In remarks during a general audience at the Vatican in February, devoted to “the role of fathers in the family,” Pope Francis spoke of correcting children “with firmness” commenting on a father who shared that he sometimes had to “smack” his children, but “never in the face”, to which Francis remarked “How beautiful. …He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on.”
Pope Francis has been a source of inspiration to many for his bold rejection of some vestiges of the totalitarian state that is the Vatican, including the recent lifting of the ongoing investigation of American women religious. However, my hearing this intemperate and probably regretted remark by Pope Francis triggered reminiscence from childhood around corporal punishment and the challenge of “disciplining” children, now extended to my grandchild, Olivia, age 3.
A Smacking Incident from My Past
In the early years of our daughter, Teresa’s life, and during a time when we were teaching nonviolent parenting in the 1980’s, my husband Brayton and I did a great deal of research on effective parenting, including teaching the classic, Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-Discipline in Children (Plume Paperback – August 1, 1991) by Thomas Gordon.
I spent time thinking about my own childhood in relationship to Gordon’s ideas on “punishment” (it doesn’t work and the word itself is negative), including so-called “smacking”, “love taps” or “for your own good” parental words and behavior.
I remember the only time my beloved, saintly mother, “smacked” me in a pique of rage over my pushing and hitting of my younger sister, Beverly, in an incident relating to a “borrowed” dress in our shared closet. My foggy recollection is that my mother hit me on the side of the head and shoulders. Even though I screamed: “I hate you,” I really didn’t mean it, because I adored her. I was in a state of shock which reverberated in my whole being. Why would my mother, my companion, the baker of apple pies and popovers on Sunday, hurt me in such a hostile and aggressive way? My mother cried and I remember feeling so sorry for her. Yet, I didn’t stop yelling, “I hate you! I hate you!” I was fifteen, my sister about ten.
The point is that this moment stands out in my mind as I approach 70, as something that didn’t need to happen, and achieved nothing, except the escalation of the conflict with my sister and my mother. The “smacking” incident ended up making us all feel terrible, souring our relationship for days, even months afterwards.
My father, a tragic alcoholic, seldom, if ever, hit any of us four children, though he threatened with dramatic displays, waving a belt, as we cowered, laughing, and knowing he probably would never touch us. He did once tap us lightly with it, as my mother screamed from another room. She didn’t have the courage to step outside of the dominative male syndrome in which she was raised and acculturated, to stop the charade.
As kids, we joked about the “belt” incident, but it left its mark nonetheless. Joking was a derisive coping mechanism to cover our shame and humiliation, our inability to realize what we had done to deserve such a reaction. My father may have been drunk, looking for an outlet for rage and failure. I don’t remember the reasons, but I still remember the incident.
My father’s inarticulateness and inability to show emotion, I figured out much later, was Post Traumatic Stress from WWII (shell shock or battle fatigue were the sobriquets then) and daily bombings for three years in New Guinea where he was stationed, keeping him from the birth of his first child, my brother, Harry.
Corporal Punishment in Catholic Schools
My brothers both attended an all boys’ Catholic School, where corporal punishment was the norm. Catholic priests threw boys against the lockers, punched them in the face, taunted and humiliated them, until some of the boys punched back. These were the legendary 50’s and 60’s, but a regular practice even in my Mother’s girlhood, when nuns slapped kindergarten children’s hands with rulers, which happened more than once to my mother. She never forgot or forgave the nuns, and repeated the story to me over and over again as she aged.
Behind rectory doors, under the guise of correction, some priests were also sexually violating young children with impunity, “smacking” them with another form of violence, of the predatory, sexual kind.
The word “smack” appears on the surface almost silly, inane. Certainly, Pope Francis’ remark could be interpreted and has been by some, as an example of the forbearance, even restrain, relating to the misbehavior of children. After all, some apologists say, he doesn’t endorse the beating of children and even suggests that a child’s “dignity” be maintained. For some parents and for the Pope, “smacking” is different from abuse. But is it?
Hitting, beating, smacking, are all forms of corporal punishment, starting with an adult internal world of “intention” to correct or admonish by dominative power over a small person who cannot protect him or herself. Starting such violence (reducing a person to a thing) at home and excusing such punitive behavior euphemistically as a “smack” is the height of denial of the reality of the lasting effects on the child of such behavior.
Children who are “smacked” or physically harmed will become “smackers”, learning from the primary care giver, that solving problems within the family unit is done by shaming, intimidation, and physical aggression. Such adult tyranny is truly an act of violence on a helpless little person. Aggression exhibited by an out-of-control adult frightens and terrifies, leaving unhealed scars on the psyche.
The Nonviolent Parenting Model
On the other hand, the nonviolent parenting model, born of a deep belief in the positive outcomes of compassionate listening, reconciliation and healing, is patterned, for Christian parents and educators after Jesus. Jesus models forgiveness and unconditional love to all. Especially welcoming to children, he explicitly forbids giving scandal to them.
In a nonviolent parent-effectiveness model, my mother in the aforementioned scenario would have sensed that her anger towards me was secondary, or anger beneath the anger. She might have been able to see, if she had had training that she was acting out of the frazzled, overworked model of the co-enabling wife of an alcoholic, whose rage at him was smoldering beneath everything that happened to her. She may have been able to see that her life with a deteriorating alcoholic who was chronically unemployed locked her into a permanent state of suppressed anger, which came out with the slamming of cupboard and bedroom doors, her way of dealing with the humiliation of not enough money, ever.
