For me, parenting began before the womb. There were things I'd either experienced or been exposed to that I vowed never to perpetuate, and other things I didn't want my children to live without. Before we married, my fiancé and I thoroughly discussed values, our histories, child rearing attitudes, beliefs, hopes and dreams. We spent time with children of family and friends to align our words and actions. By the time our two boys arrived, we were clear what could and could not happen, and we stuck to it. We believed the parameters we established during our children's first four years were critical, and ages four to eight were primarily for character refinement. Beyond that, changes to their personalities, temperaments and character would require targeted and concerted efforts. By then, I believed they'd become exactly who they were going to be.
Our sons had markedly different personalities and requirements, and both received our undivided, consistent attention. The same parents produced different children and no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach worked. But there were basic irrefutable values we held and modeled.
One of the points on which I differed with many of my peers involved discipline in child-rearing. Discipline was administered on three levels among my peers. Those who were punished had pleasures removed and privileges revoked. Spankings involved physical contact, typically a short series of one or more strikes targeted to the buttocks or hands with a hand, ruler or wooden spoon. Beatings involved physical contact to most any part of the body, administered with a variety of instruments, i.e., belts, brushes, electrical extension cords, hangers, shoes, switches, etc.
I was the last of five children, the second girl. My father pretty much abdicated physical discipline after the eldest three children. It created tension and ill-will in their relationships. By the time my youngest brother and I came along, he'd resorted to saying what he meant, and I rarely crossed him. My father was a steelworker. He was strong and had incredibly large hands that I had no desire to encounter for anything beyond a hug. My mother, however, was a different story. She was a petite southern woman who epitomized 'walk softly and carry a big stick.' She beat all of us, but she was particularly stringent with her girls. I understood some of it. My Mom had five children and two miscarriages between 17 and 26, and she wanted a different life for us. So we were raised in a fairly sheltered, straight-laced Pentecostal atmosphere with lots of parameters.
I was beaten until I was in my late teens. I didn't understand it when it was happening to me, and I had no desire or intention to pass that onto another generation. I wasn't a bad child; I was smart, precocious, talkative and very, very curious. I didn't get any of that by accident. I'd inherited it from my parents, but my mother didn't always seem to appreciate having a mini-me. But that was exactly who I was. I inherited her creativity, too. So whenever I felt like I was in a season of trivial, undeserved beatings, I would make it a tad harder. I remember bagging every belt I could find and tossing them in the dumpster of the apartment building behind our home. My father used to do home improvement jobs on the side, so he had moulding and thin boards my Mom would grab and use in a pinch. I got rid of them, too.
I wanted nothing more than for my mother to understand me, but I wasn't sharp enough to discern when she was open to discussions. Mom was pursuing her nursing degree during my tween years, and I'd read her child psychology books for answers she didn't give. I'd tell her I was the victim of her 'misplaced aggression' — that her anger was toward her job, spouse or situation, but not me. I'd read paragraphs aloud to her, decrying the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of corporal punishment. Her reply? "That's for white children!" Even she had to laugh at the absurdity.
My older brother asked me once why I couldn't just be quiet. I explained I wanted Mommy to understand how I felt. "She doesn't want to understand. She's tired and she does not want to understand," he replied. He walked away shaking his head at my stupidity, and I vowed that day to listen to my children, to value their feelings and opinions, even on days when I was tired and didn't want to understand.
The beatings worked. I stopped talking, stopped asking my Mom so many questions. I stayed out of arms reach. I learned to lie and to hide. The tension was so high some days, I felt like the walls trembled when we passed each other. I turned to mothers of friends. I didn't get pregnant early, but I left home as soon as I could. I finished high school a year early, earned a scholarship to an out-of-state college (which was it's most important attribute), and was gone two weeks after my 17th birthday, with all my child-rearing ideals scribbled in journals and stored in memories.
Disciplining myself was my primary mission. I was well aware of my fiery temper, sharp tongue and propensity for physical violence. Hey, I also had three older brothers who beat me up for breakfast, lunch and dinner! My sister was gone to college, my parents worked evening shifts frequently, and some days it was war. I took pride in the "fighting nevers" I learned – never start, walk away from or lose a fight. It buoyed me through my tumultuous teens, but sheesh! Who really wants to live with a spirit of contention forever?
Prayer and growth brought me back from that brink. I closely watched parents whose relationships with their children I admired. One of the most important common denominators that resonated with me was active communication, all parties speaking and listening respectfully. I found opportunities to work with children to test the limits of my resolve. God moved and I grew.
I married and had children relatively late, and I felt prepared. I'd made some hard and fast decisions that I could live with, and I stuck by them. My children would be disciplined by punishment, and spanked only in their early years for major missteps. A spanking consisted of a maximum of three taps, either on the back of the hand or on the butt, and nowhere else. They were administered to refocus attention, not to scar or cause lasting physical or emotional damage. Spankings were rare, they were done in private and they ended by age four. I was certain they heard and comprehended everything I said by then. After that, discipline was tailored. Time out worked for my eldest (who typically cried himself to sleep in the first few minutes); nose to nose conversations worked for my youngest.
We set additional parameters borne of personal experience that may have seemed silly to others, but were critical to us. There would be no public humiliation; they were children, not criminals. No punishment or spankings were ever allowed on birthdays or major holidays. Hey, everybody deserves a break sometime. And most important to me, everyone was given an opportunity to articulate their position respectfully, and full consideration was given to their vantage points. It's amazing what you learn when you listen to children. What comes out of them is often exactly what you poured into them, which may look or sound far less appealing when you see or hear it again. I saw my children as a reflection of me, and when they needed to be dealt with, it was an indicator for me to assess myself, as well. Was I being as clear, consistent, honest, transparent and loving as I wanted them to be?
Our boys flourished in love and loving discipline, and that's what we viewed as the rod of correction. Neither of them recollect ever getting a spanking, yet they have grown to be loving, warm, smart, confident, Godly young men. I like and I love them. I can't wait for my grands!