I had an interesting experience with my son yesterday. A learning experience...for me. Matthew was in the bathtub for a quick pre-night dip and when the time came for me to start letting out the water, he got angry. Now I should say that in the past few months, we have been dealing with a new kind of temper. I'm hoping it's a five-year-old thing that he'll grow out of but I'm not leaving it to chance - we're working on it. What happens is that when he gets mad, he becomes inclined to escalate very quickly and throw things or hit things - not his usual level-headed, thoughtful disposition at all. I've been trying various methods of dealing with this but, frankly, it's hard - how do you prompt someone to stop and think about what they're doing when they've just escalated from 0-10 in about two seconds flat - he's not exactly in a rational or reasonable thinking mode at that moment. But I've been working hard at this and it's been starting to have some effect - a few times now, I've seen him (even in the heat of the moment) stop mid-throwing action and put down whatever object it is that he was going to throw. Great job!
Last night, during the rapid escalation moment, he looked up at me from the tub and deliberately scooped up a bunch of water in his hands and threw it across the bathroom at me...landing all over me as well as the floor, mirror and counter. His look changed immediately from one of anger to one that mingled anger and horror as his actions sunk in; without even being asked he got out of the tub and I put a towel around him. He started screaming (whether out of anger still or out of remorse, I'm not sure, but my hunch is that it was some combination of the two) and shouted that he didn't want to have to get out of the tub so soon. And here's where I lost my own temper for a moment, as I dripped onto the mat below me and had my ears pierced by his screaming. I gave him a pat on the rear end - not hard enough in any way to be considered a spank, I justified to myself in the moment, but hard enough for him to feel it through his towel. His immediate reaction was to say: "I thought that spanking wasn't allowed in our house." My reaction: "I thought that splashing outside of the tub wasn't allowed in our house." That was the standoff moment, which I utterly regret. I quickly reverted to better parenting techniques when, after drying him off, I handed him the towel and asked him to wipe up the floor and mirror, but still...
Later, after tucking him into bed and going downstairs, I couldn't shake the moment - specifically my own response to his anger. It made me remember the one and only time that I did something that might qualify as spanking. Matthew was 18 months old and we were outside in the backyard; I was holding him. He was a bit testy for some reason that my memory can't conjure up, and in a moment of anger he raked his fingernails down my face from forehead to chin. Instantly, without even a second thought, I gave him a smack on his bottom - not hard, but hard enough to shock him. It qualified as a spank. Not even a moment later, Matthew leaned down and bit me hard on the shoulder. It was bang-bang-bang, all over in about two seconds - from fingernail to spank to bite. That fast. It was at that moment that my uncertain views on the subject of spanking became resolved and I decided I would never spank him again. What he had learned from my action was to respond immediately with his own physical act of violence. Since that moment until yesterday's pat, I have not violated my own standard.
As I puttered around downstairs yesterday evening, thinking about the night's events, I simply couldn't rid myself of the feeling that, no matter how light my 'spank' had been upstairs in the bathroom, there was no getting around the fact that my action had been in the direction of spanking; certainly my intentions in that moment were to create some kind of reaction in him (probably looking for obedience or penitence - not sure which). Ultimately, not able to resolve the situation in my head, I found only one recourse. I went back upstairs and into Matthew's bedroom. He was still awake, looking heart-wrenchingly beautiful as he sat leaning against his armchair cushion on his bed, 'reading' books. I sat down on his bed and commented to him that this evening hadn't ended well. He agreed. I said that I didn't like to end the day on this note and that I owed him an apology. He nodded. I said that I was sorry that I had hit him on his bum through the towel - I said that I was angry at that moment because of his splashing outside of the tub, and that I shouldn't have acted in anger the way that I did. I said that I felt badly about it and that I wanted to let him know how sorry I was before he went to sleep. He was silent for a long moment and then said, in a beautiful moment of grace in action, "Mom, I forgive you." He leaned forward into my arms and put his head on my shoulder. He said "I love you Mommy." Of course, I repeated that back to him and held him close.
A few minutes after I'd left his bedroom, I heard his voice beckoning me back. When I sat back down on his bed, he said this: "Mommy, when I was in the tub, I was angry because I didn't want to get out so soon. But I shouldn't have splashed water outside of the tub. Then you got angry and spanked me. But you shouldn't have done that either. Mommy, you're the grown-up and you should have been the example to me of not doing that because you're angry." Wow. Didn't that verbal little five-year-old thinker just hit the nail right on the head; I was bowled over by how perceptive and by how right he was. My response? I said: "Matthew, you're exactly right and that's what I feel the worst about. It seems to me that both of us needed to manage our anger differently in that moment and you're exactly right that I should have been a better example to you. I'm very sorry." Well, this time, Matthew threw himself into my arms and said "Mommy, I'm not God so I don't know if this is possible, but I think we should have a better start to the day tomorrow, ok?" Well, who was I to deny him this. When he wakes up this morning, I intend for it to be a good start.