My sister and I too, were victims of my father’s dysfunction. We both slept in the same bed until I was eighteen, and she was thirteen. We had few clothes, except hand-me-downs, great tension existed between us. Given the circumstances of our parents’ frayed marriage, a stand-off at best, a tragic mistake at worst, it is a miracle that our affection for each other survived.
The nonviolent model would have allowed my mother to realize that we women in the home were experiencing the bottled up hostility of victims who were all at the explosive point. My mother would have owned that side-taking, threats and screaming were a manifestation of her pain and utter humiliation.
If only my mom had read Gordon; then she would have learned about compassionate listening which includes using “I” messages. “Girls, when you fight over the dress you share in your closet; it makes me feel sad because I am not able to make enough money to buy you new dresses. I feel that your father’s alcoholism adds tension to the family’s life together. How will we, together, work out a way to address this situation?” Honoring the willingness of children to act and feel compassion, gives them the opportunity to feel that they are part of a solution in a situation of hurt.
Aware of these dynamics in the family, my sister and I longed for an opportunity to understand our pain and to find a way of expressing our helplessness. Instead, my mother’s “smacking” escalated emotions, temporarily shattering the female bond among us and increasing our suffering.
For children who haven’t reached the age of reason, screaming, yelling, threatening, calling for “time outs” are useless gestures of our own adult frustration. Lacking a strategy to deal effectively and nonviolently with our children, we act aggressively, threateningly, which increases the child’s emotional overload and inability to express what is happening. This inarticulateness of the child, often accompanied by gestures of defiance and public embarrassment, (lying on the floor screaming and kicking in a supermarket is a legendary parental disgrace) creates in the parent an ever-increasing need to up the punishment ante. We think: “I don’t deserve this kind of treatment.”
Even a two year old will respond to the “I” messages. They work. I experienced this just last week with our grand-daughter, Olivia. In a fit of frustration over something I could not determine, Olivia threw herself on our kitchen floor, screaming over and over, “No! No!” and shouting at her adoring grandma: “Go away, grandma. Go away.”
My having taught and attempted nonviolent parenting and now grand-parenting, is no guarantee that during my own or my granddaughter’s temper-tantrum, I will be an exemplary model of mindfulness. But our practice of mindfulness can assist us by slowing down the temptation to lay down the law with shouting: “Olivia, stop!!! You can’t talk to grandma that way!!!” (For further mindful parenting models see the book, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon and Myla-Kabat Zinn).
Instead, I can refuse to take bad behavior personally, realizing that the child doesn’t even understand the source of his/her anger and frustration. I try, instead, to model behavior that I would want my grandchild to model by expressing compassion: “I know you are frustrated. I want to help you, but I have to wait until you calm down first. Grandma is trying to understand. What’s wrong? Can you stop tell me? What do you need?”
At first, Olivia didn’t appear to hear what I was saying, but I said it anyway, as by tone and gesture I attempted to convey that I wanted to help her get through this. As she continued to scream, I hugged her, repeating: “It’s all right Olivia.”
Once she was soothed, we talked, or at least I made the attempt: “Olivia, when you scream and push grandma away, you make me feel sad. Grandma feels sad when you act this way.” I repeated: “When you fall on the floor, like this (I dropped to the floor), you make Grandma sad.” She laughed.
Olivia looked up at me with a perplexed and bemused half-smile, then lifted her little hands to my face as we both sat on the floor and said with great love: “Grandma sad? Grandma sad?” No coerced or mandatory apology was necessary. Olivia whispered: “Sorry grandma.”
I intend to use this strategy over and over with Olivia as I did with her Mother, Teresa, knowing that nonviolent parenting techniques require spending more time than I think I have. I can’t get right back to my email during two year old tantrum. By indulging my own frenzied need to “get on with my life” I risk the opportunity to teach and nourish trust, to encourage communication with Olivia. In time, I hope co-listening practice with Olivia will help her to learn that acting out isn’t necessary; that she will find the answers she needs, in her words, and in her own “I messages.”
Some Suggestions for Pope Francis
The outcry over Pope Francis’ smacking remark caused his handlers to revisit his hasty remarks with the Vatican issuing this retraction: “The Pope, for his part, was not encouraging parents to hit their children.” I’d like to hear this from him.
Parenting, (which Pope Francis has not done) in situations of anger and conflict, as in all other areas of life, requires a methodology, an application of the nonviolent teachings of Jesus in response to a culture saturated with the opposite. Nonviolence does effectively resolve conflict. Jesus wasn’t a smacker. Nonviolence is practical; its effects are long-lasting. Smacking is a temporary fix which escalates instead of de-escalates a potentially violent response to minor misbehavior. One of the women religious we worked with on nonviolent discipline for severely sexually abused children carried “hints for de-escalating conflict” in her pocket throughout the day, referring to them frequently in discipline situations.
Pope Francis’ unfortunate remark underscores the need for an infused, mandatory nonviolent curriculum in our Catholic Schools, beginning with parents and educators. The Pope would learn from such training that he can take this off-hand remark or willful ignorance of its implications and turn it into a teaching moment for all. He could retract and say as we parents need to say to our children when we lose control and behave violently by word or action: “I was wrong. I have a lot to learn.”
In the meantime, the Pope might reference Maria Montessori, Thomas Gordon, Rudolf Steiner and the Waldorf School models, as well as Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, as guides for non-punitive caregiving. I rejoice in Francis’ progressive movement in numerous areas (work needed on women and the church, ordination and birth control) as he has lifted the spirits of many with his directness, taking prophetically bold stands. Still, like all of us, he could benefit from reading some of the classics on nonviolent parenting and retract his unfortunate, off-hand remarks.