Reply-turned-post: Metaphors of violence

Annie of PhD in Parenting is, in a role reversal, spending the summer as a SAHM while her family is in Berlin, Germany. Her daughter, almost the same age as the Boychick, is being very much a three year old in a new environment in an unfamiliar situation. Annie writes about it in Age three: defiance with a smirk, in which she talks about the “several battles taking place on this battlefield”, including:

Her battle to assert her independence … My battle to teach her empathy … Her battle to have mommy all the time … My battle to divide my time and get things done … Her battle to test her limits … My battle to stay away from the hospital.

This was my reply:

I do not, alas, have any magic answers for you. But what struck me1 reading through this was the antagonistic language you used, framing things in terms of “battles”. And certainly it’s no surprise that you feel that way, and I’m not going to say you “shouldn’t” (you are always allowed to feel how you feel!), or say I never feel that way (oh, how I do).

I will, however, say that the more I can reframe things using non-fighting language, the better I feel about a situation and the more creativity I have, and the more potential solutions open up to me. “Battles” necessarily have winners and losers; needs, however, can all be mutually met (even if it is difficult sometimes to see how, or they are best met sequentially rather than simultaneously). Work can be shared. Joy (she’s enjoying her independence, you enjoy alone time) is contagious. I wonder how your situation would change if you were able to conceptualize what’s going on in some of those frameworks.

I’m not saying it’s easy — far from it, in my experience — but the more I’m able to shift my thinking (without dishonoring my feelings in the moment), the more I am able to “discover new levels of patience or magic that were previously uncovered. … find things to say that will help her to understand. … enjoy every, or at least most, moments that we have together.” I want that for you, too.

(As an aside, my favorite course from college was “Peace Journalism”, which, among other things, pointed out just how pervasive metaphors of violence are in our language. Everything is a war, a battle, a fight; we deal low blows and stab people in the back; we have wars on terror and drugs and cancer; we fight for civil rights. Ever since then, I’ve been much more aware of my language, and whenever possible — not just in parenting — replace those metaphors with ones that are less two-sided, less antagonistic: we work, we labor, we strive. It’s been enlightening realizing that I don’t have to experience everything in terms of violence, even metaphorical violence.)


I didn’t include this in my reply, but I think these metaphors explicitly uphold and perpetuate kyriarchy: what more basic hierarchy — by which I mean way of placing some persons below/above others — is there than “winner” and “loser”? For these are what we create when we structure our language, our thinking, our culture on violence and battle, actual and metaphorical.2

Language shapes thought shapes actions: I think it does matter that from conception to death we are surrounded by and immersed in language that encourages violence and antagonism. I can’t change the language my child will be exposed to everywhere else in his culture, but I can, and to the best of my ability do and will, give him fluency also in language that encourages cooperation and mutuality.

  1. I realized right after hitting submit on the reply that this is yet another instance of violent metaphor sneaking into my speech.
  2. And yet, neither am I interested in committing the relatively-minor violence of imposing a “should” on anyone else’s words: things often do feel like battles, like fights, like attacks, and I think it pointless at best to deny the way we feel for some external ideal of language. I am not trying to tell anyone with this what they should say or write, only to illuminate the way I find our language works in our culture, and to share what I have found when I have made a change.
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16 Responses to Reply-turned-post: Metaphors of violence

  1. I read something very similar lately here:
    I completely agree. Language can have a strong – if subtle/subconscious – effect on our emotions/actions. Often just choosing with care the words I use with Kieran can soothe any frustration or anger I feel at his actions.

  2. Language is powerful, and affects us in many more ways, I believe, than we think it does. Thanks for this reminder about how switching the words we use can make a situation seem very different, and help us find better ways to resolve conflicts of interest.

  3. I’ll admit on several occasions in reminders to myself and my husband (especially as we near the teen years with 2 of our kids) of using the phrase “pick and choose your battles”. When I have said it I never really gave it much thought – as with teens even something said out of innocence can become a battle in their perspective, it’s just whether or not I will join in the fight. I’m not sure what other way to try and think of things at that age.

    With my 2 year old I don’t really think of things as battles – I’m sure many people do (battle of the wills, ect) but I realize he isn’t trying to make a “battle” he’s trying to gain a little independence, express himself. hmmm perhaps the (almost)teens and the 2 yr olds are quite alike. Good things to think about there. Thanks for the post!

