My Beautiful Wickedness

What being hit teaches kids
April 8, 2008, 9:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Aunt B and her commenters are reflecting on the varieties of lessons that they learned from being hit as kids. I was physically punished by both parents and I drew different conclusions from each.

My mom used what she called “a limber switch.” After I had been repeatedly warned that my behavior was not acceptable, after she was sure I understood what she was saying and why she wanted me to stop, and after I persisted to the point of disrespect or near-self-injury, she’d fly out of the house to the nearest apple tree, get a switch off the new growth of the tree, and bust my ass and legs about six or seven times. Da-yum, but that little switch cut, stung, and raised welts. Those welts stayed with you for a day or two and it continued to hurt every time you sat down. They were embarrassing if you had gym class the next day and your legs were all marked up. I guess this probably happened seven or eight times total between the ages of four and ten. What it taught me was that my mother had her limits; I had no illusions that bad behavior was going to be tolerated indefinitely. She never enjoyed punishing me and she was not a bully, but keeping me both safe and respectful of her authority took precedence over my whims and wishes. (The only exception to the limber switch treatment was in church, where misbehavior got you taken outside, your ass busted by hand, and then a return to the pew once you quit squalling…which had to be accomplished pretty damn quick, because fooling around in church and missing the sermon was not something that Mom put up with either.) I never held it against Mom that she corrected me because it was an option of last resort and it was followed with a stern talking to my head that made it less likely that I would be whipped in the future.

My dad, on the other hand, had been beaten as a kid and was a beater by his turn. He used a leather belt to do his whipping. He’d build up a head of steam over the frustrations of the day, maybe not even wholly over something I was doing, and wham-o! The sound of a belt being quickly jerked out of belt loops still frightens me. There was no warning, no way of knowing when it would stop. I just had to hope that Mom would wade in and get between me and him. The belt cut and bruised. When the buckle got (accidentally…let’s not paint it blacker than it was) involved, the cuts were worse. When I was a teenager, he tried to graduate to hitting me with his fist and kicking me with his wooden leg, but I was quicker than him and he never actually connected. I told him if he ever connected with a kick, I’d wait until he was asleep and take that leg out and burn it on the trashpile. I meant it, too. Enough of that shit was enough. It stopped when I got old enough to stand up to him and when he threw stuff or lashed out, I could lash right back. No self-respecting adult can put up with that kind of crap for long, especially once you figure out that you’re not the one with the problem.

Dad’s punishment style was just stupid, brutal, unreasoning hitting. There was no larger safety lessons to be imparted; what I learned from being hit by my father and watching him constantly threatening to hit my mother was that being a bully is no way to be a husband or a father. I learned that force is a lousy basis for household authority. I learned that people who have a bad temper can bluster their way into what they want because people around them are going to be afraid of setting them off but that this will eventually corrode love and turn it into disgust.

Like B’s dad, my Dad was also a leaver. I don’t think he was a leaver when my brother was around (I was too young to remember it clearly if he was), but once my bro went off to college, the big huffing and puffing started. He would get me and Mom out in public, somewhere where we couldn’t get home without him, scream a big temper tantrum, jump in the car and zoom off. It was always over some trivial bullshit thing, like Mom deciding that she was going to light a cigarette and hold it to light firecrackers at a 4th of July celebration (this meant that she was a damn wimmen’s libber, don’t you know). That was all the excuse required. He left for four hours. I was 8 years old. I didn’t know how we were going to get back home from Cleveland, I didn’t know if he was going to come back…and poor Mom, a non-smoker smoking that whole damn pack of cigarettes out of spite and probably completely strung out on nicotine as well as the adrenaline of having to figure out how to get her nervous-Nellie child on home from what had been planned as a happy family picnic. One time when I was about fourteen, we were in a hotel in Virginia Beach and he took a tantrum and took the car and was gone half the night while Mom and I idly wondered aloud how far away the bus station was and whether we should report the car as stolen so the police would pick him up. Another time, he stranded us at a restaurant. It was always a “maximum embarrassment” situation, designed to humiliate his wife and kid and remind us how dependent we were on him. After a while, the shock wore off. The leavings became more frequent, nightly wanderings where he’d just not come home from his 3-11 shift until 5 or 6 in the morning. What I learned from that is that my father was not dependable. I learned that there were a lot of different types of things people could call love but not all of them were really all that loving. What love Dad had — which could be, by turns, complete and generous and wonderful — was bound up in a sick way with the need to control us, humiliate us, keep us subordinate to him, keep us fearful and in doubt about ourselves and that this was not the kind of love I ever wanted for myself. It complicated our relationship while he was living and now that he’s dead. I’m at peace about it now — there’s a tangle that will not come untied and so I don’t choose to keep picking at it — but I’d be less than honest if I said it didn’t shape my relationships with my own husband and child.

