Some BCC chums and I had a disagreement over this recently sidebarred article, “To Spank or Not To Spank.” And by “disagreement” I mean that we had different interpretations of what the author said versus what she meant to say and blah blah blah–it’s really not that important, despite the number of words I personally devoted to the conversation (which eventually ended in fisticuffs, not that anyone asked), but on reflection I realized that I was reading the article through my own parenting-experience-colored glasses.
I presume that many people read this article’s anecdote about the church nursery worker who spanked a child in her class and thought, “Dude, if someone did that to my kid–HELL to the NO.” I read the anecdote and wondered how the issue was going to be resolved, and when it wasn’t, I felt cheated–because I am the parent of the child who, to old-skool disciplinarians’ minds, could certainly do with a swat on the behind (or two). In fact, considering my daughter’s behavior in church, I would be astonished if several people in my ward did not think this on a regular basis.
If the Primary president had phoned me and said, “Sister J, [your child] was acting up in nursery class and the nursery worker [who would probably remain nameless at this point] swatted her on the behind. We’ve explained to her that this was inappropriate, and it won’t happen again, but we just wanted to let you know, blah blah, insert profuse apologies or whatever here,” I think I would have said, “Oh. Well. Okay. All’s well that ends well, I guess,” and privately think, “OMG, I’m so embarrassed, what on earth did she do this time?” On the other hand, if the Primary president had phoned me and said, “Sister J, [your child] was acting up in nursery class and the nursery worker swatted her on the behind. This isn’t our usual policy, but in her defense, it did shut your daughter up for the rest of the class time,” I would have been much more indignant. “Are you saying that if I can’t discipline my daughter, you’ll do it for me? Four words: HELL to the NO.”
Here’s the thing, though: my daughter isn’t in nursery anymore. She’s eleven years old–on the verge of Young Womanhood–and her behavior in church since she learned how to communicate verbally makes her nursery-age self look like a model child. If you’d like some background on my daughter, you can read about her here. If you don’t have the patience for that, let me just tell you that last Sunday–as in five days ago–she stood up in the middle of the chapel and screamed, “I hate the Book of Mormon!” and then proceeded to proclaim that she understood why the mob killed Joseph Smith. That anecdote doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about my daughter–she’s a complex, beautiful creature, like most of God’s children–but it does tell you everything you need to know about why her behavior at church frustrates and embarrasses me on a weekly basis, and I would do just about anything to find a solution to this problem.
Rest assured that my daughter experiences consequences for her actions. Also rest assured that she is in therapy and, yes, medicated. The kicker is this: she used to act like this everywhere–at home, in the community, at church, at school–especially at school. In fact, it was her continued disruptiveness at school that led to her being enrolled in a private clinical day-treatment program, which she attended for a year and a half. While at the day-treatment program, she became a model student and a much, much easier person to live with. In September she was able to return to a general education environment for the first time in nearly three years.
I can’t tell you how surreal it is to meet with teachers and have them tell me what a sweetheart my daughter is and how they wish they had twenty of her. Her caseworker at school–who knows her history–has told me repeatedly that my husband and I have obviously done an outstanding job of raising her. I always demur, not just out of modesty, but because tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of therapy notwithstanding, I honestly don’t have any freaking clue what we did to effect this mighty change in her. From where I stand, it appears that a switch was flipped inside my daughter, and if I could look into the circuit box of her soul and find the breaker labeled “CHURCH,” all our problems would be solved.
Over the years I’ve had people implicitly and explicitly criticize my parenting based on the quality of my daughter’s behavior in public. My immediate reaction has usually been to think, “Let THEM take her for a week and see how much they know about it then.” But underneath all that parenting bravado has been the sneaking suspicion that they’re right, that I have obviously done something wrong–because parents who do things right don’t have children who do so many wrong things. And yes, this is the real reason I’m reluctant to take credit for being the awesome parent of an awesome child–because if I take the credit, I will also have to take the blame, and seriously, dudes, I can’t handle that.
Several years ago the Ensign printed an interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie. They told a story about one of their sons, who decided at some point that he didn’t want to go to church anymore. (As I recall, he was about ten at the time the story took place.) So they left him at home and went to church without him. As the Hinckleys told the story, the boy got bored being at home all alone and it didn’t take him long to decide that he’d rather go to church instead. No fuss, no muss. I absolutely adore the Hinckleys, so this is no offense to them, but I distinctly remember thinking at the time, “President and Sister Hinckley, that is not a helpful anecdote.”
Number one, my daughter wasn’t old enough then to leave at home alone. Number two, even now that she is old enough to leave at home, and even though I can effectively de-activate all the electronic equipment that would make her stay at home more pleasant than it has any business being, there is no doubt in my mind that my daughter would infinitely prefer being bored at home all alone to being at church. I want to leave her at home, but only because she has made going to church such an unhappy experience for me for so long, I would give just about anything to spend one three-hour block on Sunday in peace, and I don’t even care what kind of message it would send to her or the other children, or how it would affect her eternal salvation. At this point I would even let a nursery worker spank her, if I thought it would help. (But I doubt very much that it would.)
Fortunately or unfortunately, my husband doesn’t share my view on the subject, so she continues to go to church with us, and she continues to act out. Some weeks are better than others–some weeks are much better than others–but there’s no telling when the next profane outburst will strike or how bad it will be.
This is what bugged me about that stupid “To Spank or Not To Spank” article: it is not about spanking at all, but it is merely about the need to provide a “safe and secure” environment for all nursery children, and the most helpful thing it has to say on this count is that if you’re doing your job as a nursery worker properly, you will never need to discipline any of the children in your class. Okay, it doesn’t say this exactly (not any more, at least, than it says it’s okay to spank your nursery children), but in absence of some actual guidelines about what to do when a child misbehaves, I don’t know what else we’re supposed to conclude. And that, my dears, is a conclusion I am just sick and tired of drawing.
What kills me is that my daughter struggles with some of the same issues that I do at church and with some of the same issues that I have emotionally. The main differences between us are 1) I’ve had a lot longer than she has to resign myself to certain facts of life, and 2) she is much more outspoken than I am. She’s not a sociopath; she feels remorse, and she feels guilt. “Why am I like this?” she asks. “I’m afraid I’m just not a very good person,” she says. How many times have I said these exact same things–only I, being me, say them to myself instead of the world at large.
The end of this story has not yet been written, and the point thereof is still undetermined.