On “the way I was raised”

I generally don’t write about topical events because (a) everybody else is doing it, (b) those articles age badly, and (c) it feels like exploiting tragedy for page views. And yet the story about [famous person] who took a switch to his child has been on my mind since I first heard the news. I was a fan of [famous person] and am reeling from the details, but it affects me on a deeper level than other weekly outrages.

This is what I would tell [famous person], who asserts that he was raised this way and feels obliged to do the same, to raise his kids right.

I might as well come clean and tell you all that I once swatted my son twice on the bottom after he threw a toy monster truck at his mother’s face from point-blank range. She yelped, I swept him up and gave him two raps on the hind quarters. He cried and went to his room, and his mother went to console him. They soothed each other, the two victims of sudden violence, while I fumed outside the room in exile, feeling like a monster.

I haven’t done it since, but I’ve fancied plenty of times that a spanking would bring climax and denouement to a rough evening, that it would instill a feeling of reverential fear in my child, that it is at least worth a try after everything else had failed. I don’t follow through because I don’t want to relive that aftermath, the shame of having failed my wife and my child, to feel like a fugitive in my own family.

I didn’t get that many spankings as a kid. I remember one for playing with matches, and that wasn’t the only one, but I don’t remember what provoked the others. However, my brothers and I did live in constant fear of our father’s temper. We were like villagers in the valley beneath a volcano, treading and speaking lightly, watching for signs of a pending  eruption. When our father yelled, he yelled loud and long. We would have to stand, listening, shifting our weight from one foot to the other, and maintain a look of grim shame. I had a bad habit of realizing the absurd humor of my own predicament and smirking, which would make my father double-down in his torrent of verbal abuse.

I know I am not a better person for that experience. I did “turn out OK,” as so many advocates for spanking insist they have. Every day I try to ignore the knot of shame that experience gave me. I live with the nervous fear that people will yell at me, that I will be chastised, that I will have to stand there and take it and try not to smile.

And yet I know the ease with which we become our own fathers, the quickness to which “the way I was raised” becomes a defense for our own weak moments, when we let the shame and anger and fury control us. I have totally lost my cool, harangued my son, and been egged on to more rage when he giggled or smirked at my ludicrous behavior. I know the temptation to re-invent our weakness as strategy, to frame it as “discipline,” to summon up the wraiths of the anarchists and narcissists our children will become if we spare the rod or hard words.

Humans are storytellers, and our first stories are about ourselves. We learn to boast about our scars, make bad experiences into humorous anecdotes. We forget the hurt and replace it with sentimentality, take shame and replace it with dignity. We recast our parents as tough loving saints, who blinked back tears while they took us behind the mythic toolshed. We pretend there was no anger in their actions, and that our suffering made us into better men and women.

But it does not make us better parents, no matter how much we kid ourselves. “The way we were raised,” is not a sacred obligation to raise our own children the same way. Because we “turned out OK,” putting our broken selves back together with spit and optimism, does not mean we were raised right and need to keep up the family tradition.

We tell stories about ourselves, but we get to choose what our stories are and how they will guide us. We can romanticize the past and relive it, or reimagine the future and create it.

8 thoughts on “On “the way I was raised”

  1. If we all honored “the way we were raised,” there would never be any growth of civilization. For example, I was raised in a nearly 100% white area where racial slurs were commonplace. At some point you have to realize some aspects of your childhood were just wrong and you don’t replicate them.

  2. On the few occasions I physically mishandled my kids–e.g., grabbed them too hard when they were acting up, trying to contain them–I realized what fueled my actions in those minutes–even seconds– was anger. Anger is a really bad place to come from when dealing with an already upset child. I don’t think anyone physically disciplines their kid without being at least a little out of control, and adults out of control is unacceptable.

  3. I so relate to this. I can be a bit of a yeller in my house, though I’m careful never to call names or “label” anyone. But at bedtime, if my kids keep popping up, and I’m desperate to go sit down, yeah, I yell. But I’ve noticed that it doesn’t actually do any good. It doesn’t make them behave better, it just relieves my anger so I can switch to a different emotion, which is usually shame. The other night my daughter started yelling at her sisters, “GET! In your BED!” Then busted up laughing. They’d pretend to run to their beds, giggling. I can’t tell you how relieved I was that they were comfortable enough to do that in front of me. I’m so glad they’re not afraid of me.

  4. That last sentence says it all, in my opinion. I believe people can change, that we are not doomed to repeat the past, and that the apple can fall very far away from the apple tree if it wants to.

  5. Very powerful, moving and true. I grew up with a father who was verbally and physically abusive, and I appreciate so much what you’ve said here for all of us. Thank you. — Caryn

  6. That’s so nicely written. My emotions are so intense when I hear of what this person did. As the product of a critical and abusive mother who thought nothing of whipping with sweeper cords and fly shatters, it is my belief that hitting a child does nothing but make the child feel hurt and unloved. It usually seems to make that person so fearful of others anger, or hitters themselves. The important person here needs to learn to discipline without striking! He admits he’s a product of his environment, but that doesn’t make it right.

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