I was at the park today and saw a man wallop his child. A warning. This post is going to get opinionated. If you’re easily offended, or thingy about hands on discipline, then look away, there’s nothing to see here.
A crowded park on a sunny Saturday. I hear the scream of a younger sister wronged. Very quickly after that I hear the smack of a hand on the offender’s bottom. At least, I think it was a bottom. It didn’t sound like a face. All eyes turn to see Alpha Dad, right up in his own Mr 4 or 5’s face, in all his finger pointing glory. DON’T mutter mutter DON’T mutter AGAIN! Finger in the face. What happened next made my guts drop to my feet. Alpha Dad was holding a football. He fullstopped his tirade with a good hard push to the chest, using the football. Such a hard push, that the child flew backward into the bushes. Alpha swaggered away to return to his coffee and saturday morning paper. The child cowered, head in knees, sobbing in the bushes. Nobody to help him make sense of what had happened, and all eyes in the park on him and his Dad. After a few minutes he stood, wiped his tears with his shirt and rejoined his sister, wary eyes on Dad.
I will begin my own tirade by again saying I’m not perfect. I’ve yelled and smacked a little too. I’m going to leave the whole to smack or not to smack debate alone, but I am going to vent about publicly humiliating your child.
First of all, it’s very poor problem solving. You are the adult Alpha Dad. You should have a better way of getting what you want than hitting (and yelling). Is that how you behave at work? My Twin Trouble is a little hitter. Am I to teach him that we don’t hit, and do that by hitting? There is research out there that shows children who are parented with excessive punishment grow up with a greater tendency to oppositional and defiant behaviours. It doesn’t matter what this kid did, he didn’t deserve what he got.
Nobody explained anything to this child after the event. He was left to sort through a confusing set of heightened emotions all on his own. This boy, at 4 or 5, is past the critical years of attachment forming, however, the impact of disintegrative shame on a child should never be underestimated. The moment of shame, the you have done something you shouldn’t have done moment, always needs to be followed by a moment of restoration of the parent-child relationship. Shame is actually good for emotional development. It’s how kids learn which behaviour is OK and which is not. But if the shame is linked with person and not behaviour, the results can be profound. This is disintegrative shame. What happens just after a child gets in trouble is critical. They need to know that yes, I just did something wrong, but I’m still OK and my Mum/Dad still wants me here and close to them. Nobody is going to leave me because I’m unpleasant, unlikeable or unworthy. That’s not to say you can flail your child’s backside with a cat-0-nine followed by a lolly and a cuddle.
The real motivation of the discipline is really the critical thing here. If your intention, Alpha Dad, was to teach him something. Then for God’s sake teach. And FYI, teaching happens with the use of words, pictures, examples, non-examples, trial and error and encouragement to try again. But your little Mr 4 or 5, he learnt alright. He learnt that he is not really OK in his Dad’s eyes, the most important male eyes in his little world. The man who, in his mind, makes the sun come up in the morning. He learnt he has to earn your love by being good. And nobody explained to him what ‘good’ is or how to do it. You embarrassed your child Alpha, humiliated him. And you broke him a little, broke your relationship with him, just a little. But keep it up and the job will be done by the time he’s a teenager and by then, he won’t want you around anymore.
My husband and I wondered, if this is what happens in public, what happens at home? At what point would you, or should you, step in? I really wanted to go over and cuddle this boy, but I know that wouldn’t have helped. But I thought, what if the smack and the push were a bruising punch in the face? What would I do? What would you do? Is it ever OK to intervene in a situation like that, in public?