I should add that Czechs’ proclivity for discussing spanking within my earshot is no coincidence. My two toddler boys, with a little under two years separating them, are masters of mischief. They can often be found busily taking child locks apart. The older one is so inventive in trying to annihilate his little brother that he recently took a vacuum cleaner and suctioned his dinner off a plate. The younger one disables appliances with swiftness and gusto. They drive my husband and me crazy and, short of hitting, we try all that we can.
When I refuse to spank, even progressive Czechs around me seem to believe that I’ve adopted a sort of snotty, New Age-y approach. My father, today a successful self-made businessman, star negotiator and a doting and attentive grandpa, begs me: Just spank them already, and put an end to this misery! As my son, a little over 1 at the time, waddled toward a power outlet that I had just warned him away from for the third time, my dad lamented, “See, here? A smack over the hands. This could have been the teaching moment. It pains me greatly to see how hard you are making your own life.”
I find it surprising that my compatriots, who famously disdain violence; overthrow governments peacefully; and are, after the trauma of Communist rule, often instinctively suspicious of authority, are the ones from whom I hear praise of “a firm hand” in parent-child interaction. Brutal beating appalls them, but what they call an “educational slap” is a wholly different thing. The implication seems to be that, without “educational spankings,” kids would run amok (like mine?), and traditional structures would eventually collapse.
When I try to explain that most child care experts say that, while spanking may change behavior temporarily, children should be able to stop themselves from engaging in inappropriate behavior without the threat of physical punishment, I get eye rolls. The response usually goes something like this: “We were punished much more harshly than today’s kids will ever be, and look at us, no trauma, we turned out just fine.” But did we?
I am very grateful for my childhood, for my parents’ kindness and open-mindedness (7-year-old vegetarians were not exactly commonplace in Communist cafeterias) and for their unfailing belief in me. But I turned out far from perfect and, while many factors are at play, it baffles me that more people don’t question whether we would not have fared better if physical force had been off the table. I have a complicated relationship with conflict and confrontation and, even as a child who was mostly threatened and rarely hit, I struggled to effectively navigate disagreements well into adulthood. I love my parents deeply but, to this day, I feel an irrational pang of fear each time I butt heads with my dad.
Most importantly, I often feel myself at a loss when dealing with my own kids. When they upset me, I draw a blank on how best to react to their tantrums, frustrations or straight-up naughty behavior. My attempts to acknowledge their feelings and to offer solutions — “I see you are fighting over a toy and you are both upset, so how can we resolve that?” or “I can see you are frustrated and want to scream, but how about using your words?” — sound oddly formulaic in Czech, the language in which I speak to them. My mind supplies me with “Stop it this second, or … !” I try daily, but I still stumble through positive reinforcement and often end up sounding like a dishonest robot.
If for no other reason, I think we should take spanking off the table so that our children have better tools for dealing with their own children one day. I sincerely hope that navigating the explosive chaos of childhood without a repressive “firm hand” will help my sons grow up into gentle young men, able to deal constructively and peacefully with life’s inevitable frustrations and conflicts.
Zuzana Boehmová is a writer and gender consultant who publishes in Czech and English.