Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

I Hit Him

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“Hanging on, You’re all that’s left to hold on to.”

-U2, Red Hill Mining Town

I hit my son.

Something I never thought I would do. I had never been hit as a child. Not spanked. Not “popped.” Nothing. My mom was able to raise three kids without laying a hand on any of us.

But I hit my son. I did it out of frustration and helplessness. And yes, anger.

My oldest, my son, was strong-willed. Feisty. Spirited. All the positive spin-words we could think of to describe his behavior and temperament. He was also a beautiful, sweet boy who filled my heart with more love and joy than I ever thought possible.

But he was not an easy kid. He tried me every day. From the age of two until he was about five years old.

He would throw fits in restaurants and have me dragging him out the door before the food had even arrived.

He would wake up from naps and scream and cry for over an hour. It was more than a tantrum, he was unreachable, enraged. I would carefully step around his flailing body to carry books and toys out of his room so that he wouldn’t throw them or hurt himself with them. I would stand outside his door with tears burning my eyes, the contents of his room lined up in the hallway, waiting for it to pass. I even recorded these fits of rage in case I needed to show them do his Pediatrician.

One day when he was three years old, he flipped out after we left a play date. He screamed and kicked my seat continuously as I was driving. I tried calming him down. I tried turning up the radio to drown out his screams. At one point I pulled over and parked on a side street. I felt like I was going to lose it. He screamed and kicked while I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel and took deep breaths. I sat there for a few minutes until the person who lived in a nearby house came out on their front porch to see what was wrong. They had heard his screaming from inside their house and were understandably concerned. I gave a small wave to acknowledge them and slowly drove away. He screamed the whole way home.

Often, in order to leave a park or a play date, I would have to hoist him up like a giant sack of potatoes, one arm clamped over his arms with my other arm clamped over his legs. He would kick and scream and hit. I would wrestle him to the car, re-adjusting and trying to keep my grip, all while getting hit and kicked.  He was almost stronger than me. He was a big kid, at four he was the size of most six year olds.

Most days I felt beaten down and exhausted. I dreaded him waking up from his naps and the impending tantrum. I worried about what was wrong with him. I worried about the issues that may be lurking. Anger issues. Psychological problems. I worried about when he would be too big for me to wrestle into the car. What would I do then?

I cried on the phone to my mom on many afternoons. I asked her how to get him to respect me. I needed words of wisdom and some secret mommy tip that would help me, that would give me some control over my son. All she had were words of support. Encouragement that I was doing everything right. Assurances that if I kept doing everything right that he would respect me and that I wouldn’t always have to wrestle him into the car. I wanted to believe her, but I wasn’t sure.

Then one day I hit him. I “popped” him on the leg. He was bucking like a bronco refusing to let me strap him into his carseat. I spent the better part of 15 minutes trying to strap him in. Nothing was working. Exhausted and sweaty, I lost it and I hit his thigh and yelled at him in my ugliest voice. I’m sure my “pop” stung. I’m sure my words cut.

He paused briefly in shock and I watched his face change from defiance to sorrow. I saw his eyes speak of betrayal and shock. I knew I hadn’t physically harmed him. I knew the sting of my slap was momentary. But I had hurt him nonetheless. He started crying tears of sadness. I felt indescribably horrible.

I numbly climbed into the front seat to buckle in and drive. I felt sick to my stomach. I was appalled with myself. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I knew I did what many parents would have done. But it didn’t matter. The tears being shed in hurt and defeat from the backseat were all the incrimination I needed.

This isn’t what I had wanted. This is not how I wanted to parent. It didn’t matter what was “normal” or “acceptable.” It didn’t feel right to me. At all. I didn’t want my son to behave or listen because he feared he would get hit or “popped.” I wanted him to do it because it was right. Because I’m his mother and he needed to listen to me.

I don’t want to rule with an iron fist. I don’t want to control my kids. I don’t want them to fear me.

I don’t want them to ever feel shame.

No good has ever come from shame.

