Earlier in the week, while teaching my daughter a history lesson and simultaneously mentally reviewing the day’s unfinished task list, my patience and tolerance began to grow thin. In the midst of my explanations of the connections between the influence of the Roman Empire and why Christians celebrated Christmas in December in the way that it is done (because every six-year-old needs to know this to survive in life), my daughter completely trailed off into a field of inattention. She just stared through me blankly and began answering questions with quips and feigned uncertainty. This was after a morning of irresponsible actions and sneakiness, in a week of her repeated misbehavior and disrespect to other elders. I saw my own childlike face. The face of defiance and blank insouciance as I was pouring all of my energy into educating her was glaring at me, and instead of stepping away as I usually strive to do, I lost control. My hand struck her before I could compose myself and stop it.
I immediately regretted it. Hitting my child made me feel like an abusive partner in a relationship. Instant remorse and apologies. Explanations of my own anger and lack of self-control (all completely irrelevant.) Repeated professions of my love for her. Contrite desire to placate with gifts and awards. It’s sickening. I was immediately disgusted with myself. Though I know other parents that would have done the same, I couldn't justify my action because I knew it was based on my own pressures. The true reasons parents resort to physically harming their children are because:
- We take personal offense and feel personally disrespected when our children are disobedient. It's as though whatever they are doing, they are doing TO us. But, their actions don't always revolve around us. They are their own persons with their own feelings, thoughts, responses, etc. Their actions reflect them, not us. Our children come through us, not from us as “The Prophet” tells us.
- We feel superior and therefore entitled to take out our frustrations, anger, and insecurities on a child. This ideology has been transferred from one generation to the next, and has no basis. In fact, one could argue that it is the child who is superior in spiritual and social intelligence.
- And, we care a great deal about the opinions of others. We want other parents, and adults we may not even really know or like, to fawn over the behavior of our children. We fear being embarrassed and thought of as a "bad parent" because of our child's tantrum or blatant disobedience.
After I composed myself, I explained to my daughter how wrong it was for me to do that and asked how she felt. Through a stream of tears, she told me she was hurt, but it was “okay.” Quickly, I corrected her and told her it wasn’t. It was not “okay” for me or anyone else to hit her because of anger or frustration or inability to exude self-control. She didn’t have to accept that from me, and she should never think she has to accept that from anyone else. Love doesn’t hurt. The other emotions and stressors that get in the way of love do.
I have not always been of the thought that children shouldn’t receive corporal punishment. I certainly did, not enough for it to be considered “abuse” at the time, but enough to invoke a fear of defying my parents. I recognize that it can be cultural and circumstantial. Some of it was because we were southern, Black, and middle-class (read poor). Spankings and “whippings” can be prominent in each one of those groups, and most definitely when you have the cross-section of all three as was the case with my family as a child. Some argue that it’s rooted in the historical (and present) culture of oppression and slavery in the South; that Black parents especially have used it to control the behaviors of our children out of our own fear of the retaliation of Whites if they are not docile and meek. The Black proverb, "I beat you so the world won't" is false at best, however. The world has shown us that it cares not about how disciplined and respectful we are. It doesn't care if we're abiding by the law or operating in self-defense. The world, (ie police officers and anyone who feels empowered to act as such) can strike us down with little to no penalty whether we reflect "good home-training" or not. Instilling the "fear of God" in our children has become distorted and abused itself. There's a difference in a fear of harming a relationship with someone and a fear of being harmed by someone. If our children fear that we will physically harm them based on our direct actions towards them, then that's abuse.
It's not just a Black family issue either. Having lived and traveled extensively, I’ve witnessed the usage of physical discipline in varying cultures and socio-economic classes. And, I also know that corporal punishment for children predates slavery (that's not where we all got it from) and effects even the wealthy (Whites) in America. It has been used as a means of control of those seen as inferior, whether that’s children, women, people of color, or the impoverished. It is prominent and pervasive in cultures that are ripe with insecurities or lack of access or value of tools to assist with mental and emotional health.
Since having and teaching my own children, I’ve aimed at employing other disciplinary tactics. That’s not to say that I’ve never laid a finger on them, but it has been the last resort and was only done when I was no longer emotive, and every other strategy had failed. Other people, people I like much, much less than my children, have angered me and somehow I’ve restrained myself from hitting them. Why should I afford them a greater sign of respect than someone I love so greatly? Just because someone refuses to do what I want does not give me the right to strike them. A friend of mine voiced that in a way that resonated with me. That’s just not a socially mature response when engaging with other people, and children are people too.We typically talk through the emotion or “take a moment,” which means they go to their personal spaces of peace in our home to reflect on our principles and compose themselves before we sit and discuss their actions and consequences.
Sometimes, it’s me that has to walk away and take a moment. That’s what should’ve happened earlier. Instead of projecting my own “stuff” on my baby girl who, even in her disobedience, is cloaked in innocence, I should’ve picked up my personal, unrelated anguish and self-doubts and taken them to a place of peace to release. Doing otherwise didn’t help her learn history or discipline. Instead it gave her a lesson in feeling inferior. That’s a class I never want to teach again.
I am late coming to this epiphany. Even with my exposure and training in Kingian Nonviolence, I admit that my restraint and usage of other disciplinary tactics with my children thus far has been an attempt at being more progressive in my parenting, but not really because I fully understood the importance of offering children an equal respect and protection of their bodies as I’d want for my own. Most of us understand this in the concept of sexual abuse and misconduct as it relates to children, but do not correlate striking a child in any way as an unwanted touch, and therefore abuse. This shift has to happen though, and if admitting my own parenting flaws and opening myself up to public criticism helps to serve as advocacy for children, then it’s a small price to pay.