurt anyone, and violating my boundary wasn’t something that had been thought out. She got excited and carried away with wanting to show affection to me as someone who cares for her on a regular basis. And yet, the response I needed to make to my daughter’s friend was clear. I didn’t back down, I didn’t apologize, and I didn’t offer comfort, because her feelings of hurt were not the problem. The problem was her continuing inability to respect the touch-boundaries of others. Her intent to express affection and caring for us as important people in our lives were less important than the outcome – that our boundaries were not being respected. And if I had given in and backed down, it would have sent the message to my daughter that we were not prepared to defend her boundaries either.
This exact situation is one that plays out in our community on a damn-near daily basis. Dudes with lots of privilege and not enough empathy violate the boundaries – either emotional or physical – of people around them. And either folks assume that the person didn’t intend harm and don’t press it as an issue. Or perhaps someone does try to make an issue of it, only to have things fall apart when the Emotional Seven-Year-Old pitches a fit about being made to feel bad. Because somehow, a cisdude feeling bad about something is always the worse crime of all, amirite?
And every damn time, the community falls apart over how to deal with the issue. Some people, nearly always marginalized people or survivors of abuse, attempt to remain firm that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with. But many more people fall victim to the crocodile tears. “He feels bad enough” or “he didn’t mean to hurt anyone” or “he’s a good guy who doesn’t deserve to be punished”. And just as with parenting, inconsistent approaches to discipline fail to achieve meaningful results and the Emotional Seven-Year-Old either doesn’t learn anything positive or actively learns the wrong lesson – that they were right to center their own feelings over the feelings of others and the community will support them in similar situations in the future.
And the whole situation is entirely maddening. It’s maddening because it’s so utterly predictable in how it plays out exactly the same way every time. But it’s also maddening because of the element of learned helplessness to the situation. How is it that we are unable to hold harmful people to the same standards as actual seven-year-olds whenever we get into a conflict of “harmful person did a harmful thing” versus “they are making me feel bad so they are bad”?
Not all emotional pain is equal
What we need to remember when we encounter these situations is that not all emotional pain is equal. Sometimes, emotional pain is neccessary for personal growth. And emotional pain used as a defense against clear violation of boundaries does not deserve centering or comfort when compared to the pain of the person whose boundaries were violated.
Or, to put it in terms that a seven-year-old can understand:
your emotional pain does not require me to allow you to hurt me
when you hurt someone, your feelings of hurt are not important
Now maybe let’s try to keep that in mind the next time another round of Entirely Predictable Bullshit breaks out, hmm?