12 October 2013

Fight or Flight

(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
I belong to a group called Multicultural Kid Blogs, and a couple of my fellow mother-bloggers posted recently on spanking. Cordelia Newlin de Rojas explicated the role of spanking in French parenting, while Kim Siegal contemplated it in the context of her new home in Kenya. Both discuss their observations, congruent with research presented in NurtureShock, that in a culture where spanking is considered the norm, children don’t find it psychologically damaging, nor does it result in increased aggression. (I should also state that they dont advocate spanking, and they dont spank their own kids.)

The aggregated research on the effects of spanking seems to be inconclusive, likely because it would be difficult if not impossible to assess how spanking affects every child in every culture while controlling for other factors. 

I don’t want to delve into the science of spanking, however. Instead, I want to provide a snapshot of the way that spanking has played out in my life.

Frequently as I parent, I ask myself, WWSMD: “What Would a Senegalese Mom Do?” From carrying a baby on my back to benignly ignoring my kids sometimes to making my daughter watch her little brother, this question helps me keep perspective on American parenting. But one tradition I haven’t adopted is hitting. Senegalese children can be hit by parents, extended family, or even neighbors if they are truly out of bounds of good behavior. “Damay simi sama daal!”—I’m taking off my shoe!—is a threat every Wolof child understands. Although I choose not to hit or spank, I am uncomfortable with declaring that no child should be spanked, ever. I don’t wish to be a cultural imperialist—the road to hell, and all that. I know plenty of people who can declare, in various languages, “I was spanked, and I turned out fine!” Rather, I want to add my voice to an anecdotal history of spanking.

Both Newlin de Rojas and Siegal specify that spanking means a slap with an open hand on the behind, not done in anger, but as a controlled method to enforce discipline. They try to draw a firm line between spanking and beating. 

I grew up in the 1970s, when spanking was very much the norm in the U.S. My parents spanked rarely, as a last resort because I had gone beyond the pale and—I am certain now—they had run out of other discipline options. I remember clearly my dad saying once before spanking me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” With parental hindsight, I now understand what he meant. Yet I can simultaneously call bullshit on this assertion now as easily as I would have if “bullshit” had been in my vocabulary at that age. To compare his emotional pain to my physical pain is to compare fruits of the genus malus with those of the genus citrus.

Oddly, I don’t remember any of my particular offenses that led to the spankings, only the spankings themselves, and the feelings of pain, humiliation, and shame that accompanied them. I assume they “worked” in that I avoided being “bad” sometimes because I was afraid of getting a spanking. I do remember times when I had done something “bad” —usually a mistake, like breaking something—and wanting to hide my act because of that fear. 

The day I decided I wasn’t going to be spanked anymore is as clear as the other memories are murky. I had been playing around with my dad, and I was in high spirits. I tried to get him to drink milk diluted with water. I couldnt stop giggling. I had, in short, been bitten by the silly bug. I wanted his attention, my energy spiraled upwards and upwards as I fought to hold it. At some point, I knew I had pushed the boundary too far, and I could tell my dad was ready to spank me. 

I immediately backed up against my grandmother’s cabinets, my hands over my butt. I might even have been baring my teeth. I recognize now that I had entered fight-or-flight mode. I didn’t know how I was going to stop my dad; but I was determined with every fiber of my being NOT to get spanked. 

Whatever was in my eyes, my dad didn’t spank me, and neither parent spanked me again.*

Fast forward to my own parenthood, and the only day I experimented with hitting my child. This was not the “official” definition of spanking. I was mad and at the end of my tether. I had exhausted my other parenting tactics. So I was already frayed when my 2-year-old daughter slapped me... and it hurt. What seemed quicker than thought, my hand reached out and smacked her on the thigh, hard enough to sting. She recoiled from me, shock and hurt in her face, and said plaintively, “Don’t hit me!” 

