These days, my old man is the softest, most lovely soul you could meet. But back in the day, he was a disciplinarian of Roald Dahl principal-esque proportions. I mean, every dad was quick to throw a casual open hand back then (this was small-town New Zealand in the eighties, after all), but my dad was a true artist at it. When it came to smacking children, he was Michelangelo, and bums were his Sistine Chapel.
The tools of his trade ranged from the traditional (hand) to the hilarious (novelty fly swatter) to the completely ineffectual (surprisingly, a vacuum cleaner head), and he would apply them with gleeful abandon.
Once, I was rewinding a VHS copy of Highlander 2 and the video player ripped the tape off the reel. Now, anyone who has ever seen Highlander 2 would agree that I had done the world a service (that film is like a handgun – every copy taken off the streets makes the world a better place), but my old man was fucking furious. He gave me a solid whack with a shoe. Even worse, I had friends over who witnessed the whole thing. The shame burned worse than the hit to be honest.
Another time, I accidentally dropped a solid wooden Barbie wardrobe on my sister’s face from a fairly decent height. I remember my dad only stopped smacking me to for long enough to pay the pizza delivery guy who turned up.
But as he got older, dad found it harder to take his eyes off the rugby on tv or get off the couch to enact his verdicts. So he would make you stand in front of him (not blocking the tv though), and smack yourself until he reckoned you’d got the point. That last era was the golden time of discipline, where the hardest part of the whole thing was trying not to laugh.
To some, smacking children and the scenes above might seem quite shocking. And, in hindsight, certain bits were, I guess. But it’s certainly no indictment of my childhood. My childhood was fucking great; full of way too much sugar, inappropriate BB gun battles, and drinking out of the garden hose. Sure, the smacks were frequent, but the thing is, they didn’t seem wrong at the time. They felt like discipline du jour. I saw my friends take some almighty whacks, and we would brush ourselves off and keep playing afterwards without giving it a second thought.
A friend of mine had a dad that kept a length of PVC pipe in his car. If the kids in the backseat misbehaved, his dad would grab the pipe and swing it wildly behind him until he made contact three times, one for each kid (although, more often than not, it was usually the poor fucker in the middle that took all three shots).
This was Newton’s Third Law in painful effect. Every action has an equal reaction, and getting whacked with a length of PVC was a logical reaction to being naughty.
But, while the smacks didn’t leave a mark, they did make an impact.
Like so many other guys my age, I grew up completely desensitised to smacking. It seemed like the appropriate way of teaching kids a lesson.
And, in fact, up until the moment I had a kid, I figured I’d just give my kids a casual smack if they were naughty. But that’s changed.
Now, before I launch into this next bit, I’m going to level with you.
I’ve smacked my oldest kid. Not a lot, but a few times. Not for anything overly naughty, either. There were just a couple of times when he pushed and pushed (I think it’s called being a three-year-old), and I saw red and gave him a smack on the bum. And every time, immediately afterwards, I felt like a giant, hypocritical piece of shit.
A couple articles back, I wrote about hating the fact that Henry was a bully at day-care. That’s a bit fucking rich, isn’t it? Because, when he hits kids at day-care who don’t listen to him, he isn’t being naughty. He’s being me.
He’s reacting exactly as I taught him to, and exactly as my old man taught me to. And it’s a confusing lesson.
Dad smacks me when I’m naughty, but then gets angry when I smack others who are naughty. What the fuck, dad?
Once I was at the library with my boy, and I overheard a dad talking to his son the next aisle over. He said – and I shit you not – “if you hit your sister again, you’ll get a bloody belting!”
It was so ridiculous I wondered how he couldn’t hear it.
But then I remembered that parents are exhausted and stressed and in desperate need of some goddamn peace and quiet.
And I understood because I was all those things too.
That’s exactly why I’d smacked Henry.
But I promise you, smacking children delivers no relief.
That smack won’t stop them acting out. It won’t suddenly teach them manners, or make them behave like angels.
But it will make them remember.
It’ll make them remember that it’s ok to smack others because that’s what dad did to them.
So the next time the red veil descends, and you find yourself getting close to raising a hand. Take a breath and remember something.
Remember that this exact same thing happened a while back when your old man was in your place. He lashed out and gave you a right old crack.
But you don’t have to.
This is your chance to teach your kid a different kind of lesson. One that doesn’t involve an impact that lasts much longer than you realise.
Don’t be like your old man.
Smacking children was our dads’ way. Not ours.
Plus, he probably liked Highlander 2.
And you never want to be that guy.