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Lu Lu’s story: Do you remember how it felt?

May 4, 2009

It’s been decades since I was last ‘smacked’. In a family of 6 children, that entailed lining up to wait your turn to be turned over Dad’s knee. These line ups, ironically, took place in the ‘family room’. My father on the couch, us kids – tightly clustered in age (first 5 born within 6 years) but silent and separate in the line up as we watched the one ahead of us getting whacked till they cried.

This was the standard. We would have been warned ahead of time via my mother’s promise that ruined the rest of your day. ‘Wait till your father gets home’. When he did, we’d listen and wait as he was brought up to date behind closed doors. All we could hear, hovering on the other side, was the hiss of the ‘sss’ in the conversation. That was enough.

More than once the punishment was withheld to prolong the sick dread. And a few times he instructed us to prepare: to go into the laundry room / tool room and choose what we’d have him hit us with.

On the rare occasions my mother tried to mete out the smacks ahead of his arrival home I clearly recall – not what I’d done wrong – but the desperation of avoiding the punishment.

Hiding behind the china cabinet, hiding under the bed in their room (‘she’d never think to find me there…but then…when is it safe to come out?’ Hours passed.) and most memorable, once allowing her to catch me because I’d put a book down my pants.

I was less brave to rebel against my father. In fact discovered it was best to cry immediately so it was over quicker. (Interesting ‘the lessons’ I was learning…) Only once was I angry enough to ‘fight back’. What did that look like when you’re a skinny little girl and he’s six foot four? Purposely not warning him you need to go to the toilet ‘first’ and instead peeing on his knee. It did end the session after a single hearty wallop.

Only two of the many times I was hit ‘for the purpose of correction’ do I remember their ‘reason why’. One, I copped it alone on a summer’s night without the sibling line up, for forgetting about the grass seed in front of the swing set and running across it. I wasn’t reminded about the grass seed before – or after – getting turned on my father’s knee. Alone in my dark bedroom, I cried myself sick. I think that one hurt my mother as much as me; she came to comfort me and heard me utterly baffled as to what I’d done wrong, that
I only knew Dad hated me enough to hit me when I’d hadn’t even done anything.

The other occasion had happened years earlier and shamed me long past being a child. I recognized well into adulthood, as I started learning about emotional developmental stages as children grow, that while it could have been a near tragedy, what I did was due to being mischievous and experimental. Not that I was a horrible, wicked girl.

On the Sunday I’m remembering I was little more than a toddler, playing hide and seek with my brothers and my sister. Kieran, 11 months younger than me, had found what he’d have thought was a brilliant hiding place. In the clothes drier. Knowing that’s where he’d hidden, I climbed up and turned the machine on. A sound like tumbling sand shoes going around brought my mother at a run. The image of Kieran’s stark white – though conscious – face, my mother’s speechless terror, and my father’s tight lipped hatred – or was it fury? – when he picked me up, are as clear today as 40 some years ago. On that day, I accepted that I ‘deserved’ the pain dished out to me seconds later. While I wouldn’t have been able to explain it then, I felt that pain had ‘paid my debt’. I wasn’t encouraged to make amends to my frightened brother or told in terms I could understand how dangerous it could have been. In addition to ‘letting me off the hook’, the severe session of smacking my father delivered, shifted me from being perpetrator to being another victim. While understanding what had prompted it, what had been ‘an offense between equals’, became ‘big them’ against very small – and also very scared – me. The shared fear on every face had convinced me instantly what I’d done was distinctly very wrong. In retrospect, being repeatedly smacked that day, instead of told off, twisted that whole episode into something that, as I matured, continued to hurt for 3 very different reasons. The remorse over what I’d done to my brother, another reason to believe my father actively disliked – or at least certainly didn’t love – me, and the inability to make it right.

The clothes drier incident was a once off. But like all the other episodes of smacking, a missed opportunity to as the song says, ‘teach your children well’…with love. What my brothers and my sister and I remember of the ‘family room’, wasn’t abuse – they weren’t thrashings or punch ups.

It was ‘just smacking’. Probably not severe or frequent enough to warrant police attention under today’s law (if we ever ‘told’)? But enough that telling the story here has reminded me of too much pain to sign my real name to this. It seems appropriate to use my childhood nickname.

During recent years I’ve listened while the nation has hotly debated – in front of all our kids – how important it is that adults be allowed to hit them (physically vent their anger in so many cases). I’ve heard a number of people reporting “I was hit and it didn’t do me any harm”. Each time I wonder, didn’t it? I wonder where might we all be if, instead of being hit, as children we’d been supported to make amends to those we’d wronged, shown what empathy is from our earliest years, and grown up never doubting we were loved?

You can be sure I’m voting YES in the referendum, to help ensure that over time, using guidance and love take the place of smacking. If you haven’t decided to yet or you still favour smacking, can I ask, do you remember how it felt?

Lu Lu (not her real name)

Plunket Barnardos Save the Children Unicef Jigsaw Ririki Parents CentrePaediatric Society Womens Refuge Epoch

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