Dear Man on the Beach,
I don’t know who you are or where you are from, but our paths crossed recently and it has stirred in me a desire to try and reach out to you or someone like you. Me, I was happily starting a vacation with my family in Ko Olani in Hawaii. I was on the beach by the lagoon at our hotel (Aulani) with my infant son in my arms as my daughter and husband were off at the rocks looking out at a beautiful sunset whilst she climbed said rocks. I was meandering, just enjoying the heat, the fading sun, and my beautiful boy when I hear you and your partner and daughter coming up the path.
Your daughter – who I guess was around 2 or 3 – was upset. Clearly she did not want to be going back to the hotel (yes, you were headed to the same hotel as I based on the path you were on). She was having some rather big feelings about the matter and was clear in her words she had wanted to stay and play in the sand. Not angry feelings, but sad feelings. When I first heard her, I felt a sense of empathy and kinship with you – it’s so very hard to take our children away from something they love, but sometimes it must be done and so with love and care we do it. You were now even with me as I walked a few feet from you to the side. Then I heard it before my mind registered what I saw.
That sound of skin hitting skin. Not soft like a kiss. Not quiet like a hug. The slapping sound that comes when someone has been struck. Hard enough to echo in the outside air. My brain then put together what I had seen – your hand quickly reaching out to your daughter – and what I had heard – that slapping sound followed by a rather angry, “Don’t you cry”. I froze for a moment and realized a moment later I was holding my own son as if I had to protect him from you. I kept walking, words and indignation starting to form in my mind and mouth. You turned on your partner who was now holding a little girl even more vocal and scared and said, “This wouldn’t happen if you’d just spank her every time she said ‘no’!”
Now I really had things to say, but I didn’t. Not because I didn’t think it was my business – the moment you strike your child in public you have made it my business – but rather because I felt fear for my own son. The anger in your voice towards your child and partner told something in my brain to stay away. As a mother, I respected that. I felt I was justified a few moments later when we caught eyes. I have been told I would be a horrible poker player as my emotions are clearly visible on my face at all times and so you must have seen the horror and disgust written all over me. At least, I tell myself that to justify the look you gave me. The look that told me with certainty that I could not step up without risking my own child.
And my heart broke even more for yours.
So here is what I want to say. Not just to you, but anyone who feels the same as you in moments of stress and difficulty with their own children.
You don’t have to strike your child to raise a responsible and caring individual. You really don’t.
I’m not joking. And I have a lot of science on my side. The first thing you need to realize is that these big emotions your daughter feels are real. She is in emotional overload and she can’t control it, not the way you imagine. Her prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is in charge of inhibition – is totally, utterly immature. Just check out this picture of the brain of a 5-year-old to see what I mean:
This lack of inhibition means that it’s nearly impossible for her to control herself when her emotions get too much. Now I know you’re probably asking why after a spanking she seems able to “control” herself and I want to reassure you it’s not because she’s learned inhibition, it’s that the fear from being punished in such a way has short-circuited her brain in a sense and resulted in a ‘fight or flight’ response (namely flight). This is not healthy. This is not the way you want her brain to develop even if it does help in the short term because you are setting her up for an unhealthy response to stress and fear for the remainder of her life.
The second thing I want to discuss is this idea that she has to learn she can’t say “no” to you. Let me ask you: What kind of teenager or adult do you want your little girl to grow up to be? I ask because the little girl who learns she can never say no becomes the teenager who doesn’t say no to her friends/boyfriend who becomes the adult who can’t say no. The funny thing is, while she struggles with no with others, she’ll either become quite adept at “no” to you or lie to your face to avoid saying “no”, opening up so many more problems than you’re facing right now.
What’s hardest about parenting young children is that the grown-ups we want them to become are very different than the children we want to raise. Life is easier when our young children are docile and obedient. Life is much harder when our teenagers or grown children are such because it is never to us that they are then exhibiting such traits. As such, we need to parent our children as we want them to be in the future, not just in the now. As the parent of a very strong-willed 5-year-old, I can feel the frustration that comes with that type of parenting, but I also feel the immense pride and joy at watching her grow into this amazingly independent, critically thinking, moral child. These traits are not possible when your child is not allowed to express emotion or disagreement that all children feel.
It’s important to note here that allowing your child to express these emotions is not tantamount to allowing them to do whatever they want. You still need to leave the beach. You still need to turn the TV off and go to bed. You still need to eat healthy food. These things – and much more – are essential for our children’s well-being and we, as parents, need to be aware of that.
But it doesn’t mean we get to dismiss their emotions about it all in the process.
Enforcing boundaries and rules is our job as parents. Dismissing or negating our children’s emotions is not. In fact, it’s antithetical to our job. I hope you can learn to give your daughter space to express and experience these big emotions without feeling threatened by them (after all, what else is the type of anger I saw but a reaction to threat?). Hug her, tell her you understand, and then reinforce why the boundary or rule is there. She doesn’t have to be happy about everything that has to happen, just as I’m sure you aren’t happy about the many things us adults have to do (like, say, pay taxes). Learning to experience an emotion without having it rule us is a lesson we all need to learn – parents and children alike. Right now it seems it’s something you both have to work on.
Despite my reaction to what I witnessed, I wish you the best of luck for the well-being of your daughter, your partner, and yourself.
p.s. If you find yourself struggling with tantrums, you can check out these pieces I’ve written on them which respects the boundaries parents need to set with the big feelings children need to experience.