This morning over on Reddit, I saw an article posted about a 5 year old girl who had been placed in a 3.5 metre x 2 metre (about 7′ x 12′) storage closet at school as punishment for “kicking a table”. I read the comments (Reminder: never read the comments) and while there were a good number of people who, like me, thought it was completely inappropriate, there was another well represented group. This group thought the punishment was not only appropriate, they believed that hitting kids at school should be allowed again. I’m curious at this reaction because I, too, remember the days of harsher discipline at school. I remember it first hand, in fact.
In 1980, in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis when 52 Americans were held hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran, my grade 5 teacher decided that it would be a good exercise in empathy for our class to spend the afternoon as her hostages. The shades were pulled, the lights turned off and we were told to sit still with our heads down on our desk. And so we sat for about ten minutes before as 11 year old kids do, we got restless. When that happened, the more restless of us were yelled at. And then, after some time I was singled out as being too noisy and had to be made an example of. I was marched over to the small, dark, coat closet and told to go inside and sit on the floor. I stayed there for about ten minutes before the whole exercise ended and class returned to normal.
This Grade 5 teacher was, in fact, our second for the year. The first one, who had been in the school for years, had left abruptly earlier in the year with rumours of his using physical discipline with a student. The rumour was he’d picked the student up by his ears when he was misbehaving but that’s never been substantiated. The student was known for not always behaving well, sometimes getting in fights and had broken my glasses in a previous year. But even back then I didn’t think that lifting a kid by his ears, or in fact any physical response, was appropriate. No matter what the circumstances.
I wasn’t upset or bothered by it, but it was certainly an experience that stuck with me. But even as someone who went through the experience of being put in a closet as a child and who didn’t have any trauma from it, I’m able to look at this story in today’s news and think that this is not appropriate. I think we’re progressing in the right direction.
When I was a kid, being hit wasn’t frequent but it was definitely on the table of options for “maintaining order” at home. A small infraction would get a small swat on the bottom, bigger ones would get more. But for severe cases, like at age 10 staying over at a friend’s house for a couple hours too long without calling was serious. A leather belt would be involved, and pants would be removed. There would be welts but those would be conveniently hidden by clothing most of the time.
When I was 12 years old and considered “too old to hit” I was instead recruited to mete discipline out to my brother as my mom said she couldn’t hit him hard enough and he just laughed at her (the primary disciplinarian in the family – my dad tended to not get involved and I can only remember him hitting me one time. I don’t remember what it was for but I remember the shock of it happening. Lifted up over his shoulder when I walked in the door, a quick whack and put down.) Needless to say, looking back, I have a huge regret that I did what she said.
Go to any forum where this issue is being debated and you’ll find a good number of people saying “Oh yes, I was hit as a child and I survived and am a good person.” and then they go on to say how they think that this is how all kids should be raised lest the world dissolve in to chaos because children will just do whatever they want. They might even just run out in to the street because they don’t fear being hit. By their parents I mean, not the car.
Rather than debate that issue further – I know most of us have seen how those sorts of Internet discussions go, I thought I’d share my own experiences as a parent.
When Sage and I were considering having a child, we spent literal days discussing our values as parents and making sure we agreed. What do we feel about religion? (Neither of us are interested in raising our child with any particular faith). How about school? (I’m a little nervous about homeschooling but Sage feels like we should do it. I’m willing to try.). Then we got to the discussion about how to manage various scenarios of childhood misbehaviour. We both agreed early that hitting our child was not on the table. But for many of us raised in the 1970’s and earlier, we don’t have a lot of role models for what the alternative should be. The only alternative some can imagine is permissiveness. (Thus the imagined chaos that would ensue if parent’s all chose not to hit their kids). We needed to go beyond this because we knew boundaries needed to be established and values communicated.
Taking hitting your kids off the table means that in a lot of situations you end up having to be creative and respond to the situation. Hitting is an easy solution in some senses because it presents itself as a universal solution. Any problem or misbehaviour? Just hit them and it’ll stop. If there’s a bigger problem, hit them harder.
