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The Enforcer Inside

One of my parenting oaths was that I would never, ever become the disciplinarian for our family. God, how I did not want to be the enforcer. The bag man. The furrower of brows. The dad with the low, mildly threatening timbre. He who must be obeyed or else.

I was doing fine until my spirited baby became a willful toddler. Coaxing her into minding us—and therefore becoming a respectful little citizen of the playground—came with some personal baggage.

I was raised in the South under the constant threat of corporal punishment. Back home, being sent off to pick your own switch off a hickory tree was not some cornpone cliché. It was a fact of life. You did wrong you might get a beatdown. And sometimes, as loving as my parents were and as much as I know they cared about me, those beatdowns would get out of hand. Sometimes they bordered on abuse.

And that’s where things get tricky for me. Little E was somewhere in the neighborhood of two-and-a-half and just beginning to talk back and refuse to do things (good times!) and had pretty much outright stopped listening to my wife. Little E took a certain glee in her insolence and turned every simple task into a boundary-pushing tug of war. The stress level around the house was high.

I remember one day my wife asked Little E to do something simple like put on her underwear. She refused and threw a little tantrum. So I stepped in and, once again, asked this tiny ball of independence to put on her underwear like we’d asked her. She instead threw them across the room, tossed her head back, screamed “NO,” and then folded her arms and threw herself down on the floor.

What happened next is one of those cauterizing moments I will never forget, and one I will always regret: I smacked her on the leg. Not hard—not that it matters—but not soft either. There was a loud sound of callused hand on baby-soft pink skin. Little E screamed like she’d been shot, which, in hindsight, was a perfectly normal reaction to having her sworn protector suddenly turn on her like that. But I felt like something had to be done. That she had to learn to mind us or she’d turn into one of those cruddy little kids everyone avoids at the park.

I asked her again to put on her underwear. Being her typically challenging self, she again refused. I had already chosen my weapon of discipline and felt that I had to press on—I raised my hand to swat her again. But this time she pulled away. She winced, she cowered from me, and she went to protect herself.

She was scared of me.

I was immediately ashamed. I crumpled to my knees. I cried. I pulled Little E up into my arms and started apologizing and blubbering like she might actually understand me. My wife heard the tears and thought somebody had died. And maybe somebody had. Or at least some thing. Some part of me that on any level thought that, since it worked for my parents, it was okay to salt my parenting with a little dash of corporal punishment.

I know now that that is not the case. Never will be. And it made me make another promise in the sometimes messy triage unit of parenting.

One that, this time, I actually plan on keeping.

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