It was over four years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
We were walking home through our apartment complex on a late summer evening. My son had been playing ball on the steps. Something upset him; I don’t remember what. Was it that it was time to go home and he still wanted to play? Did the ball not bounce in quite the way he hoped it would? He was 4 years old. The details of his tantrum don’t matter. Four-year-olds have emotions that are bigger than they can fit in their bodies, and sometimes they explode.
So there he was, my little son lying on the grass near the steps, bawling his eyes out. There was probably some kicking and screaming, too. He was the kind of child prone to that. My husband and I were trying our best to remain calm. Yes, we wanted him to stop screaming and acting out, but we knew that we needed to wait out the tantrum until our son could calm down enough to walk home.
But the truth is, I don’t remember exactly how we handled it. Did we try to talk him down? Did we bargain with him? Did one of us lose our patience? Probably yes to everything. He was our first child. He was intense. We tried what we could. We did our best.
You and your friends were sitting on lawn chairs by the sidewalk, enjoying the summer evening. Now, I know how unpleasant it is to listen to a child screaming and crying. I don’t like it, myself. I don’t think most humans do. In fact, I think our discomfort with crying is supposed to be there: it’s part of our drive to protect our children from harm.
But you didn’t see it that way. His crying (and how we handled it) angered you. It touched a nerve. You wanted it to stop, and you thought you knew how to make it stop.
“You need to spank him,” you said, furiously, loud enough for all of us to hear.
“He’s just going to walk all over you unless you show him who’s boss.”
I froze as those words filled the air. I was so taken aback — not only by your lack of tact or discretion — but also by the fact that you were saying these things within earshot of my son.
And then some sloppy half-hearted attempt to answer to you spilled out of my mouth: “I would never hit my son,” I said.
I could tell that my husband was boiling over with anger. I could tell worse words were going to leave his lips.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said.
And all you did was repeat your instructions. You told us that we needed to “smack some sense” into our child. You even went so far as to say that we were damaging our child by NOT hitting him.
I’m not sure how it ended. I know our son eventually quieted down enough for us to carry him home. Tears stung my eyes. You went on talking to your friends, huffing and puffing, and complaining about us as we walked away.
Perhaps I lived in a bubble up until then. I knew many families in America still believed hitting was acceptable, but I didn’t know any, myself. I had received unwanted parenting advice plenty of times by then, but you were the only person I encountered who told me to hit my son.
I don’t believe there is one perfect way to parent or to discipline. I have perhaps been too lenient at times, maybe too strict at others. I am constantly trying to piece together how to help my children through difficult times. I am always learning about how to set effective limits, and I think each family needs to figure out their own systems, or lack thereof. I don’t judge parents for how they do such things.
But there is one thing I will not get behind, and that is physical violence, of any kind, inflicted on a child. Although it may produce the desired result of obedience in some cases, I don’t believe it is ever OK to inflict pain or harm on a child.
Some parents lose their tempers sometimes, and hitting might happen. I know parents who have done that, realized the gravity of their mistake, and apologized. But I am talking about when hitting becomes part of the routine — something that is used often or always for discipline. This is something I have zero tolerance for. In fact, the thought of it makes me ill.
When we got home that night, we talked about it with our son. He heard what happened and had questions. We told him in no uncertain terms, that it is never OK for a parent or adult to hit a child. We told him that there are people out there who advocate for disciplining children with force, and that we are not a family who does, nor do we think that behavior is acceptable from anyone else.
Our son listened with his lips pursed and his eyes wide. I wasn’t sure if he fully absorbed it, but I asked him recently — years later — if he remembered. He did. The whole encounter made quite an impression on him.
“Why would she tell you to hit me?” he asked, incredulous at the idea that someone would ever suggest such a thing.
So, to the woman sitting on that lawn chair all those years ago: thank you. You ended up teaching my son a lesson after all. It may not have been the one you intended, but it was a powerful and necessary lesson indeed.