When I became a parent, I knew I wanted to raise my kids without spanking them. I had been abused as a child, and while many don’t view spanking as abuse, I vowed to never hit my kids. I definitely promised myself I would not repeat the cycle of abuse, but I didn’t even want to use what some consider acceptable hitting as a way to get my kids’ attention or scare them.
Spanking as part of their punishment is still using physical force to control kids; it is still using threats and intimidation to get what you want as a parent from your child. The idea of it felt too close to the feelings I had as a kid when my dad slipped off his belt or raised his hand. I promised I would never be like him. But, here’s the other thing.
Now that I’m a parent, I understand why people hit their kids.
One night, I was in the kitchen finishing up dishes before the kids’ bedtime. One child was pooping in an upstairs bathroom. Another one was pooping in the downstairs bathroom. And my third child ran naked through the kitchen declaring she needed to use the bathroom too. I told her to use my bathroom, but instead I heard my five-year-old banging on the downstairs bathroom door, eager to get in to pee. My oldest daughter told her to go away. I closed my eyes and did the end-of-the-day exhausted and exasperated head shake as my younger daughter hit and kicked at the door. I sighed and groaned when my oldest started screaming “I AM POOPING!” over and over again. Finally the door banged open and the screaming escalated.
“Mommy! She is peeing! Come quick! She is peeing!” My oldest daughter was frantic. I swore and turned from the kitchen sink and went to the bathroom expecting my younger daughter to have had an accident. Nope. She was squatting and deliberately peeing on the bottom of the toilet bowl right next to her sister’s feet, as if she were a dog at a fire hydrant.
I yelled. I demanded she stop.
She looked at me and laughed. Not only did she piss on the floor in some weird act of defiance, but she then laughed at me in the face of punishment and consequences.
I felt my anger rise. It blinded me to my options. I had no control over her. I had no control over myself. I yanked her out of the bathroom and away from the puddle of piss she created and smacked her on her bare bottom.
I hit her.
As she wailed, more out of shock and less out of pain—though I am sure it stung—I instantly felt shame and guilt and regret. I not only saw myself in my daughter, my handprint now on her ass, crying and feeling betrayed and stunned, but I saw myself in my father. I wasn’t able to keep my shit together. I hadn’t been able to see beyond my own emotions of rage and frustration and exhaustion. I acted in the only way I thought I could to stop my daughter’s behavior, the behavior I wanted to stop.
My younger daughter continued to cry, now yelling “you hit me!” over and over. I felt waves of guilt and sadness and anger wash over me. I asked her to go to her room to put on her pajamas. I was angry — yes at her, but mostly at myself. I needed her to leave my sight so I could figure out how to repair the damage I had caused. I helped my oldest daughter navigate around the pee on the floor and cleaned up the mess. She seemed shocked and scared by my actions too.
My feelings were not new, though. I had been close to hitting my children before. I know that edge. I walk up to it often, especially with my youngest daughter who is the toughest one of my three kids to parent. She is just a more difficult child. And while it’s not a matter of wanting to hurt my child or punish her with pain, I want her to stop her negative actions. I want her to listen to me and her siblings. I want her to make it a little easier on me sometimes.
I know spanking her is not the answer, but it often feels like I don’t have any other options. I know I need to teach her self-regulation skills. I need to be patient. I need to provide empathy. But she was pissing on the floor and laughing at me. In that moment, I lost it. I reacted without thought.
I often tell myself that if I, an educated and emotionally intelligent person with financial stability and emotional support can lose control, then it’s no surprise that someone with more stress and less therapy and little help at home can too. I am not saying all people under stress, underpaid, and living through their own difficult emotional journeys spank or abuse their children. I don’t think that.
I am saying that I understand how hard it can be to NOT hit your child sometimes. It takes major self-restraint. It takes looking at yourself in that moment and avoiding the quick, but ultimately not easy, fix. It takes putting yourself in a vulnerable positon and asking yourself how you wished your parent had treated you.
I think every parent would tell you they don’t want to hurt their kid. But I also know parents are often the ones who inflict the most pain. I became that parent. I hated myself for it, just like I hated my father for doing it to me. As I beat myself up over my inability to show control and to practice what I preach to my kids, we don’t hit, we use our words, I placed my feelings aside and went to find my daughter so I could reattach.
She was whimpering in her bed, still naked. I felt sick seeing the red mark on her bottom. When she saw me, she told me again that I had hit her. I told her I was sorry. I was wrong. I should not have hit her. I didn’t make an excuse, but I wanted her to know that what she did was wrong too. She should not have peed on the floor on purpose. She confirmed that she knew it was wrong. She was sorry.
We made promises to each other. She promised to be a better listener, and I promised to use my words and not hit her or her siblings. I know she will break her promise; she already has. There is a good chance I will break mine too. But one promise is not dependent on the other; I should keep my end of the bargain even when she abandons hers.
I don’t condone abuse or spanking, but damn if I don’t understand both the impact and the difficulty to not indulge in it at times. This understanding is what allows me to walk up to the edge of control. I always feel its dangerous pull, but most of the time, I resist going over it.