When a Smack Isn’t Just a Smack

I was recently chatting with a fellow mom whose husband, despite agreeing to never use physical discipline on their child, smacked their almost two-year-old’s foot to “get his attention.”

Their son was kicking and refusing a diaper, as all toddlers will do at some point or another, and this was how her husband responded to the kicking.

She immediately felt upset and betrayed, especially since their agreement to never use physical discipline was based partly on her experiences as a child. She was severely and regularly beaten.

She did her best to soothe her son, in the process asking her son gentle questions about what he did, what his father did, and whether or not these things were okay. She cried along with her son, coping with their confusion and overwhelming emotion together.

In sharing her experience with other moms, many of the moms responded with thoughts like:

“You should never tell your child his dad did something wrong. You and Dad are a team. If you do that, your son won’t respect his dad.”

“It was just a smack.”

“Your own experiences from your childhood are probably making you overreact. You were just feeling triggered.”

Here is my response to those comments:

You should never tell your child his dad did something wrong. You and Dad are a team…your son won’t respect his dad.

Under normal circumstances, I agree.

But physical violence in any form is not a normal circumstance. It’s an extreme one, and under this circumstance, if my husband had done that, I would’ve called him out on it. I would’ve said something fully and clearly in front of my child so my child knew that Dad’s behavior in this instance was utterly, completely unacceptable in our family.

Under these circumstances, I would want my child to know that I am always, forever, in every moment her safe space…even if that pits me against her father.

So, no, don’t feel bad about GENTLY pointing out to your child that Dad fucked up.

Because he did.

And it’s unacceptable.

Yes, regroup. Yes, discuss it behind closed doors with hubby. Yes, draw your boundaries clearly. Yes, hear hubby out and empathize with him as well. 

But don’t ever feel bad about asking your little one to question his own father’s behavior under these circumstances.

Your child should always question violent behavior, even if it comes from his parents, even at this young an age. Is it confusing? Probably.

But your child is already confused.

You guiding him through it by validating his experience and acknowledging his point of view can only help.

Acting like Dad did nothing wrong forces your child to conclude, “Well, if Dad didn’t do anything wrong it must’ve been me. I deserved it. I did something horrible. I’m a bad person.”

For what? For kicking? For resisting a diaper? For doing exactly what toddlers should do – express their emotions without restraint or self-censorship because they literally CAN’T deal with their emotions any other way?

Toddlers are supposed to test boundaries, push buttons, exercise their autonomy, resist. They must. It’s part of their developmental cycle.

Parents can and should set boundaries with love, clarity, and calm. They’re capable of dealing with their own emotions responsibly and not taking them out on their kids physically. Because they can, they must. It’s part of being a parent.

And the point about your son no longer respecting his father because you called him out?

Well…using physical force to coerce someone smaller than you, someone less physically able than you, and someone who relies on you completely to survive is not deserving of respect. Ever. Even if it is his father.

In fact, a parent is held to a higher standard than any other adult in the child’s life so…respect is earned, and certainly not through intimidation, coercion, or violence.

It was just a smack.

Your husband agreed to nonviolent parenting with no physical discipline. Period.

So in this case it wasn’t “just a smack.”

It was a clear sign that your husband does not have the maturity to regulate his own emotions. And here’s the thing:

Between parent and child, there is only one adult in the room. Only one. Only one human being with a fully developed brain. Only one human being with decades of experience coping with emotions and practicing self-regulation.

Therefore, there is only one person responsible for their emotions in the room, and that’s the parent.

It is fully and solely the adult’s responsibility to own and manage their own emotions.

Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting puts this so eloquently:

“Sure, our kids make us MAD! But the truth is, those are our own feelings. They aren’t caused by our child, they’re caused by our own conclusions (“She lied to me…How dare she?!…She’s going to be an immoral person!”) We can’t always choose our feelings, but we are always responsible for what we do with them. “

She also says:

“Acting on our anger with our child is usually the adult version of a tantrum.”

Precisely.

So how do emotionally mature adults cope with their emotions? In a million different ways, but ways that are safe and that do not harm other living beings.

They vent. They discuss the problem with the other adults involved. They go to counseling or therapy. They self-soothe, and sometimes self-medicate.

Taking out your anger on your child is a sign of many things, but it is ALWAYS a sign of something within YOU. It is about your own internal emotions and wounds, not about the child’s behavior.

It’s rarely ever “just a smack.”

You were just feeling triggered.

Frankly, thank goodness for your triggers, Mama.

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be pushing your husband to be a more mature and patient father, and your baby boy would have no one to stand up for him and show him what safety feels like. 

And children deserve to know safety. To know security. To know a depth of love so unwavering and powerful it buoys them through the hills and valleys of their entire lives.

We may not be able to protect them from all the scary and dangerous things in this world (frankly, we shouldn’t) but as parents, we can at least be their safe space. We can at least be the ones they know they can always turn to no matter what.

Now, besides that, the “you’re being overly sensitive” commentary is outdated. It’s time to retire it.

It’s a quick and easy way to invalidate the experience of the person you’re talking to, and it’s too commonly used against women (often by men, though not always as in this case) who are simply expressing strong emotions.

“You’re just overreacting” is basically saying, “there’s no reason for you to feel the way you do, so not only are your feelings wrong and irrational but the very reason you think you’re feeling that way doesn’t exist…you just made it all up in your head…so not only are you wrong and irrational, but you’re also crazy for making stuff up in your head. What is wrong with you!?!?”

Okay, the end is a bit extreme but you get my point.

Women are allowed their emotions.

We are allowed to feel! Whatever! For whatever reason!

This mom’s experience is valid and worthy of respect regardless of her childhood and her background. She was upset. She is allowed to be upset. She is allowed to feel disappointed, even betrayed, maybe even a little heartbroken, maybe even a little afraid.

It doesn’t matter. Whatever she feels, it’s valid. Triggers or not, the feelings are real. Diminishing them is not only unhelpful, it’s disappointing.

After my chat with this mom, Hubby and I discussed what we would do should we ever find ourselves in similar circumstances. It was a good conversation, and it warms my heart that we can have honest and open conversations about matters like these.

Because parenting is hard. Parenting the way we want to parent – gently, respectfully – is harder still. Being on the same page, feeling like we’re truly a team, definitely makes it easier.

I read a quote once that I’ll paraphrase for you here (and apologies to the true owner of this quote for butchering the way I am):

Everything in life has its challenges. What makes them easy is knowing that they’re worth it.

Parenting this way is worth it.

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