On Motherhood, Spanking, and Texas

As has been repeatedly pointed out to me by acquaintances, friends, and strangers who are mothers, I am not a mother, so my parenting opinions are meaningless, utterly without value, and should be kept to myself.

To an extent, I agree.  I have seen new mothers (first-timers and those with other little ones to manage) at wits’ end, exhausted, filthy, running under the gun, living in houses that look like battlefield routs.  I have seen entrenched mothers who are so worn down (and have so little assistance) that they feed their kids whatever crap the fussy darlings will actually eat, let the television babysit, and close the house like a fortress in order to get a few hours sleep before some horrible accident with the gas range kills them all.  Never have I judged.  Less-than-ideal parenting is not the same as unsafe parenting, and you do what you gotta do, Honey.  I’m not saying a word, unless it’s an offer to help, a pat on the back, or a sincere round of cheerleading to keep you swinging.

But the ruling that my opinions are always wrong and don’t count does rub, sometimes.  I’ve never been a mommy, but I was a child for quite a while…until shortly after my first sibling was born.  Seven happy years of being an only child, followed by two years of being Mommy’s Little Helper, then another six years or so of being Mommy Pro Tem during hours that our single working mother was off site.  Let’s put it this way:  when I was 9, I was taking care of my 2 year old sister.  When I was 16, I was taking care of my 9 year old sister.  During summers visiting my father (whom I love, but who never paid a dime in child support), I took care of my even younger sister and brother.  (This is the first chapter in the ongoing saga titled, “Why I Am Childless:  A Draft In 438 Parts.”)

So when I voice my dismay at seeing a clean, well-rested, cheerful mommy at the park divvying her own Mountain Dew into her baby’s bottle, I get in trouble for voicing my opinion — and it irks me.  This seems like a no-brainer, rather than something that an elite squad of mommy-scientists needs to adjudicate.  (Try to keep in mind, my dears, that your principle qualification for motherhood was a healthy ovum and a hospitable uterus.  No education was required, no training received, no tests passed.)  I don’t walk up to strange mommies to share my opinions, nor do I engage in the passive-aggressive pantomime of glaring and snorting and sniffing and clucking and making angry faces.  It was inculcated in me from my earliest years that you can think poorly of someone’s actions and yet not judge her (or him) — if you were in his or her shoes, you might have done the same, or done worse.  People need encouragement to do better.  Snarking never helps.

[This lesson was straight from after school specials PSAs during Saturday morning cartoons.  My family did voice this, to a certain extent, but there were some very harshly judgmental old ladies in my kidhood.  And there was absolutely no encouragement.  You were either pulling your weight, or you were dragging others down.  The former was expected of you as the bare minimum; the latter was unacceptable if not treasonous.]

But whether or not the mommies like it, I have opinions.  While I welcome disagreement (we don’t learn much from those who only agree with us), anyone who thinks I’m not allowed to voice my opinion because I have never been delivered of a child is free to lodge a protest somewhere else.  I am officially invoking the Gitcher Own Damned Blog rule.

* * * * * Now that I’ve disclaimered and backstoried, it’s time to talk about spanking. * * * * *

First:  lately there has been a FB meme circulating among my friends of the crotchety right-wing Archie Bunker persuasion, which proclaims, “I was spanked, and it never hurt me a bit.  It taught me to keep my pants pulled up, to respect parental authority, and inculcated a sense of fear and shame — without which I would have led a life of crime and dissolution — and which made me the paragon of virtue you see bitching before you today.  Spanking was good for me, it’s good for all children, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a whining Communist pansy.”

—  Settle down, Beavis! This is a reaction to the current news items asking if spanking can ever be healthy, if it’s child abuse, if it causes psychological problems in the child, etc.; where are the boundaries?  The kindest thing I can say about the Archie Bunkers on my f-list is that, like me, they were spanked as kids, probably not to excess, and that they, like me, turned out okay.

But it doesn’t allow that others’ mileage may vary.  Unfortunately, most people tend to skew their recollection to their preferred version of reality, whether it’s nostalgia or utopia.  Most people aren’t especially honest with themselves, either.  If what they are exposed to challenges their biases, you can keep your facts, and they will cherish those illusions.  They may not believe it, but there are kids who will not benefit from spanking.

[Okay, more anectodes:  I was a praise-craving teacher’s pet type, eager to please, and the one spanking I got from my dad as a toddler was all noise, very little pain, and more bruised ego than anything else.  That much I remember.  Later my mother filled in the blanks:  it just about did my old dad in to do it; he was upset and shaky after the few seconds it took.  Later, when I went through an incredibly sarcastic, sharp-tongued phase, my mother threatened to spank me a few times (“Do I need to get the wooden spoon?”) but it was a vanity check.  I’m not a baby to be spanked!  Okay, then act like a grown up!  — Ah, poop.  Okay. ‘Nuff said.

