My grandfather once told me a story about his father that has always haunted me. When he was a young boy, as dinner was being prepared, his father would stand on the doorstep of the house. He would stand and whistle. A short sharp bite into the air. He would then pause for a while before whistling again. A somewhat menacing signal for his children to return home. If my grandfather wasn’t in the house soon after the second whistle there were consequences. As far as I can gather these consequences were often quite severe.
I never had the opportunity to meet my great grandfather. As a father it would have been fascinating to talk to him now. To unravel the concept of parenthood from a completely different generational perspective. The generational gap and my own ideals of parenting have led me to wonder about the long term cause and effect of violence in the home. It makes me think about how certain levels of violence were acceptable in those times. Perhaps not as long ago as we would like to think. Or feel. My father never hit me. I’m sure his father hit him (you can read my interview with my father here if you wish).
This troubles me. It troubles me because it was what was acceptable at the time. Why was it acceptable and why isn’t it now? What has changed?
When Eve wakes up she sometimes emits a noise that is pitched at a level designed specifically to cause panic and alarm for the parents. Apparently this is a natural, instinctive skill. She is an expert at it. It is not a blood curdling, ear drum punching scream (although she can do those too). It’s a whine. A scratchy, blood boiling whinge. Listening to it for more than five minutes drives me quite insane. I have never, ever known a single noise that produces such a reaction in me. It’s just awful. I curl into a tightly bound fist of stress.
During invasions Vikings used to tear the air apart with their battle cries. Then, if any villagers had stood their ground, they would send in Berserkers. Huge mountains of muscle wrapped around a maniacal, spiritual manifestation of fury itself. An army of tired, sun burned, hungry toddlers is far, far more likely to kill you first. I am considering sending her out on international peacekeeping missions. Relay that noise over a loud speaker across any battlefield and you can pretty much guarantee most of the death toll would be attributed to suicide or gibbering, ear pummelling madness.
My point is that our children, as much as we love them, produce powerful emotions in us, both positive and negative. Such is the nature of love itself. In this it is fair to say that we do only, really hurt the ones we love. I have never once smacked Eve but I may do one day. In this life, with as little control as we may have over it, I’d be foolish to deny it.
We aren’t coming home to find our fathers holding leather straps across their laps in grim determination. We can’t threaten our children with a good “thrashing” any longer. We never tell our children “this is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you” as we’re busy rupturing their bare buttocks with a wooden ruler. Even teachers were routinely tasked with disciplining generations before us with physical violence. Can you possibly conceive of a teacher injuring your child? Can you imagine then telling your child that it was probably what they deserved?
On the face of it we cannot and will never hit our children. I can understand why we do. If we can understand it at some level it then becomes easier for us to understand where these violent outbursts can come from. To para-phrase Carl Jung we cannot change anything until we truly understand it. It’s fair to say that I would probably have a deeper, less dictatorially based relationship with my father were it not for the casual, violent discipline he experienced in his youth. Then again I am no expert.
“It was just how it was in those days.”
“Never did me any harm”
The acceptance of violence in our homes is our choice. The way we discipline our children is our choice. The way we live our lives is our choice. But once you allow the concept of violence into your life you begin to tread on a different path in an altogether different direction than ever previously imagined.
So when it all gets too much, and the rage explodes in your chest like a Molotov cocktail, try to imagine the rest of your days watching your children flinch away as you reach for their hand, or stroke their hair.
Try to imagine ruling your children with fear. Then again, with the world we live in, perhaps you know all too well what that feels like.