John Winchester and Child Neglect: A Comprehensive Study.
It’s been a somewhat divisive subject within the fandom as to what kind of a parent John Winchester was. Frequently, I see posts pop up on my dash defending John, claiming that he loved his sons and did the best he could under the circumstances. Others claim John was blatantly abusive.
Well, I think it’s pertinent to lay the matter to rest once and for all: he undeniably was.
And we needn’t look to subtext for signs of physical abuse, either (though as many others have pointed out, there is plenty there): child neglect is the most common form of child abuse, and it is textually evident throughout the series.
The NSPCC defines the basic needs of children as follows, all of which John gratuitously neglected:
1. Basic physical care.
The NSPCC maintains that children should be provided with “warmth, shelter, adequate food and rest, grooming (hygiene) and protection from danger.”
Whether or not the various motel rooms they frequented could be equated to proper shelter, John routinely left his sons without enough food to share between them:
Young Dean is shown giving his portion of cereal up for baby Sam, and is later shown to have been forced to resort to stealing in order to feed him.
Even in his adulthood, when asked if he had ever been “really hungry. Like, not eaten for days hungry,” Dean emphatically replies that he had.
The signs of hygienic neglect are slightly more subtle, but also present: after spending the summer without Dean, for example, young Sam is shown in clothes that are obviously too big and unbuttoned at the sleeves.
And as for “protection from danger?” Well, unless you count giving your small children loaded firearms, sufficed to say it was nonexistent.
As the NSPCC puts it, healthy affection “includes physical contact, holding, stroking, cuddling and kissing, comforting, admiration, delight, tenderness, patience, time, making allowances for annoying behaviour, and general companionship and approval.”
Obviously, there was a point at which John would have provided his sons with adequate physical affection, but after Mary’s death it appears to be basically nonexistent.
He is shown to criticize Dean fairly consistently (”I wouldn’t have given you that car if I thought you were going to ruin it”), was unreasonably harsh in response to his childhood shortcomings (e.g. failing to protect Sam from a monster when he was ten), and “leaving him to rot” for the summer at a boy’s home for stealing food at the age of sixteen.
According to the NSPCC, security constitutes as “continuity of care, the expectation of continuing in the stable family unit, a predictable environment, consistent patterns of care and daily routine, simple rules and consistent controls and a harmonious family group.”
John constantly moved his children from one motel to another for the duration of their childhood. This prevented his children from formulating any lasting friendships with people their age, the effects of which are most evident in “After School Special:” Sam is left feeling like “a freak” in comparison to his peers, whereas Dean has already carefully developed his hypermasculine public image.
Moreover, John is predominantly absent in their lives, routinely missing holidays and disappearing for days on end. Hardly a stable parental figure for the boys to fall back on.
4. Stimulation and innate potential:
The NSPCC defines this as “praise and encouragement; curiosity and exploratory behavior. By developing skills though responsiveness to questions and to play, by promoting educational opportunities.”
Even disregarding John’s blatant discouragement of Sam’s pursuit of higher education, this is most evident in the characteristics of the boys themselves:
Sam is ambitious, motivated, self-disciplined, and academic. He prides himself on his ability to succeed in scholastic environments and conduct research, which got him a free ride to an ivy league university at the start of the series.
These are all characteristics typical of a firstborn child, whereas Dean’s laid-back persona is more typical of a second or third born.
As others have pointed out, this is because Sam WAS a first born child…to Dean.
The reason first-borns are typically such high achievers is because their parents treat each success as a momentous occasion, whereas their successors typically garner less attention. Dean was never praised for his accomplishment by John, whereas Dean provides Sam with a surprising amount of support and encouragement.
Even John’s journal takes note of this, stating that when Sam took his first steps, he immediately went to Dean.
5. Guidance and control.
“To teach adequate social behaviour which includes discipline within the child’s understanding and capacity and which requires patience and a model for the child to copy, for example in honesty and concern and kindness for others.”
John taught Dean how to perform various illegal activities, including credit card fraud and hustling pool.
This makes it doubly ironic that he reacted so violently to Dean stealing food or getting drunk as a teenager, considering he didn’t exactly set the best standard for upstanding citizenship. Maybe he was just upset he got caught?
“For small things at first such as self-care, tidying playthings or taking dishes to the kitchen and gradually elaborating the decision making that the child has to learn in order to function adequately, gaining experience through his/her mistakes as well as his/her stresses and receiving praise and encouragement to strive to do better.”
This one is a little different, considering John arguably entrusted too much responsibility to children his sons’ age. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he gave almost no encouragement to the boys for performing these tasks, leading Dean to realize John was possessed when he told him he was proud of him.
“To make his/her own decisions first about small things but increasingly about the various aspects of his/her own life within the confines of the family and society’s codes. Parents use fine judgement in encouraging independence and in letting the child see and feel the outcome of his or her own capacity. Protection is needed, but over-protection is as bad as responsibility and independence too early.”
John militaristically handles his sons, expecting them to be basically subservient to him and to obey his orders at all costs. He forcibly cut Sam out of his life when he chose to become independent in his adulthood, electing to attend college instead of continue hunting.
Moreover, Sam is visibly surprised that John let Dean go hunting alone at the age of twenty-six.
In conclusion, the reason I find John Winchester defendists so irksome is not that they demonstrate any real ill will, but that they demonstrate society’s fundamental understanding of what abuse looks like and the forms that it can take.
Moreover, they demonstrate the popular misconception that because someone is well-intentioned, likable, or even sympathetic under some circumstances, that they cannot be abusive.
I’m not saying John wasn’t worthy of pity. I’m not saying he wasn’t without redeeming qualities. I’m not even saying he didn’t love his sons.
I’m saying that he was, by definition, canonically abusive. And we, as a fandom, need to acknowledge this fact once and for all.