When I was a child, every time we’d go out to dinner people would stop by our table and compliment my parents on a their kids’ behavior. They both, especially my father, ate it right up.
I loved eating out — it was one of the most exciting things we did as a family — but there were rules you had to follow. I would sit with my brother and sisters in silence. We wouldn’t touch our drinks until the food came because that was a huge no-no. No elbows on the table, napkins in the lap, and absolutely no touching sugar packets or any other funny business.
What these bystanders didn’t know was our golden behavior wasn’t due to fantastic parenting like they thought. We weren’t just good, happy, well-adjusted kids — we were petrified of our father. One wrong move and the belt would likely meet our bare butt.
We weren’t allowed to talk at the dinner table and this carried over into public spaces. This was my parents’ time to catch up with each other, which really meant it was the hour of my father talking about himself and his day at work. My mother stayed home with us kids and wasn’t “allowed” to do much else.
It wasn’t until I was older that I found out she got her driver’s license after she married my father and had to sneak in her driving lessons with a friend because he didn’t want his wife to have that much independence. He was angry when she got her permit and even angrier when she got her first job.
My father was raised under the idea that children were seen and not heard. When he was a child, he got spanked with the belt and wasn’t allowed to talk at the dinner table himself. So naturally when he became a father, he followed suit, despite the fact it was the ’80s and all my friends parents had let go of this notion.
My friends were allowed to wear ripped jeans and cut their hair however they wanted. We were not, and my dad would remind us “girls have long hair and boys have short hair, period.” He thought all my friends were mouthy and disrespectful, and I was rarely allowed to have anyone come over. If I did, he saw them as extra hands to do chores around the house. Needless to say, no one was eager to come around.
One of my first memories was being in my bedroom during nap time. I couldn’t sleep and I spotted a blue crayon under my bed. I took the crayon and wanted to see what would happen if I drew on my headboard. I remember thinking I’d probably get in trouble, but I did it anyway.
That two-inch line got me physically thrown into my room. I remember being slammed into my little rocking chair that sat in the corner. My dad was breathing fire about an inch from my face and then came the belt.
That was the last time I ever intentionally misbehaved, but it still didn’t completely save me.
My siblings and I exchanged a look every time a person would stop my parents to tell them how well behaved their kids were and say, “Well, you just don’t see that these days anymore!” It was a look of desperation and knowing full well we didn’t have a choice but to behave… or else.
My father mellowed out quite a bit when we got older and my mother decided to leave his controlling ass. I was so happy when they got a divorce and we lived with our mom; it felt like someone had handed me a get-out-of-jail card. But the fear of making a wrong move as a child crept into my older years, even though I didn’t “get the belt” anymore and my father no longer got in my face and yelled at me.
I was afraid to speak up to all men, even the nicest ones. If my food came to me cold at a restaurant, I didn’t have the courage send it back. If a friend needed something, I prided myself on bending over backwards to deliver.
My drive to please in order to keep everything peachy-keen was co-dependent. I didn’t realize until I was in my 20s this was all because I was afraid to rock the boat as a child so that I didn’t awaken the beast in my father. It’s taken years to unlearn these habits and know my worth.
I’ve told myself things weren’t that bad. After all, I’d only get the belt once or twice a year. It’s not as if there were spanking sessions every day.
I’ve also told myself there are much worse situations out there and I shouldn’t blame my father for anything because I’m the one responsible for my actions and feelings now.
But the truth is, being hit as a child and growing up in a home where you are well behaved because you are so scared of physical abuse is damaging. It rocks you to the core and it manifests into other behaviors as you get older. How can it not?
Thankfully, my siblings and I have broken the cycle — the cycle of scaring our kids into behaving out of the fear they are going to get hit. And honestly, every time we are out in public my kids aren’t perfectly behaved by a long stretch. I let them suck down their drink before their food comes if we eat out. Elbows are allowed on the table, and if they want to play Jenga with a few jelly packets, as long as they put them back, I tell them to go for it.
People still stop me to say I have wonderful children. Not as often as they did to my parents, but even if they didn’t, I’d be more than fine. I know my kids are happy and healthy, and they certainly aren’t living in a home where they are afraid they are going to be physically attacked if they are out of line. And that’s more important than good behavior any day.