This essay of mine may appear in the Trinidad Guardian or Express in an edited form. However, you can enjoy the full unedited version here.
“I don’t want to hear all that psycho-babble nonsense! Proverbs says spare the rod and spoil the child!”
“Look at my generation, we got plenty licks and look at how well we turned out! Look at this generation, without licks and all the delinquency and disrespect!”
How does a survivor of the “cut-ass” method of parenting convince proponents of it when they make these arguments? At first, the proponents of licks seem to have a fool proof position, until you dissect the issue further, starting with Proverbs.
First of all, why use the bible as the final authority on parenting? If the answer is, “Because it speaks the infallible truth from God,” then why not use the bible as the final authority on everything? So, let’s stone disrespectful children to death as also recommended in the bible in Exodus 21:15, 17 and while we’re at it, if your son or daughter is too much of a financial burden, it is perfectly biblical to sell them off as slaves in accordance with Exodus 21:7. You do see how silly this is don’t you?
As a child growing up in a biblically legalistic evangelical sect, I am very familiar with the, “loving use” of the rod of discipline. Of course, the head of the household, the father had to be the one to calmly administer said rod (or leather strap, or guava whip) to my buttocks, back, thighs etc. This was done after a lengthy bible lecture and then I would be made to go fetch the instrument of torture myself, settle my body on the bed and lay prone to receive the punishment. On one very special occasion, when was nine and my father felt particularly inspired, I got beaten upside down. Yup, I was held up by my feet like a plucked chicken and given licks for coming fifth in my class at the end of term test. Personally, I find calm, detached punishment done in “love”, with hugs and kisses afterwards, far more diabolical and disturbing than the use of the rod in anger. Eventually, it became a contest of how many blows I could take before I started to struggle and scream. The one good thing out of the experience is that I now have a very high pain threshold and a little sado-masochistic kinkiness to spice up my love life.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with a young man studying to be a rabbi. He was fluent in Hebrew and he had a very interesting take on the famous “rod of discipline” in Proverbs. The Hebrew word used “shebet” actually means a “guiding stick or hooked staff” used by shepherds. Sheep are kind of dumb and sometimes need to be directed. You do this often enough and they develop a homing instinct and eventually know where to go by memory. Shepherds do not beat the sheep with the rod to cause injury to them, but use it to prod in the right direction and the hook to maneuver them or pull them by the neck. So really, this scripture has nothing to do with the barbaric practice of hitting anyone with a big stick. The next thing he revealed was that Proverbs was written with a lot of figurative language because it is a book of poetic wisdoms. One of the metaphors for wisdom is you guessed it, “shebet” or rod. It is also used as a metaphor for authority. To illustrate his point, he referred to Proverbs 23:13: "...if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die." For those who take the bible as the literal, infallible word of God, in order for that scripture to be true, it cannot be a literal rod. Why? Because thousands of children die every year from corporal punishment. Dr Sukhwinder Singh Shergill and other Wellcome Trust researchers at University College, London have done extensive research that shows parents hit harder than they think they are, and that is just with bare hands. It's far worse when an instrument is involved.
Shepherds do not beat the sheep with the rod to cause injury to them, but use it to prod in the right direction and the hook to maneuver them or pull them by the neck. So really, this scripture has nothing to do with the barbaric practice of hitting anyone with a big stick.
This more accurate interpretation of "shebet", seems to be far more in keeping with a “Christian” approach. After all, when asked about what must be done to attain eternal life in Luke 10:26-28, Jesus’ reply was that after loving God with our whole heart mind and soul, we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Now I’m pretty sure that "neighbour", includes children, who by the way, are supposed to be precious to the Christ, unless that “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” song is wrong. Can you picture the same Jesus who said “turn the other cheek” and “forgive seventy times seven (a metaphor for infinity)” taking a guava whip to a child who cannot understand his sums or answers back at him?
Next we come to the, “Well my generation got licks and we turned out just fine,” excuse. Is that really so? Let’s take a look at the people who are from that last great “cut-ass” generation and examine whether they truly are “just fine”. This generation, is about 50 and over and they are the politicians, decision makers, principles, administrators and heads of finance, business, health and national security. Now I will admit that at first glance, many of these men and women of this great “cut-ass” generation appear to have more manners, literacy and drive to succeed, especially when compared to the youth of today. However, when we probe beneath the academic achievement, political power, financial success and an outward appearance of respectability we reveal some shocking things.
For those who long for the good old days when children were unquestioning and quick to obey and parents had to do very little, just remember, licks produced the society we have now. A society where when people discover how to escape the punishment, or are no longer afraid of it, they no longer followed the rules, even if it is the best thing for their health, family, community and country. This is not “just fine” to me.
Licks has not made them better husbands and wives, better parents, better leaders and better decision makers. Licks has not given them a moral compass either. Their legacy and the state of our nation with its deep rooted corruption, police brutality, drug abuse, rampant infidelity and broken homes uncovers the darker side of this supposedly wonderful, “cut-ass” generation. What they have left for those of us 30 and under demonstrates what licks can achieve- a society where morality is prompted only by fear of punishment and any power granted to fragile egos corrupts absolutely. Mediocrity is okay because without a BIG STICK, there is no other motivation to do better. For those who long for the good old days when children were unquestioning and quick to obey and parents had to do very little, just remember, licks produced the society we have now. A society where when people discover how to escape the punishment, or are no longer afraid of it, they no longer followed the rules, even if it is the best thing for their health, family, community and country. This is not “just fine” to me.
