Letter: When does discipline become abuse?
After an enjoyable meal at a local restaurant Saturday night, I stopped in the restroom. From behind the closed stall door I heard two people storm in, then a whack, whack, whack and the cry of a little girl. Shocked by the sound of the force exerted, when I left the stall, I made eye contact with the mom, who was now angrily making the little girl wash her hands. She said, as if to justify the spanking, “Why did you have to spill that salsa all over?”
Compelled to say something and struggling for words, I blurted out, “Because she’s only – what? – 4 years old?” My words were directed to the mom, but I now made contact with the little girl, who looked scared and shell-shocked. I felt an instinctive need to protect her because clearly, her mom was overreacting.
It’s so hard to know what to do, what to say in a situation like this. I couldn’t remain silent, and wished I’d have had the presence of mind and heart to respond more resourcefully and helpfully. This mom was overwhelmed, perhaps embarrassed by her daughter’s behavior. Had the girl been extra spirited that day? Were there other factors influencing the mom’s stress level? Had she been on the receiving end of harsh punishment when she was a little girl?
Here’s what I know: When anger is reactive and out of proportion to the current event, it has roots in some other unresolved event, current or historic. This is when we end up hurting the people we love the most, intentionally or inadvertently. If instead we can find a way to pause, count to 10, take a breath or take a break, then we stand a much better chance of responding with mindful, appropriate guidance to a child’s inevitably childlike behaviors, generating love and trust rather than fear.
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