How parents discipline their children should be a personal decision, but just about everyone has an opinion on the subject, which often leads to controversy that overshadows the will of the parent. Parents discipline their children out of love and a sincere belief they are teaching them the difference in right and wrong, to respect themselves and others, and that there are consequences for inappropriate behavior and bad decisions. They see discipline as a teachable moment that will lead to better choices and better behavior. Ultimately, by setting behavior parameters and holding children accountable to consequences for their actions, parents hope to enable their children to learn to discipline themselves as they grow into adulthood. However, getting to that point is often a struggle for even the very best parents.
Although parents understand discipline is a necessary part of teaching children how to interact positively and successfully with others, they often struggle with what kind of discipline they should use. Most parents tend to discipline their children the same way they were disciplined by their parents. If their parents used corporal punishment (i.e. spanking, a belt, or a switch), they tend to use corporal punishment with their own children. If they grew up in a home where corporal punishment was rarely or never used to address inappropriate behavior, they are less likely to use it with their own children. Parents who support corporal punishment believe when used with care and moderation it can be the most effective form of getting a child’s attention and reinforcing good behavior, but opponents of corporal punishment regard it as a form of child abuse that should not be tolerated. While proponents of corporal punishment agree that child abuse should not be tolerated, they also believe how a child is raised and disciplined is the parents’ personal business, and they take serious issue with anyone – family, friend, stranger, or media – trying to tell them how to raise and discipline their children.
Family feuds can start and friendships strained or ended when well-meaning relatives and friends offer parents unsolicited advice as to how to discipline their children. Heaven have mercy on meddling strangers who dare offer their two bits about discipline. Such interference is considered an intrusion into private family affairs, and nothing will bring about anger quicker, especially in the South, than an outsider interfering with family. How parents discipline their children is personal, and even those who struggle mightily with disciplining their children take offense to unwanted advice from outsiders. My father was such a parent.
If I had to describe my father’s parenting skills, I would have to say highly effective. I doubt very seriously if he ever read a book on parenting, but rather his parenting skills came from an innate primitive instinct; the kind that has been at the core of human existence since mothers first squatted in a bed of leaves to give birth and fathers carried clubs made of tree stumps to keep women and children in line and wild animals at bay. The same was true in my father’s house, except his club of choice was a leather belt used not only to keep his pants up, but to keep his children in line as well. His belt sometimes left tread marks across my deserving behind, but never anything that better choices and good behavior would not quickly heal and prevent in the future. Unlike my mother, he did not believe in repeated warnings to curve bad behavior. With my father there was “the look,” and if that did not suffice, next came the belt. He expected his children to know how to behave, and when they did not, he reinforced his expectations quickly and justly. He did not play games when it came to his children knowing how to act properly.
For example, when traveling with children, all parents have experienced hearing from the back seat “Are we there yet?” for the hundredth time, or ten minutes after pulling onto the interstate hearing Junior say, “I need to pee pee,” followed less than a minute later by big sister’s ear splintering scream, “Gross! Daddy, Junior got pee on my blanket!” If that is not bad enough, the unending adversarial yammering from the backseat will cause most adults to swear off ever getting into a car with anyone under age twenty-one again. There is little that can be done to make such situations bearable other than ear plugs and silently praying over and over, “This too shall pass, Lord. This too shall pass.” When you have kids, you learn to either endure what goes on in the backseat or stay at home.
My father would have taken exception to both enduring it and staying at home though. He enjoyed taking a family vacation to the Ozark Mountains, the Smoky Mountains, or the beach every summer, and he taught my sisters and me how to behave on long trips in the car. We could talk politely and quietly, as long as our voices did not rise to or above the songs of his boys – Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Ernest Tubb – wailing from the crackly AM radio in the front dash, and should we forget, Mama was allowed to warn us once to settle down. Being a patient man, my father would wait to see if her warning made a difference in our behavior; he could endure about twenty minutes of “combative yapping” from the backseat before he pulled off the side of the road and took off his belt. When he was finished, my sisters and I did not need to be strapped in our seats to be still (Our old Chevy did not have seatbelts anyway) or told to sit down and be quite again; we were very content to sit quietly and be “seen and not heard” for the remainder of the trip.
I am not saying my father’s way was the best way, but it worked, and it worked well. With the exception of potty training, which he left entirely to my mother, my father “ruled the roost” and if discipline was needed, he had one answer, a belt. His belt brought quick resolution to sibling squabbles, dishonesty, disrespect, getting in trouble at school, general obnoxious sassiness, and misbehavior in general. He was not afraid to “man-up” and mark his territory as the “alpha male” in the family. Some might say he was no better than the primitive parent swinging the tree stump, but I don’t believe he would have actually used a tree stump on us even if one had been handy. Nevertheless, my sisters and I knew better than to press our luck. As kids growing up in the sixties, we were not brave enough or fool enough to tempt him. Much like the primitive fathers thousands of years before him, my father ruled by “rank and order,” he had the rank and he gave the orders, and if you wanted to be able to sit comfortably, you did as you were told. Maybe there is something we can all learn from parents who love their children enough to mark their territory and establish and enforce the parameters of their endurance.
I understand fully that in today’s society my father would have been criminalized in the media as a barbaric child abuser, but other than the embarrassment of being scandalized for trying his best to be a good father, he would have cared less what society thought. His children grew up knowing there were boundaries and consequences for everything they did, and that in their father’s house “because I said so” was not a cop out, but a commandment to be respected and honored. Consequently, his children grew up loving and respecting him, and knowing he loved them and would always be there for them. That was all that mattered to him. He had little patience for anyone telling him how best to raise or discipline his kids. That was his job, and he took it very seriously.
Nevertheless, there are those who will argue the discipline administered by my father was abusive. On the other hand, there are also those who can argue that it is abusive to families and society in general to let children run rampantly out of control and undisciplined, but that is exactly what we are seeing more and more of in American culture. We have come to a place where parents are afraid to discipline their children for fear of being ostracized by society and branded a criminal by the media. Now I am not advocating taking a tree stump to a child, or even a belt for that matter. All I am trying to say is children need discipline, and the method my father and his father before him chose to discipline their children was a parenting choice that worked for them and their children.
Parents should have the right to choose how they discipline their children without fear of being branded a criminal. If the intent and purpose is to discipline the child and they do so within reason (broken bones, severe bruising, and ripped flesh are not within reason), discipline choices should be left in the hands of the parents. I have been spanked with an open hand, swatted with a belt, and stung with a switch, and the only lasting imprint on me was a greater desire to make better choices, respect others and not do anything I would be ashamed or afraid of my father finding out about later. My father has been gone nine years, and I still do my best to make the right choices, respect others, and do the right thing. I have his belt and his love to thank for that; thank God he had the right to choose what he felt was best for me.
©Jack Linton, September 21, 2014