Archives For Children

Crime and punishment

October 29, 2013 — 2 Comments

Benjamin Spock’s classic The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care hit book shelves in 1946. Before Dr. Spock’s death, a half a century later, over fifty million copies of the book had been sold, making it the most popular book of the twentieth century in America, second to the Bible. His approach was lauded for validating parents in their use of common sense, for promoting flexibility over the more rigid approach that had previously been in vogue, and for encouraging parents to demonstrably express their affection to their children. To make the book accessible to the average household, this new parent handbook was priced at a whopping $.25 per copy.

My mom says she never had a copy of the book. She and my dad parented all five of us children without the assistance of a pediatrician-psychiatrist to affirm them in their common sense. They just went about their business, calling upon resources already at their disposal. Not that they didn’t encounter the occasional challenging situation from time to time, but for the most part, we pitched garden variety fits, engaged in garden variety sibling rivalry, and waged garden variety warfare on proscribed routines, directives and ethics.

It hadn’t previously occurred to me to comment on my folks’ methods of keeping their brood in line, but as I was musing on the most memorable events of my youngest years, one of their favored ways of impressing upon us the gravity of our misbehavior was…

Washing mouths out with soap.


Ivory bar soap, circa 1954

Honestly, I can’t remember whether any of my siblings ever got the Ivory Treatment — I only remember the couple of times I found myself on the receiving end of this teaching stratagem. This infrequently used device was reserved for the perpetration of falsehood, duplicity, and other highly fraudulent behaviors. It could just as easily be applied when foul language or outrageous name calling came into play. I wish I could report to you just what it was that I said to warrant punishment on this order, but my selective memory has effectively blocked all recollection of any specific trespasses. Rest assured that I was guilty as charged, as my parents were quite careful to ensure that our every encounter with the Long Arm of Justice would have been duly preceded by ample instruction as to the expected, upstanding behavior.

The sudsy sentence was always executed with great dispatch. The guilty party would be escorted to the nearest sink, instructed to open his or her mouth, and a swift swipe of the soap bar across the tongue was administered. A new take on “belly up to the bar”.

I hated this punishment with a passion. Do they really think that putting that stupid soap in my mouth will stop me from thinking what I was thinking before I said what I said?!! Besides, my tongue doesn’t have any dirt on it, so washing it like dirty hands doesn’t even make any sense.

In all my childish indignance, my parents’ point was somewhat lost. Yet on some level, I think I realized that this negative consequence for children’s use of the tongue in an untoward manner was was chosen precisely for its metaphoric value, but was at the same time a highly effective deterrent. I, for one, immediately applied a neon Post-It to my brain that read: MUST NOT REPEAT THIS INCIDENT. EVER. After enduring a penalty “cleansing”, I would conscientiously eradicate lying and being ugly with my words from my agenda for a long, long while. I may have resorted to other naughty stuff, but definitely not that.

Another extremely effective tactic to curtail inappropriate behaviors, at least in dealing with my gregarious disposition, was to banish me to the bedroom during the middle of play. All the other kids would be outside whooping it up, and there I would be — imprisoned in a second floor cell with no one to talk to, be entertained by, or otherwise engage in shenanigans. I probably only spent a half hour to an hour in solitary confinement at any given time, but the duration seemed interminable. I’m sure I thoroughly contemplated my errant ways while alone and isolated, and no doubt vociferously pledged to do much better to the jailer when she came to fetch me at the end of my stint.

And finally… the dreaded paddle. My folks took one of those little light weight paddle ball paddles and removed the rubber ball and string. My dad even penned on the front of it: For Bad Burns’ Bottoms. The paddle’s assigned place was atop the refrigerator. It didn’t come down all that often, but when it did, we always knew which direct parental instruction we had violated. In all my childhood, I can only recall once when I felt I got a swat for something I didn’t understand was wrong. A commendable record on my parents’ part, all things considered.

Now lest you suspect my parents to be calloused or brutish in their methodology, bear in mind that virtually every household and classroom of the period was outfitted with a paddle. A kid could get a spanking from the principal at school and likely receive a second one for the same offense upon arriving at home. Attitudes and behaviors go in and out of fashion, and I believe the trend away from corporal punishment is a welcome one. I for one, don’t miss it, especially given the inherent potential for abuse.

