Ed. note: Babble’s Bad Parent column features first-person stories about controversial parenting choices. We believe discussing taboos is the best way for all of us to make informed choices. We don’t endorse corporal punishment, or any particular opinion featured in this section, and we encourage you to check out our Health and Development section and our new related resources section (below) for other perspectives.
It all began in the driveway, when my four-year-old, Leo, was learning to ride his bike. He’d grow frustrated and scream, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” when he couldn’t manipulate the pedals quickly enough, especially when his older brother tore past and dusted him. I puffed up with pride: I’d taught Leo to express his anger.
Then he turned the “stupid” on me.
Generally, I’m the kind of parent who shrugs off outbursts – an effective strategy with my first, who’s all head. No such personality my middle, all-heart child, Leo. The more I ignore him, the louder he shrieks and the meaner he gets. Now, I can understand the outrage of being blown off after giving a dramatic, motion picture-worthy tantrum. What I don’t get, however, is where Leo picked up the word “stupid” in the first place, or how he ever stumbled onto the fantasy he describes of chopping me up with a knife and throwing my bones “into a tree.”
Granted, I did read In Cold Blood when I was pregnant with Leo. And I’ve likely slung around the word “stupid” in front of him once or twice. But never in regards to a person (not within earshot, anyway), and never attached to a dismemberment fantasy. In any case, Leo has thrown a wrench into my sense of myself as a totally laissez-faire, it’ll-pass mother, the kind who adheres to the Summerhill-esque philosophy that, when left to their own devices, kids inevitably correct themselves.
None of my usual tricks were working, so I decided to go corporal with the oldest, least p.c. discipline technique I could think of: washing his mouth out with soap.
Believe me, it wasn’t easy. The very thought of it made me consider turning myself in to Child Protective Services. But one day I was pushed over the edge.
I’d just informed Leo he could not bite his brothers, and he turned his fangs on me. Before he could sink them in, I packed him up the stairs to serve a time out in his bedroom (door open, toys allowed). But when he started screaming, “Stupid Mommy!” non-stop, something in me snapped. Maybe it was that while screaming he tried to kick me, or that during all of this I was balancing his howling baby brother on my hip. Or maybe it was that he announced yet again that he was going to kill me and toss my body parts in the woods. Maybe it was insult fatigue. Maybe I was especially mad because the day had been so lovely until that point. I’d just lovingly assembled another snack of farm-fresh berries, washed the favorite T. Rex T-shirt for the gazillionth time, and spent the morning spending quality time with Leo rock-throwing and aster-hunting in nearby woods.
But all those factors, combined with the rigors (noise pollution, constant body mauling) of raising three boys under the age of six pushed me over the edge.
Leo sniffed danger when I returned after leaving him in his room, an ominous reversal of time out protocol. At first he ventured an innocent, “What are you doing in here?” When I didn’t answer and continued to advance, he went ahead and yelled, “Stupid Mommy!” Predictably, when I flashed the soap, he retreated and cowered with eyes so wide and sweet they could have been culled from a “Child abuse hurts everyone” poster you’d see tacked in a doctor’s office.
Any hesitation on my part was wiped out by another scream of “Stupid Mommy!” I put the soap on his tongue and rubbed it around. After a few rounds, he stopped and stared at the soap.
Back went the soap.