By Esther Mann, LCSW
I think a lot about the fact that when someone is raised with specific ways of doing things, it’s easy to believe that their way is the only way to live. Then you get married and realize that there are people who are raised in completely opposite ways and wonder who had the right upbringing and who didn’t. I find it all very confusing.
My parents were not particularly strict. My two older sisters and I were probably not that hard to raise. Thinking back, we were all an easygoing bunch. My parents didn’t have a ton of rules. We listened to them when something was demanded of us. I don’t remember much yelling going on in our home. There was certainly no hitting. I don’t believe either my mother or father ever raised a hand to me or my sisters. It just wasn’t necessary or acceptable.
My wife, on the other hand, comes from a family that I consider pretty nutty. Lots of high-strung people. I know her brothers were rascals when they were young and were definitely challenging teenagers. Their home was filled with lots of yelling and definitely lots of hitting. My wife tells me stories that make me cringe. And yet, somehow, she’s seems OK with the fact that she got “potched” often—and severely at times—and that her brothers got even harsher punishments. She feels it was necessary and ultimately what they all needed to grow up right.
Anyway, fast-forward. We are now parents and I see how both of our pasts are affecting how we believe our own children should be raised. We are in total disagreement. We have three young children—wonderful, sweet kids who, like most kids, don’t always listen. My approach is to talk to them, try to explain things, maybe put them in a time out. I would never, ever lay a hand on any of them. And I believe they respect me and take me seriously.
My wife, on the other hand, is quick to give a potch. Sometimes it looks to me as if the potch is pretty hard and can even really hurt. When I see this happening, I cringe. My heart breaks for our children and I want to snatch them up and save them. Usually, I feel paralyzed and do nothing, because I know it’s not good for the children to get mixed messages from parents and for one parent to sabotage or undo what the other parent is doing. But then I feel guilty and unsure of what my role should be.
Sometimes, she doesn’t even have to hit them for me to feel undone. Her yelling can be really scary and almost maniacal in the way it sounds. It often doesn’t take very much for her to get that way. If one of the children accidentally spills their drink, doesn’t answer her right away, or forgets to say “please” or “thank you,” if she’s in a bad mood she can really let it rip on them. I’ve even seen her yell at them when she’s having a bad day and they haven’t even done anything wrong. Her features literally change and she is almost unrecognizable when she’s in this state. I get scared, so I can’t even imagine what the children are thinking.
When I try to reason with her and tell her that I think her behavior is inappropriate, she tells me I’m wrong, that there is nothing wrong with a potch or a good yelling. It will teach them to listen better. She fails to see or acknowledge the panicky look that I see on our children’s faces. I fear that she could be hurting them in some long-lasting way. She tells me that she is proof that being a strict parent is the way to go, since she is just fine. I’m not so sure she is really fine. Mind you, when she’s calm, she is a very loving, good mother. But when she’s on a rampage, you just want to run for your life.
So, who wins when the two parents have completely opposite styles of raising children and we are both convinced that we know better? It seems neither of us sees any room for compromise. We both believe firmly in our particular way of raising our children and disapprove of the other’s ways.
What are your feelings when it comes to hitting and out-of-control yelling?
Mr. Easy Going
Dear Mr. Easy Going,
When it comes to giving a child a “potch,” I know that there has always been and probably will continue to be much disagreement on the subject. I, for one, do not like it or approve of it. I think there are plenty of ways to discipline a child without using physical means. I don’t like the message it sends to the child—mainly that hitting is an acceptable way of treating others.
Additionally, where does potching end and hitting begin? Where does hitting end and hitting hard begin? Where is that fine line that takes the action from symbolic to a place where actual pain is experienced? Particularly for the person who is capable of losing it. Is it worth the risk of hurting one’s child both physically and emotionally? I would think not.
The same goes for yelling. Yes, we’ve all raised our voices, and justifiably spoken in stern tones. It’s part of parenting. We need to be heard and taken seriously when trying to make our points with our children. However, once again, there is that tipping point between when a parent is raising his or her voice, versus totally letting it rip and screaming in a way that sounds out of control and frightening.
What concerns me most about the way in which you describe your wife is that she sounds like a woman with a great deal of anger inside her and she uses her children as a target for her rage. Very possibly, much of her anger is due to what her parents did to her over the years (and may possibly still be doing). She’s out of control. She is creating a very unsafe environment for your children—emotionally and physically. Though, as you say, she can be a loving, terrific mother, she is unpredictable. Children quickly learn to walk on eggshells around people like her, never knowing quite when she might blow. That’s not the kind of home children should be raised in. They deserve to feel protected and secure in their own home, not constantly on high alert, worrying about what might trigger an insane reaction from their parent.
Furthermore, it sounds as though there is always the possibility of her rage escalating to the point where her potch is something much more serious and potentially damaging. When people are out of control, it’s very easy to slip into the danger zone. No turning back from that. Children can and do get hurt.
Your wife is caught up in an intergenerational cycle of abusive behavior. If she doesn’t go for help soon, the cycle will continue. Your children will absorb her rage and give it over, someday, to their own children. At some point, sooner rather than later, someone has to pull the plug on this sad cycle. You are absolutely correct about that. Her behavior in this regard is unacceptable.
I also have to wonder why you have put yourself into such a powerless position with your wife. True, it is important for parents to try not to contradict one another in front of their children or to give mixed messages. But what is really going through your head as you stand by and allow your wife to hit your children, often with the intention of actually hurting them, while you cringe but do nothing? Is your wife also bullying you? Are you also the recipient of her rage and afraid to take her on?
Though the purpose of this column is for you to gain validation that your instincts are correct regarding parenting, it sounds like there is more to this story, which involves you, and perhaps this would be a good time for you to reevaluate your relationship with your wife. Make sure that there is mutual respect for one another, and that the love you each feel is free of fear.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.