This post is about something personal and very important to me: the physical punishment of children.
On Friday, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) issued a Media Release with their Position Statement and brochure on the use of Physical Punishment in Children. I greeted this document with a quiet cheer …
The cloud of physical punishment loomed over my childhood: I know what it’s like to cower when your mother raises her hand. I know that feeling of dread. I know what it’s like to be thrown over your mother’s knee, pants down, bare bum whacked, again and again. I know what it’s like to have your head banged against your sister’s because you’ve been fighting. I know what it’s like to be dragged by the ear from the backyard to your bedroom because you’ve left your toys on the floor. I know what it’s like to speak, then be silenced by a slap across the face. I know what it’s like to run to the bathroom and lock yourself in so your mother can’t reach you, only for her to pull the door handle right out so she can get to you.
I know what it’s like to lie in bed of a night crying, wishing and hoping someone would notice how unhappy you are. Wishing and hoping someone would come and take you out of it, rescue you from it. But knowing that no one can, because you can’t tell anyone what’s really going on behind the closed doors of your home.
I know how hard it is to drag yourself out of bed some mornings and front up to school and act as if you’re okay.
I know, too, how much it batters your self-esteem, self-confidence and self-respect. I know how many scars it leaves.
I know what it’s like to watch TV shows with nice mums, and to see other kids with their kind mums and wish it were you.
And I know how hard it is to stop these behaviour patterns so that you don’t perpetuate it for the next generation.
I hated being hit for many reasons, including that it hurt. I usually fought against it—crying, screaming, kicking.
‘It’s for your own good,’ my mother would say as she hauled my pants down. ‘It would be irresponsible of me as a mother if didn’t smack you. I have to teach you and You. Must. Learn. Not. To. Hit. Your. Sister.’
It taught me, all right. But not what she wanted it to teach me…
What being hit taught me:
It taught me to do anything I could to avoid punishment. To lie or hide what I was doing if it was wrong.
It taught me that I was a bad child. That I wasn’t ‘good’ like everyone else.
It taught me to accept that I deserved to be punished, deserved to be hurt.
It taught me that my pain, my feelings, didn’t matter.
It taught me that my body wasn’t something to be respected.
It taught me that adults had power, and that I, as a child, was powerless.
It taught me fear; it taught me anger; and it taught me violence.
What being hit didn’t teach me:
It didn’t teach me self-confidence or self-worth.
It didn’t teach me responsibility or self-discipline.
It didn’t teach me about mutual respect.
It didn’t teach me mutual love.
And it didn’t teach me how to be a mother.
My parents did a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) course in 1978, when I was eleven. My mother did a further course and became an instructor.
At the time they did the course, I read the PET book. As I read I became more and more excited: here was a book that actually advocated listening to kids. It said that kids’ feelings and needs were valid. That it wasn’t just about the parents. That when kids talked about their feelings, they weren’t being selfish. That love and respect was mutual, not just one-way.
But the best bit was that it advocated non-violence—even from a parent to a child. This book confirmed what I’d instinctively believed—that it was wrong to hit your child. That my feelings of resentment, powerlessness and frustration were valid. I was hopeful new way this would revolutionise our family.
It didn’t. Because I was so bad, my mother told me, that PET didn’t work on me. The only language I understood, she said, was violence.
I re-read the PET book many times throughout high school. At night, I lay in bed pretending I was talking to someone who was listening, ‘actively listening’ like the book taught. I told this imaginary person everything that was going on in our house.
And, at the age of eleven, I made a vow to my future kids that I would never smack them. I told anyone who would listen and repeated it many times over the next couple of decades. My mother told me I’d change my mind when I had children of my own.
The physical punishment worked when I was young. I tried to obey my mother and my teachers. But as I grew, so did my resentment, and so did my wrongdoings.
When I was fourteen it occurred to me that I was bigger than my mother. The next time she raised her hand to hit me, I raised mine and said, ‘If you hit me, I’ll hit you back.’ She hit me, so I hit her back.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel powerless.
