Don’t Hit, Talk

The definition of the phrase ‘love-life’ extends to other forms of love besides romance. Another form of love is the love that exists between children and their parents. In fact, the complete list of love types I might refer to on this website include romance, family love, friendship love, love of humanity, and spiritual love.

In this post, I’m talking primarily about the love that exists (or should exist) in the relationship between children and their parents. More specifically, what happens to that love when parents hit their children?

Hitting teaches a child the why, how, when, where, and what involved in hitting as a solution to problems between people. The lesson is simply, if something goes wrong, if someone makes a mistake, if there is conflict between people, violence is an acceptable response.

The hard part for most people who hit their children is  identifying hitting as violence. If I go down to the street corner and beat the man or woman waiting for a bus I would be thrown in jail for criminal assault and battery. What is the difference between beating a stranger and beating one’s child?

In my experience as a psychologist, the problem is not in making a comparison between these two human interactions. Most parents who hit their children would try to justify or rationalize a difference between them. The problem comes from the  fact that most parents who hit their children were hit as children or witnessed the routine hitting of children for disobedience. Once again, this type of experience growing up teaches people it’s OK to hit and hitting gets passed down from generation to generation as a learned consequence. When something is learned as a child it tends to persevere into adulthood and resist efforts to learn something better. 

One way to understand this ingrained learning that takes place when we are young is to think about learning mixed with the vulnerability and dependency of childhood. In this state of mind, we will hang onto what we learn longer and resist efforts to challenge the lessons learned in childhood. So much so that people often give superficial lip service to what they understand as an adult while really believing deep down inside whatever they learned in childhood. This is a big problem for the mental health profession. It’s not a simple matter of changing someone’s mind now in adulthood.

A person has to feel vulnerable again in order to learn something new. It’s this vulnerable, open mind, reminiscent of childhood now in adulthood, that allows a person to learn new things on a deeper emotional level. Most adults are reluctant to return to this state of mind when they are in conflict. Most adults become defensive and try to justify their actions. For some people it takes a crisis to move them back to that vulnerable and open state of mind. At this point they have no choice.

The crisis indicates the way they were living and behaving just doesn’t work anymore. For an adult in this state of mind who allows him or herself to learn something new, there will be discomfort for sure, coupled with the opportunity to learn something better, something different from what was learned earlier in in their lives. This is a great experience to witness and I’ve had the privilege of witnessing it on many different occasions over the years in my practice.

What this adult man or woman who learned how to hit will learn is, a better solution to the problem of conflict between people involves: talk and relationship. You start off with talk and a relationship forms as a natural result of talk. If you start this early enough in a child’s life, you not only set up the best conditions to learn in the family, you become a parent and teacher, and you start on the road to a respectful and intimate relationship with your child. The fruits of this effort will show up over time as you help shape and grow the maturity of a child that learns how to communicate and respect the importance of a loving relationship.

On occasion, a parent who has learned how to hit will say back to me, I can’t control my kids with words! If you start talking early enough, children learn the value of talk, become deeply troubled by the disappointment of the parent, and fear the loss of love they are getting. That is a considerable amount of leverage when you are parenting a child who has misbehaved. The problem in this case, are the years that have passed. His or her child has already learned that talk is futile, has already learned that violence is an acceptable response, and a relationship with this parent will always be authoritarian.

In my experience, these lessons are hard to unlearn midstream after years of reinforcement. The good news is, with enough motivation, willingness to admit mistakes, and apology, nothing is impossible. I have witnessed people make new relationships now as adults with parents who were abusive but now regret their ignorance and error. With love, nothing is impossible.

If you don’t believe what I’m been saying and persist in hitting your child, at one point years from now, he or she will inevitably outgrow this violent act. You’ll be faced with the fact that the relationship with your child, now adult, is filled with resentment (the most common response in the child to corporeal punishment), and in some regrettable cases, the violence will be returned to you in some form. Under these emotional conditions an adult relationship with your child has been painfully forfeited by the unhealed emotional consequences of childhood physical abuse.

The most fulfilling model for parenting is a time limited model, meaning at some point in the future, your parenting will no longer be needed. Your son or daughter will spend more time knowing you as an adult offspring than as a child molded by your parenting. As a parent-teacher who can tolerate experiences of mutually respectful friendship with your child, you will develop and preserve a relationship with your child going forward into the future.

Comments? Welcome. Dr. Tom Jordan

Dr. Jordan

Dr. Thomas Jordan is a clinical psychologist, certified interpersonal psychoanalyst, author, professor, and love life researcher.

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