Hurting the One You Love
By Naomi Bindman
June 07, 2012
“I’m not one of those people who doesn’t believe in spanking,” a friend announced. She continued, “I think that if you can hug, you can spank.” I struggled to find a response that didn’t sound preachy. After a pause I asked, “Does that work for you?” “Oh, no!” my friend laughed, “He just does the same thing again the next time!”
I am one of “those” people who does not believe in spanking. Usually I respect other parents’ right to raise their children in the way they think best, but I can’t find a way to comment about spanking without judgment because, fundamentally, I think spanking is wrong.
As a child I was spanked by my parents, although not often. I remember my father threatening to “give” me a “good” spanking, or “something to cry about” if I did not stop whining about some minor problem. He would lash out while driving and smack my brother David and me because we’d been fighting. I remember my outrage and helplessness at being held over his knee, struggling to get away. One time I decided that since the spanking itself didn’t actually hurt too much I wouldn’t let myself cry. My refusal to submit to tears provoked a much more severe spanking than I was used to, and eventually I cried because by then it did hurt. After that I decided it was wiser to let only my pride be injured.
While David and I were growing up with spanking as the norm, violence pervaded our society. Our country was at war in Vietnam. The non-violent civil rights movement continually faced brutality. My mother sang us peace and freedom songs and took us on overnight train rides to demonstrations in Washington, D.C. I remember the camaraderie of people who joined together to protest violence. At one march, David, playing near the slippery moss-covered edge of the Reflecting Pool, slid in. A chain of several people pulled him out. Another time we marched through a corridor of people screaming threats and insults, and hurling eggs. My mother, tall and elegant in her maroon tweed suit, her head high, held our hands tightly on either side of her. She seemed somehow not to notice the fury inches away. My mother radiated calm dignity as she ignored the rabid hatred around us. I worried that the mob would attack at any moment and she would not be able to run in her high-heeled shoes.
Several months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, my youngest brother was born and named for him. As my mother became increasingly devoted to political non-violence, she became conscious of the uncomfortable contradiction between those beliefs and her personal reality. Not too long after Martin’s birth, David committed some infraction for which our father took him to the basement and spanked him with a belt that left welts raised on his small bottom. It was at that moment, Mom later told us, that she decided to end the marriage.
From then on my mother did her best to raise my brothers and me using respect and reason. Even at seven I was old enough to appreciate my mother’s commitment to disciplining us rationally and learned from her clear, consistent limits. Knowing that I would not be hit I developed my own moral compass and a deep sense of self-reliance. I learned to decide whether an action was right or wrong by relying on my conscience, not because I afraid. From observing my mother’s example, I began to understand and absorb the idea of living consistently with one’s beliefs.
When I was 13 my mother was murdered. In his eulogy my grandfather asked, “What would Ellen say? Would she call for the person who did this to be put to death? No. She would say that he needs our compassion and deserves our help. She would not want the cycle of violence to continue.”
When I became a new parent I shared my mother’s belief that violence and love are incompatible. Never, under any circumstances, would I hit my child, this tiny beautiful person more precious to me than my own life. Never would I tell her, “This is for your own good,” or “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” I held the unshaken and unquestioned conviction that to inflict pain or degradation on the person dearest to me was inconceivable.
Until one tired afternoon, after a long drive to visit friends, I laid my toddler on the guest bed to change her diaper and she seemed gleefully determined to spread its contents everywhere. The more I insisted that she lie still, the more she squirmed out of my reach, enjoying her personal game of keep-away. The more I shouted, the louder she laughed. Enraged, I grabbed her, intending to shake her hard. Instantly horrified, I froze and slowly placed her back on the bed, no longer concerned about the poopy mess. Stunned I thought, “That is how it happens.”
