A little while back I witnessed an act of violence and an act of tenderness. Both, as it turned out, in the span of about 15 seconds and both in the same family.
At a supermarket a family had their two young boys in those fun shopping carts that look like little cars. At the checkout, the mother tried to get one of the children out of the cart; he protested, shook out of her grasp, and climbed back in. A few seconds later the mother bent down and slapped the boy, who looked about two years old, on the cheek. Hard. He immediately burst into tears.
Now the act of tenderness. The father immediately went to the boy, bent down, cradled the reddened cheek softly in his palm, and soothed him. Apparently the parents have differing ideas on child-rearing, and I won’t venture an opinion on what this means to their relationship, but that’s not the point. Point is, I was shocked, disgusted, and at the same time oddly discomfited, as though I were both intruding on their privacy and looking at myself.
You’ve lost your temper with your child. You now feel remorse, guilt, shame. You shouted. You grabbed your son’s shoulder a little too tightly. You didn’t really need to use so much force, but you did anyway, in the sudden surge of your anger and frustration. So now what? Do you apologize? Do you try to ‘make it up to him’? Do you ignore the incident? Most of us have been here, in the uncomfortable moments following an outburst, when your rational mind takes over, the adrenaline leaches from your system, your muscles relax, your breathing slows, and you are left with a cold sense of self-reproach.
In 2004 a woman in northern Indiana was caught on a parking lot surveillance tape violently shaking her child. The nation was riveted, shocked, outraged. A manhunt ensued, and after several days the woman turned herself in to police. She was publicly excoriated. As a nation, we had moved on from such medieval treatment of children. We are no longer a country of corporal punishment. Or are we?
My older siblings were occasionally physically punished, usually, I’ve been told, with a smack to the back of the head. An immediate, almost reflexive reprimand, not the calculated process of actually putting a child over your knee. As the youngest of five, with thirteen years separating me from my oldest brother, I was never subject to these whacks. Perhaps my parents were just too tired by that point. Or perhaps attitudes toward corporal punishment were gradually changing, so that between 1957, when my brother was born, and 1970, when I came along, it has become no longer socially acceptable.
I do remember two occasions on which my parents hit me.
The first was when I was in my early teens, and had been suspended from school for one week, for reasons of which you needn’t be apprised. On the first day of my suspension, I was awakened and informed by my mother that this was not to be a holiday, that I was to spend my time at home studying. I mouthed off. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but it was, no doubt, disrespectful. My father overheard, charged into my bedroom, and backhanded me repeatedly, while I intoned, God knows why, “I’m ok, Dad, I’m ok,” over and over. My mother rushed in and put an end to it.
A little later, seated at the kitchen table with a textbook, a massive lump on my forehead and an eye swollen nearly shut, my father came up behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, apologized, and burst into tears. I had never seen my father cry. Crying myself, I simply said, “It’s ok, Dad.” He replied, “No, it’s not.” And it wasn’t. I had been beaten. Pretty badly. This was a level of violence that most would agree is not justified, that, in fact, was a criminal act, and that had the potential to leave long-term negative effects. It hasn’t. Within a few days relations had normalized, and I once again had a marvelous relationship with my father. Although we never talked about it since that morning at the kitchen table, I think both of us agree that it was wrong, but was a one-time incident not worthy of remembrance.
The other incident was minor by comparison. I was in my mid-teens (of course), and in an irritable moment of disagreement told my mother to shut up. She immediately smacked me, rather sharply, on the side of the head. I was, understandably, taken aback. My first thought was, ‘ Wow, my mom just hit me.’ My second, after the initial numbness wore off, was, ‘Wow, that really hurts a lot.’ My third was, ‘I probably deserved that.’ We continued our rather mild argument then got on with our lives. I thought very little of it, and it was quickly forgotten.
Well, ok, you’re saying, it’s one thing to smack your teenage son in a moment of fury, but quite another to routinely use corporal punishment as a tool for behavioral ‘correction’ on your young child. Remember, Jack Torrence told the spectral caretaker in ‘The Shining’ that his family would be ‘corrected’ right before he tried to hack them to bits with an axe. Clearly going too far, and a lesson not likely to be long-lasting. So how much physical force is too much? Have we, as a culture, abandoned the use of ‘spanking’ and its various incarnations?