That’s when the really big battles began. The yelling, screaming. The hitting and hitting back. The arms thrashing, scratching. The kicking. Both of us.
As a child, I didn’t realise my ‘punishments’ were child abuse. Nor did I realise how traumatic it had been, not until I had my own children. As I watched them grow and develop, it brought it all back.
Parenting didn’t come naturally to me and I was envious of other first time mums who seemed to do it with ease. They didn’t worry if their babies cried—they cradled them in their arms and their children seemed to fit like they were meant to be there. They put them on the floor and left them to kick and gurgle. They went out and left their children with babysitters for hours at a time.
I couldn’t do any of that. I couldn’t leave my baby—I had to be there for every one of her waking minutes. If I did go out, I felt an anxiety that bordered on panic, phoning home to see if she’d woken and as soon as she did, I dropped everything and ran back to her.
The worst was when she cried. At the slightest whimper, I scooped her up and tried to soothe her. Her cry triggered memories of me, alone in my bed and crying to myself. The thought of her doing the same and knowing such loneliness terrified me.
I bought parenting books and piled them on my bedside table. I knew ‘violence bred violence’, but I was determined I wasn’t going to do to my children what had been done to me. I knew the way I wanted to parent and I wanted to keep my vow not to smack my kids. I needed that line drawn and I was not going to allow myself to cross it, ever. I knew if I did, I’d be on a slippery slope to violence.
At times, especially in the early days, it took every crumb of self-control not to give into the urge to hit. Sometimes, I had to sit on my hands, quite literally. Other times, I locked the kids inside and myself out, until we’d all calmed down. I’ve had to walk out of their rooms and hand over to my husband. Once, I left them with my husband and drove off and bought an ice cream and a magazine, and sat in the car licking the frozen cone and looking at pictures of celebrities until I was calm enough to return home.
Over the years, it’s become easier. I’ve had seventeen-and-a-half years of practice now and the non-violent way has become my default reaction. I no longer feel a desire to hit my children when I’m mad at them—well, maybe I still do sometimes, but it’s easier to resist.
It was only through learning that there was a better way that I’ve managed it. That’s why I greeted this Position Statement with a cheer (and a quiet tear). It’s unfortunate that the overwhelming majority of Australians think it’s a parent’s right to smack their children. But, it is assault and children are the only people in our society whom it is still legal to hit.
I did want to write about the Position Statement but I’ve run out of room. I would encourage people to click the link and read all of it and see for yourselves. At least the conversation has started …
THE BROKEN ALBATROSS
Screaming, ‘No, Mummy. Please Mummy. I promise I’ll be good, Mummy.’
Her knees hard under my belly.
My pants yanked down,
Her hand against my skin.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
Until I can scream no more,
Just whimper and sob,
My breath caught in my throat.
The office buzzer calls,
She flings me from her knee.
Her footsteps bound the hallway,
The door closes with a click.
I lift my pants back up,
And stay in my room,
Weeping quietly now,
Wiping my tears on my sleeve.
I see my puffy, blotchy face in the mirror.
I see why my mother could never like me,
Because I am freckled and red-haired and ugly.
But somewhere inside, always a faint anger,
Because she is wrong,
And she never gave me a chance
To show her who I truly am
Or what I am capable of.
I feel it there,
A white bird deep inside me,
Trying to flap its wings,
But they are wet and stuck to its body.
Still it keeps trying –
It wants to spread its wings and be the bird it is,
But it is cramped and stuck
Down a mineshaft with the oxygen being sucked out,
Suffocating and doused
So its wings cannot fly.
Yet somehow that bird,
Broken-winged and crippled at first,
Staggers out, limping.
And slowly the sun warms its wings,
As it licks its own wounds,
(for there is no one else to lick them),
And once it is warmed, it shakes itself,
And sets off down the sand, still faltering,
But knowing one day it will heal,
And hoping one day it might fly.