In Junior High, I was approached by my favorite teacher, Mrs. Drake. She wanted to know if I was okay. I had changed, she said. She was worried that something might be troubling me.
I was tired, I told her, doing my best to shrug off her inquiry with an air of adolescent nonchalance. But the truth is, she was right. I had changed.
She didn’t push. Just offered her ear and any assistance I might need. Although I fantasized about telling her everything – all my dark secrets finally laid bare – I never took her up on her offer. Instead, I began to practice the fine art of blending in.
When other kids laughed at her jokes I painted a smile on my face. When she called on me, I answered with confidence; meeting the expectations of an advanced placement English class with my usual relative ease. For all intents and purposes, within two weeks of her inquiry I was back to “normal” and she never questioned me again.
It’s an unwritten rule that children who are abused do not talk about it.
My theory is that that’s because most often, the people who are mistreating—and yes, abusing—us are the same people we thought we could trust unequivocally. And as it turns out, we were wrong.
Why would we risk the unknown—and therefore very scary—consequences of telling anyone else when the people who are supposed to love and protect us are, in essence, through their behavior, letting us know that we are unworthy of both?
It pains me to admit that by the time Mrs. Drake approached me I was afraid to be at home. The truth is, I never knew what to expect or what version of my mother and step-father I was going to meet. Sometimes, the anxiety of not knowing was worse than the reality of who showed up.
That kind of mistrust and insecurity for a child leads to an indescribable loneliness.
That was the year that, despite my popularity and group of wonderful friends, I began to believe that I could not rely on anyone but myself.
At this point you’re probably thinking that I had it really rough. That I must come from a place of severe abuse to have felt so isolated and despaired. I guess that would depend upon your definition of abuse.
If, like me, you believe that practices such as spanking, pulling hair, washing mouths out with soap, and locking a distressed child in her room until “she calms down” only to have her vomit all over herself are abuse, then you’d be right. But let’s be clear, mistreatment and abuse take many, many forms.
For instance, the threat of violence, which is what I dealt with from my step-father much more than actual physical violence, is as menacing and as cruel as any of the actual slaps I endured. To create and feed that kind of fear in a child, so that s/he must always be on high alert, can result in an, at times, crippling anxiety.
The changes that Mrs. Drake so astutely observed in me were a direct result of that kind of anxiety. The kind that, at first, frightened me. And then saddened me until I had no choice but to harden myself against all the pain I had been forced to endure. Eventually, I was unable to feel anything more than a white hot anger and burning resentment that fuelled, what I thought at the time was my survival, but what I now know was the beginning of my slow and arduous descent into shame and self-loathing.
In some countries corporal punishment is now illegal. And in most western nations in recent decades, the notion that we have the right to strike our children is considered abhorrent; we assume that nobody does it anymore. Yet, the data shows otherwise.
In the U.S, more than 109,000 students were paddled, swatted, or otherwise physically punished in schools in 2014, according to Education Week Research Center analyses of federal civil rights data. Corporal punishment remains legal in 19 U.S states and is actively implemented in over 4000 schools.
Although the number of parents who spank their children at home is declining, it is heartbreaking to read that a 2013 Harris Poll found that among those with a child in the household, seventy eight percent believe that spanking is sometimes appropriate.
Thankfully, the American Academy of Pediatrics is now entering the arena, with a 2018 policy statement strongly disapproving of all forms of corporal punishment, including yelling at and shaming children.
As parents, we are change makers, so I implore all parents to think again.
For I promise that to your child, it is the not severity or regularity of spanking that will impact them the most, but the fact that it happens at all.
All any child wants—and most definitely needs—is to feel safe and secure. It is the most basic of biological needs. All living beings need a strong foundation from which to grow and thrive. A parent’s words and actions can either nourish the soil of possibility or poison it.
It has taken years of painful and exhausting work for me to find healing and forgiveness. If you know me today you know that I have a close relationship with my mother. But it didn’t—and sometimes still doesn’t—come easily.
No matter how many times my mother has apologized, or my step-father had taken responsibility for his actions before he passed away, I still battle with resentment and anger, and a deep sadness. So much so, that at times I have had to distance myself from my mother, as recently as when my three-year-old son was born.
The truth is, because of the things that went on in my childhood, regardless of how often, the relationship I have with my parents today always feels somewhat tenuous; as though it could break at any moment if I let it. Sadly, unless I continuously choose to practice forgiveness and offer compassion for them as imperfect people I sometimes think I could let them go forever.
And that is not something I ever want my son to feel. I don’t want to give him any reason to feel like his life might be better or easier without me in it, no matter how old he is. Nothing is more important to me than connection; than the sense of safety, security, and love it provides and that my son so desperately needs and deserves.
Spanking, yelling, threatening violence of any kind, timeouts and isolation all lead to disconnection and distrust.
We know that these behaviors do not produce the parent’s desired effect, but instead contribute to aggression, self-destructive behaviors, and low self-esteem amongst other things. Most assuredly, they lead to a child distancing themselves from the people with whom they are meant to be closest. And sometimes, you just can’t bridge that gap again. No matter what.
There are so many reasons not to inflict harm upon our children, either with our words or our actions. No one is perfect, and we’ll all undoubtedly make mistakes. The probability of our asking our children for forgiveness for some transgression at some point is pretty high. The way in which we speak to and treat them from the earliest age will determine whether or not they will see us worthy of forgiveness.
Education Week, Corporal Punishment Use Found in Schools in 21 States