  4. Prudence_Dear

    I love the idea of approaching life without the pervasive ideas of conflict, competition and dominance. Thank you for opening my eyes to still more of the myriad of ways these ideas permeate our the dominant discourse of our society!

    I’m always surprised to hear how antagonistic some parents see their relationships with their children. Negative comments about manipulation, and kids “trying to trick” their parents tend to push my buttons because those terms speak so clearly to an us-against-them mentality. I think a lot of traditional parenting “nightmares” (i.e. bedtimes, eating, chores, homework etc…) stem from this type of relationship and can be resolved much more easily through mutual respect and understanding which, I further believe, starts with paying attention to how we talk and what kinds of labels we stick on things.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts Arwyn.

    I try to start each morning with a fresh and positive perspective. I have to admit though, that as the day goes by, if it is a particularly difficult one, then my perspective and my language becomes more and more negative over the course of the day. I know it isn’t helpful…except sometimes for the purpose of blowing off steam on my blog…but it is hard not to slip into that mode. I’m not saying it is right. I’m not saying there isn’t a better way of doing it. But these days the better way sometimes escapes me. Today was better than yesterday though.

  6. This was made of WIN. See my use of combative language in response? Nearly pun like, but mostly just punklike. I always benefit from your thoughtfulness.

  7. I so agree about the power of language. Even beyond violence/antagonism based language I’ve been thinking lately about how we define “baby” and “toddler” and “child” and how this effect peoples’ attitudes about independence and discipline. I’ve been doing some research on this and in some historical times a child was a “baby” until 6 or 7 and in these societies the idea of early weaning and “tough love” were foreign concepts on young children.

    Kind of off topic but I just agree about he power of language. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet? I’m not so sure. I think our labels and symbolism have a much greater impact on understanding a perception than we know.

  8. that should read “understanding AND perception” not a perception. Sorry.

  9. Great ideas for reflection! Life is so much easier when we’re on the same side!

  10. Phoenix_Rising

    Um, how can I etch this into my brain? Help, please? <3

  11. Krista: you are right on with comparing the 2-year-old’s yearning for independence and the teenager’s attempt for the same. They really are the same developmental task carried out at different times and with different abilities. Separation from the parent (along with fear that they will completely succeed) is one goal at both ages.

  12. Our use of language can change our worlds. Not only can it affect how we are perceived, but it can change our own viewpoints drastically.

  13. Wonderful post. Snatching it for Sunday Surf and I will refer to it one day when I have the time to write the article I am brooding on about dichotomy… oh well
    I’m deducing you don’t need guest posts any more?

  14. I think I just wrote something mentioning “run-ins” with my wee one. I like to think of them like we’re accidentally running into each other on our way to separate goals. You know, like him not wanting to put on pants when I want to leave the house and then he runs the opposite way as I try to pick him up. That sort of thing. hahaha. I’ve never really thought about language in this way, but it’s a powerful point to make and one that will definitely be on my mind in the future.

  15. i have to admit I giggled a bit when you talked about “hitting” the “submit” key. But I have a love affair with words. I understand this when dealing with children, but as a writer, I can defend (oops, there’s one) the desire to use the most emotionally stirring metaphor possible. It can capture attention…um, engage…nope…

    Folks pay attention. ;)

    • Howie — Hah! I adore your wit.

      And to some extent, yes, there’s something to using stirring metaphors. But the problem with most violent metaphors is twofold: one, because the language of violence is so ubiquitous, it doesn’t get folks’ attention all that well; and two, it doesn’t just attract attention, it affects the way we think about the situation. When something is framed as a war or a fight, we think about it in terms of winners or losers — solutions that might be agreeable to all parties are less likely to occur to us, if for no other reason than we’ve been cued to think in terms of who’s “right”, not in terms of where the most good is.

      And yes, this can be a powerful rhetorical tool, but I strongly believe that its ubiquity, especially in the media, damages our society. It stunts our growth and constrains our humanity, if you will.

      So although I think avoiding violent metaphors can be especially important and useful in dealing with/talking about our children, I think we should consider what our words are saying everywhere else as well.

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