“My wife and I agree on most aspects of childcare with one exception. I feel that corporal punishment has its place in instilling a sense of right and wrong although I do not approve of it. I consider shouting or emotional abuse to be in many cases much worse.”
Over 2000 years ago Quintillian commented, “Though you may compel a child with blows, what are you to do with him when he is a young man no longer amenable to such threats and confronted with tasks of greater difficulty?” In similar vein, Plutarch counselled “Children ought to be led to honourable practices by means of encouragement and reasoning and most certainly not by blows … for so they grow numb and shudder at their tasks, partly from the pain of blows, partly from degradation”.
The emotional recognition that hitting people (large children) is wrong has therefore been present for thousands of years and yet it is clear that it has always had to co-exist with the opposite view, the biblical rejoinder that “to spare the rod is to spoil the child.” Those two
opposites not only co-exist historically and geographically, they co-exist in the minds of parents and children.
The parent who shouts at or hits his child is not at that moment the same parent as the one who later hugs his/her child or plays a game or has a conversation. Similarly, the child who has a screaming fit of rage at not being bought an ice cream is not the same child as the one who can say thank you for help with homework.
An emotional and moral understanding of what is right and wrong can help in control of this problem but is no guarantee of sane behaviour. When someone is overcome with a powerful feeling their knowledge of right and wrong is wiped out.
“If looks could kill”, said a young woman accurately, looking at her angry baby. Contrary to popular wish, babies are not born into the world as gentle beings who possess no darker feelings. Angry destructive feelings are there from the start. If all goes well, according to Melanie Klein, love and hate come closer together and there is a wish to repair damage. The more parents are able to bear the powerful feelings that come their way, the sooner the child will learn about his own destructiveness. Where parents are taken over by these feelings the child can experience himself as the innocent victim with all hostile feelings neatly placed in the parent, or vice versa, with serious consequences.
If I look back to thirty years ago to primary school experience, many of those teachers could be charged now for common assault for what was everyday practice then. In some classrooms today the violence has passed from the teacher to the class. The class now abuse the teacher and teachers and head-teachers are leaving in large numbers complaining about the violence of today’s children. The violence, however, is not today’s. It has existed ever since the human race began and which co-exists with everything that is sane and true. Let us look at an example of a common domestic occurrence.
Whilst mother goes to make a phone call at the other of the room 3 year old Tom is standing by his brother Luke’s cot. “Ah, baby” he whispers, trying to sound loving. Suddenly, he snatches the rattle from Luke’s hand and throws it away. Luke cries. Mother puts the phone down, rushes over and hits Tom’s hand. “I can’t leave you for a moment” she shouts. Tom cries. She returns the rattle to Luke. Once Luke is settled she asks Tom if he would like a story.
Displaced by the birth of a sibling, Tom feels neglected by his parents, however much effort is made to forestall this. He would like to throw the baby away and kill him but at other moments he also loves the baby. Stirred by his mother’s temporary absence of attention, which stands for the greater loss of attention that occurred by her pregnancy and the new arrival, suddenly he is overwhelmed by the violence of his feelings and throws the baby’s toy away. The baby recognises the fury and cries and the cry stirs up a response in the mother. She is taken over and hits him. His cry ends the particular storm they have all passed through. In a different state she repairs the damage to her baby and then the damage she has caused to Tom.
Mr T.R. may hope that he has instilled a sense of right and wrong if he hits his child but actually he does not know what he has instilled. For Tom’s mother there were lots of powerful feelings about in her baby, in Tom and in her and she was powerless to change what happened on that occasion. Whether the rest of her peer group or husband agreed with her behaviour or didn’t or transformed it into easier notions of “punishment” is irrelevant to the fact that it was irrevocable at that moment. Her cry of “I can’t leave you for a moment” is also her guilty understanding that Tom is raw because she left him for more than a moment to conceive and then give birth to another child.
This mother thinks about the meaning of what happened because she was not happy about being taken over by such feelings. Next time, perhaps, she will try to settle Tom with an activity before she makes a long phone call or she will take charge of the baby while she does this, knowing that the provocation to Tom is too great for him to manage at this stage. This mother’s momentary loss of equilibrium may sound qualitatively a long way away from parents who beat, hit a child with an implement, or hit a baby but in the actual moment it happens, the mother is just as much at the mercy of destructive impulses as they are. However, the fact that she is troubled by these actions and thinks about them later offers hope of change for the future and it is the small changes in daily practice that add to a psychogenic evolution of parenting in the whole culture.