Countless people are circulating the viral video of Toya Graham beating her sixteen year old son during the Baltimore riots. They are applauding her and cheering her on. They even created a hashtag called #MomOfTheYear.
I am not one of those people.
Instead, I am sitting here wondering how many other times she has hit her son and screamed at him in public.
I understand that the situation was fraught and scary, and her son was in very real danger, not to mention part of creating the violence. But if he grew up learning from his mother that physical violence was a way to release and express anger, is it any surprise that he went out there to riot?
“I just lost it,” said his mother.
How many other times has she “just lost it?” and beaten her son and berated him publicly? When he was three? When he was six? When he was thirteen?
Parenting is hard. Kids are frustrating. They are unpredictable and can push your buttons and enrage you like no one else can.
But that does not give us license to beat them, even if society says we can.
How is it that we feel outraged if we see a man beating his wife with his fists, slapping her, or beating her with a belt, but we applaud a parent doing the same to their child – A CHILD – in a fit of anger and desperation? It makes no sense.
When I was a little girl, I was spanked and sometimes hit with a belt. Not frequently, but enough to remember it.
And while I was considered an exceptionally good kid (I would say almost abnormally so), I was still a kid who occasionally did dumb kid things and got punished. I wasn’t perfect, even though I tried very hard to be.
My mother was a nurse, strong from lifting and moving patients. My stepfather was a handyman and a welder, wiry and powerful.
When they hit you, it hurt enough that it was painful to sit down afterwards. To this day, the sight of my husband removing his belt as he changes at night makes me flinch involuntarily.
I remember crying as I was being hit and being told, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll hit you harder.” And because the spanking was already painful and humiliating, I choked back the sobs and forced myself to stop.
I didn’t always understand why I was being hit, especially if I did something accidentally or without knowing any better. The spanking did not work, because it didn’t correct a behavior or prevent future misbehavior. I eventually misbehaved again.
What I did understand is that I deserved it because I was a bad kid.
I learned that people who claim to love you “just lose it” because of you and what you do. It’s not their fault they lose control. It’s yours. You made them do it.
Eventually you become convinced that you always deserve it. You end up conflating love and abuse, expecting that the people closest to you, those who are supposed to love and protect you, will also physically hurt you because it is for your own good, because you are so awful.
I’ve heard many people defend corporal punishment of children by saying, “What’s the big deal? I was spanked as a child, and I turned out fine.”
A friend of mine who went to high school with me pointed out that I turned out great with my own upbringing.
Except that I didn’t.
As a child and an adolescent, I was an obedient and fearful follower who never dared to question authority. On the surface, I looked like a model kid and student. It paid off in the short term.
But once I hit adulthood, life became difficult. I have struggled with terrible self-esteem, debilitating depression, problems navigating the workplace, and difficulty with romantic relationships. I carried the belief that I was a bad person who deserved to be mistreated all the way into adulthood, into the workplace, into my relationships, and even into my marriage.
When I scratch the surface of the overachiever in me, I realize that I have worked my entire life to prove my worth and goodness, because deep down, I believed that I was a bad person.
It has taken years of work on myself and therapy to reverse that belief, and vestiges of it still remain.
Now, do I believe that we need to discipline our children? Absolutely. Kids can’t run amok, and they feel safer and happier knowing where the limits are.
But kids learn from what we do, not what we say.
If we hit them in frustration and anger, they will learn that it is ok to hit others and act out physically when they are angry and frustrated.
I do not hit the Pooh because she imitates everything I do, and looks to me for cues on how to behave. I do not want her to assume that physical violence and force should be her automatic outlet when she is upset.
Have I wanted to hit her? Yes. I am only human. But I always stop myself. I am an adult, and I have the ability to control myself. She is learning self-control as she learns to manage emotions bigger than she is, and it is up to me to model that for her.
As parents, we have complete power and authority over our children. They are dependent on us for everything – food, shelter, protection, guidance, and love. And their capacity to love and forgive us is tremendous, as any parent who has messed up knows.
But when we hit them in the name of love, we confuse them. We are essentially saying that we have the right to abuse our authority over them because they are small and vulnerable with no other options, and we are big and powerful.
We are saying that we expect unconditional love from them, but our love for them is very conditional.
They will likely repeat this relationship pattern throughout their lives by hitting their own kids and expressing anger and frustration in physically violent ways. We can only hope that if they “just lose it” that no one gets taken to the hospital – or worse.
If you hit your children to correct them, you CAN stop.
There are a number of resources out there to help you discipline your children without resorting to spanking them.
If you are interested in learning more, here are a couple of links:
- Here is a great list of 9 things to do instead of spanking:
- Toddlers can be exceptionally exasperating. Check out these tips for managing the behavior of these willful small people:
- Parenting classes
Many community organizations offer parenting classes for free or for nominal fees, and you can even do some from the privacy of your home online. A quick Google search revealed a number of organizations that help parents with learning alternative discipline techniques. You can type in “parenting classes” to Google to see what is offered in your area.
And there are many more resources out there, if you take just a few minutes to look. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals, and we are all making it up as we go along. But we can all learn to be better parents, including me.
So to answer the title of this post, it is never okay to hit your child.
Even if only one person stops hitting their child as a result of reading this, I will feel some measure of relief.
Remember, your kids love you no matter what. Please don’t hurt them in the name of love.