When I was about four or five years old, there was a neighbor down the block that had a huge swath of yellow daffodils in her yard. I sashayed down there and picked them, almost all of them, armloads of them, and proudly brought them home. As soon as I walked in the door, my mother gasped; she knew where they came from and that the neighbor-lady was very proud of her flowers. I didn’t understand why it was a problem. To my very young mind, you couldn’t really “own” flowers, could you? Weren’t they from the earth, and therefore belonged to everyone? Still, I got a spanking for it.
In recent days, NFL football player Adrian Peterson has come under fire, and potential jail time, for whipping his kid. Was it child abuse? Nobody knows except the parties involved, but surely a man of his size and strength can discipline a toddler without exerting enough force to leave marks. The high-profile nature of this case, increased no doubt by coming in the midst of intense criticism of the NFL for its handling of players who practice domestic violence, has caused renewed discussion about whether or not to use corporal punishment on kids.
I have lost count of friends who have said, while pregnant, “I’m never spanking my child.” Three or four years later, when time-out isn’t working? You guessed it. Fannies get tanned.
In the debates, those of us over 50 like to bring up the fact that we were often spanked and “it didn’t hurt us.” My own mother would send us to the yard, which was surrounded by hedges, to fetch the implement that would have us dancing shortly. A couple of swats and an admonishment to “think about what you did” and it was over. Probably there was precious little repentance, just a stinging sensation from the switch.
Once, a friend and I got into some mischief and our mothers found out about it. I got several whacks with the switch, and she got “I’m so disappointed in you.” Her parents never hit her, but there was damage nonetheless. The switch – or the hairbrush or, if we were really bad, the belt – didn’t do violence to who we were as people, only to our temporarily indignant backsides. A steady stream of disapproval wounds the psyche. I remember she said to me, “I wish I had got spankings.”
The best lessons, the ones that stick with me today, are the ones that required teshuvah on my part. The Hebrew word means “return,” or “to turn,” and can be understood several ways. Turning away from the bad, turning toward the good, coming back to where you know you should be.
After I got the spanking for ripping up the neighbor’s daffodils, I had to return them and do chores around the neighbor’s house to make up for the trouble I had caused. The Jewish concept of teshuvah was operating quite literally, but it also taught me that when I make a choice that injures someone else, I have to turn that situation around. True repentance is never doing the bad thing again, say the rabbis of the Talmud. I can guarantee that I never stole another flower, or anything else for that matter. But I have plenty of atoning to do on Yom Kippur. I’ll be thinking of Momma, and daffodils.
Whether to spank a child or to use other corrective measures like lectures, groundings, time-outs or loss of privilege, the choice is not what it used to be; maybe we’ve evolved in the last 50 years. Whichever a parent chooses, the act of reparation will likely be the most-remembered lesson.
Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist, marketer, and certified pararabbinic in Nashville. She is also mom to Jacob, the Most Awesome Cat.