“I didn’t mean it, Daddy!” said the little guy in the Lowe’s parking lot. It was a pretty day. Late afternoon, blue sky, balmy breeze for winter in the Southland. “I didn’t mean it and I’m sorry!”
“If you didn’t mean it then you shouldn’t have done it.” was the terse reply. Dad’s voice was deep, low, menacing. That voice held a promise of something dark.
The child was three, maybe four. He was being hauled along to Daddy’s truck. Dad was moving faster than the little boy’s legs could carry him, so his toes were kind of dragging on the parking lot surface, sort of skidding along. His left arm was being held straight up, his shoulder blade sticking out.
Dad was grim. We didn’t know what the child had done, but we had a pretty good idea what Dad would do.
“Daddy, don’t. PLEASE don’t,” the little guy begged. The mom trailed behind. She had a resigned look on her face. A satisfied look. The kid was going to get what he had coming to him. Heidi and I were going into Lowe’s. I think we knew what was going to happen. And it did. Dad let go of the boy’s hand. The little family was sandwiched between their truck and another car. The child jumped around in panic and fear. His eyes filled with tears. Mom was behind him, blocking any potential escape. When they were far enough away from the store, when they were in a place where few could see them, dad unbuckled his belt.
“NO!” the kid said. But Dad didn’t even hesitate. They had been through this before. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” Dad pulled out his belt. Slowly. He was a big guy. It was a long belt. Black leather. Then Dad grabbed the little one by the back of his shirt, up by the collar. Again he lifted that boy almost off the ground.
You know what happened. You’ve seen it before. We all have.
I am not saying that the boy was brutally beaten. I suppose it could have been a lot worse. He didn’t hit the kid bare-bottomed. There probably weren’t any welts. Mom stood there with her arms crossed across her chest. Smug. Satisfied. The kid cried out. I don’t know how many times Dad hit him with the belt. A few. It didn’t matter.
What mattered was that Dad hit his child with a belt. Hit his child with a belt. A belt.
Heidi and I looked at each other and shuddered. It was miserable. What could we do? Tell him that corporal punishment is wrong? Ask what the kid had done and tell him that whatever it was – it wasn’t enough to warrant this kind of treatment? Remind him that his child wasn’t an animal. Tell him of the emotional residue he was likely leaving behind?
And if we did intervene, how would Dad react? Would he be embarrassed and toss the kid into the truck and whoop him even worse when they got home? Would he tell me to mind my own f@%$ing business and hit the kid even harder?
So, what we did, what I did, was wrong. I didn’t do or say anything. We heard the kid crying as we walked into the store. It was haunting, you know?
I am not saying that I am the best parent. I made plenty of mistakes. Looking back – as both of our kids are men now, most of the parenting we do is being best friends, washing their clothes (as both seem to be laundry impaired), helping them pay rent and buy groceries and praying for them. But when they were little they were never physically threatened or hurt as a way of disciplining. I never spanked or pulled out my belt. And they are OK. They are better than OK. They are good men. We made it through the terrible twos, the sassy upper elementary times, the often self-righteous, indignant, in-your-face adolescent years. We had some rough spots when we didn’t know what to do. We were flying by the seat of our pants, right? But hitting them never really crossed our minds.
Still, I felt complicit with Dad’s crime. I watched. I listened. I walked away. The parents saw us standing there and it didn’t deter them. Not at all. So we just walked into the store to get our bird feed, our light bulbs, our HVAC filters or whatever. But that image is left in my mind. The sound of the little one’s pleading voice, the sight of Dad’s belt slowly unwrapping from around his waste, running through belt loop after belt loop until it was free and dangling from his fist. The sound of the belt hitting that kid's bottom.
And I wonder if that kid will grow up and whoop his own little kids for their petty crimes. And what about when those kids are older and they have the will and strength to resist? Will it go beyond a spanking?
Heidi told that story to our Colin, now 21 years old, when he came to visit last weekend. He showed us this Louis C.K. thing on Youtube about parenting. I won’t link it here as some of my younger friends stop by from time to time and it is filled with profanity. Lots of it. But I’ll include some of his words. Because between all of the cuss words, there is a ton of wisdom.
I like kids. Parents, I’m not so crazy about. Like this whole country, our thing is, it’s all about the children. We have to do it all for the children. And meanwhile, nobody gives a s#@t about how they raise their kids. People put minimal effort into it. They’re like consumers of their kids. Like they want to call customer service, “Why does he play videogames all day? I don’t understand why he plays videogames.” Maybe it’s because you bought him a f*&#ing videogame. You idiot. Throw it away. Who told you that was a good idea?...
And then the food we feed them tastes like insanity. You used to be able to give a kid an apple, and they’d go, “Oh, thank you. I love apples.” Kids can’t even taste apples. Apples are like paper to them. Because people force their kids to eat fast food. I was in this hamburger place and this woman was like shoving french fries into this kid, “EAT IT!”
The kid's like, “Mom, it’s salty, it hurts, I can’t eat any more.”
“SHUT UP! HAVE A SODA!”
We give them MSG, sugar, and caffeine. And WEIRDLY, they react to those chemicals. And so they yell, “AAhhh.” And then we hit them. What f&%$ing chance does a kid have? We pump the stuff in there… “AHHhh!”
“SHUT UP! STOP IT! WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?!”
“’Cause I haven’t had actual nutrition in eight years, Mom. I’m dehydrated. Give me water. Pepsi’s not water. Give me a glass of water. I’m dying. I have sores on my tongue all the time… Stop hitting me, you’re HUGE! How could you hit me? That’s crazy. You’re a giant and I can’t defend myself."
I really think it’s crazy that we hit our kids. Here’s the crazy part about it. Kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit. They’re the most vulnerable and they are the most destroyed by hitting. But it’s totally OK to hit them. And they’re the only ones. If you hit a dog they’ll put you in jail for that s&%t. You can’t hit an adult unless you can prove that they were trying to kill you. But a little tiny person, with a head this big, who trusts you implicitly, f*&k them! Let’s all hit them.
And people want you to hit your kid. You’re kids making noise and they’re like, “Hit him, HIT HIM!”
We’re proud of it. People say, “I hit my kids. You’re damn right I hit my kids.”
“Why do you hit them?”
“’Cause they were doing a thing I didn’t like at the moment. And so I hit them and, guess what? They didn’t do it after that.”
“Well, that wouldn’t be taking the f$%&ing easy way out, would it? How about talking to them for a second? How is that… What are you, an idiot? What are you an ape?”…
“You hit him… He’ll know. That I’m stronger than him. That it hurts when my hand hits his face. He’ll know. He’ll get some wisdom out of that. Raising them right.”
I wish I could say that I am the perfect parent, that I know the answer to all of the difficult parenting questions. I am not. I can’t. But doesn’t it make sense that if you hit a child; it also teaches the child to hit? To wait until they can hit back? To hit others who are weaker? To get their own way through force?
If we model violent behavior, doesn’t that make it right for kids to be violent?
Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.