Gently, gently 

My sister and I, mid 1980s.

So, like a bird on a wire, etc (RIP Leonard), I have tried, in my way, to be free of the painful legacy of abuse that’s been passed down, generation to generation, in my family. It hasn’t been easy and I haven’t been entirely successful, but I have managed to raise a few kids that aren’t afraid of me. 

Oh, sure, they might be afraid that the Xbox may actually get sold on Craigslist if they continue to let the dirty laundry moulder in their bedrooms, but not actually afraid that I am going to intentionally try to hurt them if they talk back or step out of line. When frustrated, I may make an idle threat to beat them with a belt, but they take it about as seriously as my threats to send them to the circus. Mom is obviously in need of caffeine and a couple Advil, you might want to avoid her.

For some families, that sort of fear-based discipline is their ideal and they are right now muttering darkly about disrespect and sparing the rod. For some families, they’re just horrified that anyone could ever hurt a child. For the rest of us, who knew good and well that failing to clean up your room or sassing your momma would mean a belt across your bottom at the least, it is a painful decision of another sort. Do you reject the way your own parents disciplined you? Do you inflict the same punishments on your own children, even knowing how much they hurt and how much damage they did to your relationship with your parents?

My children are not afraid of me, but that’s not the entire point of trying to raise them gently. They don’t flinch when I raise my hand, but they’re also not afraid to talk to me. And that, ultimately, has been the true reward for all the times when I wanted to just do the simple thing and smack them for any of the bazillion things they’ve done to annoy me. 

Because, let’s be honest, a lot of that “discipline” is just the parent venting their frustration. A child doesn’t deserve punishment for minor accidents like spilling milk, or for getting answers wrong to questions, or for being in the way when they’re not wanted around. To smack the child is to take the easy way out, to not actually deal with your own issues. And it breeds distrust and distance between parent and child. 

Not that my kids are some kind of paragons of virtue who made it easy on me, but the longer that I have tried to control my temper, the more it’s made me aware of all the other stuff going on in my children’s lives. When they’re not afraid of you, they can be honest. They can include you in their lives to a much lgreater extent. You never know all the secrets and all the stories, but you know a heck of a lot more than what my peers and I shared with our parents. 

There’s a downside, of course. When you do make up punishments, you have to be extra diligent about following through with them, otherwise you’ll seem ineffectual. But you also have to punish them less, anyway. If you can just be gentle with them and allow them the autonomy and respect that any human deserves, you’ll be surprised how very human, and humane, they are.  

It’s difficult to explain this when making up an IEP plan for your handicapped child, though. They always ask “what punishments do you use?” And I am always hard pressed to answer. If she makes a mess, she has to clean it up? If she is physically rough towards someone, she has to go to her room until she calms down. Really bad behavior might mean having her computer privileges taken away for an hour or two. I never know what they expect me to do– how do you punish someone who doesn’t understand your society, anyway? 

If you think about it, though, isn’t that the issue with all little humans? They just don’t understand our social rules yet. For some, like our autistic brethren, they may never quite “get” them. I never could see the point of whipping someone when what they need is compassion and instruction. It’s just anger being expressed, more than anything else. And there are usually better ways to get your point across. 

It’s difficult and I am not perfect. But I hope my grandchildren never have to fear a raised hand from their parents, and that they learn love and peace at home so they can spread it throughout the world.