[My sister was a hellion, very much like Mom was, and was spanked frequently.  This mostly ended when Sister was being a real shrieking pill, and would not back down.  Mom told me to Fetch The Wooden Spoon!  I knew Sis would take the spanking with a smirk and a so-what and a mocking (but quite true) “You would never hurt me!”  So instead of bringing back the wooden spoon, I brought back the wickedest looking thing in the drawer:  a large, flat semicircle of metal with a sharp lip and holes punched in it, and a long handle.  It was some sort of grease strainer, and we never used it.  When Mom and Sis saw it, they were startled out of their fight, and we all cracked up.  Obviously we were all done with spanking.]

So I thought spanking was fine.  But clearly it was not the same sort of spanking one of the boys in my class routinely got from his drunk father, whose wife (my friend’s mom) had run off years ago.  This kid used to come in battered to hell, as well as dirty and uncared for and hungry.  We all pretended not to notice his misfortune.  Teachers were not mandatory reporters in those days, either.  Being male themselves, and brought up in similar molds, they treated his acting-out as challenges to their authority.  Our sixth-grade teacher, a large and mostly sweet guy, hauled the kid into the hallway once after protracted belligerence.  We could hear him slapping the piss out of the kid.  Five minutes later, it was business as usual. My friend was bloodied but unbowed.  My teacher was relieved of his emotional buildup.  My social studies homework was still boring, and Bolivia was still a primary exporter of antimony, zinc, and tin.

Does anyone think what that teacher did counts as spanking?  Texas, maybe.  We’ll get back to Texas.

Second:  a (former) local politician here in California was recorded by a neighbor who became alarmed after seeing the man abuse a child.  The man was playing ball with his stepson, and belt-whipped him when he failed to catch the ball.  The neighbor verbally intervened, was rebuffed, and called the police.  The man accused of abuse has claimed that he was not beating the child, but disciplining him; and that this was not the result of failure to catch the ball, but of the kid’s words to him.  I didn’t need to wonder what a child could say that could drive an otherwise reasonable adult to violence.  My friend in sixth grade was not the first or last kid I saw “get it” from a grown up.  But it’s not acceptable, in my opinion. And it’s certainly not “discipline.”

My guess is that the guy is calling it discipline in order to exploit the broad parental prerogative to apply physical force to a child.  My opinion?  Once a child has reached the age of reason, you must guide it by reason, in order to teach him or her to employ reason as a guide in future action.

Obviously this is my ideal, and while I hope parents are actually trying, whenever possible, to do what’s best for the child, I repeat that less-than-ideal parenting is not necessarily unsafe parenting.  Conversely, if you are not intelligent enough to train your child without violence, you shouldn’t be parenting, in my opinion.  But what’s shown on the video is a complete lack of (self-) discipline by an adult.  He’s beating the child because he’s angry and frustrated, not because it’s what he reasonably believes will be the best way to encourage good behavior.  Even if he thinks he’s punishing the child appropriately, he isn’t.  He’s just belt-whipping a little boy.

Which is the crux of the matter for me, even taking into account the less-than-ideal realities of life, and occasional moments of understandable frustration on the part of harried parents.

A noisy swat on the diaper-padded butt of a toddler is mostly an attention-getting device, used to snap the kid out of misbehavior.  Clapping hands loudly has about the same effect.  Slightly older kids, who need (real) discipline, the kind that involves training and consequences, can be punished meaningfully without violence.  Telling the kid, “If you hurt the kitten again, I’m going to hurt YOU!” is not exactly guiding the child to empathy.  (Retaliation and other forms of playground justice are lessons learned from peers, not grown ups.)

Whaling on a kid, particularly from emotion — and whaling harder if the child strikes back at you — is just brute dominance.  It teaches a kid that the person he should love, respect, and trust most in the whole world gets to hit him, and he doesn’t get to defend himself.  (When people sneer at victims of domestic violence who defend their abusers, it’s the first thing that comes to my mind.)  A sparky kid will hate you for beating her.  A sad kid will hate herself for making you want to.

Again, for basically well-behaved children, the odd spanking or smack will not be the end of the world.  If it’s part of the cultural context for their family (region, ethnicity, etc.,) it’s at least easier for the kid to understand and get over without help.  If it’s neither severe nor frequent, it’s usually not a big deal.

But what if that kid has a real problem?  What if he’s acting out from a separate issue?  No matter how annoying or inconvenient his behavior, if there is another problem there, you’re not going to beat the kid to wellness.  It won’t change what’s spurring the bad behavior.  What if he’s getting bullied at school?  What if some creepy uncle is getting handsy?  What if he did something too upsetting or shameful to admit, but can’t get over having done?  A kid who senses that he could actually use some straightening out is not a kid who needs a beating. Kids may not have jobs or mortgages, but they have all kinds of pressures and fewer tools to cope.  Are you going to help that kid find tools, or are you going to whack him until he shuts up?

