By ASHA FRENCH
Dear Parents with Belts,
I am writing to ask that you stop beating your kids so that they don’t throw desks and endanger me and their classmates. I know that I am asking you to act un-American, as this is a nation founded by sadists who couldn’t keep their hands, weapons, or penises off of those who they felt were inferior to themselves. Parents with belts, I am saying that you look like your (founding) fathers.
Mrs. Parker was probably the best elementary school teacher I had. She was brilliant, enthusiastic, and kind. Too kind for me to trust at the time, when belts were flying all over my house and my belt swinger was pulling knives on my big brother. What was her agenda, I wondered. I wanted to find the buttons that would push her into the mode of my belt swinger and confirm my perception of adults, and the world, as a dangerous place. Of course, I knew none of this then. And your children don’t know what they’re doing now—the way that experiencing cruelty makes you distrust any act of kindness.
As much as Mrs. Parker cared about me and all her students, she did have a blind spot. Parental cruelty. I tried to make her see. The morning after my belt swinger snatched me by the skin of my chest to slap me for the crime of being afraid, I was so relieved. I looked at my chest and saw red, angry scabs and dried blood. Finally, I thought, evidence. I’d just read a young adult novel about a babysitter who’d discovered that her charge was being abused. The mother in that story got help, got better at loving a child, and eventually rehired the hero teenager to care for her son. But that little boy had bruises and scabs that I didn’t have. The welts from belts often disappeared before morning. And getting slapped in the face also didn’t leave visible marks. But the skin snatch had done the trick—finally. Or so I thought.
Here’s the short version. I showed Mrs. Parker. She called my belt swinger’s enabler, my other parent. Together, they explained to me that my belt swinger loved me very much and that sometimes, parents just get angry. In my memory, their voices are melded into some Peppermint Patty drone and what they are saying is, “We don’t care about you and nobody cares about you and what has happened will not be addressed and what will happen is nobody’s business but yours.”
Parents, I promise you that I will never be so kind to you/ cruel to your children. Your children and I will read books about violence toward children. We will read the Declaration of the Rights of the Child that all developed countries but the U.S. and Somalia signed. We will talk about surviving parents and other cruelties. We will talk about feelings and cycles and deciding, at an early age, to stop them. We will talk about emotional intelligence and the history of violence in the United States. My syllabus will hurt you and I will never, ever explain away your violence.You will be amazed at how often and freely children laugh when no adult is hitting them! Click To Tweet
But there’s also good news. Let me tell you about your grandchildren. They will astound you with their kindness. Did you know that children who are not afraid are actually kind to others? Their behavioral issues will be developmentally appropriate, and unfortunately, their race and socioeconomic status will determine how these issues are addressed. But guess what? Without expending their energy on rage and belt-swinging, your children will actually have time to investigate any classroom behavior problem, find the root of it, and help your grandchildren heal. And oh my goodness, you will be amazed at how often and freely children laugh when no adult is hitting them! Your grandchildren will be as joyous as children should be, as happy as all children are when their freedom is unthreatened by physical violence.
Here’s the best news. Your grandchildren will have boundaries. This is likely a struggle for you and is definitely a struggle for your children. When a child’s bodily autonomy is disrespected frequently and with impunity, the child will likely be victim to many more boundary violations over the span of her lifetime. It’s the way trauma works, altering the brain to make lived experience seem inevitable. But your grandchildren? They will know that their bodies are their own. They will learn that other people’s bodies are off limits. They will learn to ask for, and reject, contact—and not just physical.
Here is a truth: when a belt is slicing your skin and the person swinging the belt is telling you in between swings that it is your fault, your emotional boundaries are as breached as your physical ones.
Suddenly, someone else’s perception of you, someone else’s rage, is impacting your body, your perception of yourself. You believe what they are saying to you and you develop a habit of believing what people say about you without any consideration of the false perception or emotional well-being of the speaker. It’s a habit that is hard to break.Parents who hit: this is how abuse shows up in the classroom. Click To Tweet
This is what some of your children already believe: One of your children told me that he is bad to the core. Another of your children told me that his behavior was killing his grandmother, who had a heart condition that is common among the abused. One of your children told me that she hates all grownups. Another of your children told me that she has no friends or hope of making any. So many of your children believe they cannot learn. One of my belt swinger’s favorite belt-swinging mantras was, “When will you ever learn?” I have heard enough war stories, heard enough comedians riffing on the statement, to believe that is pervasive. I just wanted you to know the way that it shows up in the classroom.
So I began this letter to talk about desks and chairs that have been thrown since I’ve been in the classroom with your children and I end with a lot more compassion for those tantrum-throwers. And you. I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry that someone beat your perfect self until you found yourself imperfect. I am sorry about your broken body and the way that swinging a belt feels familiar to you, feels like legacy and justice and finally mattering. I am sorry about the ways this letter angers you, about the way the traumatized brain rails against good news, rails against the possibility of unfettered joy. I am so, so sorry for the little person who still lives inside you.
You didn’t deserve what you got. You were not bad. You were always good, even when you did inappropriate things. You deserved some more compassion. You deserved better examples. And I’m sorry for the bearers of your pain—the things they believed about themselves that made them swing belts, extension cords, paddles, fly swatters, rulers and other objects they did not use for their intended purpose. I am sorry that you were used against your intended purpose, which was always to shine, to make the world brighter, to save yourself and then others. I am so, so, sorry.
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