Maybe it took someone as wise and amiable as Hollywood actor Will Smith, to put it into perspective for me. In an interview about becoming a young father, I remember Will saying: “How is it that my TV came with a manual that is this (indicating a fair bit of girth) thick, but they just hand you a baby without any instructions at the hospital?” Unlike Will, I have read lots of manuals and how-to books that tried, but none, and least of all my education, prepared me for the twister that’s been forced upon us this past fortnight.
“Your son has become very aggressive of late” — That’s how my 32-month old’s playschool teacher dropped the bomb on us. “He pushes other children and when we tried to stop him, he pushed us too.” As I looked at him, staring at me with the ‘Who, me?’ look, I couldn’t believe it. The child, who we thought we’d taught to handle everything gently, was behaving like a monster! Our parenting instincts were thrown off gear and we were tossed into a deep existential quandary — where did we go wrong and more importantly, how do we fix this?
Never before were we put in such a spot to clearly define and implement levels of non-violence in our lives. For instance, the first question his adoring grandparents asked when told about his non-adorable-recently-acquired behaviour was: “Did they tell you why? He must have been provoked otherwise he wouldn’t do this.” But even if he was, did that justify him hitting out? I wasn’t sure but my husband differed. “How can I tell him not to defend himself?” he said. As the story goes, he was four when he came home one day crying after fighting with some older kid.
Instead of comforting him, his father, my father-in-law, told him to go back to the boy and “fix” things. My husband learnt that it’s better to face the bully and if they hit you, to hit them back.
So four decades on, my husband wanted to pass on the same wisdom to his son, but he had to acknowledge my apprehensions. Apart from the moral dilemma, I was terrified about my son being too small to physically protect himself. I had a solution, though — I was going to teach him to say ‘No’ firmly to the person who was trying to hit him, and then report them to an authority figure, that is, the teacher. “But aren’t you teaching him to be a snitch?” My husband pointed out. I didn’t agree but clearly, we were on very tricky territory. And also what no one allowed me to forget was that I had on two occasions, tried out spanking to discipline him. I’m not proud of it but I can admit that I slapped him lightly once when he kept hitting out and wouldn’t listen to me, and once I did gently tug his hair to show how his pulling my hair wasn’t a joyful experience. But, I abandoned that mode of disciplining immediately, because I figured out that it was ineffective beyond a point and that I couldn’t be the one who taught our son violent ways.
I figured out that many of us were spanked when we were kids and are not worse off for it, but times have changed. No wonder my parents now completely deny that they ever spanked us. We were hit in school too, but now, most of our schools are too scared to even speak harshly. And the problem is that disciplining is now entirely the parents’ problem and not the school’s. So in my son’s school, if he doesn’t stop hitting, we probably face the prospect of keeping him at home because they wouldn’t want him there.
As I write this, a couple in Norway is appealing against a one year jail sentence for mistreatment of their child. The part of me which once slapped my child out of frustration, sympathises with them although I cannot understand belting or scalding my son with a hot spoon under any circumstance. I know that those of us who have chosen to become parents have a really tough job and we need to be more responsible about how we’re bringing them up. I am now trying bribing with chocolates and long lectures, along with timeouts and he hasn’t hit for the last three days. I’ll keep trying those till they tell me I’m doing something wrong again — I’m sure they will at some point.