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 this new way 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.
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 was mine, alone in my bed and crying to myself. I couldn’t bear for her to know such loneliness.
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 come hell or high-water, I was going to keep my vow not to smack my kids. I needed that line drawn, and I was not going to cross it, not ever. I knew if I did, I’d be on that slippery slope to what had been done to me.
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.
Oh Louise, a beautiful post and so sad that you had those experiences as a child, and so glad you have come out a better parent that your own, I agree completely with what you’ve said and what I really want to ask is, is it really true that a majority of Australians think it’s OK? I know in my circle of mother-friends it’s a real rarity (in fact I only know one) who think smacking is OK – I had assumed (hoped?) this was the norm these days? xx
Maybe I should have made that clearer — it’s that most Australians don’t think physical punishment by parents should be made illegal. The West Australian ran a poll: Should the smacking of children by parents be illegal? Only 9% voted ‘Yes’ and 91% voted ‘No’. I guess that question is different to asking if you think smacking is okay or not.
Good to hear from you, Amanda. I’ll be seeing you in a couple of weeks…
Ah I see … I guess “illegal” is a big deal. As much as I’m distressed when I see a friend’s child smacked I probably don’t want her sent to jail or anything so I can see how that statistic turned out. Would be interesting to know the stat for whether it’s ok or not.
Yes – saw you on the list for advanced blogging and very much looking forward to catching up!
I really don’t think that parents would be sent to jail! The Position Statement makes it clear that educating parents about alternatives to smacking is paramount and in countries where this sort of legislation has been introduced to protect the child — like Sweden and New Zealand — the attitudes of the community towards hitting children have changed.
Sorry if this response sounds like a ‘lecture’, but for obvious reasons this topic is so dear to my heart. It is a human rights issue — the child is one of the most vulnerable and dependent members of our society, yet we don’t afford them the usual protections against violence.
I can only say, Louise, that I hope the intervening years since your childhood have brought you some solace and healing. It can be a hard old world, can’t it? And often it’s hardest when you can’t help what’s happening to you. Sounds like you did you best to make up for it later, though, when you could help it. 🙂
Yep. Kids are powerless. I’ve tried not to continue the cycle into the next generation. I’m not a perfect mother by any means, but I’m an improvement on the generation before…
I am so touched by your post. It was powerful and sad. After I read it I needed to take a deep breath. It felt as if the wind was knocked out of me.
My brother and I were paddled always by my father. So if I was “bad” or did something wrong I had to wait until he came home from work to get my punishment. We were always paddled through our clothes. I remember a time when my father threw my brother down on the floor and repeatedly kicked him as my brother was curled in a ball. I talked with him about this incident when we were both adults. My brother believed he deserved that treatment.
Your post also brought to mind a barbaric practice that was in effect when I was a beginning teacher. At that time late 1970-early 1980’s paddling of children in the classroom was allowed. The paddle I’m familiar with was made of wood, it was thick with holes in it. Well shellacked. Someone has painted “The Board of Education” on it.
The county policy was that the teacher took the offending child out of the classroom into a work area where it was private and had another teacher witness the paddling. The child was paddled through their clothes. As I recall, the teacher filled out a form, and notified the parents by another form that their child had been paddled. I still see the face of the girl I paddled. I later learned she was routinely paddled at school. Obviously the paddling only relieved the anger of the teacher and did nothing to teach this girl (or any child) the correct behavior.
Looking back on it I am appalled that a large county in South Florida had institutionalized such a practice. It speaks volumes about the lack of proper training of teachers in effective classroom management. Thank heaven the policy was changed. And thank heaven I continued to learn with better ways to teach my students appropriate behavior.
Thanks Louise for choosing to write about such an important issue.
PS I think there was also a TET book in the states, “Teacher Effectiveness Training”.
I can’t imagine that the AMA (American Medical Association) would dare to write such a policy. My hats off to the Pediatric Association for taking such a stand. From their website they seem to be very forward-looking.
