So three or four years ago, my kid broke the screen on her iPad, for the second time.
I was telling the story to my students before class started, kind of laughing about it, the way you do, because kids, am I right, when one of the students in the back row said, “You need to beat that child.”
I gave her a puzzled look. “Why would I do that?”
“How’s she going to learn?” she asked, equally puzzled by my response.
This started my informal research project to Understand The Spanking Parent*.
Over the past five years, in my classes and informally in conversations with students and friends and family, I have asked parents who hit the reasons why they hit their kids.
These are the main reasons I collected
- The child talks back
- The child argues
- The child lies
- The child has forgotten something, like her homework, or the shoes she needed
- The child is in trouble at school/elsewhere
- The child is in imminent danger and must be hit to save its life!
- The child has it coming
- The child disobeyed
This last one breaks down into two categories. Either the child has simply forgotten to do something, as in the child was told to do the dishes, or take out the trash, and forgot to do it; or the child deliberately disobeys, as in the child knows she’s supposed to clean up her room, and just doesn’t.
There is also a kind of loose category called “The kid screwed up,” which is where my kid and her iPad would fall, I guess.
I heard a lot of interesting stories as parents explained to me why children needed beating**.
Some of them just amazed me. “My daughter shows up for church, no church dress, no shoes. Well! I just cut me a switch. She won’t forget again.”
Or: “Rolled her eyes at me! I gave her a reason to roll her eyes.”
Or: “Rule at my house is I call you once, and then it’s a whupping. And none of this I-didn’t-hear-you-Mom, either. You better hear me.”
Their favorite explanations fall under the imminent danger. You have to hit or otherwise harm children, I got told, to protect them from danger: This is the hot stove, on-coming traffic, Mean Police Officer Reason. If you don’t hit your child, how do you keep her from running into traffic? If you don’t beat your child, the police will.
This may sound convincing, at first glance, but then I ask the parents who use this method of discipline whether they would leave a two year old they had smacked for running into the road to play near the road on its own. They stared at me like I was insane. “So…” I said. “You don’t think hitting the kid teaches it not to run into the road, then?”
I grew up in New Orleans. My kid and I have had a number of discussions of what to do if a police officer ever pulls her over. I didn’t have to beat her to teach her not to mouth off to a cop. We discussed it, at length, instead. She knows exactly what to do if and when she is ever pulled over by the police. How her parents beating the hell out of her to make her tense and terrified of authority would be helpful in this situation I cannot imagine — well, except that it would teach her that she deserves whatever beating the police dish out to her.
*** *** **** ****
I’m afraid that in my quest to understand parents who beat their kids I began to form a hypothesis.
Some parents don’t hit their kids at all. In American society, so pervasive is our societal bias toward beating children, that it takes a deliberate act of will, a philosophical determination on the part of a parent, to decide against hitting.
This is not to say you are never tempted to smack your child (just once! Just one time! What could it hurt!) when she is screeching and wailing about something truly ridiculous that you can do nothing about (“Why did you pour the milk into the cereal? Why, why, why? I wanted to put the milk in the cereal! MEEEEE! MEEEE! MEEEE!”).
But you take a deep breath, you ask yourself, “Will hitting her make her cry more or less? Will hitting make this child better or worse?” And you find a different way.
Whereas, once parents take the path of raising a child with violence – once parents decide, in other words, that violence is an answer, well, you know the joke about hammers and nails.
And talking to parents who hit their kids, this is what I have found. Once you decide that hitting your kids is an acceptable disciplinary tactic, pretty soon you’re like that woman in my class a few years ago. You don’t just use it as a last resort, or when the child’s behavior is especially egregious.
You use it for everything. And often you will use it even when it isn’t warranted – you will hit the kid when you’re short-tempered and angry, when you’re hungry or tired, when really you’re the one who needs a time-out.
And you use it for vengeance.
What are good reasons to hit your kid?
Lots of parents gave me lots of reasons. I didn’t hear a single good one.
*Not to be confused with an actual research project. Seriously, folks.
**They say spanking, but when I inquire it’s very nearly always beating, which I define as hitting a child harder than a mild slap and more than once and often with an object such as a belt or a switch. Full disclosure, btw: I’m not only against beating; I am also against punishment.
[Images: Wikicommons; Flikr]