This post comes to you courtesy of an experience I had at a home education group recently. My son, who is two in a couple of months, had ignored my repeated instruction NOT to put in his mouth the random bunch of keys that had been left on the table. Whatever you may think of 22-month-old kids’ ability to remember and obey instructions in general, this particular 22-month-old has shown himself capable of both on a regular basis since he was a year old. Obviously in this case, my verbal warnings weren’t enough on their own to induce him to stop (all hail the power of shiny objects). So I resorted to a LIGHT smack on the back of the offending hand, alongside the repeated “No”.
He looked a bit stunned for a moment. Had a bit of a grizzle. And then he toddled off and found something else to play with that WASN’T germ-infested metal with pointy bits on. Five minutes later, he wandered back to me with a wooden toy lorry.
“Brmm, brmm,” I said, wheeling it along the floor. He giggled. Then he climbed up onto my lap and we had a game of Row Row Row Your Boat. After that we did some counting together. And then we went outside and had fun climbing up the grass bank.
If I were to relate this story without telling you about the bit about giving him a smack, it is likely that you wouldn’t have a problem with my parenting style so far, or with the quality of my relationship with my son. It’s when the physical discipline comes in that people start getting all argumentative. And so I wasn’t entirely surprised when, at the end of the group, another parent approached me.
“Excuse me,” this person said. “Could I just share something with you?”
“Sure,” I said. Sharing is a good thing, yes? We were all taught that in our formative years. So I listened.
“It’s just that…when I saw you smack your son on the hand, I felt such pain. And I didn’t feel I would be true to my own self if I didn’t share this with you. So I wonder if you might consider using an alternative form of discipline in future. And I do hope this won’t make you afraid to come back again.”
Er – EXCUSE me? Who the hell are you? I don’t even know your name! You don’t even know MY name! You certainly know nothing about me, my children or my reasons for making that choice. So butt out and leave me alone!
Was what I wanted to say. Especially given that whilst giving me this pretty little speech he fixed me with a glare that could possibly compete with Medusa’s, belying the affectation of ‘sensitivity’. But to give way to this impulse, I reasoned through my initial outrage, would probably mean just reinforcing any view he might have formed of me as a total psycho. And I am trying to practice Buddhist teachings in order to control my anger. So instead I nodded and said, “Thank you for sharing. Obviously you have your philosophy and I have mine. I’m not afraid of anyone, and I always try to do what I feel is best for my children. Thank you, and goodbye.”
It took me a few goes to get all of this out, because this individual kept interrupting me with descriptions of how ‘traumatic’ the sight had been and wouldn’t in fact let me leave until I very pointedly turned my back and walked away. Now that I have been through the emotional rollercoaster bit, I am in a position to relate this experience to the wider perspective of the smacking debate in our society.
I frequent a lot of parenting blogs and forums, and the issue has basically been done to death with one side insisting that any form of physical punishment is ‘child abuse’ and the other side insisting that it ‘never did them any harm’. According to parents who don’t smack, parents who do are abusively violent, unloving and only do it because they don’t know any other techniques, and their children are bound to grow up as crack addicts, criminals and sexual deviants. According to parents who do smack, parents who don’t are all limp-wristed, touchy-feely New Age types whose children are bound to grow up as crack addicts, criminals and…you get the picture. We’re divided, and it seems we will never find the Buddha’s ‘Middle Way’ on such a contentious issue. At least, not as long as we keep viewing each other as ‘proponents’ of this and that rather than members of our own community who, like us, are imperfect.
See, I believe that now and then, up to a certain age (in my opinion, my 4-year-old daughter is too old for it now) and within certain limits, smacking can work. I have done it in anger in the past and ended up being too heavy-handed, much to my extreme chagrin, so nowadays if I feel I’m getting to that point I will put distance between myself and my son, either by handing him to his dad or putting him in his cot whilst I calm myself down. But if it’s done mindfully, rarely and without excessive force, when the relationship between the child and parent is one characterized by love and trust, it can be the thing that works when nothing else has. In this case, it stopped my son from putting a potentially dangerous object into his mouth and helped to reinforce the rule about respecting other people’s property.
I am not a believer in ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. I don’t blame a lack of smacking for the degenerate state of society or anything like that, and I am a firm believer in trying everything else first. I also take off my hat to parents who can effectively discipline without ever using smacking. But I have to say, the passive-aggressive attack I came under fire from on Monday was confusing and frightening, and if that is how he deals with challenging behaviour from his own kids then I feel sorry for them.
I’d rather someone’s anger was out there, in my face, not pretending to be something it’s not, and that it blew over quickly. This guy was clearly angry with me. VERY angry. But he couldn’t admit to it. Why? Possibly because he feels that he has to be seen in a certain way in order to be acceptable – in order to fit in with the preconceived idea of what a non-smacking parent ‘should’ be like. Possibly because he was afraid that I would lash out at him. Who knows, really? Does he even know? I doubt it.
The point is, he doesn’t conform to the stereotype of his stance any more than I do to mine – and he seems entirely unaware of how incongruent his words are with his body language. So, instead of writing him off as an interfering, holier-than-thou hippie type who probably lets his kids run amok rather than risk damaging their oh-so-fragile self-esteem (my initial impulse), I am attempting to see him instead as just another suffering being in need of compassion. After all, it was probably a fairly brave (albeit stupid) thing to do – although I do note with interest that his emphasis was on his own hurt feelings rather than the welfare of my son. Perhaps that speaks volumes about his priorities – but perhaps it also shows that, underneath all the protestations, it was in fact abundantly clear that my little tap on the hand was very far from being child abuse.