Sultan of Swat

This is a tough post to write but I’m going ahead with it because one of the reasons I started this blog about being a Stay At Home Dad was to use it as a way to be reflective about what I’m doing as a parent. To learn from both the successes and the failures. Over the 14 years I’ve been a SAHD (and the six years before that as a middle school teacher) I’ve done a pretty decent job of keeping my cool. I’m a pretty laid-back guy and I try my best to be patient with everyone, especially my children. Any parent knows that kids can really test you and pester you and do stuff that shouldn’t get on your nerves, but it still does. It’s my experience that this is exacerbated for the at-home parent of small children who often deals with the seemingly endless requests to do this or that from the moment the little ones wake up until the moment they (finally!) go to sleep. Sure, I try to get my little ones to learn patience but, well, herding cats sometimes seems like it might be easier.

Well, rewind to a few days ago, Thursday, to be exact. It was a routine Spring day for us that was highlighted by a trip to a local park to enjoy some of the nice weather.

Playing at the park

Playing at the park

We had an early dinner without my wife, who stayed late to work, so we could be on time to meet her at my 15 year old daughter’s high school water polo game at 6:20 pm. Even though my M, four year old, very thoughtfully served some spaghetti to J, her 22 month old sister, while I finished cooking dinner (yeah, that onesie may not ever come clean), we were on target to leave the house to be, gasp!, ten minutes early for the game. The final hurdle to conquer was changing the J’s diaper. Piece of cake for this seasoned veteran. Or so I thought. As I laid J down on the changing table I noticed M trying to climb up the end of it. I asked her to please get down. Moments later M was standing bedside me at the changing table, trying to tickle her sister. I asked her to please stop. (I’m patient and well-mannered, thankyouverymuch!) Within the next 30 seconds as I was trying to wipe J’s butt and place the clean diaper under her I must have asked M three or four more times to please stop poking, tickling or otherwise prodding her sister because every time she did that her sister would twist her body impossibly as only toddlers on changing tables can do and I’d have to rearrange the diaper all over again. Exhale. I could feel myself getting a little worked up as I asked, for the sixth time in about a minute and a half, for M to Please. Stop. Touching. Her.

SWAT! 

8d8718e763a4a1392f460e9efec731ed35ea1a2eThat’s what I did to her hand as she reached to poke, tickle or prod her sister that one last time. It wasn’t a “hit”, but it might as well have been. And in that moment of frustration I lost my patience with my adorable four year old and violated one of my cardinal rules of parenting: never, ever, under any circumstances, lay a hand on my child in anger or frustration. I felt like smelly poo. How could I have done this to my child? She pulled her hand back and looked into my eyes, giant tears already forming in her eyes. Not as much from the physical pain but more from the fact that I’d swatted her hand out of frustration. I dropped to a knee to be at her eye level and immediately told her how very wrong it was for me to do that to her and I asked her earnestly to forgive me. Through her tears she nodded yes and, as we embraced, hot tears flowed from my eyes as they burned my cheeks. We talked about it some more right then as I finished getting the diaper on J and while we headed to the car.

It’s been just over 48 hours since I became, in my own mind at least, the Sultan of Swat. And I’ve been beating myself up over my lack of self-control and momentary lapse the whole time. It cannot happen again. Period. There is no room to justify my actions by thinking, “If she had listened in the first place…” Nope. Not even remotely an excuse. Yet, I have to be able to forgive myself in order to move on. M forgave me so now I need to do the same. Yet, I can still learn from this experience. While I am a pretty patient parent, I need to realize that I do, indeed, have a breaking point. If/when I feel myself approaching that point I need to do an internal “lemon squeeze” like my kids were taught in elementary school or slowly count to ten. Looking back on this particular incident, I should have counted M using the 1-2-3 Magic discipline system that we’ve used with all of our children for the last 15+ years. (I think I’m going to reread that book this week.) Had I done that, the situation would not have escalated and there would have been no swat. In the end, I have to learn from this mistake, forgive myself and remember that I’m not perfect. After all, imperfection is part of the human condition.

Spanking the Time-Out Away?

Another Stay At Home Dad that I’m friends with posted a link to a TIME magazine article entitled Time-Outs Are Hurting Your Child, which essentially makes the case for eliminating the use of the popular child-discipline technique of the time-out. You can read the article for yourself by clicking here. That got me to thinking about all of the news over the last month covering Adrian Peterson’s arrest and indictment on child-abuse charges for beating his four year old son with a switch. Peterson has publicly stated that he uses that form of discipline because it’s the same thing he endured as a child growing up in East Texas and that it taught him discipline. Of course, there are plenty of studies that decry the effectiveness of physical punishment. In an article from the American Psychological Association it was noted that

Many studies have shown that physical punishment — including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain — can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children. Americans’ acceptance of physical punishment has declined since the 1960s, yet surveys show that two-thirds of Americans still approve of parents spanking their kids.