Do I spank? Yes, I do, very occasionally. I use my hand, one swat on the butt, as an immediate intervention if she’s ignoring me on a safety-related issue. I also use the “one swat” method if she deliberately disobeys me and goes on and does something that I have just told her not to do that I’m sure she understands why she’s not supposed to do it (picking up our cat by the back legs and trying to wheelbarrow it, for example). I think I probably had to do that twice a year. Once I have redirected her attention to the “no, it’s not going to be that way,” we then talk, with the ultimate goal being to teach her to use her self-control and to help her to have a little more empathy and respect. Maybe I am making a mistake, but I’m hoping that she will draw the same conclusions that I did from my mother-justice.


5 Comments so far
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My dad never left us in public. We probably had his job to thank for that. He wasn’t about to do anything in public that might reflect poorly on him as a minister. But damn, he would get so pissed at us (and you know, I can remember him just going off on all of us kids a number of times, cussing at us, telling us how lousy we were, and I cannot remember one thing that instigated it.) at the house and he’d just tear into how much he hated being a part of our family and how he couldn’t stand us and then he’d storm out of the house and drive off in the car and be gone for… I don’t know. I thought he was just gone for hours, but my youngest brother thought he left for a day or two.

To me, the weirdest thing was that we never talked about it. When he was gone, the house got silent. We all went to our rooms or off to be alone or whatever. And when he came back, it wasn’t ever mentioned. We just went back to doing things like normal.

I feel like he just used to hit my middle brother all the time. That’s my memory of it anyway. I rarely got spanked. A few times by him. Never by my mom. But it seemed like my brother was getting spanked all the time and then hit in altercations with my dad as he got older. I don’t remember him ever hitting my dad back.

He spanks his sons and it makes me really uncomfortable. But it doesn’t seem to be like how my dad did to him, so I try to mind my own business.

Comment by Aunt B.

My father would never hit us in public, either. Once I was into my teens, I learned to use that fact to avoid being hit. I would make sure to tell him the stuff I knew would make him want to hit me when we were at a restaurant, or when a friend was over at the house. Of course, the fact that he could control himself when he figured he had to, but didn’t bother to when there was no one to see, made me unforgiving: ‘he could help it but he wouldn’t bother’ is a lot worse than ‘he couldn’t help it.’

He was also a leaver, come to think of it. Not a leaver-of-us-stranded-somewhere, but a leaver-of-the-house-for-some-space-of-time. Of course, as a working scientist he had a lab to go to, and he often was there at odd times because of the experiments he was running, so my mother would just say, “oh, your father’s gone back to the lab,” and until I was about 12 I would usually believe it. Does the walking out that way generally go along with the abusive stuff? I never thought about that before.

Comment by nm

Yes, I think that the leaving and the hitting is all part of the same package — just different ways to try to remind people that they are dependent on you, that they’re not as powerful as you are, that you’re economically weak and you need to put up with their crap or your life could get really bad really quick.

Sometimes, leaving (and affairs and the other things you do to be evil to a spouse) stand in for hitting. I think that my Mom (who is a tiny ball of fire who was more than a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than my Dad) had made Dad believe that she was not about to be physically abused — he knew that she had laid her own older brother out cold with a plank upside the head when her brother had tried to manhandle her and she had a reputation from the schoolyard as being quick with her fists. I think he was unwilling to get the shit whipped out of him by his own wife as well as really having some scruple against it, or some final limit that he wouldn’t cross about hitting her. He had a real high-school teenage idealistic view of romantic love, so maybe there was something that made standing toe-to-toe threatening to kill her ok, but actually laying a hand on her wrong. I don’t know exactly and I don’t want to speculate on his inner works. Anyhow, Mom was absolutely not going to be hit by her husband. So, the threats of hitting and the endless screaming was about as far as it went. The leaving was, I guess, the way you get at someone who you can’t actually hit or when you’re in a place where you can’t actually hit them.

Comment by bridgett

(Slowly) He hit you?

He should be glad I didn’t know that.

Very glad.

Comment by imfunny2

That’s a sad story.

In my opinion, using a weapon to strike a child is always child abuse. Excessive, forceful beating is as well.

The “one-swat-with-the-hand-to-get-your-attention” when other attempts at communication have failed is proper disciplinary action.

Comment by Gerald Mcleigh

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