discipline

Sticks And Stones

June 23, 2009

I have spanked my daughter. There, I said it.

I have spanked my daughter – just once, and for as good a reason as I think is possible to imagine for spanking – and I hated myself for doing it. But even though I hated myself for doing it, and even though I hope that I never do it again, I can’t quite bring myself to be outraged at another parent – no, not even Kate Gosselin – for doing it. Not because I think that spanking’s right, or even okay, but because disciplining children is a hard and complicated thing and one that – I don’t think – we can presume to understand well enough to judge from across the garden fence or down the grocery aisle or through the TV screen. If it’s not your kid, not your situation, odds are that you can’t fully understand the reasoning that might have gone into the bum-paddle that you witnessed. And if you can’t know, you can’t really judge. At least, I think you can’t. I’m still working this out.*

My parents were spankers. They always insisted that they hated doing it, that it hurt them more than it hurt us, and I always fully believed them. I still do. I never felt abused or harmed. I never doubted that they loved me. I never doubted their gentleness. Spanking was a punishment that was delivered upon my sister and I when we breached certain familial rules, like not acting in any way that might bring harm to ourselves or to each other. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, we knew well in advance what was coming. It never came as a surprise, and it was never meted out in the heat of anger. I can barely remember the spankings, now, only that they happened. I can, however, remember with perfect, uncomfortable clarity how it felt – in the years after we were too old for spanking and so were disciplined formally with groundings and informally with guilt – to be made to feel guilty. Guilt carried a greater and more lasting sting than the spankings. I can still feel that guilt – the burning cheeks, the hot tears, the sinking feeling in my stomach as my mother or father told me that I had disappointed them, that they were disappointed in me – in an immediate, visceral way. I have forgotten the spankings. I have not forgotten the guilt.

So I worry more, as a parent, about whether the modes of discipline that I use with my daughter are stinging her soul than I do about whether they’re stinging her bottom. I worry about whether the words that I choose or the tone of my voice or the look on my face are impressing fear or shame upon her. I worry about whether I am making her feel too badly. I worry that I don’t know how badly is too badly. I don’t worry so much about spanking.

Which, yes: it is easy for me to not worry about spanking, because I do not, as a rule, spank. But I have thought about spanking. I have been tempted on well more than one occasion to spank. The one time that I did spank I was – my own parents’ good example notwithstanding – so appalled at myself that I cried and vowed never to do it again, and that has been an easy vow to keep. But I have cried harder on the few occasions that I have made Emilia cry because the words that I used or the tone of my voice made her feel more terribly than was – perhaps? I don’t know – warranted by her crimes. I have felt worse about certain other parenting decisions, certain discipline decisions especially, than I did about the spanking.

I don’t believe in – as if it were something that one could or could not ‘believe in’ – hitting. I don’t believe in doing things that cause children harm, that visit unnecessary hurt upon them, that create a climate of fear. But there are things, I believe, that can cause more harm, visit more hurt, create more fear than spanking. And I worry about these things. Avoiding spanking is – with the exception of that one incident where, my god, my god, she very nearly caused serious harm to herself and to her baby brother – easy: you just keep your hands to yourself. Choosing the right words, the right tone, the right facial expressions – containing your anger, your fear, your frustration and wrapping it, tightly, in a perfectly balanced, perfectly contained disciplinary package – is much, much harder. I do my best – I do my very, very best – but even in my measured moments, I worry: have I impressed too much guilt upon her? Have I hurt her feelings unnecessarily? Have I made her doubt my love for her?

That day outside the grocery store, a few months back, when I pulled her away from the stroller and her brother and brought my hand to her bottom, that was a bad parenting moment for me. If you had seen it, you might have thought so, too. But I do not think that it was my worst moment – not for now, not even for the future – and the complicatedness of that fact – and of the facts that I do not always discipline perfectly, that I was doing the best that I could under the circumstances, that even in doing my best, I failed, and knew it, but also knew that I could have failed worse – was not something that you could have seen.

Which is why if I ever see you or Kate Gosselin or anyone spanking their child, I will not – unless it seems obviously abusive, and no, I’m not even one hundred percent what that means, which is why these things, these messy, messy things involving judgment are just so, you know, messy* – say a word. I can not say a word, because I am not without that kind of sin, and because I am not even certain that that sin is the worst of its kind.

*Beyond messy. I have judgmental thoughts, all the time. We all do. The question is knowing whether or when to say something. We shouldn’t turn away when someone is abusing a child, right? But what if one person’s ‘paddle on the bum’  is another person’s physical abuse? We should not pass judgment on other parents’ parenting – we haven’t walked in their shoes, we don’t know their story, it’s not our business – but does that mean anything goes? That we turn a blind eye in all cases? That we never speak of the questionable cases? But what is a questionable case, anyway?

This is – these questions are – about so much more than spanking. It requires far more words than I have here. Far more head and heart space than I have to devote here. So I have to – again – leave it for another time. But feel free to share your thoughts. Perhaps they’ll help me to clarify my own thinking.

Follow-up questions (because the discussion has gotten interesting):

A commenter below says that she would have called the police and pressed charges if she’d seen me swat my daughter’s bottom. Which I think is extreme, but it raises an interesting question: how do we balance fairness in judging other parents with protecting children and determining what is right and wrong in parenting? Should state tell us how to parent? Should other parents? Do some parents NEED to be told how to parent? Does the need to guide some parents trump freedom of other parents to parent how they choose? How do we decide whether, when or how to intervene?


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