I want to guide my kids. Teach them. I want them to learn self-control. Not control at the hands of a parent.

My son is 13 years old now. He’s a good kid. No, he’s a great kid. He makes mistakes. But he studies hard. He works hard. He’s considerate and respectful. He has not once, in 11 years of schooling, had a behavior issue. I’ve had other parents tell me that they hope their young boys turn out like him. He has a happy, easy-going nature and tons of friends who love him.

I know I’m lucky.

I’ve forgotten how scary and trying those early years were. As I write this, I’m so grateful there wasn’t a bigger issue lurking behind those screams and tantrums. Now, all these years later, I have an idea of what was causing his behavior. He was diagnosed with pretty bad allergies. Allergies that kept him stuffy and miserable year round. He also had some speech delays early on a learning disability that was stymying his communication. Once we started him on allergy shots and speech therapy and specialized tutoring, his behavior problems disappeared. Dramatically.

Knowing what I know now, I would be riddled with guilt if corporal punishment had been  part of our parenting.

Knowing what I know now, I wonder if it would have changed him. Would he be different? Would he be the sweet boy with the easy smile? Would he be the boy who carries himself with confidence?

I don’t know. I will never know. But I am glad I didn’t risk who he was, who he is.

Knowing what I know now, I’m grateful. Parenting is hard. Every kid is different. Different challenges. Different issues. Who’s to say the right way to handle each situation. But knowing what I know now, I’m not glad that I hit my son. But I am glad that was only once.

25 Responses

  1. You realized what you did. You felt bad about it, know what triggered it and thought of alternatives going forward. It happens. Parenting really IS hard.

    My mother hit me for everything, above and beyond “discipline”. I swore I would never hit M, but I did once. It was after he tried to hit me for telling him no about messing with something.

    I felt horrible, I remember everything from the moment, what we wore, what his face looked like when I smacked his arm. That was the last time either of us hit a person again.

    Your last two sentences sum it up just right.

    1. Yes, it is SO hard. Isn’t it crazy how you remember every detail? It was the look on my son’s face that made my blood run cold. I couldn’t erase that look from my mind. You obviously know what I’m talking about. I just couldn’t stomach it… Hopefully loving them like crazy makes up for whatever mistakes we make along the way.

  2. I was smacked on the bum as a kid. A lot. Often. And reasonably often more than was necessary for discipline – it was an ‘acceptable’ way for stress caused by us to be vented on us. We’d be on tenterhooks waiting for dad to get home because then the punishment would be meted out. The threat of a smacked bottom would usually be enough to quell us, but on the occasions where we laughed too loud or behaved too much like the kids we were, then there was the promise, and the terror and the anticipation and the misery and the hurt…because we had earned this violence. Again.

    I’m glad you only hit him once, and I’m glad that his difficulties got figured out and sorted. And I’m SO SO GLAD that you’re an aware and conscientious parent and that you WROTE THIS.

    I know times have changed and all, but still.

    I tend to resort to violent behaviour quite quickly. It’s not something I’m proud of.

    1. I just can’t imagine Lizzi. I can’t imagine what that anticipation must have been like. I think I’m in the minority of my generation for never having been spanked or hit. For a child to think they “earned” violence makes my heart crack. But I know that’s how kids’ minds work. I know that I assumed if my dad didn’t come pick us up for a weekly visit that it was because I’d been terribly annoying the last time I saw him. And these feelings stick with us, not intellectually, but emotionally. That’s part of what scares me about parenting. My actions could affect my children’s emotional well-being into their adulthood.

      1. I know what you mean. But that’s the precariousness of parenting, isn’t it – and your actions WILL affect your children’s emotional well-being into their adulthood, but I have every confidence that it will be for GOOD, because you are self-aware, conscientious, and TRYING to be the best parent you can be. As well as (by the sound of it) the best example.

        I’m sorry to hear you had such awful thoughts too. Parents can suck, sometimes. It’s all a minefield, isn’t it?

