Tortured conversations

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I’ve been reading all these blog references to the use of corporal punishment as a legitimate form of discipline. They remind me of Alice Miller’s work. Once you’ve read Miller you’ll never view corporal punishment in the same way again, however much you ascribe to the notion of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. Is that how the quote goes?

It also puts me in mind of a conversation I overheard recently. I’ve tried to record it as best I can remember. It puts me in mind of Ruth Schmidt Neven’s notion that ADHD can perhaps be relabeled: ‘parental attention deficit disorder’. But of course, any parent was also once a child and most of us tend to repeat what was done to us. Therefore we need heavy doses of compassion for all parents however seemingly inadequate.

At the airport on Saturday as I stood and waited for the arrival doors to open and let out our youngest daughter, returning from a three week school trip to England, I overheard a conversation.

A boy, about ten years old stood, between the barrier and the corridor that leads from each of the three exit doors. He was waiting with his father for his mother to arrive. Presumably this mother was on the same flight as our daughter, Emirates 404 from London via Dubai and Singapore. I knew this because I had overheard the father tell his son that the air hostesses, who walked out of those sliding doors, mostly in twos, were from the Emirates flight, his mother’s flight.

The man said this I think to encourage his son to be patient, but it had the opposite effect. The boy wore glasses and had a sharp freckled face, none too attractive but typical perhaps for a boy of ten who had been waiting for a long time at the airport for his mother to arrive.

I noticed his face after this first odd exchange with his father.
‘I’ve seen people over there who are crying,’ the boy said.
‘They’re probably happy to see someone come home. Like we’ll be happy when we see Mum and Emma.’ There was a pause, and the boy strained to look to the top of the corridor where people were finally able to come together and hug.
‘I don’t care about other people,’ the father went on to say. ‘Forget about other people. We’re here to see Mummy and Emma.’

The boy spun around then and glared at his father momentarily before regaining his position behind the barricade beyond the opening doors. In that movement he looked directly at me. His face was a grimace and I wondered whether I had missed something.

The boy held a small plastic figurine in his hand and he tapped with it against the metal bar.
‘Stop that now,’ his father said.
‘Why can’t I?
‘Because I said so. Now just be quiet and wait till your mother comes.’
‘There are some balloons over there,’ the boy said, straining to look behind him. ‘Can I have one?’
‘No,’ his father said.
‘Where did they get them?’ the boy asked. ‘Why can’t I have one?’
‘They probably brought them with them. Now settle down.’
I was looking straight ahead so I did not see what happened next but the boy’s voice rose to a new pitch.
‘Don’t you hit me,’ he said.
‘Let go of my shirt,’ his father said. The boy held on.
‘Let go of my shirt or I’ll leave.’
‘You can’t do that,’ the boy said. ‘Who’ll look after me?’
‘Let go of me or I’ll leave.’ The father pulled away. The boy wailed.
‘I’m sorry dad. I’m sorry.’
The father left off leaving.
‘You’re not sorry, he said. Now settle down or I will leave.’
‘You can’t go,’ the boy said. ‘I’ll be all alone.’
‘I told you to settle down. Just settle down.’
‘You shouldn’t have hit me,’ the boy said.
‘Let go of my shirt.’
‘Dad, Dad, I’m sorry Dad.’
The father must have moved away because the boy became even more agitated
‘Don’t go, Dad. I’m sorry.’ In the midst of all this wrangling, the boy’s mother arrived.

I leave this conversation now for you to interpret and make sense of.

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3 Comments on Tortured conversations

  1. Jim Murdoch
    October 6, 2009 at 2:17 pm (8 years ago)

    I'm sure we're missing more here than the odd bit's that you didn't catch. How to control a child? It's a difficult question and different things work for different kids. It's the child's seemingly over-the-top reaction to being left that interests me. Had the father found that to be effective before? Had he even left him somewhere? Taking advantage of someone's fear is a quick fix. But I have to wonder whether a clip round the ear wouldn't be more effective and do less damage in the long run.

    It's the whole idea of bringing up someone in an environment based on a fear of being punished that bothers me but I'm not sure how to avoid that because in a reward-centric situation not giving the reward is effectively punishment. Certainly I was brought up in a world where corporal punishment was commonplace and I don't feel it's done me any harm. That said, I smacked my daughter once on her life when she ran out onto the road and was nearly knocked down – she'd be about three at the time – and it had the desired effect, she never did it again and remembers it till this day.

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  2. Elisabeth
    October 7, 2009 at 6:54 am (8 years ago)

    When you say that corporal punishment as a commonplace in your childhood didn't do you any harm, Jim, are you speaking from your adult self or your child.
    I cannot see how any physical mistreatment of children can be justified however well we get by in years to come.
    I well remember the shame I felt after my father once gave me a belting. I would have been five. Only once do I remember such a belting and it wasn't the pain, the pain was negligible. It was the shame, the sense of humiliation in front of my brothers and sisters. I had pinched lollies from the shop my parents owned in those days. I certainly needed to be given the message that stealing is wrong, but I'm sure there were better ways. The punishment did not fit the crime. That of course is different from the situation you describe with your daughter, the knee jerk reaction when she's in danger. But rationalising corporal punishment as good, or at least 'not so bad' for children doesn't wash with me.
    I think it leads to what you describe as a fear of punishment, which is a terrible way of dealing with anyone, akin to the tactics of torture. And quite above and beyond physical punishment, the threat to withdraw parental love is one of the worst threats imaginable.

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  3. Jim Murdoch
    October 7, 2009 at 11:32 am (8 years ago)

    I was also punished for stealing. I pinched money from one of my father's workmates. The man came to the house and confronted us. I was found out and smacked in front of him. I remember the same happening when I lied about biting a boy in a fight. Justice was seen to be done. My dad only ever used his hands on us although they were solid things I have to say. He never bruised me and I was always smacked on my rear.

    Apart from the one occasion I smacked my own daughter I never found I needed to do more than shout at her – and that was rare – because she was a very good child. I wasn't reacting to what happened to me growing up because I never felt I'd been wronged as such, I quite simply don't express myself physically. It's unthinkable to hit anyone, adult or child. I've been in fights but I never took the offensive, always I sought only to stop them doing harm to me.

    Life is made up of rules. If you break them there will be consequences. And those consequences are invariably bad ones. Society punishes its members when they break its rules and so why should a family be any different? It's finding an appropriate punishment to fit the crime that's hard because everyone is different: some will learn their lessons quickly, others will grow tough, some will crumble and still others will get clever. The thing is, you usually don't know until some time after the punishments have been doled out. Being a parent is a tough job.

    I objected to being belted at school. The use of an implement bothered me. It formalised the punishment and there were rules: no more than six strokes. Some teachers made quite a ritual of it. One I remember took a cloth and covered the wrists to protect them. Another had two different kinds of belts. One spent more time belting the desks that he did belting us. Granted there was kudos to be gained being belted – it certainly was a rite of passage – but I could have lived without it.

    The thing about the belt was that there was an immediacy to it. Getting lines or being given detention dragged the whole thing out but being belted there and then connected crime and punishment. That I can see. But I never liked it. I think being a teacher is a really hard job.

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