Monday, 24 August 2009

Time out for parents

Reflecting on the sad story of Caitlyn Matthews, a little girl with serious and permanent brain damage caused when she was shaken as a baby, my partner said, 'We should promote time out for parents'.* I understood completely, and so probably does every exhausted, stressed-out parent of small children who is simply desperate for a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep, or even the opportunity to just have a shower or go to the loo in peace and quiet.

Caitlyn's story made me remember a time when my daughter was a toddler, and still breastfeeding. She was no longer taking the whole breastfeeding enterprise seriously, and had discovered the sadistic joy that comes from biting mum's boob, then laughing as I yowled in pain. One day, in exhaustion and utter frustration, I came incredibly close to slapping her. I feel guilty about it to this very day. The things that seem obvious to someone who isn't exhausted or stressed - put the child down, take a deep breath and count to ten, leave the room - can sometimes just elude you when you're feeling overwhelmed.

This is just one reason why I'm so strongly opposed to smacking. If I'd slapped my daughter, no doubt some (possibly Christian fundamentalist) pro-smacker would have leapt to my defense, claiming that 'correction' of my child is my right as a parent. But in so many instances, as would have been the case if I'd actually slapped my daughter, what passes as correction is nothing but parental anger, frustration, exhaustion and lack of self-control. A friend of mine once mentioned to me how her father - a normally gentle man whom I like and have respect for - once lost his temper and pushed her, and her head put a hole in the wall. The line between an act of frustration and an act causing lifelong damage can be frighteningly thin.

Giving yourself parental time out - physically or mentally removing yourself from the stress - can be pretty hard to do. I'm not overly proud of it, but in moments of extreme frustration, I yell and howl like a banshee: incoherent phrases which may include expletives. My kids don't take much notice of it, but they know it means mummy needs a few moments to regain the marbles she's just lost. It's not a particularly sophisticated tactic, but I figure it's better than doing something that will scare my children, upset them or cause them harm.

What time out tactics do other parents use on themselves?

* Caitlyn's story was one of two I spied today about the plight of shaken babies. The second was about the cost of caring for those who sustain severe head injuries. I thought it was kind of odd - the fiscal consequences wouldn't be my first argument against child abuse.

Post script: Caitlyn's grandparents, who are raising her, just spoke on Campbell Live about the difficulties and many joys of caring for her, and the importance of stressed parents learning to walk away. They - and lots of other grandparents raising grandchildren in tough circumstances - do an incredible job.


hungrymama said...

Something I read once (I don't recall where) that has always stuck with me is that the difference between parents who hurt their kids and ones who don't is merely the ability to think of *one more thing* to do to cope with the situation.

Anji said...

A wise woman once said to me "All parents think about hitting their kids occasionally. The difference between a good parent and a bad parent is that the good parent fantasises about it, the bad parent actually does it."

I was smacked as a child, as was my sister. When my son was born my parents were adamant that I'd end up smacking him one day, despite my protests to the contrary. It was all "Well, you say that now but wait until he's running out into the road/pouring nail polish up your nose/has been screaming at you all day."

He' about to turn four and I still have never laid a finger or even raised my hand to him. Both of my parents have come to me separately and told me how proud they are of me for finding a way without violence, they've taken back everything they ever said about "kids needing a smack sometimes" and have praised me for breaking the cycle.

My argument against smacking goes something like this:

Most pro-smackers are the same sort of people who don't want anyone else hitting their children (because you're only allowed to cause a child pain if they're biologically related to you or some rubbish!). They send their children to school, and if the teacher were to smack their child, they'd kick up a stink about how the teacher doesn't have the "right" to hit their child. So they're expecting a teacher to keep not one but twenty to thirty children under control - without resorting to violence, ever. And yet they're telling me they can't even do it with one child? Do they really have that little self-control?

Cactus Kate said...

Yuck. Time out is nothing to be ashamed of. I am glad you didn't hit the child.

That's entirely what Grandparents are for I would have thought.

Entirely against this so called "right" to smack children. Because people have proven they cannot distinguish where to stop from a smack and a total beating.

Anna said...

Anji, my experience has been a lot like yours. I've never discussed the smacking issue specifically with my parents, but they've been supportive of my choice to parent differently to them, including by not smacking. I think parents quite often look at their grandkids from a different perspective to their own kids (I'm sure I will when the time comes).

I agree with you about the trouble distinguishing between smacking and beating, Cactus Kate (although I personally don't agree with either). There is absolutely no concensus around this. Nor is there any consensus around 'correction'. The woman (Savill?) who originated the petition wanted to be able to smack a child for touching a remote control. I thought this was a prime example of a situation that could be dealt with incredibly easily without smacking.

Psycho Milt said... doubt some (possibly Christian fundamentalist) pro-smacker would have leapt to my defense, claiming that 'correction' of my child is my right as a parent.

Maybe it's possible there is the odd crazed mutant out there who imagines you can "correct" a breastfeeding infant, but I've never met one myself. Having both sides constantly misrepresent each other isn't really a recipe for progress on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Well on the Stuff comments on blog about smacking there's someone saying they smacked their teething infant for biting.
So it's perfectly understandable. If you're a parent who smacks does it matter what age the kid is?

Anna said...

My daughter was 18 or 19 months old at the time. I know heaps of people who don't see a problem with smacking kids that age. I read some research somewhere about smacking rates over time which said in the 70s, 40% of mothers of babies under one year old smacked them. Obviously, these women thought that this was a reasonable exercise of their parental discretion. It's mistaken to assume everyone shares your idea of what's reasonable - a certain portion of the population actually are crazy mutants, and their children deserve protection too. In fact, the most ardent protesters of the repeal of s.59 are those whose discretion I'd trust least - eg Bob McCroskie and his defense of the guy who pushed his son over again and again for refusing to play rugby. Is that a parental right you're comfortable defending? If not, the idea of what's 'reasonable' needs some serious scrutiny.

Psycho Milt said...

Is that a parental right you're comfortable defending?

The right to be a prick and a crap parent? No, not really. But it's also not something I think you can usefully criminalise, unless you're willing to lock up a significant minority of the nation's parents and pay either DPB to the remaining parent, or in the case of both parents being pricks, pay CYF to take responsibility for the kids. Currently we have the worst of both worlds, in which we've criminalised crap parenting without having the bollocks to actually hold the freshly-minted criminals to account.

Consider this: what would have happened if you really had slapped your baby for biting your nipple? Most likely you'd have been so horrified and ashamed you'd never have lifted a finger to the child again, and quite likely your baby would have stopped biting your nipple. Otherwise, things would have continued much as before. Sometimes, best practice fails to be achieved and yet somehow life goes on regardless. Would making this hypothetical momentary loss of control into a criminal offence either have prevented it occurring, or achieved any improvement of the outcome after the fact? Spectacularly unlikely.

McCroskie and Bradford are two extremes, and the bulk of us aren't.