I grew up in an era when adults beat children with impunity and often with relish. In school, I watched the bad kids (usually rowdy boys) get whacked across the knuckles with a wooden ruler. If the disruption was too flagrant for the (usually female) teacher to quell, I held my breath while a recalcitrant pupil was sent to the office so that a principal (almost invariably male) could blister the child’s palms with a leather strap.
At home, my older sister and I were regularly “straightened out” with what were euphemistically called spankings. I don’t know which traumatized me more – hearing my sister being beaten or feeling the lash on my own bare backside.
These memories and visceral emotions come to the fore whenever I hear people such as Senator Lynn Beyak, who sits on that chamber’s committee on aboriginal peoples, rumble on about the benefits of residential schools. It also happens when I listen to politicians, teachers’ organizations and other so-called experts defend spanking, which has been enshrined in the Criminal Code since 1892.
Section 43 gives “every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent” the legal right to use “force by way of correction toward a pupil or child” if “the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.” What’s reasonable is supposed to be the issue, but we know from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that “reasonable” can easily descend into assault and even torture.
To me, the use of force is never reasonable, especially given the grossly disproportionate levels of strength, power and authority between the adult as disciplinarian and the child as accused without benefit of counsel. That’s why I support the TRC’s recommendation that Section 43 of the Criminal Code be rescinded. So did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, 2015, when he promised to implement all 94 TRC recommendations. More than a year later, spanking is still legal.
That’s only one of the reasons I cringed when I heard Ms. Beyak insist in a radio interview this week that she has “suffered” alongside residential-school survivors. (She went on to say she didn’t need more education about the lives of Indigenous people.) What is the difference between her self-serving piffle and the self-abnegating nonsense that “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” spouted by cowardly authoritarians as they raise their paddles?
Because of the way I was raised, I worried about the physical damage I might be capable of unleashing on my own children and grandchildren when they frustrated or defied me. Theory met reality when my son was about three.
We were visiting another family, a couple with two adorable and docile girls. My rambunctious son was done with sitting quietly and chatting in the living room. When I ignored his pleas to go to the park, he kicked me in the shins. I was furious, in pain and mortified that my perfect child was behaving so outrageously in front of my friends. All eyes, or so I imagined, were on me.
Blindly, I picked him up and stormed out of the room. What now? I thought – and so probably did he, as kicking his mother was not part of his behavioural repertoire. The more I stomped from room to room, the more my murderous rage subsided, until I was finally calm enough to sit him down in a bedroom and have a serious conversation about using words instead of feet to make his point.
Later, I realized I had learned a coping strategy that would help me break the generational pattern of physical abuse in the guise of parenting. Walking off your anger, even if you end up circling your own house, is a variation of that hoary adage “Count to 10,” but I learned its value that day in what has become for me a life lesson in disciplining both my children and grandchildren.
With my first grandchildren – twins – I developed a different strategy, partly because carting two kids around the house at the same time while I paced off my frustration was too physically demanding. Instead, I created an alternative persona, Stern Granny. Whining? “Stern Granny doesn’t like that.” Refusing to eat your dinner? Stern Granny says, “No dessert until your plates are clean.”
Stern Granny worked quite well until I got carried away and tried it out on Rudy, the grand dog, who barks and jumps up when she is excited. “Stern Granny won’t hold your paw until you stop that,” I admonished recently. One of the twins – the more literal one – looked at me as though I had developed early onset Alzheimer’s and said, “You know she can’t understand you.”
That was my first inkling that the days of Stern Granny might be limited.
More was to come. This past weekend the girls, who are about to turn 6, and their little brother were having a sleepover at Granny’s house – always a mix of delicious fun and watch-checking exhaustion. The girls have such an affinity for each other that they rarely fight. Instead, they plot mischief, as in switching backpacks and sneaking into each other’s classroom and pretending to be the other twin.
Or instead of “listening” – the contemporary lingo for “behaving” – they gang up on their parents or grandparents by building forts out of the living-room furniture, jumping up and down on the chesterfield or chasing each other around the kitchen island while Granny is making pancakes for breakfast. On Sunday morning, I trotted out the usual reprimand: “Stern Granny needs space. Stop that, or there won’t be time to go to the park.”
Astonishingly, they both stopped running and simultaneously turned to stare at me. Each one put a hand over her mouth to cover her laughter and said, “Stern Granny – who’s that?” Back to the drawing board, I realized. That’s because unlike Ms. Beyak, I believe I do have things to learn, even as a grandparent, about raising children and helping them develop discipline and self-control.