When An Aussie Mum Was Fined Over Smacking Her Kid With A Spoon, The Memories Came Flooding Back
When I read that a Perth mum, who left her daughter with a bruise after smacking her with a wooden spoon, has been fined $750 and convicted of common assault, I had an immediate flashback to my own childhood.
According to the news, the Perth nine-year-old had behavioural problems, including an ADHD diagnosis. I was that child. I wasn’t diagnosed as having ADHD until I was an adult. There was no such diagnosis when I was a child, but I was certainly in trouble a lot, sent out of classrooms for disruptive behaviour, strapped at home and at school.
My mother used to hit me with leather straps, an electric jug cord or perhaps the fish slice that was hanging with the other cooking utensils on a rack in the kitchen.
A few years ago, when my kids and I were visiting, my sister had found three leather straps that I had hidden more than 40 years ago (I had a friend who used to bury her mother’s wooden spoons in the garden).
My youngest looked from me to my tiny white-haired mother and asked, “did you really hit mum?”
My mother said, “I had to, she was such a naughty girl.”
My then-nine-year-old looked at me and asked, “didn’t you run?”
He was totally bewildered that I would passively let somebody hit me, perhaps because I had never hit him and that I was no bigger than my mother.
Although I never ran from my mother when she had a belt in her hand, I did once threaten to go to welfare -- I had no idea who ‘welfare’ was or how I would even contact them. My mother’s response was, “that’s why I hit you on the bum -- you won’t be pulling your pants down to show anyone!”
The Perth mum reportedly hit her daughter on the buttocks for eating old meat that had been prepared with medication for the dog. She left a bruise, and was later given a suspended fine of $750.
She later told media, “I believe that discipline helps our society and our children, they’ve got to learn respect and integrity and you just can’t get away with doing naughty stuff.”
The thing is, there is a difference between discipline (which is derived from the Latin meaning ‘to teach’) and punishment.
Of course, we need to discipline children -- to teach them about appropriate behaviour and what is safe, that it’s not okay to inflict harm to themselves or others. We also need to help them develop impulse control and responsibility, to have an intrinsic barometer of what is morally right. But when we punish, there is no ‘learning’. A stressed child who is in physical pain isn’t available to learn, and what are we teaching anyway? That it is okay for a bigger person to hurt a smaller person?
I personally believe that assault is assault, whatever the age or relationship of the person being hit. I found my own parenting toolbox bare and I was ill-equipped when my first child began ‘getting into mischief’. Realising I didn’t want to hurt my child, I took classes, I read, I practised these new skills. I made mistakes and I slipped up.
And, like many parents, I too felt the urge to lash out: there was the time my son was watching boxing on TV. He was about 12, getting totally carried away and yelling at the fighters. I very calmly walked across and switched off the television. He leaned forward and switched it back on. I impulsively slapped him across the arm and simultaneously said, “leave that bloody thing off, I hate violence!”
My kid immediately laughed out loud. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Studies show that we don’t need to punish (read: hit) children to teach them positive behaviour. In fact, it’s the opposite. Dr Elizabeth Gershoff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, says, “there is a large and growing body of research showing that spanking does not promote positive behaviour but rather leads to the opposite.
"I hope that parents around the world will take such findings to heart and stop hitting their children in the name of discipline.”
While we may have been brought up with smacks, ‘good’ hidings, wooden spoons and straps and there are certainly people who claim ‘it didn’t hurt me’ (my response to this is, ‘how do you know?”), there are better ways to teach positive behaviour.
However, this can be like learning a new language, and just as we can struggle with ‘words’ we can also slip into our ‘mother tongue’ when it comes to parenting.
Hopefully though, by teaching our own children this new ‘language’ of non-violent parenting at least most of the time, they will have a more articulate mother tongue and a more well-equipped parenting toolbox when it comes to nurturing their own children.
This is why, even though I don’t believe in hitting children, especially not with implements like wooden spoons or straps, I feel that punishing a mother who has hit her child is doing nothing to deter that mother from hitting again.
Instead of using a punishment model on a mother who punished her child, wouldn’t it be more productive and less humiliating for that parent and her child to use a teaching model?
For instance, what supports would allow that mother to parent with less frustration? What about a parenting course and some coaching from a developmental psychologist where she would have personalised support to deal with her child’s ongoing behavioural issues and her own well-being? This way, we might break a cycle of desperation and humiliation for a very stressed mother and child, no punishment necessary.
Pinky McKay is a mum of five, grandmother and best-selling author of Parenting by Heart, Sleeping Like a Baby, Toddler Tactics (Penguin Random House). See her website at www.pinkymckay.com.