    1. Thank you! I don’t know if I’m an awesome mum :), but I am trying to be an o.k. one. But thank you so much for saying that. And as a side note, I keep trying to get my kids to call me “Mum” instead of mom. I sometimes tell them I won’t answer any questions unless they ask them in a British accent. They just roll their eyes and think I’m weird.

      1. Keep it up. They’ll eventually do it until you’re tired of their British accents. 🙂

        Seriously, this is the kind of thing I love to read from other parents. These are the little things I think they’ll remember about you in a warm way in the years ahead.

        1. Ha! I hope you’re right. At this point my kids just think I’m goofy but every once in a while they play along. When they roll their eyes at my silliness I just tell them they should be lucky that their mom is so cool. Cause, you know, it’s always cool to point out just how cool you are 🙂

          1. Pretty much it’s impossible for your own kids to think you’re cool. I settle for the good feeling I get when one of my kids tells me that one of their friends likes me or thinks I’m cool. Of course, I never actually believe it, but still … Odd thing is, I’m not even trying to be cool. I’m trying to be silly, because that seems to be the only way to get them to laugh sometimes.

  3. I didn’t comment on this initially. I have struck a child before in anger – it’s a long drawn out story and one that is understandable, yet one I’m not proud of.

    I do, however, spank Li’l C. I definitely don’t like doing it, but it seems more effective to discipline with a light swat on the butt than to put him in timeout – especially since he won’t sit still for a timeout and I end up even more exasperated than I already was. To put him in timeout means I have to sit in timeout with him and hold him in my lap.

    I don’t have to do this with the twins as they are older and I can find other ways to discipline them if they’ve misbehaved. I can ground them, take away their xbox, phones, computer, etc. The fact is, they are generally well-behaved children and I rarely have to punish them any more. They did get spanked when they were younger, though.

    If I spank one of my children, it’s always a last resort and they are given a warning before it comes to that.

    1. Scott, first let me say that I don’t judge any parent and their methods of discipline. I learned a long time ago that kids are hard and everyone’s kids respond to different things. Second, what you’re describing with Lil C is way different from where I was at with my son. And oh, I remember the frustration of time out at that age. Not fun at all.

      I was worried that this would come off as preachy. That’s not at all how I want to sound. I hope I didn’t. I wanted to share my story because in hindsight I realize what was the root of his behavior issues. And it was way beyond your normal toddler antics. And ALL those times he pushed me to anger and frustration, if I had hit him… I don’t even want to think about it. And knowing that his true nature is to want to please and be a good kid, and that back then he was struggling with things that made it hard to behave… it would be real hard for me to look back and feel good about it.

  4. Gretchen, you are a beautiful soul, and your son is lucky to have you and your understanding and empathetic spirit as his mom. I am so impressed by you, by this story.

  5. I have smacked my kid (my older one) on the bottom as a last resort because he wouldn’t listen otherwise and he was going ballistic. I sat him down once he had calmed down afterwards and explained why I did what I did. Thankfully, he is a mature and happy 10 year old who hopefully doesn’t have bad memories of that experience!

    I feel like this incident was the same for you and I’m glad you were able to get to the root of the problem! There are parents who don’t make that effort because hitting a child and getting them to do what you want seems so much easier!

    1. Yes, I think all of us have had some moment where we’ve felt like there were no other options. I don’t carry guilt over it, but in that moment and at that time, I felt awful. It was a low point for me as a parent. And it was that moment that I realized that it couldn’t be a part of my discipline strategy. Especially with a difficult child who regularly pushed my buttons. It helps to hear that you relate and understand… thank you.

  6. Personally, I don’t think you did anything wrong, but I also know that’s not what you really want or need to hear. I look at it this way, there are different degrees of smacking or spanking a child. There is what one commenter described as using spanking as a stress relief. For the parent. That’s just wrong. There is using spanking or smacking as discipline. I think that’s wrong, too, but I’ll accept that good people can disagree about that. And, then, there are those moments when something is going on, the child is simply unreachable and the parent has tried everything to break through and get their attention. A smack on the arm or the leg in that moment, unless delivered with unreasonable force, isn’t such a bad thing. And plenty of good people can disagree about that as well.

