I didn’t think anyone still believed in hitting children, but polls find consistently that a majority think it’s all right to smack at least sometimes and we shouldn’t interfere with parents’ right to parent. Many of the people who hit their children were hit as children, and, in their own words, “turned out fine.” I won’t even try to convince hitters not to hit, but I will say this. Our son, nearly 14, has in the last few months grown decisively taller than his mother. I can tell you it’s a relief – as I tilt my head to make eye contact – to know I haven’t hit him, at least partly because it gives me confidence he won’t hit me.
In fairness to those who do hit their children, or those who’d like to defend their right to do so, I will be the first to admit I fail as a disciplinarian. I remember reading Penelope Leach one night in bed. The first temper tantrum, Leach writes in Your Baby and Child, is like a storm, clearing the air of feelings too complex for children to articulate. Don’t punish, and don’t capitulate. I said to my husband that I didn’t think our son, then around three, had had a tantrum yet. He paused. “I think you have to deny them something first,” he said. As our son has grown, I’ve been lacklustre about chores and halfhearted in making up consequences instead of punishments, which has always seemed a furphy. I’ve lost my temper, apologised, admitted flaws. I’ve been as honest as my capacity to understand the world allows. It’s not really a parenting approach so much as all I’m capable of.
Paediatricians have told us to stop hitting children, that’s there’s no safe level of smacking. They read the research. Children who are hit are more aggressive. Adults who were hit as children are more likely to be depressed, anxious and suffer mental illness.
My husband was hit. His brother, a big lad, now a police officer, was hit. My three brothers were hit. The teachers at their schools used canes. My father used a piece of rubber hose. I was threatened but not hit at home, but I was hit with a piece of aluminium window frame by a nun at school in year 4. Oh, that Sister Michael and the shame I felt, just for existing. How much harder for those poor boys who were hit with regularity?
Not all of those who were hit as children hit their children. Some decide to end the cycle and they are surely the best humans, living the maxim that the next generation will be better. Partly because of them, it will.