Those 50 and over, who broke through to world success and inspired and uplifted many in the process, had to recover from and evolve away from the “cut-tail” mind set and find enlightened ways of self-discipline. Oprah, the most successful woman in the world was beaten as a child and today she is “just fine” not because of licks but in spite of it. So too are many others who got beaten by the rod of discipline, instead of guided by it, and went to school hiding the painful red welts on their skin and shame in their soul. We still had to learn everything the hard way, work even harder on our self-esteem, try to develop a moral centre and build ourselves up all over again. The motivation to do all that and the belief we are worth it, was the one thing the licks could never teach and it was the most important life lesson of all.
I do not share your frustrations but I do sympathise. But perhaps because I can be objective, I can also see what it is like for the child. Is that why the best nannies do not have children of their own.
I admit, I am not a parent and I have never had to deal with a screaming child making a spectacle in public. I cannot imagine how aggravated and embarrassed you must feel when that happens to you. But isn’t that what it is all about? Parenting is embarrassing, messy, ego smashing, thankless work. If you plan to do it the smart, non-violent, empathetic, holistic way, it will be even more so. You have to give up your sleep to keep patiently putting that child back in their bed. You have to listen to them scream and yell, “I hate you Mommy!” and not take it personally. You have to ignore the tantrums. You have to explain things over and over and over again. You have to take shame with composure when teachers tell you your little one is failing class and then try to motivate your child without crushing their spirit. You have write-off countless broken glasses, plates and ruined clothes. So, yes, I may not have suffered as much as you but I ask you to at least consider what I say, as a former child who got cut tail up until sixteen and knows that it did more harm than good to my development. Any success I have now is in spite of the beatings, not because of it. I had to re-build my self-esteem from the ground up and re-learn how to motivate myself based on positive values instead of fear and shame. Let me ask you something. Do you remember what it felt like being a child?
Children have all the adult emotions you have, except theirs is turned up on HIGH VOLUME ALL THE TIME. A child’s joy is the ultimate euphoria. A child’s sadness is the ultimate despair. When you are a kid and something you hoped for doesn’t happen, it literally seems like the end of the world. A difficult math problem can lead to tears of frustration. The slightest show of disappointment from parents makes you think your parents don’t love you anymore. The slightest delay seems like forever! And yes, children do get violently angry. They have an uncanny ability to feel guilt and think everything is their fault. They have all these emotions and none of the skills and experience to cope. Talk about stress! Can you remember it now? Do you now see where the tantrums, back chat, mood swings and rebellion come from? Oh, so you thought it was all about you eh? You thought they were just trying your patience, insulting your intelligence and disrespecting your authority, just out of plain, old willful spite. Sorry to burst your bubble but your kids were not born to stroke your ego. I am not saying children should not strive to honour their parents. But there is some fine print to that which says: Honour begets honour.
You could always tell a society raised on cut ass as the primary source of parenting
There is nothing honorable about responding to a child’s severe emotional and intellectual disadvantage with physical reprisal just because you are angry, embarrassed; disappointed or too lazy to think up of more effective ways to help them understand the consequences of their actions. Grow a thick skin! You are supposed to be the adult with the coping skills and it is your job as a parent to manage your child’s stress and teach them how to make right choices in spite of their emotions. You just cannot make it all about you, your feelings, your time, your money, your reputation and your authority. If you do, they will take you apart after they cleverly figure out you make big mistakes too and in the process, they will throw away all the good life lessons. When you beat them, you are not helping address their emotional stress nor helping to aid their decision-making skills. All you are doing is buying time for yourself while adding an element of fear, betrayal and low self-esteem to their lives. If you haven’t earned your child’s trust and respect by the time they hit puberty and those hormones turn UP THE VOLUME ON THEIR EMOTIONS EVEN MORE, then you have already failed. No amount of licks can repair your bad parenting now. Our world is full adults who are still throwing temper tantrums and killing each other for stupid reasons, like a plate of food; a mash foot in a fete or because their neighbour is a Tutsi. They still never learned how to manage emotional stress and so they act out, this time with guns and cutlasses. You can always tell right away when a society was raised by cut-tail instead of intelligent and empathetic parenting.
Some people have dogs and let them run wild; spoil, neglect, underfeed or overfeed them until they become a nuisance and a danger to others. On the other end of the scale, some masters beat their dogs into submission and these poor animals gaze at the world with defeated eyes and shrink away in fear with their tail between their legs. They become passive-aggressive when their master is not around. If pushed, they will bite out of fear and frustration. Then there are the rare compassionate masters who resolve to humanely train by taking the time to understand canine behaviour and the special needs of their particular breed of dog. They would never force a large, herding breed that requires lots of exercise and stimulation to stay indoors and then beat it when it acts out because it is not what is convenient to them. They use knowledge and skill to bring out the best in their four legged “child” which of requires more time and loads of patience. It is worth it! Their dog turns out full of spirit, intelligence, affection and follows commands easily. It is loyal, safe around kids, a joy to the entire family and even beneficial to society as a guide or therapy dog. Now if a so called, “dumb” animal benefits so much more from proper training instead of licks, are children any less deserving?
A child will always love you, even when you let them down and hurt them and I still love my father and long forgave his unenlightened approach to parenting. It is also easy to get your children to fear you. However, the truly difficult task, is gaining your child’s lifelong trust and respect and developing in them an autonomous sense of morality. Are you up to that task?