    My kids are 19 and 17 now. My oldest has been stubborn since the day he was born. I remember one evening when he was two or three. I was trying to brush his teeth and he would not open his mouth for me. I can still see the picture in my head. He was sitting on the counter in our bathroom. I had the toothbrush in my hand and he refused, absolutely refused, to open his mouth for me to brush his teeth. I was so frustrated and annoyed. He was in his “mommy” phase at the time, while I was in the phase of trying to do everything I could in the evenings with him to give my wife a break from her day with him and the baby. And he wasn’t cooperating. And I remember this. All I wanted to do was smack him under his chin, but I couldn’t. I walked out of the bathroom and told my wife he was hers for the evening. I had that out available to me in that moment. You didn’t in your moment.

    But there are other times … when they want to run into the street or they do something else that puts them at serious risk. Or, in your case, they are simply unreachable. To have struck him that one time is, in my mind at least, really nothing. But I get why it haunts you still. There are plenty of things I have done as a parent — things I have said, particularly to my oldest because of his stubbornness — that I wish I could take back. I worry whether some of my words have changed him, caused him harm. The only problem is — they were said, things happened. All I can do, and all you can do, is keep trying to love them the best way you know how. And know that you are nowhere close to a horrible parent. From what I’ve read on your blog over the past few months, you are an incredible mother working hard every day to do the right thing in a world in which being a parent is the most difficult thing you’ll ever have to do.

    OK. Ramble over.

    1. I love this comment. Your first paragraph is spot on. Spanking doesn’t make you a bad parent. And each kid and each situation is different. And the moment that I smacked my son, I knew it wasn’t “wrong.” He had to be strapped into his car seat, that was non-negotiable. I think what made me sick about it was the level of anger I felt in that moment. I was frustrated and mad. I didn’t even hit him hard. Didn’t leave a mark. But feeling the anger I felt and hitting him felt so wrong. That’s the kind of thing that can escalate to easily and too quickly.

      I totally relate to your tooth-brushing situation. I have had MANY moments of coming home, walking my kid inside and telling my husband “Your turn. I need to leave before I lose it.” Thank god I can do that with him and know that he will be a calming force with my kids and he doesn’t ask questions, just tells me to go do what I need to do. I honestly don’t know how single parents do it in those situations.

      While I’ve never laid a hand on any of my kids since that incident, I have had those times where I’ve lost it and yelled at them. And sometimes it had more to do with my own stress than their behavior. And those are the nights that after they go to bed I am filled with worry and regret. And I hope you’re right. I hope that if they know how much I love them that the good and the love will totally outweigh any of the mistakes we inevitably make! (and thank you so much for what you said).

  7. This is a wonderful post, the one that lots of people around the world can relate to.

    Growing up in Nigeria being hit was second nature not just from parents but from anyone that is older from school to church to communities. I have written a few posts on this. I have never learnt a thing from being hit actually most of the time I had no idea why I am being hit and I still have scars engraved inside of me – I am glad that I have let go of anger of those years now.

    Thank you for sharing

    1. I am so sorry that was your experience growing up. I know that it is just the way things are done sometimes, that old methods of parenting (and teaching) are hard for people to change. And I’m sorry you still carry the scars with you.

      It’s only been in the last 20-30 years or so that we don’t allow spanking in schools any more here. And even now, some schools still do it. And I know some people think that it is the lack of spanking is the problem with our youth today. But I think it’s a temporary fix. And I think governing or parenting or doing anything with fear as the method isn’t effective. In the long-run it doesn’t actually work. True leaders don’t have to use fear to gain respect.

      I am going to have to visit your blog and read your posts about this!

