Every once in a while, questions would float up from the back seat of the minivan as we drove the girls around; questions both revealing and confounding. When this happened, I would get a sideways look from Francine that said “Why don’t you handle this one, honey?”
One of the classics that came over the transom in this way was: “Mom and Dad, how come you never punish us?”
Let’s unpack that question. First of all, it indicates that Francine and I did not mete out punishment frequently or severely enough for it to register. It also implies that the girls considered this to be a state of affairs that was uncommon and worth questioning. And this further means, it would appear, that they had seen, or heard about, parental punishment from other sources.
This last assumption I can readily believe. Television, movies, videos, even books, are full of examples of parents and other adults punishing children. The sad fact is that children get punished an awful lot in our society. Some large portion of the population apparently thinks it is their right, and even their duty, to punish and shame the kids. You see it all over: in restaurants, in grocery stores, on athletic fields, in classrooms, and just about everywhere else that some adult has power over a child, however transitory. As a result, a child lives in a perpetual state of anxiety, never knowing when some minor or imagined misstep will result in a random adult imposing some arbitrary punishment.
God knows, I can remember plenty of times when I was punished as a lad for no reason or justification. And I can also remember more than a few times when I richly deserved punishment, but skated nonetheless. My mother was loving and benevolent most of the time. Every once in a while, though, she would fly off the handle. She smacked a few bottoms in her time, especially as a young mother, but for the most part the worst we got was the lash of her tongue. My father spanked us sometimes when we were little, but I distinctly remember a family conference in which my parents sat us down and promised that they would never use corporal punishment on us again. And as far as I can remember, they never did. I think I was seven or eight at the time.
Often, you hear an adult admonish a child—just before or just after the punishment—to “act your age.” Of course, the situation has probably arisen precisely because the child is acting his or her age. That’s if it’s even possible to figure out what it means to “act your age.” When an adult flies off the handle because a little child misbehaves, who in the scene is failing to act their age?
I think some people grow up, and simply forget what it was like to be a kid. What it was like to be little, when some adults ignored you or dismissed you out of hand. What it was like to be a teenager, when you were treated with suspicion or animosity by so many people that you felt persecuted. What it was like to be afraid to ask for help or instructions, even though you didn’t understand what you were supposed to do.
I don’t get it. Perhaps some children are thoroughly wicked, horrible urchins, but I haven’t met any of these Devil’s spawn yet. Sure, sometimes kids misbehave, and you have to find a way of stopping or modifying the behavior. But punishing kids in the moment is usually counter-productive, especially when they are little. A child starts to act out, and the next thing you know, some adult is shouting, or shaming, or lecturing, or worse. This usually accomplishes nothing except to aggravate the situation.
I say, think of a child in such a situation as a bomb that needs to be defused—quickly, quietly, calmly, and very, very carefully. If a child is cranky, or crying, or acting out, they may well have a good reason. They are tired or lonely; bored or scared; hungry or cold. Punishment will not solve these problems. Better to diagnose the problem and address it directly. Defuse the bomb. Or, as my wise Uncle Harry would say, inverting an old proverb: “Spoil the rod and spare the child.”
Back to the scene in the family minivan. I figured it was a good sign that our girls wondered why we never punished them. And although I didn’t process it in the moment, as I look back, I think they may have been right. I honestly don’t remember ever punishing them.
Well . . . there was one instance, famous in family lore. Katie was in first grade, and the use of “time-outs” was all the rage in her social circle and classroom. One day—this was before the question in the car—Katie asked us why we never gave her time-outs. I responded with a question of my own: Did she think that she should have time-outs? Yes, she allowed, if she ever did anything wrong. From this I inferred that Katie thought a time-out was something important and solemn, and perhaps something that was missing from her childhood. So, a day or two later, when Katie committed some insignificant infraction while playing with her sisters, I seized the moment.
“Katie, you shouldn’t have done that,” said I. “Go over and sit on the stairs for a time-out.” Poor little Katie looked stunned, but she took it like a champ. She walked gravely over to the stairs, and sat down, just as you must always do when a grown-up gives you a time-out. And then she put her head in her hands and cried her little heart out. Need I say that the time-out ended a few minutes later? Katie never asked about time-outs again, and as far as I know she never got one, either.
Anyway, if we were supposed to punish the girls, then we failed as parents. And that brings us back to that question that came wafting over into the front seat of our minivan one day. “Mom and Dad, how come you never punish us?”
“Well,” I replied, saying the first thing that came to my mind, “I guess it’s because you haven’t done anything wrong yet.”