Vonny Leclerc: I can still recall the sting of a smack – it is not an act of love
By: Vonny Leclerc
I DON’T remember much about my dad. He died when I was six. He loved me, and he also smacked me. Do I think he smacked me because he loved me? No. Yet that’s what corporal punishment advocates would have you believe. “They discipline you because they love you.” Give me a break. I have no time for anyone who tries to reverse-engineer justification for striking a child in their care.
Many of my childhood memories are indistinct. The ones I recall with the most clarity are the ones where something extraordinary happened. Lots of those are good memories, but the others in the easy-recall category are laced with violence. And I will make no apologies for using that word when talking about smacking. It should make you uncomfortable because that’s what we’re talking about.
I can recall instances of being smacked in detail. Where I was, what I was wearing, what I’d done, how I felt after. Memories sharpened by the extra, out-of-the-ordinary stimuli needed to capture a scene in detail. One particular day springs to mind. While out shopping, in a moment of three-year-old wisdom, I sank my teeth into my cousin’s face. Cue my pants being yanked down, and being smacked so hard it set down that otherwise unremarkable day in my long-term memory.
If this had happened to an adult – the stripping, the physical force – people would have been outraged. The instigator would have been charged with assault. But for some reason, that sort of behaviour was given a free pass when the victim (yes, victim) was a child.
This isn’t something I particularly want to discuss and it’s certainly not something my family would want to hear. But when I see adults airbrushing their memories, recontextualising physical discipline as harmless, I can’t hold my tongue. Children’s safety is too important. You are not supposed to hit them. Period. Why is that so hard to grasp?
And here is the acid test: If everything was fine with smacking, no-one would take issue with these dispatches from the past. But we know it’s not. Some things are supposed to stay locked into families, into private lives.
I find it hard to reconcile that image now. That only 30 years ago, this scene could unfold in public, without intervention. That a parent would so willingly humiliate and degrade their child and people wouldn’t challenge it on the grounds of it a) being a private matter and b) being widely understood as “appropriate discipline”.
Today, if a parent were to publicly direct their temper at a child there would be immediate repercussions. And that’s what is going on here. It’s not discipline – it’s temper taken out on an infant, hiding behind “discipline”.
Smacking is not an intervention to control a child, it’s something to relieve the parent. It’s not a “mild and loving correction”, it’s a momentary loss of control. A loss of control in the round: of one’s self and of the situation. It’s a profound breaking of the contract between parent and child. When you bring a person into the world, your job is to protect them – not to be their first abuser.
The shadow of my dad’s hand followed me through my childhood. I was regularly warned what would have happened to me if he’d still been around. And I was smacked until I was big enough to do it back. That in itself is telling: is it loving correction if you’re only able to do it until you’re afraid of being lovingly corrected back?
I love my parents. I respect them and I admire them. But I’m angry about the stain the hands, the belts, the physical punishment left on my childhood. I’m saddened that some of my most vivid memories are of welts, tears, snot and telling myself I hated them after each instance of “discipline”. That I vowed even then that I would never do it.
You see, that’s how it registers to a child. You can justify it to yourself as care, as the unpleasant but necessary last step required to raise a good kid, but none of that filters down to the person on the receiving end. Your child is not reconciling your hand with your twisted logic. They experience it viscerally. They are feeling the person that’s supposed to love them most in the world, their primary protector, use their body as a punchbag. No child should have to absorb a parent’s anger in the name of parenting.
I have four children. I’m a single parent. I work full-time. Let me assure you, that scenario does not lend itself to a calm, laid-back household. It is difficult. Every single day there is something that tries my patience, that works my last nerve, that makes me want to scream, or cry or melt in frustration – but I would never hit my child. Smacking is not a strategy I’m willing to employ for dealing with my emotions.
At times I shout, I scream into a pillow, I take myself out of a room to breathe because violence, however small, has no place in my home. It has no place in the lives of children. Our job as guardians is to nurture our young people and keep them safe. You cannot hold those values and support physical discipline.
I am raising people – not half-people, not people-in-waiting. People. They have rights, and it’s my job as a parent to uphold those rights, to teach them their value. If I smack them, I teach them that you can bend the rules when one party is in a position of power over another.
Children need to learn constructive strategies for dealing with complex emotions like anger and fear, and smacking teaches them the wrong lesson. It shows children that someone else can be used as a sponge to soak up their tricky feelings. That’s not a lesson I want them to take into adulthood. My parents were smacked. I was smacked. But I have the power to break the chain. We all do.
Positive parenting is possible. It’s harder, at times it feels counter-intuitive set against the realities of life, but the benefits to the child extend far beyond the family environment. When you move away from physical punishment and coercion, you teach kids emotional intelligence. They learn self-regulation. They learn that it’s possible to return themselves to calm even when they’re stressed, tired or exhausted.
If a child learns out of fear, they avoid behaviours to reduce their suffering. If you teach them with assertive parenting, with compassion and empathy, they learn through understanding the wider impact of their behaviour. Our job as parents is to mentor our children into adulthood, not to control them until they’re too old to be controlled.
If we’re trying to quantify appropriate levels of physical discipline, setting down parameters and scenarios when it might be okay to strike a young person, we have already failed them. For Scotland to become the progressive country it claims to be, the smacking ban is a no-brainer. There’s a dark truth hiding behind that word: smacking is child abuse. A zero-tolerance approach is necessary.
There is no hierarchy of people, and no family should give violence a home. Whether you made them, whether you married them, no-one is yours to beat.
Original Article: Vonny Leclerc: I can still recall the sting of a smack – it is not an act of love, The National