I want to hit my kids. I want to throw things at them. Kick them even. Not all the time. Just when I’ve given all I have, and they’re being selfish, disobedient little terrors.
And I’ve got great kids, a happy life. We love our city, our neighbors, our home, and our schools. Working as a stay-at-home parent who writes on the side is fulfilling, both in the big picture and in small joyful moments. My 6- and 3-year-olds are wonderful little people: enthusiastic and curious, but not out of control; talkative, yet perceptive and considerate. I’m incredibly proud of them.
But I still want to smack them sometimes.
When my daughter comes home from school full of sass, refusing to take off her sandals – “I don’t care about your carpets,” she says, her head tilting back and forth between “car” and “pets,” the “ar” somehow turned into an uhhhhhr sound, her beautiful little face drawn into a nasty, pinched expression – I simply remind her, “in the door, shoes off the floor.” When she turns to her little brother and says, “I got a chocolate muffin because of Suzette’s birthday, and I didn’t save any for you,” I recite, “We don’t say things just to hurt people’s feelings in this family.” When she yanks a toy out of the baby’s hands, I tell her that she’s welcome to be grumpy, but she needs to go to her room until she’s ready to follow our rules or talk about what’s bothering her politely. When she looks me in the eye and shouts, “No! I won’t go!” and then runs down the hall laughing, actually laughing … well, then I want to haul off and punch her.
I’m a lifelong member of a pacifist religion, and a former schoolteacher. I abhor violence and adore children. And still I want to cuff her.
There are many things no one tells you before you become a parent. I didn’t know that most of my girlfriends and I would struggle with miscarriages. I didn’t know that I’d often feel like our needs are a zero-sum game, with any energy I give my kids coming directly from my own bottom line. I didn’t know that I’d spend a good chunk of my time fighting my impulses, constantly repressing the urge to say “be careful,” “that’s too messy,” “hurry up,” or “do it this way.” And there are other, more destructive tendencies.
“Don’t shake the baby.” It sounds so easy. Just don’t do it. Ever. But it’s hard. Just as hard the third time around as it was the first. I want the baby to be quiet. I desperately want the crying to stop. In the moment – especially an exhausted, overwhelmed moment – getting it to stop seems like the most important thing in the world. It’s hard to regain perspective, to drag myself out of the moment and realize that actually, the baby’s brain not being smashed against the inside of her skull is the most important thing.
With my older kids, even when I maintain that perspective, even when I know that striking them will only make matters worse, there is still a powerful urge to do it. It feels instinctual, primal. Like flinching when a baseball flies toward one’s face. The ability to stand there, stoically, eyes open and glove correctly positioned, takes training.
But no one gives parents training, at least not for this part. The classes focus on first aid and schoolyard bullies, helping your children when the world threatens them. Nothing about what to do when you are the danger.
Most of us learn on the job. We figure out how to feel the desire to wallop our kids without turning it into action. Or, more commonly, we channel it into a different action. We kick an occasional toy. We slam doors. We leave the room and scream.
Child abuse is a heinous, intolerable occurrence, and we must use every ounce of self-control and social pressure to avoid it. It’s so bad that before I became a parent, I didn’t understand how it could happen. Now I get it. I don’t hit my kids, but I get it.
Just don’t do it. Ever. It doesn’t sound hard. But it’s hard.