I pushed my daughter backwards into a bed of nasturtium. It was the single worst moment of my parenting career.
The situation was…I was hammering up wire netting against the fence for a failing passionfruit plant. Elka was drinking from her bottle, wearing a sweet little red and white polka-dot hat. “What you doing, Mama?” she asked, as she does a thousand times a day. She started to play with the sick passionfruit plant, playing…pulling.
“Stop, Elka, please.” I warned. She didn’t.
‘Stop! Elki, the plant is very sick. You need to stop.” She pulled harder. I pushed her away from it, and she fell back, her little face white with shock – she was haloed by the nasturtium bed and her red bonnet. Her bottle was in her hand. She began to cry. It took me a couple of moments to realise what I had done, and respond.
“Oh, my god, my darling girl, I am so sorry,” I cried, and wrapped her in my arms. She sobbed, and stroked my face. Between blubbers she asked, “Are you OK Mama? What’s wrong?” I will never forgive myself, I thought. She is so pure. So innocent and kind.
This was me getting frustrated and resorting to physical harm. If you know me personally, you will know this is against everything I believe in and preach about. Physically harming a child is never, ever acceptable. You are here to protect your child, nurture them and love them into fruition.
My heart collapsed into my chest and I soberly tried to meditate the pain away. It wouldn’t pass. It was stuck in my chest – a fat, ugly rock, wedged.
I didn’t think I would ever write about this incident, as I buried it under the shameful layers of Me. How could I verbally protect the rights of children in mini speeches to friends and turn around and push my child away? How would I face the contradiction?
The point of writing it down is to uncover my shame, and discuss a topic I feel very strongly about.
Last year, I was shocked to read an article that 85% of people polled in Australia admit to hitting their child and only 8% regret it. Really? Are we so stuck in the past? Caning children at school has long been unacceptable. In other developed countries, smacking children is illegal. In Australia, it is illegal to assault another adult, but it is not illegal to smack a child. The discrepancy between harming an adult and a child is actually stipulated. How can this be?
Author Kerri Sackville was on Sunrise soon after this article came out. She was saying there was a difference between lightly tapping a child’s bottom to help stop them spinning out – in fact, sometimes it’s the only way – and whacking a child. Her role was to advocate the rights of parents who choose to hit their children. The Sunrise crew made a little joke about the fact that little old New Zealand actually have a law against hitting children – they failed to mention that most European countries have the same legal standards as New Zealand.
If I had any doubt about the public view Kerri and the Sunrise team were representing, my fears were confirmed at a local playgroup. Three women stood around chatting about mothering tactics (as you do at playgroup). One very large woman wearing high-heeled black patent boots proudly announced to the circle that her three-year-old had recently learnt the meaning of “One, two, three, smack…” Apparently, the second time “One, two, three…” began, the dear little boy fled to tidy his room before the “smack”. Discipline by fear? I guess it’s one way of parenting, and sadly in Australia it is the normal, accepted way of disciplining children.
According to other studies into the effects of physical punishment, although children may comply in the short term, they do not learn the desired behaviour (remember, discipline means ‘to teach’). It is highly likely that as your children push the boundaries further, you’ll find yourself hitting harder as your frustration levels escalate. There is also increased evidence to suggest that physical punishment may be linked with more aggressive or antisocial behaviour, emotional damage and diminished cognitive ability. In review of several longitudinal studies published in the Psychologist in 2002, psychologist Dr Penelope Leach found smacking related to a five-fold increase in toddler non-compliance; a four-fold increase in assaults on siblings by children under ten; double the rate of physical aggression in school playgrounds among six-year-olds; and an increased likelihood if substance abuse and criminal activity in adolescence. (McKay, P. 2008. Toddler Tactics. p. 63).
Once upon a time, it was acceptable for teachers to cane children in school. It was also acceptable for husbands to occasionally hit their wives if they stepped out of line. Thankfully, neither of these things are accepted in Australian contemporary society so I live in hope that our feelings about smacking children as discipline will also change.
After Kerri’s Sunrise interview, I wrote on her Facebook page that I was saddened by the views she expressed. In my mind, she was waving the green flag for hitting kids and indirectly condoning child abuse. No parent is perfect, and perhaps, like me, we will succumb to frustration and irritation and do something we will regret. The point is though that social conscience needs to change to see smacking children as unacceptable. It has happened in other countries – in The Netherlands, for example, where my husband is from, smacking children is frowned upon. It is not something you would boast about at playgroup. If the bar is raised, then at least we have an ethical standard to aspire to. Occasionally, as humans we will slip and make a mistake, but my hope is that we will at least strive to look after and protect our children. Nurture their tender souls. Do as nature intended.
My toddler has had some challenging behaviours lately, like deliberately peeing on the floor, or on her car seat while we drive. I could get angry, and scream and shout and possibly hit her in an attempt to teach her a lesson. But I know there is no point. All I am teaching her by acting in this manner is that it is OK to scream and shout and hit. Kids learn by example. If we are kind and soft, they will follow us. If we say please and thank you, so will they. If we are frustrated and anxious, they will mimic our behaviour. Although I get frustrated and want to scream and shout, I bite my tongue and think about what will actually be effective, which is to stay calm, and explain to her that it is not OK to pee haphazardly and with intention. In toddler-eeze: Pees go on the toilet, otherwise Mummy has to do more laundry, and floor mopping.
The passionfruit vine incident is a good lesson for me. The pain the event caused me is etched so deeply into my skin that, although I will try, I can’t forget it. It is a reminder that I am capable of frustration and violence towards a child, as much as it pains me to say so. When the moment heats up, I need to cool down, and reflect on what is good for my child, and good for the situation. Violence is not the answer, ever.