What We Learn First Stays With Us the Longest
The Introduction: “You have kids?”
A few weeks ago, I called a Lyft to take me from my home out to meet friends. I was the only one in the car as yet and the driver was an older man (50+) in a modest car. We quickly started chitchatting about the weather (nice), the traffic (horrendous), and then he asked me if I had children.
“I have one daughter,” I replied.
I learned in a short time that he had two sons, one still in high school but a “genius” already taking college courses and an adult son on a local police force. He was very proud, as he had every right to be. I summed up the high points of my daughter’s six years on earth and thought we would be quiet a few minutes.
Then he asked me what I do for a living.
The Discussion: “Children need to be spanked!”
In the urban environment in which I live, children are kind of a rarity. (It’s expensive and densely populated.) So, I have a pat response I offer when asked about my job by strangers because most folks here don’t have kids and lose interest quickly.
“I work with my family actually. We have a business focused on helping parents feel more confident … really supporting them in their efforts to be more proactive, rather than reactive, as parents.”
To this most people say, “Oh!” But my initially calm and funny driver turned sour on me.
“People here need to be MUCH more strict and have more discipline with their kids!” he yelled at me. (INSERT BIG EYED EMOJI HERE)
I realized he wasn’t mad at my kid or me specifically, so he must have had some bad overall experiences. What could have made him so angry? I probed further.
“Well, in the work that I do, we really don’t offer tips for disciplining kids. It’s a much bigger scale than that. We help parents create a wide-reaching plan for supporting their kids, right from birth, to become capable, thoughtful adults.”
This brought the tone down a touch and we were able to talk more about our shared experiences and beliefs. We agreed our children are always watching what we do, if not listening to what we say. We shared our experiences leading our children through things they were initially wary of. And then we fell back on this topic of discipline … which dipped into spanking and other forms of corporal punishment.
In brief: he was all for it. I was/am not.
Getting To Why: “My parents AND my teachers hit me!”
The driver grew up in another country and in another time from me. In fact, there are an infinite number of ways my life experience differed from his. He relayed to me his very sincere beliefs of the value of the beatings he received as a child.
“If I acted out in school, first my teacher would hit me. Then, when I got home, my mom would hit me. Then when my dad got home, he would hit me, too! I very, very rarely misbehaved!”
In contrast, only once was I admonished (slapped) by a parent for insolent behavior. It was a monumental moment in my life and the recovery and discussion that followed was similarly epic.
By this time in the car, two other riders had jumped in with us. Sensing the tension in the air, they did not speak. I can only imagine what they must have been thinking, though, as they got in to hear this man propagating the benefits of corporal punishment while I calmly, but firmly and unapologetically, explained my position.
The turning point for me, and the reason I wanted to relay this story now, came next. I asked him if he had punished his own sons through physical means.
“No,” he said. “I never had to. They were good boys.”
“They never acted out?”
“Of course, sometimes. They were kids. But I talked to them, explained right from wrong to them, told to them what to change. They listened to me.”
“So why do you think it’s necessary for other parents to hit their children if you didn’t have to hit your own to get them to behave?”
My Personal Hurt: “My wife is so ashamed.”
At this point he explained to me that he had not let his wife work while their boys were young. (This statement turned my American twenty-first-century stomach over, but again, cultural and generational differences here.) Then, when their sons got older, she began to work as an assistant teacher in a suburban school.
In this position, he felt the students were mentally abusing his wife with absolutely no opportunity for recourse on her part. She was being yelled at, she was being ignored, called racist names … and there was nothing he could do to protect her.
“My wife is so ashamed to be yelled at by children, with nothing she can do or say to them.”
His instinct for protecting her went back to the first thing he was taught—beating a child for disrespect is the only solution.
The Here and Now: “We can do better.”
I felt tremendous sympathy for the man’s situation in that moment. I won’t go into our continued conversation related to parents, nannies, and the media. It’s irrelevant to my point here and now.
My take away from this conversation was not that the whole world ought to think as I do, but the magnitude of something my mom always said to me suddenly hit me. (Pun intended.) “What we learn first stays with us the longest.” The first thing we learn in life is what we will fall back on instinctually when we run into situations we can’t easily process.
Sometimes we have the luxury of time to weigh and consider a situation. And then there are times when we are overwhelmed or feeling defeated and we revert back to what we know from childhood.
As the parents of a young girl, my husband and I are constantly reminded that we are establishing precedent for our future together as a family. But in this time and place, I was reminded that we are establishing more than precedent for her teen years.
We are further filling her toolbox with every tool she’ll have to work out whatever comes her way as an adult, too. We are thoughtful about the tools we give her—trust in herself, confidence to ask for help, critical thinking skills—so that she has, at first reach, the proactive means to do right by herself, those around her, and eventually our grandkids.
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