This post is part of my Parenting Calmly series written by guests to offer a variety of experiences and ideas. We want to bring encouragement, hope and inspiration as parents learn to let go of harmful practices and embrace helpful ones. How can you strengthen the relationship with your child in a way that brings laughter, love and ease to your family? Let’s find out together.
Please welcome writer, De Smith.
There are some things that are in a constant or near-constant state of flux, like fashion. Sometimes, it is little things like hemlines or colors; other times it is big things that come with questions. Remember the bra-on-the-outside in the ‘80s? That was kind of shocking at first and there were lots of people who said it wasn’t outerwear, but underwear. Today, someone wearing a “Papa Don’t Preach”-style bra in public wouldn’t garner gawking or dropped jaws. Before the 80’s craze, a bra was underwear and would have been considered scandalous worn outside of one’s clothing. But time and exposure and understanding concepts have changed perceptions.
Parenting ideas can be like that, too. There are “societal norms” that go back through parents and grandparents and beyond what we can remember from our own personal experience; things that get ingrained in our psyche, in our cultural ideas of “normal”. They become so ingrained, sometimes, that the concept of anything else is startling and discomfiting; it can be something that leaves us feeling unbalanced and fearful. As much as our society touts independence and uniqueness, there are quiet parameters to that – definite lines that, if crossed, become alarm bells and garner finger pointing and distrust.
Spanking is one of those “norms”. Though the numbers of parents crossing the quiet, black lines into “non-spanking” territories, in general, our society is a punishment/spanking-based one.
I have not admitted in public before, because I was ashamed to: I spanked. Oddly enough, I was so against spanking (from a very young age) that I hesitated to get pregnant after my husband and I were married. I called a “stop hitting” help line once, telling them of my fear that because I’d been brought up in a household where spanking was the norm, I’d be unable to help myself and I would become a spanker, even though I didn’t want to. My even bigger fear, which I didn’t voice out loud to anyone other than my husband, was that I would become so enraged while in “spank mode” that it would morph into beating – just as I had experienced as a child. The operator on the other end of the line chuckled at my fears and told me that because I was aware, I was armed against it and I needn’t worry. This attitude did the opposite of quelling my fears: indeed, it made me more anxious.
I had reason to worry. I found myself once, frustrated that my husband (before we married) was not understanding my gestures as we played Charades, having slapped him (lightly) across the face. I was shocked – maybe more so than he! – that it had happened at all. There was no conscious thought to it… One moment, I was gesticulating, the next, my eyes were wide and my hand over the O of my mouth in shock as I realized what had happened.
My frustration-to-anger timeframe seemed indecipherable, instantaneous. It seemed as if my frustration and anger controlled me – even against my will, some times.
The problem came from a lack of tools to deal with my feelings.
As most children of my era, we were told how to feel and scoffed at if parents or adults thought we should not feel the way we did. No one modeled coping behaviors to me. I learned early on that anger was dealt with by either throwing things, yelling or hitting, and usually by placing blame on others – most often children. Most of the parents I was able to observe confirmed portions of this. Non-parental adults usually didn’t go to the extremes that parents did, but they had the same general attitude. Nowhere that I remember was I exposed to coping techniques or de-escalating practices or even adults that were calm and understanding about big mistakes; events that would make most adults yell and/or spank.
When our oldest was born, I was still against spanking. Well, actually, I was never “for” spanking, as it were, so that is kind of a misnomer. There were times, as he got into the late part of his third year and beyond, where I would pat him on his diapered butt – not in any way a “hit” or “spank”, just enough to have his diaper cover crinkle. Something to get his attention. It seemed harmless enough, but it set a precedent.
As he got older, parenting seemed to get more difficult. I thought I’d thrown out the spanking tool, but the problem that I couldn’t yet see was that I was still trying to make a soufflé with jelly bird eggs (jellybean) and even if I was using a spatula instead of a whisk, I really didn’t have a clue.
Much parenting advice these days says, “Don’t say “no” or “don’t”, because that leaves a void: instead of “Don’t run”, say “Please walk”. That’s what a large part of “stopping” something like spanking is about. I knew I didn’t want to spank, but I didn’t know what I should do, instead. Any other ideas I could think of or find seemed negative. Alternatives never really “clicked”. There was no “ah-ha!” moment, nothing that seemed like a viable set of tools that were clearly the tools for the job and not just a twist on the same old thing.
I knew that I had to be in control; I had to be the boss. It wasn’t really something I consciously though about, it was just one of those things that was ingrained in me because of the society I grew up in. Occasionally, as he got beyond the toddler years, I’d swat his butt enough to feel it, but not hurt. Just once, usually as he was passing or climbing. I employed ear-tugging techniques. I gave toys time-outs (not the child, but the toy). I took toys away. Nothing really mattered to him. He wanted to do what he wanted to do, regardless of the danger, inconvenience or what I the parent/boss wanted. In frustration, and as a last resort, I finally accepted defeat and realized that I was going to have to start paddling him.
I even delineated “spanking” as being “with a hand” and “paddling” to be with a “tool”. I don’t think I paddled him even 10 times. I do remember approaching each time I “needed” to paddle him with dread and a churning stomach. I’d be stern and firm and spank or paddle him 4 or so times, repeat what behavior I was punishing him for, send him on his way, then find a secluded spot and cry. I hated having to do it. Every time. That period didn’t last for long.
I was lucky enough at that time to happen onto a parenting idea that came at it all from a completely different angle: partnership.
