Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The Worst Day
I'm going to tell you about one of my worst parenting moments: the day, about a year ago, when I smacked my 5-yr old upside the head. When I shared this story with Carrie Contey, Ph.D., who I consult now and then about all matters mom-related, she urged me to write about it. She thought it might help other parents.
The first thing you need to know about me is that I endeavor to be a very, very conscious, and certainly non-violent, parent. (I almost wrote "hands on," no pun intended). I read a ton, and probably have at least the equivalent of a Master's degree in child development. I am very engaged with my kids, I spend a lot of time with them, I am tuned in, and I have worked hard, especially in the first three years of each of their lives, to meet the vast majority of their physical, mental, and emotional needs. This is my job; I am a professional. Other parents have commented on my exceptional patience.
I don't spank my kids, because, well, I think it sends a bad message. I know it's a controversial topic, and to those who advocate corporal punishment, this post will seem silly. My bottom line is that using violence teaches violence. And if an adult hit another adult, it's called "assault," and you can go to jail for it. So why not give kids some other tools for their tool boxes? I do a lot of things to help my kids communicate and behave well, so that's normal for them. When things get out of control, we do "time outs," but my kids aren't isolated in their room while they're upset. The "time out" is really a time to calm down, not a place to experience intense emotions without any support. I have also been known to send myself to "time out." My basic approach to my kids' emotions is something like teaching them to drive. When they're having feelings, I try to support them by putting words on the feelings and helping them, gradually of course, to learn to regulate them. It's possible to learn to regulate your own emotions while also dealing with being afraid and confused by your parent being violent, but I think it's harder.
But there was that one afternoon about a year ago, not long after my son started Kindergarten. I had a neighborhood party to get ready for, so I was probably rushing. And rushing him. We found ourselves in an escalating power struggle over homework, and I could tell that he was getting overloaded. Suddenly, as I was leaning forward over his paper, he hit me in the face, knocking my glasses to the floor. Before I even realized it, I smacked him right back. And then I stopped, gasped, and well, I don't even remember all of what happened after that. I vaguely recall a lot of intense upset, a "time out" for him, an apology from me, and a lot of attempts to get back on track. He said some things about the "pressure" of being in school all day. I said what I believe--that it's never ok for a grown-up to hit a child, no matter what. The whole thing blew over, on the surface, in that I stopped talking about it to him. But I was a wreck for about a week. At the neighborhood party that evening and afterward, I felt really, really horrible. Who was I now that I had struck my kid? How would other people see me if they knew? No one was more shocked than me to learn that, if you hit me in the face and knock off my glasses, I just might hit you back, even if you're less than half my size. It was pure reaction--this was something I never would have consciously chosen as a parent.
But you know what? I also felt relieved. My son and I had been having these micro-skirmishes, pretty much ever since his little sister was born. And when these things happened, I would act okay on the surface, saying and doing the "right" things. If another adult observed me, I think he/she would say that I handled them well. But under the surface, I was becoming acquainted with the most intense rage I've experienced since, well, probably since I was a little kid. My son's behavior and our conflicts were triggering a bunch of old stuff for me. I don't think I ever really put a lot of stock in "the unconscious" until I began to be emotionally hijacked by the behavior of this little person I love so much. My internal reactions were much bigger than what his part of it warranted.
So when I finally snapped and smacked him, I was relieved because I had finally done what I was so afraid I was going to do. And then, I could not only forgive myself for it, but I also talked to some other trusted friends and they still thought I was a pretty awesome mom. And my son? Well, it was really not such a big thing from his side of things. He did hit me first, after all, and he knows what it's like to lose control and then move on.
Being a mom of two kids been a long hard road, with many chances to learn about myself and to do something that feels like detonating internal land mines. I want to give my kids the best of what my parents gave me, plus more, including all of the information we have now about how kids attach and develop. I'm amazed at how well I've done, how much help is out there, and how many ways I've figured out to react differently. I'm happy to report that I don't think I will do that again.