That’s the thing, Penny, it is a very outdated approach to discipline and belongs in an era when women weren’t allowed to vote and people with mental health issues were put in asylums. It certainly doesn’t fit in today’s supposedly psychologically enlightened age.
You are right about the damage to self-esteem that accompanies physical punishment. It’s very humiliating, especially when you’re bum is being bared. The RACP’s Position Statement also talks about the associated behavioural and emotional problems that physical punishment causes to children, and that they carry into teenage years and beyond. I know I personally experienced a few of them, and so did my brother.
At least this position statement might start a conversation happening about changing the legislation …
Louise – I am completely thrown by your words. You painted a vivid image and I would never have imagined you were having to endure that – and front up to school and be – what I always saw as a natural, confident, vibrant and outgoing girl. You lived a double life.
I imagine many of us did for whatever reason. I applaud you and thank you for sharing your story.
I am still in disbelief this happened to you and you had those feelings.
I feel for you and can only say that you were much stronger and better than you gave yourself credit for.
To be the girl I saw at school must have taken amazing strength and courage.
I mother from my own gut instinct and for me I wish that you did not have to do all that reading and research in order to not repeat the past. I understand why you felt the need to – If I was a friend of yours then, or I guess better written – if I were closer to you I would have embraced you and shown you a day in a typical ordinary Italian household and you may have felt or experienced unconditional love – with discipline of
the good old wooden spoon, but without bitter words. The negative words your mother spoke may have done more damage than the hitting.
A thought for you to ponder. I am sorry you had to endure that.
From my heart x Renata
Thanks so much for commenting, Renata!
I was very good at hiding what was happening. I didn’t like telling people because it was so humiliating. Plus, I believed it was my fault — that I deserved it because I was so bad. That’s what I was told and you are right, the words were at least as damaging as the hitting.
Although I hid it, it showed in other ways. Like with my behaviour — I think I was the naughtiest girl in the year, and that only worsened as I grew older. I think my parents had their own car park outside the Principal’s office!
I can imagine growing up in a loving Italian family — lots of noise, lots of cuddles, lots of warmth. You were lucky as you had a good role model and you knew you could trust your instinct. I knew that if I followed my instinct, I would repeat the mistakes of the past. I had to work very hard to re-programme myself and find my true maternal instinct. I think I did. By the time I had my third child, I was learning to trust myself more and it was getting easier. Now I have four good and responsible kids, including one who finishes school in three months. I have never been called to school about any of them — touch wood.
I have been lucky — my childhood was hard and I’ve had my battles, but in the end I got there. I married a beautiful man and I have four wonderful children and a really happy life.
I was so pleased to see the AMA statement and then disheartened to see some of the comments that followed it on the site where it is reported. My parents didn’t believe in physical punishment although my father slapped me once when I was going on and on about my mother as a teenager (then apologised profusely) and my mother once when I hit my brother after he had been going on at me. Apart from that, nothing. They used firm direction at times, and discussion often. I remember hearing a psychiatrist who worked with serious offenders talking once (I think it was on Radio National) about the reasons for violence, and one thing that often stood out was an inability to communicate effectively. Times of conflict are opportunities to teach children to deal with conflict through discussion and negotiation. If we could do it on a world basis, learn one another’s languages and learn to really listen as well as speak, the world would be a more peaceful place, I believe. There are times when violence must be stopped of course, but not perpetuated. Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss this important topic and for the powerful use of your own story as an example of why hitting children is not a good thing.
Iris, your gentle upbringing shows in your personality. The word ‘discipline’ comes from the Latin term ‘disciplina’, which means ‘to guide’ or ‘to teach’. Kids need guidance, but there are better ways to do it than with punishment, and your parents did that.
I note that the hit from your father stands out in your memory. Physical punishment does, it stays with you. Even as an adult, if someone hit me, I would never forget it. Let alone being hit over and over during one’s formative years. It pummels a child’s sense of self-worth.
