Sunday, May 17, 2009

'Swats only teach me to hit other people,' she said

It's been months since the conversation occurred, so I may not get it just right. But a quote I heard on the radio scooted it back onto my mental front burner after many moons of simmering.

Brielle was reprimanding me for my use of corporal punishment.

"You hit me!" she accused.

"No, I did not 'hit' you. I swatted you."

This is the term Rachelle and I settled on years ago for when we...uh...when we hit our children. The distinction is important, mind you, for several reasons.

1. Our swats are always open-handed. Hits, not necessarily.

2. Swats are dealt in cold blood, strategically. Hits tend to be crimes of passion.

3. While both are intended to manipulate behavior, the girls' hitting usually seeks selfish gain while ideally, we parents swat with disinterested, didactic motives. (I said "ideally.")

If that last one was the hardest for you to swallow, you've got five-year-old company. Brielle didn't buy it either.

I told her, "Hitting is when you want to hurt your sister because you're mad at her. Swatting is when I want to teach you because I love you."

"No, swats don't teach me ANYTHING! They only teach me to hit other people and be mean to them."

I don't recall how the rest of the dialog went. I only remember wondering if she'd been reading some anti-spanking parenting books--and wondering at what a point she had. When I swat, am I helping the child extinguish an antisocial behavior, or does she merely internalize my example of violence for dealing with others?

I don't know.

Pacifist though I am, I have not yet sworn off swats. I gave one to each of the twins just before kissing them goodnight in the wake of this lovely exchange between them:

"You're stupid."

"You're stupid."

"You aren't my friend."

"You aren't my friend."

"You aren't my stister."

"You aren't my stister." (sic)

I swatted and lectured both of them on what a special, precious gift they had in each other and how out of a hundred babies only one gets to have a twin and how they would be friends and sisters forever and how it was NOT okay to say such mean things. They cried pitiably for three minutes, their smarting skin either competing with my speech for their attention or underlining its urgency.

Then they buried me--and shortly thereafter each other--in hugs and kisses.

It was just the way a good spanking should go.

Little as I enjoy dishing it out, I think physical punishment is underrated. It has a primal zing that can shake us out of our false self to realize that moral failures actually cause pain, that ethical lapses lead to suffering. There is an immediacy, a relevance to a swat that talks and time-outs can't touch.

That said, the quote I heard came from an NPR source's commentary on the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on detainees in Guantánamo, and how they've been around for hundreds of years. One interviewee was convinced that the torture-like techniques have survived through time because they are so effective. A dissenter said this:

"These techniques have survived because it's easier to hit a person than outsmart them."


Underrated and inevitable though corporal punishment may be, and even though I swat, not hit, I'm here confessing that in disciplining my angel combatants, I've been caving too often to what is easy to do. The rod is as old as time and as natural as sneezing, and to a degree it works.

But thanks to this interview, I'm going to work harder than ever on doing less swatting--and more outsmarting.


Ginger said...

Oy. A "primal zing?" That's an excellent phrase.

I'm thinking... and thinking. I really do believe, based on what I've seen in my relatively short life, that God gives us some primal zings as well. Or allows them. Or however it happens. And then sometimes he outsmarts us.

Seems like the toolbag needs to contain every reasonable method.

Thanks again for analogies worth mulling over.

The Fry Family said...

Ginger sent me a link to this post (I have three, aged 8, 6 & 3). I love your thoughtful analysis of swatting (and sympathize with your begetting of a Philadelphia lawyer who has already read all the parenting books ahead of you) -- you have put my muddled feelings on the subject into clear prose.

I also do think that, as Ginger said in her comment, "the toolbag needs to contain every reasonable method." It seems that while, for some children, "time out" really is THE LIMIT in terms of painful punishment, others could happily be in timeout for hours a day. Having a variety of methods is certainly useful. And sometimes the sudden startle/shock of a swat (particularly when one hasn't noticed that Mamma or Daddy is watching one's misbehavior) seems to be the thing that is most painful!

Thanks for the time-worthy post -- Kristin F.

Tyler Riddle said...

Mike, I really enjoy reading your thought provoking analysis of things that I have never really experienced. You should write a book.

TLJ said...

Nice to know that I'm not the only one who's conflicted on that issue. I, like you, am unable to say that I will completely give up "pow-pow" (I know, my nickname is a little hard core...but I have a works for him)but I do hope to find other methods that are equally or more effective. "My parents did it to me and I'm okay" isn't always the best justification for what I choose to do as a parent.

toni momberger said...

doug and i decided against any kind of physical punishment when we became parents.

but i have a confession to make.

YESTERDAY, my 16-year-old son screamed at his sister as he slammed my car door. he felt put upon having to get out and close the gate.

when he got back in the car i swatted him.

i swatted him good.

in a fit of passion.

can i still call it a swat? and can i get in trouble if he's 6 inches taller than i am, and has 50pounds on me?