But more important than the actual methods used, I suspect, are the motive and intent behind these methods. I know people who received physical abuse as children and have undergone countless hours of therapy to undo this damage. And I also know parents who would never lift so much as an aggressive pinkie finger, yet speak to their children with disdain and disrespect. Children who experience such verbal battering have the same need for assistance in overcoming debilitating feelings of unworthiness and shame. Both of these parenting modes are highly destructive and are to be eliminated from parental tool kits everywhere.

So perhaps Dr. Spock was onto something after all: use common sense in the care of babies and children. Firmly and lovingly communicate and adhere to appropriate boundaries, and generously administer affection and respect.

But maybe leave the Ivory out of the equation…?



September 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

I suppose every parent has a collection of sayings that stick in their kids’ heads. Some would get used often; others, you maybe heard only once, but they were memorable. My dad had his share. I’m surprised, looking back, by how many I would hear very literally, completely missing the idiom. As a result, I’d often wind up confused. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood the nuances of the expressions. This is how I would hear some of the things he said:

“Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”

I would usually hear this one after being sent to fetch a tool from his workbench or toolbox. I would have brought him the wrong tool, whereupon he would employ this saying. Which would leave me wondering which part of me being a girl didn’t he get? In fact, according to my reasoning, I technically couldn’t even do a boy’s job, much less a man’s job. Years later, I realized he simply meant he’d dispatched someone who didn’t understand the task as given. (Monkey wrenches, crescent wrenches, allen wrenches — I mean, how’s a kid supposed to know which one’s which?)

“Don’t go blackberry picking in an evening gown.”

I heard this one the first time I ever wore nylon stockings. I was feeling rather pleased by the fact that my mom had given me such a vote of confidence and bought me a pair, and my dad’s comment made me think he suspected I might actually do something that reckless. I think it hurt my feelings a little. Again, I later realized he was just noting that I had ascended to a new level of finery and would be behaving more like a young lady than a girl. No need to have gotten sensitive about it.

When I was about thirty years old we moved to a place in the country and had access to wild blackberry bushes. Every time I went out to pick them, my dad’s words would ring in my ears.

“Who left all these lights on? Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

This one was two-for-the-price-of-one. For starters: it would take a team on a par with Holmes and Watson to sort out who, given that seven people lived in the house, actually entered the room first and turned on the light in the first place, who entered the room subsequently, who was still in the room when the person who turned on the lights left, whether or not it was the responsibility of the second person to be mindful of the lights, since they didn’t have the natural prompt of having flipped the switch upon entering the room, and so forth. You see, establishing culpability gets sticky rather quickly. (And believe me, that’s exactly where my mind would go with that one.)

The second part, as to money growing on trees: I understood what that one meant, but it tickled me nevertheless — the mental picture of a tree with dollar bills hanging from it just was so ludicrous. But in any situation wherein Dad would have uttered these words, he wouldn’t have been in an ideal mood for humor, so I stifled any amusement.

And finally, one of my all-time favorites:

“Don’t make me stop this car.”

I’ll bet the number of kids who have ever heard that in their life is legion. What struck me as peculiar about this expression was that my dad never, ever actually stopped the car. Not even once (as far as I can remember). So really, it was just a threat. But an effective threat nonetheless, since I knew I never wanted to find out what would happen if he ever did stop the car. Upon hearing that line, I always piped down and immediately stopped carrying on.

In the course of a typical work day, I interact frequently with international students, both undergraduates and graduates. If I happen to use an idiomatic expression in conversation, I’m usually mindful that the meaning is often lost to non-native English speaking people because the phrases don’t translate well literally. If I get a puzzled look, I’ll stop and explain what the idiom means and how it came into being. Sometimes I am successful in getting the idea across and in other instances, I’m not.

Now here’s something curious: I don’t give a second thought to using those same kinds of expressions when talking with children — probably because they speak the mother tongue. I just forget they might be too young for abstraction. I wonder how often I’ve left one of them scratching their heads as to what in the world I meant.

And I was so adamant I would never do the goofy things my parents did…