Good parenting, there, Genius!  (Kids who are raised poorly might be a separate topic, since it’s the same problem I have with people who buy puppies, don’t train them, and condemn the growing dog to years of being shouted at for misbehaving — when the responsible party never made the effort to teach them acceptable behavior.)  Some of my Archie Bunkers think any parent who provides a child with clothes, food, and a roof has discharged his parenting duties sufficiently.  Any kids who are less than perfectly behaved, after basic survival needs have been met, are obviously Rotten Spoiled Brats.  (And you know how we deal with them!)

Hitting a troubled child just makes him more troubled.  The problems he has are not solved by it.  You have not beaten his problems out of him.

As the troubled child grows, with his problems unsolved, the more and harder you have to hit him to make your point.  Even if you admit that your point is the disgusting practice of physical domination to force the kid to respect your authority to strike him (Texas, I’ll be with you in a minute), you must understand that you won’t get to hit him forever.

And if you have a troubled child who is physically aggressive, the more you hit him, the more you guarantee that violence will be central to his life.  It’s all you’ve ever taught him to do.  It’s the only tool in his toolbox.  You will have to beat him to death to get him to stop.

* * * * * Which finally brings us to my third point:  Texas. * * * * *

Let me say that the Texas spirit is dear to my heart, and I cherish the gusto with which they assail life.  The Lone Star State spawned Janis Joplin, Molly Ivins, and Walter Cronkite, rest their sweet souls, and many other folks good and great.  It is the home of my beloved Johnson Space Center.  It has a lot going for it.

It is also legally prepared, as a State and in its various businesses and organizations, for secession at any time.  It won’t rely on the rest of the Confederate states in the future, but will be an independent nation.  Anyone who says Texas is its own country is speaking a true word in jest, even if it might be more accurate to say that Texas is its own little universe.  I don’t believe they get to claim to be patriotic Americans, in their focus on these principles, but I don’t think they care a whit.

The Texas GOP platform was recently released, and it’s so openly dedicated to evil that it sounds like hyperbole.  Unbelievable.

The general rundown should be read.  Since the document links at the GOP website are broken, try this: http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/98440774?access_key=key-2aywqc38x8qt9m9pnmtl or the aptly titled http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/06/27/1101959/-Texas-GOP-Platform-to-ban-teaching-Critical-Thinking-Skills-in-schools-The-stupid-IT-BURNS ) — and since I’m linking it up, here is a concise highlight reel of Tex-insanity GOP demands:  http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/06/26/506357/the-5-craziest-policies-in-texas-republicans-2012-platform/?mobile=nc

(The part about opposing teaching critical thinking as well as higher order thinking skills really deserves its own entry.  We may scoff at their ludicrous mind control attempts, but Texas makes the textbooks for the nation.  Remember when they wanted to replace all references to slavery with the phrase “triangle trade” and remove the humans-as-commodities aspect by emphasizing the rum, bananas, and sugar leg of the trip?  When they tried to require that all textbooks list the President’s middle name, did you believe them when they said it was out of respect?  It would not have surprised me if they insisted it be misspelled in all caps, too, since that’s the way it seems to appear in their personal emails.)

There are a million gems in this document that deserve our appalled attention, but here is just one:  explicit support of expanding the current corporal punishment in schools.   There is so much to fear in the overall document — from their insistence that Christian Creationism be taught in science class, to their position that the separation of Church and State is a misinterpreted myth, to their repeal of everything from minimum wage laws to environmental protection and beyond — that this might seem the least of our worries.  But basically, they want to give teachers more authority to beat your children with impunity.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Texas GOP wants to beat their own children, or beat other people’s children, or let other people beat pretty much any children they want.  But it does disgust me.  They make a poor case for corporal punishment doing the child any good — associations of pediatricians and mental health providers have come out against it — but they aren’t interested in the child’s well being.  They emphasize the importance of their own authority being undisputed.

What they sound like are perverts who want to dominate others, including children, in a way that is not safe, sane, or consensual.

It sounds as if I’m being facetious, but I’m not.

Systematically depriving young people, especially young women, of education in science, knowledge of reproductive biology, access to birth control, the right to abort, and even the freedom of personal belief, points to a mindset that craves the enslavement of others.  There is nothing more perverse, in my opinion, and the religious aspect only adds spiritual coercion to the enforced submission.  It’s the same mentality that has FLDS elders marrying nine year old girls; it’s all there but the prairie dresses.

But demanding expanded access to spank school-aged children is the sort of thing that should have the FBI confiscating their hard drives.

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