How many of us were slapped as children?
I was hit more times than I can count as a kid… for being naughty.
Is this the joy thief that I needed protection from?
Is article for you?
Before we continue, everyone can learn a little something from the piece. You don’t need to have kids and you don’t need to have been hit as a child to read this. These words are fundamentally not about parenting, they are about joy being stolen at the intersections of class, neurodivergence and generational oppression. It is an insight to experiences you may not have encountered, and stands as a teachable moment, so please stick with me and read on if you are able to.
The political context
“Reasonable punishment”, such as slapping, hitting and shaking a child, are now illegal in both Scotland and Wales, with the intention to further protect the rights of children. The recent move by the Welsh Government has been hailed by Julie Morgan, the deputy minister for social services, who was quoted by The Guardian, stating this is a “historic moment” that will “make physically punishing children a thing of the past”.
As a child of such discipline, I can tell you this law alone will not keep hitting children in the past.
The context of childhood
I had an inconsistent childhood. My dad worked long unsociable hours for many years and the majority of child care fell to my mom, even though she herself worked a job with hours outside the 9–5. My brother and I were often looked after by family members and, to lighten the load, I would stay with my grandparents every weekend while my brother stayed home. I missed out on a lot of family time, but got ‘spoiled’ by my nan. We received different care and for me it felt like I grew up with two different sets of rules.
At my grandparents house I was occasionally told off for being too loud, but generally was treated like a kind, smart young kid. In contrast, with my parents I was a ‘naughty’ kid. I was constantly told off for being too much of something. Too loud, too spoiled, too selfish, too spiteful, too disobedient, too mouthy, too willful. When I was much too much, it resulted in a slap. Across the hand, across the back of the legs, across the bum, and occasionally across the face or head.
The thing is, I often couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. Much of my childhood felt like confusion and I struggled to understand which rules HAD to be followed and when, which rules could be bent and when, and which rules weren’t really rules at all. And, I struggled to understand why I was labeled spiteful and selfish when half the time I was just being myself and the other half I was trying (unsuccessfully) to please my parents, especially my mom. I was caught between the unhappiness of being ‘too much’ as myself and not enough as someone better. The failure of it all stung.
From as early as 6 or 7, I believed there was a character flaw deep within me. I remember being sad. Not just a little bit sad, but a sadness that felt heavy and lonely. It was joyless. I felt alone, unloved and like I needed to be better. I just didn’t know how.
The ‘aha’ moment
I carried joylessness with me through my teens. Through my twenties. I carried joylessness right into my 30th birthday. I am privileged to be in a position to afford private therapy and, for the last few years, I have talked about my fractured childhood. The instances of being hit very rarely come up. Instead, sessions revolve around recurring themes of abandonment, inconsistency and loneliness.
Towards the end of last year, I realised that I have ADHD, and possibly autism. Discovering this gave me a quiet clarity I have always been seeking. This knowledge helped to explain so much of the ‘personal defects’ I felt growing up, as well as helping to explain my inability to understand and stick to rules. It begins to explain my perceived ‘naughtiness’.
Understanding neurodivergence, combined with therapy, has enabled me to get to a place where I can look at the situations of my childhood outside of the heavy, and frankly traumatic, emotions that I felt. I’ve been able to look at the situations from my parents point of view.
My parents point of view
It took me years and years to understand my parents weren’t bad parents, they were the best parents they could be under the circumstances of working class-ness, which placed us all in a tough situation.
My parents were both working class kids who grew into working class adults. This is important because trauma is carried through working class generations who are oppressed by the government and its laws that police poverty and working class-ness. Generations of high labour, low income and little social support breeds a specific kind of joylessness.
My dad is from gypsy ancestry. He was diagnosed as having ‘hyperactivity’ as a child, and often was deemed ‘naughty’ and I’m led to believe he was harshly disciplined by his father. He worked factory jobs, with unsociable hours, likely for minimum wage or not much more. My mom grew up on a council estate, the same one I grew up on and the same one her dad grew up on. Despite not being the eldest child and being fairly ambitious, she dropped out of school in her mid teens to care for her dying mother and got a job to help keep the family afloat. She didn’t finish school and after her mom died she continued to work in low paid jobs; in factories, as a dinner lady and as a health care worker. Often, money seemed to be a point of stress. Often my parents seemed tired.
And why wouldn’t they be stressed and tired? They worked hard jobs, for low pay, had two kids running around (at least one neurodivergent), are possibly neurodivergent themselves (neurodivergence is hereditary) and had to find free child care frequently. The stresses of life, plus children I can have empathy for. As a childless adult who works, I sometimes struggle to find ‘me’ time. I’m sure they struggled with self-care, let alone the demand of caring for us with consistency.