I began reading voraciously. I couldn’t quite believe what they were saying: no punishment is required if there is respect and partnership. I had some serious knee-jerk reactions to these statements. Each example that was touted had me muttering to myself, “That would never work in MY house!” Yet, I was intrigued and I kept reading. The examples were different and the solutions were often quite different, though they all had that same base core of ingredients: respect & partnership. I read with a small bit of skepticism and a lot of surprise, the claimed results of this new (to me) idea of parenting. I read a long time, with growing hope, before I decided to try things out, myself.
Things got better. I worked with my oldest, trying for a win-win situation in each difference of opinion we had. I had a hard time adjusting from what I’d “known” about parenting for more than 33 years to this completely different idea of parenting; that Madonna-style bra that was just so obnoxiously staring me in the face.
It was working… and yet, I still had the core of “flash to rage” within me. I tried seeking out advice on that, not really wanting to admit it, nor the tendencies I had to resort to a swat on the behind when I was too tired or hungry or tense to remember to be a partner. One bit of advice stuck with me: that if I could pause, just count to 3 or 5 or 10, even just count to one – just take a moment… that would lead to longer moments, which would lead to the ability to redirect myself or my thoughts, to eventually work up to enough time to calm myself and re-center and get in touch with those new ideas of partnership & respect so that I could problem-solve in the moment.
Do you know – as much as I wanted to – I could not take a moment in the heat of anger? Not even one second. By this time, our youngest had been born and 95% of the time, he’d gotten patience and understanding and partnership. But occasionally, that toddler still got a spanking on his diapered bottom. Not really for a punishment/reason – just because my flashpoint was so quick, I couldn’t catch it.
I kept telling my kids that I didn’t want to spank. I didn’t like the idea of spanking and I was done. I really meant it when I said it. But I still hadn’t found the tools to cope with my frustration. One day, when the youngest was on our bed and I hit that flash point and my hand flew out before I could think… Afterward, he turned around with such a look of mistrust, reproach and condemnation with big tears in his eyes, that it broke my heart. I’d promised I wouldn’t spank any more and I’d not only left respect & partnership behind, but I’d broken a sacred promise.
That was the turning point. The next time my temper took over, I pulled back my hand and swung – and stopped just short of his butt. That happened several times. The next step, I raised my hand and stopped there. After that, I felt the urge in my arm and quelled the urge. Along this path, I started doing breathing exercises that I’d learned as a kid to quiet down and rest, then refreshed in my birthing classes. I started taking time after each episode where I got blindingly angry, talking to myself and figuring out what the heck there was to be so angry about. I started realizing that most of the time, there wasn’t anything to be so blindingly angry about.
Knowing I could actually remain calm and that I could cope with something without being angry made it almost second nature to flip that switch to “cool” before it even got warm. It was a process – it didn’t happen overnight. But, compared to the 33 years prior, where it was “who I was”, it was pretty quick. Having my oldest get into the puberty stretch of life, where hormones add fuel to sparks helps me to be sure I don’t slip back into old habits. I am the one who’s setting the example – he needs to have someone to learn from, because I know what the result can be without guides and models and choices.
Our youngest, having had less experience with the flash-to-anger, is a calm person who doesn’t strike out when he’s angry or disappointed or frustrated. Neither with words or hands. He is quick to let me know when something’s broken or spilled because he is sure he’ll get assistance and love and guidance.
Just a few weeks ago, my oldest grabbed a hot bowl of Coney sauce out of the microwave and brought it to the table and set it down a little too hard. It shattered. Ten years ago, I would have raged and been upset about food that was going to waste and a dish that was broken. That day, my first question was, “Are you okay?” He was upset – most likely he felt at fault, but he started yelling at himself. His daddy & I assured him that there was no problem: there was more Coney sauce to warm up and more dishes – even ones exactly the same. “Accidents happen”, I told him, “I’m just glad you didn’t get cut or burned.” The best part is that there wasn’t a rage to quell, first, before I could respond calmly. The tools & recipes I’d been given and the dedication I’d given to using them had gotten into my psyche and replaced those “norms” upbringing and society had instilled in me.
That’s not to say I’m perfect; I still keep aware and practice techniques and talk myself through things. However, I can say that that instant-rage has at least gone into remission. I rarely get angry to the point of lashing out; I don’t get angry much at all, any more. Disgruntled, yes. Frustrated, yes. But, those get less as time goes by, too.
I’ve found many “gaps” that I had before could be filled with something I can do. That helps cut the frustration level, too. Best of all, my family has all become one big partnership, where everyone tends to look out for one another, are generous with their help and criticism is few & far between. We like each other and we want to be with each other.
Neither of my kids has forgotten all about “fire mama”. They will occasionally bring up things from the past and share with me how upset or hurt they were by it. I always apologize. I wish I’d have found my solutions earlier, so that they didn’t have to deal with “fire mama”, but I’m glad I found them while they were young enough that it mattered. I tell my stories in hopes that it might help someone else find their solutions sooner rather than later – or worse, too late. Hopefully, my kids won’t be trapped by other societal “norms” and will find it easier to take alternative paths, if those are the right paths for them. Hopefully, my struggles with being a better parent will give them a leg up not just on parenting but on interacting with others and help them be better friends, partners, significant others, siblings, workers, bosses, etc.
It can be a struggle to walk that path outside the lines of societal norms, but if it is the right thing, it can be so rewarding and it can change many lives for the better. No matter how remote the path is that you choose, you are not alone on that path.
De Smith lives in Ohio and is mom to two wonderful, active boys. Together and with her husband, they create original sculpture jewelry sold through their Smithfits Bazaare Emporium. Visit their facebook page or shop their store to support small family business.