About a year later I was again angered to the point of rage. By that time my daughter Ellen was deeply into her twos, verbal and defiant. I do not remember the specifics of the moment, only that I insisted that she come inside from playing outdoors and she refused. I remember carrying her into our mudroom, both of us yelling, and I remember as if in frame-by-frame replay, raising my hand to slap her across the face. In that instant I became my father; a hidden voice permitting me to hit when my anger overwhelmed reason, when I couldn’t think of what else to do, or just couldn’t think. But somehow in the time it took for my hand to reach her, my rational mind intercepted and stopped the force of the blow. She looked reproachfully at my fingers touching her cheek, stunned and sad that I could have contemplated hitting her.
Then we both burst into tears at the idea.
Those were the only times in Ellen’s life that I descended to violence. Both times I had completely lost self-control. My actions were not rational acts of “discipline.” They were attempts to find an outlet for blind rage. There was no higher meaning to the impulse to hurt. I am only thankful that I recoiled from the impulse so quickly both times. The memories of those two incidents are chilling reminders that I too am capable of hurting the one I love. Because of those experiences, my resolve to not use violence became deeper than ever. To me this does not seem like a strange notion. The idea of an adult hurting a little person is what seems bizarre.
In the years since those incidents there were moments when I felt so angry that I locked myself in the bathroom and wept until calm and self-control returned. Luckily those times were few. I tried to not let either of us get too hungry or too tired, but still occasionally we had meltdowns. I knew it was not reasonable to expect myself to never get angry. It was reasonable to expect myself not to hit. I used this as a guide to try to live by. None of us is perfect, sometimes people do lose control, but just as I expected Ellen not to hit other children and to resolve conflicts by using her words, I tried to model reason rather than violence.
When Ellen’s behaviors were unacceptable I tried to respond with consequences somehow related to her actions. I devised a system of revoking “privileges” that I used as a last resort—usually I only had to get as far as counting to three. I do not claim that this is ideal. But unlike spanking, it wasfairly effective. I am not a discipline expert. I am not flawless. Sometimes I lost my temper, I yelled and she cried. But I was never again tempted to hit her. That moment in the mudroom something forever changed in me. Whatever the situation, I knew that using violence would be much worse.
Not all spanking is done in anger. Sometimes people calmly “swat” their children on the behind as a reprimand. Though such spankings are not designed to cause pain, they are intended to embarrass the child enough to act as a deterrent. In some sense this is even more chilling than simply losing control. This type of spanking says to a child, “I have the power to hurt or humiliate you.” Even a “gentle” or “rational” spanking is still a form of emotional violence. Says child psychiatrist and author the Reverend Joan Campbell, “Hitting children negates all the lessons of love we try to teach.” We live in a violent world and although our society professes to hate violence, violence toward children is widely accepted. The message is: in the home violence is okay. It is okay to hit someone smaller and weaker. It is okay if you love them.
Ellen at seven was well aware of my commitment to raise her without violence, as I was aware of my mother’s. I think it made her feel safe. From time to time she sadly mentioned various friends who got spanked by their parents. When we discussed the possibility of her beloved Uncle Martin someday getting married and having children, Ellen’s sole criterion for his mate was: “Someone who doesn’t spank.” To her, and to me, hugging and hitting are polar opposites. What does a hug mean to a child if the person who soothes her pain also inflicts it? Does she trust the hitter or the hugger? Can she trust at all?
Not only in word but in deed Ellen knows that I cherish her.
Despite this knowledge, or perhaps because of it, one of the reoccurring themes in Ellen’s dramatic play for a while was—spanking: “Mom, pretend you’re my mom and I’m your daughter, and you spank.” And so on. One day, not long after my friend had asserted her belief in spanking, I wondered about Ellen’s interest in the topic. Was she feeling somehow deprived of an experience that her peers shared? Casually I asked her, “Do you feel disappointed that I don’t spank?”
“Better than a privilege taken away,” she muttered matter-of-factly, intent on what she was drawing. To make sure I understood her, I restated carefully: “You’d rather have a spanking than lose a privilege?”
Ellen looked directly at me; her dark blue eyes round with incredulity. “Could I?”
Then we both burst into laughter at the idea.
Naomi Bindman is an educator and writer who lives in North Bennington, Vermont. She has been performing songs written by her daughter, Ellen Bindman-Hicks who was killed in a car crash at the age of 17.
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