Regrets, and Hopes

I just read on the CNN homepage that, according to human rights groups, more than 200,000 children were spanked or paddled in U.S. schools during the past school year.
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I just read on the CNN homepage that, according to human rights groups, more than 200,000 children were spanked or paddled in U.S. schools during the past school year.

Apparently spanking, also known as corporal punishment, is illegal in most states but is allowed in 21 states and is used frequently in 13. It’s not allowed in Utah, however, the state where our children attend school. I was relieved to find that out, because I don’t like the idea of my children being hit by their teachers and I don’t particularly want them to see other kids spanked at school.

I was never spanked by a teacher myself, because I was, for better and sometimes for worse, a nose-to-the-grindstone rule-follower, at least at school. But I have vivid memories of watching other fifth-graders being made to bend over and grab their ankles, waiting in frightened humiliation and often tears for the teacher to whack them on the behind with the wooden paddle. I remember that certain kids really did cause trouble, and that some of them were truly destructive and brought actual harm to the rest of us, but the paddling punishment and the fact that we other students were made to watch it revolted me then, and I’m revolted as I think about it now.

But I suppose that makes me a hypocrite, because I spanked both of my children on occasion when they were little. I’m a parent who didn’t follow the “never punish in anger” rule, because it was almost always when I was angry that I smacked Belle and Joe’s bottoms. That’s why I spanked them; I was angry with them.

I feel badly about that, but in a way I’m still doing it. I don’t mean I’m still spanking them, because my husband and I stopped spanking them when they got to the point, which was at about four or five years old, where we could really get their attention with our words. What I’m still doing on occasion is getting mad. And what I do now when I’m mad at them is yell. I don’t like admitting this — I don’t especially like to think of myself as either a hitting parent or a yelling parent — but it’s true: I’ve done both. Not very often, but still, there it is.

Although I’ve given myself many occasions to regret my actions as a parent, and have often regretted expressing my anger, I can’t say that I’ve always regretted it. Sometimes I think it’s been edifying for Belle and Joe to see first-hand how bad behavior, particularly when it goes on unabated, usually does make other people angry, including even the mother who loves them with her whole heart. They definitely don’t like it when I’m angry, and sometimes I think the knowledge that I have that capacity has actually modified their behavior. Sometimes when I’ve said, “I’m about to get really mad” I can tell they believe me, and they stop whatever it is they’re doing.

It seems like this most often happens when we’re in the car. Maybe because I feel trapped behind the wheel, and the stakes are high, and I can’t always pull over to the side of the road and explain to them that being super loud and unruly as we hurtle down the highway makes it hard for me to drive and puts all our lives in danger.

But I’m not trying to justify losing my temper with my children. Because I don’t think they’ve learned much in the way of life lessons from it — much beyond “we sure can make Mom mad” — by whatever spanking and yelling I’ve done the past ten years. I know one of my most important jobs as a parent is to set the right example, yet as a flawed human being I don’t always do it.

So as an imperfect mom I pin my hopes on Belle and Joe’s resilience — on their ability to weather my intermittent losses of temper along with all the other bumps in the road of childhood. So far they seem remarkably able to understand, to forgive, and to move on. Which is certainly fortunate for me.

As for the 200,000 kids who were spanked in U.S. schools last year, I feel sorry for them, and for the teachers who felt they were without other options. I hope it didn’t do anyone lasting harm, and that both sides can eventually understand, and forgive, and move on.

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