A recent study published in the journal Child Development found that children who were spanked at a very young age tended to act more aggressively, and performed worse on tests measuring thinking skills than children who were not. To many of us, this would seem obvious. Aggressive behavior toward a child results in aggressive behavior from that child. Other studies have linked spanking with anti-social behavior and low self-esteem. Spanking, it would seem, is bad for your kids. Many experts in the field of childhood development disagree, however.
An associate professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University, Robert Larzelere, has concluded that spanking is a highly effective method of getting a child to conform to desired behavior. The vast majority of us, apparently, agree. A 1999 study published in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review found that roughly 94 percent of parents of children ages 3-4 reported having spanked their children within the previous year. The numbers are somewhat surprising. I would wager that, if asked, most Americans would have put that number at under 50 percent. Who still spanks their child, after all?
Child Trends Data Bank reported in 2004 that 79 percent of women aged 18-24 believed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.” The number drops to 71 percent among 25-44 year old women, and dips dramatically to 61 percent for women aged 45 – 65. In other words, the younger demographic, who might be expected to have more ‘enlightened’ ideas about corporal punishment, were actually more likely to find it acceptable. So again, who is doing all this spanking?
Research has found that parents who spank tend to be younger, less educated, were spanked themselves as children, live in the South, or identify themselves as conservative Christians.
Fine, but you don’t come under any of these rubrics, have a philosophical, perhaps even visceral aversion to corporal punishment, and have never laid anything but a loving hand on your child. So why this occasional feeling of guilt when you lose your temper with your child? Why do you sometimes feel that you’ve gone too far?
In an interview after her arrest, the Indiana woman on the surveillance tape claimed that she had no idea that she was being so rough with her daughter. She stated that she was horrified watching the scene, and deeply sorry for her actions. I tend to believe her. In a scene in Monsters, Inc., scarer James P. Sullivan, the lovable purple giant voiced by equally giant and lovable John Goodman, is forced to give a demonstration of his scaring technique in a simulated environment. The performance terrifies Boo, the little girl who has become his temporary ward and whom he has grown to love. It is only when he watches himself on a television monitor that he understands the ferocity and violence inherent in his actions. It is a moment of epiphany.
I think that if we were to watch a replay of our faces, our body language, the surprising violence we display, for example, in pulling our child away from the mess he has made, we too would be horrified. If we were to see what our children see when we lose our tempers, at the giant, powerful, and momentarily terrifying figure the usually loving and gentle parent presents, at the furious eyes and contorted face, I bet most of us would blanch. We would feel shame, embarrassment, guilt. And we should. And shouldn’t.
Our children infuriate us at times. They misbehave. They drive us mad with their stubbornness, their intractability, their, at times, sheer naughtiness. It is inevitable that, on occasion, we will simply reach our limit and blow up. At such times there may be a host of other contributing factors. We may have had a bad day at work, we may be burdened with financial concerns, perhaps we’ve had an argument with our spouse and the trash needs taking out and the dishes are piling up and the baby is wailing. We lose it. We lash out, perhaps verbally, perhaps with a level of physical force that is unnecessary, even frightening. Then we beat ourselves up and think we are terrible parents. We’re not. We’re just people feeling our way through the murky waters of parenting.
I once asked my father how you know you’re ready to have children. His response? You never really do. Children tend to think of their parents as infallible, and we tend to fall into the trap of thinking that we indeed need to be. My father went on to say that even after years of being a parent, you are never still quite certain that at any given moment you are doing the right thing, or don’t think in retrospect that you could have handled a particular situation differently. Better.
All of this sound like an apologetic, like a search for justification for our own bad behavior. It is not. It is just that parents should realize that exhibiting anger with your children is natural. Should you do your best to manage and curb your occasional rage, channel it in a more positive direction, take a step back and view the situation through your child’s eyes? Absolutely. Is there ever any rationalization for hurting your child? Of course not. Personally, I feel that spanking, in whatever form it takes, is something best left in the past. And obviously, when we manage our own anger we are passing that example on to our kids.
So what does this all mean for those of us for whom spanking is not even a consideration, but who occasionally, in moments of anger, feel the line between reasonable discipline and parental misconduct blur in the red mist of rage? What, after all, do we do when we lose it with our kids? Learn from it, make a mental note to avoid repeating it, then get over it. Chances are, your child already has.