I can believe that being tired and stressed or both, makes parenting harder. It is harder to be calm. It is harder to be gentle. It is easier, and often quicker, to discipline with a smack. Perhaps this isn’t true for all parents but, for my parents this seems to be true…
I can also believe that parenting styles are learned and generational, that if you got a slap as a kid you’re more likely to give one. My parents used physical discipline likely because they learnt their parenting from their own parents, who learnt it from their parents. But I also believe, with each generation, most parents strives to be better than their own, to not inflict the pain (physical or mental) they felt on their own children. The parenting aims to be gentler, not always gentle, but gentler. I found evidence of this in a conversation with my Dad, who alluded to the fact his dad hit him frequently. He said he always tried to be like Uncle Donald (a lovely calm man who is much loved within our family), but often ended up being like his own dad. He said he always knew when he had done it. The regret written across his face was heartbreaking.
Is there such a thing as naughty kids?
It took me years to understand my parents weren’t bad parents, and it also took me years to understand I wasn’t a bad kid either. I’ve come to believe there is no such thing as a ‘naughty’ child, just needs that are going unfulfilled — for both parents and children. I’m sure I wasn’t an easy kid to parent but, as someone with ADHD, I often wonder… Was truly ‘naughty’ or was I both misunderstood and misunderstanding things, leading to the perception of naughtiness? I choose to believe the latter, and in the context of neurodivergence and class, it matters because what is more believable…
- I was a bad child and was purposefully naughty (what I was led to believe).
- I grew up in a situation made complicated by being a neurodivergent child, possible neurodivergent parents and a system that made life, for all us, harder than necessary because the government systematically refused (and continues to refuse) to adequately support working class, low income parents with adequate pay, social support and childcare?
What I Needed Vs what I was given
Neurodivergences, especially those that are undiagnosed, can make children seem difficult to parents because their needs are different. We need parenting differently. And when parents are also undiagnosed they can struggle to provide for themselves and others in the family. It is wildly obvious to me now that I needed parenting differently and my parents needed help to parent.
I needed emotional and environmental stability rather than a smack. Instead, I often received a smack and not stability.
In some ways I am lucky. Being smacked hasn’t left its mark on me in the way it leaves a mark on some. In other ways I am not so lucky… Although being smacked hasn’t emotionally impacted me, lack of stability has. The emotional damage I spent years coming to terms with in therapy was wrought not by physical discipline, but by the emotional turmoil of being labeled a ‘naughty’ kid that was ‘too much’ while receiving inconsistent care from parents who were emotionally and physically unavailable.
I was bored and needed my parents’ attention, but they couldn’t give it due to stress, tiredness and work.
I was confused and needed consistent care and parenting, but they couldn’t give it due to stress, tiredness and work.
I was lonely and needed support, but they couldn’t give it due to stress, tiredness and work.
Mixed in with parents who were stressed and tired, and overworked and underpaid are two things:
- The normalized generational discipline where violence (hitting children) is a form of control. Their own parents used it on them. Hitting children is normalised (not just among the working classes).
- A system that does not adequately support parents, in particular working class parents in low income jobs.
I needed things of my parents and my parents needed things from the government. These two things can be true and co-exist. So given these truths were my parents bad parents or were they they the best parents the could be with the tools they had?
As a child who was hit, fairly frequently from what I remember, by both parents, I can tell you I didn’t need hitting children to be illegal. If I had to sum up what I actually needed to protect me as a working class kid with working class parents it would be this…
I needed a system that provides well paid jobs, free childcare and better social supports for parents.
I needed a system that could help heal the generational joylessness and trauma passed down through generation after generation of working class relatives.
I needed a school and health service that understood the needs of neurodivergent children and how to spot the signs, instead of dismiss us as naughty.
Don’t get me wrong, I support the Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment. It’s obvious and right that children are afforded the same rights as adults and given some power to escape from traumatising and problematic behaviours, as well as the ability to seek accountability.
However, the law will likely further police working class parents, in particular single mothers, those living on council estates and people of colour and this I am adamantly against. While I support this bill, I have to stress that it MUST come with more social support for parents, which includes systemic support likes higher minimum wages, free childcare and more flexible working.
I feel frustrated and angry because this government will never commit the funds or laws to make this happen. To me, this bill seems empty without that support because I believe it is harder (not impossible) to remove the generational normalisation of physical discipline and abuse without societal structures in place that make way for more joyful living.
To conclude, this piece is about joy being stolen from parents and children.
Slaps stole my joy, but only for about 5 mins. The joylessness did not last.
The fractured relationship and dissonance I felt with my parents, in particular my mom, stretched nearly 2 decades, from my childhood right through to now and it significantly created joylessness. What impacted me most deeply was a system that repeatedly stole my joy by failing my working class parents, robbing them of adequate joy via financial, mental and social support and therefore failing me and stealing my joy.
I was most impacted by a system that robs both parents and children of joy, not just in the short-term but in the long term too. Generation after generation.
I feel empathy for children who feel violence longer than the 5 minute sting of a slap and I HOPE deep in my bones this law will protect them. BUT, I want preventative action not just reactionary. I want parents to be supported with adequate pay, childcare, social support, therapy and, bringing some climate crisis talk into this, reasonable energy bills — or better yet free energy.
I often wonder what childhood would have been like had there been better social support for parents like mine and what joy we all could have had as a family.
For children to experience joy they need parents that are free from the traps of systemic joylessness, they need parents who also have access to experiencing joy.