Interestingly enough, just last week I had a conversation with six other friends about this exact topic. I mentioned that I was spanked as a child and it didn’t cause me to become aggressive, antisocial or develop any other issues mentioned in studies like the one above. Interestingly enough, the five men and one woman in the group also all experienced some form of physical punishment as children and none of them (to my knowledge) had experienced problems related to their punishment. In fact, most shared stories of a parent or teacher or coach who laid down the law in a manner that wouldn’t be tolerated in 2014.

In my house on Quarry Lane my parents had the rod. It was a 2-3 foot long wooden dowel, maybe the diameter of a dime, that sat atop the refrigerator in the kitchen, ominously peeking at us from above. My parents believed in the Bible verse that says

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24)

When I was a child, I got spanked. Not often. But for the big stuff. Maybe a handful of times my whole childhood. And every single time I deserved it. I learned from it. I stopped the behavior that warranted the spanking and made better choices. I did not become physically aggressive as a result. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m anything but antisocial. But, that flies in the face of the quote above. So, why did that physical punishment not affect me so negatively? I’ve thought about this answer quite a bit, especially over the last month or so since the Peterson story broke. I think it’s because my father, at least when he spanked me (I cannot speak for my three siblings), did it the right way. He never did it out of anger or in the heat of the moment. Instead, what usually happened is that my mom (who was a SAHM) would catch me doing something really bad and I got sent to my room to wait until my dad came home from work. Once he got home my mom would talk to him about what I had done and then he would come get me from my room and we’d go to my parents’ room. Sitting on the edge of the bed my father would instruct me to lay over the flat area of his quads. Before he spanked me he told me a few things. “Carl, I’m doing this because I love you and want to correct  (fill in the blank bad behavior) . I know you’re probably not going to understand this until you have children of your own, but spanking you hurts me more than you.” With that he would tell me the number of spanks I would get (usually 5-6) and do the deed. He never pulled my underwear down and he never swatted my bottom more than the number of times he told me. And I never saw him spank me in anger. In fact, after the spankings, while my butt was still sore, I would give him a hug and then go and apologize to my mom or whoever I had wronged. Once that was completed my punishment was over. (Except for the one time that I was grounded for 10 days for making a fire on some rocks so close to the house that some of the aluminum siding was warped. But that’s another story.)

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From my spankings I learned a few things. First, I learned that what I had done was wrong and needed to never happen again. I needed to change my behavior. Second, I learned that my parents loved me enough to discipline me to correct my behavior. And third, I learned that I still needed to apologize for my actions after receiving my spankings. I didn’t learn that it was okay to hit other people or be physically aggressive toward them. I didn’t learn that “might makes right”. I didn’t learn that violence was the answer. I wasn’t damaged physically or mentally because of the spankings. But, here’s the thing. Even with my positive experiences with spanking my wife and I chose years ago to not spank our children. She didn’t have such a glowing experience with corporal punishment as a child and I also saw my dad spank my little sister one time the wrong way. She was a toddler and he was spanking her to try to make her stop crying. Obviously, it didn’t work and all it did was send him into further anger. Thankfully, he stopped before taking it any farther, but it was enough to scar/scare me to really question its effectiveness. Obviously, it was his problem and he wasn’t doing it properly. But, I believe it goes to show the slippery slope of physical punishment on children. All it takes is one time where the parent loses it – just for a few moments – and the spankings become beatings and a situation like the one Mr. Peterson is facing.

Please hear me when I say that in no way do I support what Peterson did to his son in beating him so severely with a switch that he left cuts on the boy’s back, arms, neck and testicle. I understand that he had good intentions but he lost it as a father when the discipline transformed into child abuse. He’s a small and very strong man who gets paid millions of dollars to play a violent sport. I’m a tall and very strong (not the same as Peterson, of course) man who gets paid millions of kisses to be a SAHD. Yet, I’ve come to realize that I can discipline my children without spanking (or beating) them. I think that the key to the success of my father’s spanking is the same as my success of not spanking. It’s relationship. Even while being disciplined, I knew that I was loved and could trust my father to not hurt me. Like my father, I’m not perfect. Sometimes I yell at my kids. But I don’t hit them. I love them. I take the time to correct their behavior when needed. We’ve used 1-2-3 Magic Parenting with some success since my oldest was a toddler. She’s now 19. I look at her and my other kids, ages 15, 12, 10, 4 and 1, and note with a great deal of humility and thankfulness that they’re all pretty good people. Sure, they have their moments of sibling conflict, but they’re all pretty polite and kind and helpful most of the time. I love them and I even like them! I’d like to think that being at home with them for the last 14 years has had an impact in shaping them as the individuals they’re becoming today. Helping to guide them through conflict into a place of peace can be difficult. Tiresome. Yet, in the end, it’s worth it. My kids are living proof of it.