I did some quick research after I posted: AMA and APA (American Psychological Association) have published warnings against parents hitting, striking, pushing, biting, etc., their child. Studies show manhandled children may develop future problems such as antisocial behavior, violent behavior, mental health issues like mania, depression and schizophrenia. They haven’t, from what I’ve gathered so far, come out and made a statement that such behavior against children should be outlawed. Only that pediatricians should talk to parents about positive ways of discipline.
Apparently, Sweden was the first country to legislate against corporal punishment of children. They changed the law in 1979 and since then, there has been a marked change in society’s attitudes towards physical punishment and a reduction in homicides from child abuse. It was a case of the law leading the community and attitudes changing as a result, whereas usually the law follows the attitudes of the society. Since 1979, thirty-three countries around the world have prohibited physical punishment of children.
Thanks for this very brave and powerful post Louise. The hitting of children is very destructive indeed. When you smack a child, they can’t retaliate so they bury their anger…saving it for later, for when they’re a teenager, and into adulthood. Self-esteem is damaged, emotionally and physically, i.e. when you hit a child’s body, the message the child is getting is – my body is awful, I’m ashamed of it.
When Adults argue for the right to smack children, I ask them, the Adult, how they would feel if I smacked them? Outrage is how they’d feel. They’d get a lawyer and have me up for assault.
Yes, it is called assault when used against any other member of society. Why do children have fewer rights than everyone else? Why do we not protect them? It doesn’t make sense…
I am so sorry to hear about your pain, more than you can imagine.
Your mother unfortunately mothered as she was mothered.
I also know how that is, watching a son parent his children after hearing horror stories from his childhood. These same stories were in later years retold with laughter at family gatherings.
I know what you’re saying — a mother and a child in a room are not in there alone — they’re surrounded by the ghosts of many childhoods past.
I decided the cycle of abuse had to stop and that it would stop with me. It’s been hard, but I seem to be doing all right. The only area I could improve is to yell less. In my defence, I’ve been strict about what I allow myself to yell — nothing abusive, no name-calling, no ridicule. Just orders, like ‘Get into the shower’ or ‘Get back to bed’, or questions, like ‘Who made this mess in here?’
I remember those childhood stories — how could I forget? — and how we’d hear them every Christmas, and laugh at them all over again, all that sadness and grief hiding behind the humour.
Louise – beautifully written, horrendously described. You laid it all out on the table. You were not spanked — you were an abused child. A few swats on the butt never hurt anyone, but it is not done in anger and bad words. I was spanked once (I think two swats through my clothes). So I grew up in a very non-violent household with loving parents and grandmothers.
What you received were beatings, an actual assault on your person. That is inexcusable. My mother and I fought continually through my teenage years, but I was never abused, told I was a bad person, or otherwise denigrated.
You are such a beautiful and responsible person. What a shame your childhood couldn’t have been happy. Hugs.
Thanks Betty. This is the topic that I hold dearest to my heart — the abuse of children. I have decided to just tell it like it was for me and there were many very dark times. I haven’t let my childhood define me or my life, but I want to tell people about it for lots of reasons. Who knows, it might give someone in a similar situation hope that they can get through it.
I found you through renegade mothering and this post has me in tears. I respect you so much for taking what happened to you, and using that as your driving force to change it! To turn it around and make a difference for your kids. You have changed more than you realize. By giving your children what you have, they will take that with them and to their children, and so on. You have broken the cycle. Thank you for putting this out there. I too have these memories from childhood, and REFUSE to raise my kids that way. I have 4 kids, and the only time they will see the inside of my hands is when my hands are hugging them, holding them, and loving them!
Thanks for visiting and for your encouraging comment. It’s so nice to hear from another mother-of-four and one who has had similar childhood experiences. I’ve popped over to your blog and subscribed, so I’ll be sure to visit again and soon! Keep writing and keep writing with honesty.
This is a brave, powerful and convincing essay, Louise.
Thank you, Robyn! There is nothing good that comes from smacking children. I hope it does become law one day.