I realized, in that moment, I was contradicting with my actions the core moral imperative I was trying to instill in her: don’t hurt people. If children learn best through modeling, I was providing the worst example. I felt like a beast, and I knew I was a hypocrite. 

Thats when I decided I would not hit my children. I can’t raise my hand without imagining a dog flinching in anticipation of a blow. That’s not the relationship I want to have with my child. 

But digging deep, thoughts and memories provoked by my colleagues’ posts, I realized this isn’t the only reason. Recently, my son has started to bite me when he’s frustrated. I’m still getting used to this new response, so he keeps slipping in bites before I can defend myself, and they hurt. Particularly yesterday, when his bite landed on my nipple. 

Nothing pushes me into a rage with my children as when they hurt me. “DON’T HIT/KICK/BITE ME!” I snarl. And I can feel it, my animal self, the fight-or-flight coming to blot out my reasoning centers. I have to walk away, choose flight instead of fight.

I have only been hit by a few people in my life: my parents and my grandfather. 

When my children inflict pain on me, it returns me immediately to that moment, my back up against my grandmother’s cabinets, my hands protecting my body. Its not a moment I want my children to have.

So I say no. And it will stop. 

(What happened in the weeks after I spanked my daughter in the coda to this post, Afterthoughts.)

*I realize that the combination of my last post and this one make it sound like I had a truly terrible childhood, and I just want to tell you, No! Really! My childhood had lots of happy times! Just as Tolstoy found unhappy families more compelling as literary fodder, so do I with the less happy moments of my childhood. NOT that Im comparing my writing to Tolstoy’s!


Are French Kids Better Behaved Because They Are Spanked? (InCulture Parent)
Do read the comments, since “French parenting” is hardly a monolith, as some of the comments point out.

Rethinking Spanking from the Land of Kibokos (Mama Mzungu)

Is Spanking a Black and White Issue? (The New York Times)
When casting around for other articles on spanking, I came across this roundtable discussion. Much talk of spanking in the U.S. centers on African-American communities, possibly because it is more acceptable, or because African Americans speak more openly about it, or both, or for a bunch of other reasons. (Certainly amongst my friends, those who discuss it with a certain nonchalance are African American, although not all my African American friends were spanked, or describe it nonchalantly.) I think I remember, although I cannot find it nor be sure that I really read it, an account that argued that African-American parents enforce discipline more strictly because acting “out of line” carries higher consequences for black kids in American society than for white kids. (Certainly Trayvon Martin’s fate—among several otherswould bear out that theory.) I want to draw particular attention to Daphne S. Cains contribution, where she writes, Corporal punishment is not counter to mainstream parenting practices; it is actually the norm” as a counterpoint to the discourse that spanking is not acceptable in American society.

Another realization I had when composing this post was that this is the only scene I remember from the entirety of Ingmar Bergmans film, Fanny and Alexander.


1 comment:

  1. I've been delving into so much research I think I had forgotten about the little girl who was feeling shamed and humiliated! Thank you for putting this all in a human perspective. There are a lot of layers of complication and (like I mentioned in my response to your comment on my blog) I think a bit one is that each child reacts differently to the same "punishment." I guess it all points to parenting is as much as art/intuition as scien ce.

    And I do think that there are better ways to discipline children to avoid all of the feelings you describe. Spanking/corporal punishment probably remains the norm throughout the world because it's quick and effective in the short term and parenting traditions are slow to change. I find myself sounding like my mother all the time and wonder where it came from. And it societies where pretty much everyone does the same thing it's hard to think about doing things differently. In America we are really given so much choice to carve out our own parenting philosophy and I don't think this is the case in much of the world (for better or worse). So, maybe while spanking is still "the norm" in America in certain circles (including my own) it's frowned upon. I guess it was in the spirit of questioning my own assumptions that I started thinking about this.

    Well... sorry for the rambling comment but my own thoughts are all over the place here! : ) Thanks for this very insightful reaction to the topic!!