So what did we end up doing? In most cases we would look at the problem and respond with something that was related directly to it – a clear cause/effect relationship. We would use the word “consequence” to describe it rather than punishment. Usually as adults, unless we do something really bad we don’t receive any sort of punishment. Instead there are consequences. Show up late every day at work and the consequence is that you lose your job. You’re not being punished, your boss needs to be able to count on you and if they can’t they’ll find someone who can.
Here are some examples of how we managed this:
There were times Daegan would refuse to settle in a restaurant, shopping, or at the library. This might mean being loud in a restaurant or running around in a store when we were trying to shop. In that case we’d give a warning or two and then the consequence would be that we would leave. In reality it was no different than if an adult were being disruptive there. They’d also be asked to leave. After only one or two times this no longer became an issue.
If he made a mess, there was an easy solution to that. Just as my consequence for messing up our apartment would be to clean it, his was the same. It still is, in fact. And yes, sometimes when a kid is very young, they aren’t fully capable. In that case we just helped him and ensured he was active in the cleanup.
One time when he was very young, he really fell in love with a friend’s toy from a McDonald’s happy meal. He was so in love with it that he put it in his pocket and brought it home. Then he felt so guilty he hid it in his room for months. One day he confessed to us what he’d done and felt terrible. Sage and I talked to him about respecting property and why we shouldn’t steal from others. Then we told him his consequence would be to return the toy and apologize to the kid for taking it. It was really hard for him but he did it.
A funny side note to this is that when this happened, Sage’s mom was visiting. She was never one to meddle at all in our family or “back-seat parent” as we came to call it. But very often she gave great advice or would ask pointed questions. In this case, she went to Daegan and said to him “Why not ask your mom and dad about where all of their music came from?” And so he did.
Our answer was that we had about 50 CDs that we bought, and then dozens of CDs filled with MP3’s we’d either downloaded or copied from library CDs. We had a few other CDs with software we’d downloaded and installed on our computer. “This is why we don’t steal.” we said, but at the same time we had this cache of things we, ourselves had effectively stolen. It would be impossible to maintain our credibility as parents without having consequences ourselves. And so, we uninstalled all of the software that we had not paid for. After that we deleted and threw out all of the music we had downloaded.
This aspect, role modeling the behaviour expected of our children, is often overlooked. Parents tell our kids not to drink too much or use drugs but then do just that after they go to bed. They tell kids to drive safely and then exceed the speed limit, drink and drive or drive aggressively. They tell them not to hit others and then hit them – or sometimes others too.
But what did we do when there was no direct consequence that seemed to make sense to us? I came up with this solution one day when Daegan was about three and we kept it around until he was around 8 when it was no longer necessary. We’d warn him to stop his behaviour or “you’ll get a timer.” We further explained that this meant that for the duration of the timer we wouldn’t read to him or play with him or help him do whatever he was working on (often art or a lego project). It was usually only 10 minutes or so but that was enough. Often we only needed to talk about it and it would be enough to get him to stop. In fact, as he got older it became more powerful. He really didn’t want us to set the timer. So just a few minutes ago we asked him why it was so upsetting to him. He said that he had forgotten the original meaning of the timer and just assumed that something bad – not horrific but just bad – would happen at the end of the timer and that was enough for him to stop himself.
Daegan is twenty now. He respects the law and boundaries as much as any kid and far more than I did at his age. You’ve read my stories about lying to my parents, having car accidents. I nearly lost my license due to speeding so much, drank a bunch in university starting when I was 16 to the detriment of my studies. The plural of anecdote is not data, as they say, so it proves nothing. But at least in this case, being hit didn’t do anything to prevent me from behaving like an idiot as a teenager and young adult. And not being hit didn’t cause Daegan any undue suffering or poor adjustment as an adult. Yes, as the commentors on these threads are quick to say “I was hit as a kid and I grew up OK.” \
But why would you do it if you didn’t have to?