      1. Thank you Kelly, very kind of you!

        Oh well, I am free of that now, and trying to share my experience so my people know that in fact some kids don’t ever stop resenting adults that have treated them unfairly. When you have time to visit please search used ‘corporal punishment’

        Thank you

  8. I was spanked when I was a child. I swore I would never spank my kids and I haven’t often. But I have. It is always a last resort and I have always given a few minutes to calm down so I don’t do it in anger but a form of consequence.
    I have had the same behavior issues with my grandson that you had with your son. I’m not sure you know the history or that I’m raising him but he was uncontrollable when I first got him and I tried very hard not to spank him because I believed that that was part of his problem to begin with…physical hurt. God, it was tough. I remember having to physically carry him, kicking and screaming with me sweating and swearing in my head, to the car. And the looks I got from people. It was infuriating and humiliating. I won’t lie. I understood in that moment, to my shame, how some parents could knock the living poop out of their kid.
    We are all human. I know there are people who are able to maintain their wits in certain situations but a momentary loss of yours doesn’t make you a bad parent or person. Obviously, he’s okay and still loves his mama. More than likely he’s forgotten it. If we are judging our parenting skills and recounting all the mistakes made, I am way ahead of you in the line.
    Thank you for writing this and being so honest. I hope it helped you release whatever feelings were distressing you because I could feel that even now it bothered you. You’re a good mom, Gretchen, and a good person. I feel comfortable saying that. Sadly, you’re still just a human. Like the rest of us.

    1. No, I wasn’t aware that you were raising your grandson, wow. I know that can’t be easy and I think it takes a special person to step up to the parenting plate for a second time around.

      Yes, I totally understand. I got judgmental looks everywhere I went. I am sure some people thought my son had serious issues. It is humiliating to have a toddler hitting you or kicking or screaming or not listening in general. And it is why I don’t judge other parents. I won’t stare if someone’s kid is acting out, if anything I’ll offer a kind smile or word of encouragement.

      I think kids are very forgiving with their parents. At least I hope they are. I hope that all of the times that I’ve been a good mom outweigh the moments I’m not proud of. It’s something I think about often. No one comes out of childhood without some issues. At least not anyone I’ve met! That’s the scary thing about parenting! There’s no way to do this right all the time. We’re gonna screw up occasionally, like you said, we’re just human. (and thank you so much for your kind words, I think we’re all trying to be real in our writing and not just put forth our best face, but it’s scary to do so. You never know how it will be perceived. So thank you for making me feel like it’s ok to share all of it, the good and the bad)

  9. You know my history or at least what is been revealed. I do not spank my children, it was one of the turning points in my marriage and an excuse to escalate physical violence in my home as a form of control. I do not think everyone who as spanked “turns out just fine” just look at what you receive when when you speak out your opinion against corporal punishment, you are attacked and punished with venom, so NOT fine. However, you did it, you hit him, you are human. You may want to take a look at this and explore how he is controlling your behavior, they do that you know, they know how to push buttons and it sounded like he pushed a lot to at least the right one. You love him and you will get through this and your karma will be not to be judged by other parents, I wish you a way to resolve your problems, teach your son right from wrong. Be gentle with yourself and remember, some things we think are a big deal when they are little, turn out not to be so big in the grand scheme of thing, it is when we fear the unknown and where a minor offense will go that we resort to physical contact. Hugs to you.

  10. Hi.
    I’m not a parent. But where I grew up, it’s not so bad if you hit children. Hit not as in harm them, just a slight pat (?). So really, even when I hadn’t read the last part, I wasn’t judging you or anything. Maybe it is viewed as a cruel thing in the west but here it’s kind of normal.
    I don’t think you should have felt guilty about it at all. You didn’t do it to harm him. You didn’t mean to do it to hurt him. It’s just one of those times that you’re tired and you do or say something you do mean. Even if you did hit him, which you did, I’m sure it was very light and he didn’t even feel it.
    The point is, you shouldn’t beat yourself about that one slight slap. I think you’re a really good mother. It’s the pressure of social norms and society that makes us feel like we are not doing the right thing etc. But really, every kid is different and not every kid can be raised in the same way.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this. Much love, Zareen.

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