A friend steered me to a personal essay by a man who, despite his personal commitments against the practice, wound up spanking his three-year-old daughter. She, according to her father, was beyond all other means of control.
Control seems like a big issue is his family. Cole Gamble begins the essay by saying, "I am the commander-in-chief of my house, which is to say I am a puppet set up by the shadow government that is my wife."
The author talks about his immediate response to an incident: "Teaching her to not hit by hitting her...would open up a swirling vortex of hypocrisy I'm not ready to unleash upon her just yet. Instead I point my finger to Jillian's room and shout at her, 'Go!'"
In another incident, he threatens to spank his daughter if she does not stop an unwanted behavior. When she doesn't stop, he slaps her--primarily, it seems, because he is afraid that if he does not spank her at that point, then she will realize that his rule can be manipulated.
Her response to the spanking? Does she cower before him and do as he says? No. She laughs. Laughs.
Gamble concludes that spanking doesn't work because "parenthood is not a war, where might makes right. It is a game of chess, a game of skill and patience that you can never truly master."
* * *
I am certainly not a master parent. In fact, my son is very lucky to be at a friend's house this afternoon for a playdate, given how cranky I acted toward him this morning. And to be fair to Gamble, he writes his article at least partly tongue in cheek.
But I'm struck reading his essay that Gamble casts the job of parenting as one about power. He envisions himself as a powerless despot--and although he eventually realizes that he doesn't have to beat his subject into submission, he still has to win and she has to lose.
Even his example of his acceptable parenting involves an immediate portrayal of the parent-child relationship as one that is adversarial. Although the idea of "time-out" is not nearly as controversial as spanking has become, at root it relies on the idea of punishment rather than reason.
If we really want to avoid this win-or-lose family life, perhaps we need to discard this concept of parents being right and children by definition being wrong. Imagine it for a moment from the point of view of your own child side. (When I know I am always going to lose an interaction by virtue of who I am, it simply encourages me to misbehave and do everything I can to push the issue.)
On the other hand, imagining that family life is a process of consensus allows us to build something new. Consensus does not mean we all vote until we come up with something we can all accept. It means we put in the work to allow a BETTER answer to come forth, better than anything any of us could come up with individually. It fundamentally cannot work unless we treat all members of the family with the kind of respect we would treat our spouses or our boss at work. Would you hit your spouse if s/he was out of line? Would you send the person to his or her room? If you did either of those things, would you think that s/he deserved it? Or would you know if was your own craziness coming out?
For a selection of books that can help you learn and practice this consensus-oriented parenting style, check out this list of some of my favorites.