“Is she a hero, or a child abuser?”
It’s 5 o’clock in the morning. I’m a guest on “The Alan Stock Show” on KDWN-AM (720). (Love the new digs, by the way!)
Alan is asking me about the now-famous Baltimore mom who was filmed shouting, cursing and repeatedly smacking her cowering teenage son after discovering said son with a rock in his hand at a protest about the death of Freddie Gray.
“Is she a hero, or a child abuser?”
Now, if you read my column, you know that I’m a passionate opponent and critic of corporal punishment. So what I said to Alan might surprise you.
“Neither,” I said. “She’s an icon. She’s an icon of our collective frustration regarding permissive and/or absent parents.”
When I watched the video of Baltimore Mom, I immediately recognized my own mother …
I was 5 years old. Somehow my buddy Doug had pilfered a book of matches. We are kneeling on the sidewalk, leaning over a gutter, gleefully setting fire to dry grass, leaves and bits of trash. What fun!
I looked to see my mother sprinting down the sidewalk toward me. She was “locked on” like a predator on the African savanna. As she swooped the last few feet, her hand became a talon, snatching and lifting me to my feet.
There was yelling. She chased me home, whopping my retreating butt every eight or 10 strides. At home was more intensity, then remanded to my room to read a Smokey Bear book about forest fires.
Hero or child abuser? Neither. Just a prototypical mother in whom terror, outrage and shame collide.
Like when a toddler drifts off the sidewalk into the street. There’s the screech of brakes. The car stops mere feet from the child. The mother screams, runs to the child, weeping. Lifts the child to her breast, rocking frantically … then lowers the child to the ground and whales on him.
It only seems like a contradiction. But it’s all the same terror. When parents are surprised by the near miss of danger, our reflex is to instill a necessary fear in our children. Because we’d rather have them mad at us than dead.
Outrage? Oh yeah. In junior high, my eldest once tried out for the role of “bully” on his school playground. He and a few other boys threw rocks at the feet of another boy to make him “dance.”
I was outraged. I hate bullies. I yelled. It was the one and only time I’ve ever uttered the words “I’m disappointed in you!” I sentenced him to community service. Made him spend the weekend at church, working for the groundskeeper.
But, I gotta tell you: Had I been on that school playground … had I looked up to see my son throwing those rocks in real time …
Well, I can see myself laying my hands on him. Oh, not to hit him. Rather, grabbing his wrist as his hand raises with a rock. Collaring him and yanking him away from the circle. If need be, tackling him.
Because bullying is not OK.
Shame? Parents feel the weight of shame regarding the behavior of their children. The shame is painful. This is why I go out of my way to make eye contact and be encouraging with parents who bring babies/toddlers on airplanes.
Shame! Can you imagine the police coming to your door and saying that it was your son who committed the shooting spree at the mall? Not sure I’d ever be able to hold my head up in public again.
I’m not lauding corporal punishment. Just saying I “get” Baltimore Mom. And that, if I have to choose, I like her response better than being absent or permissive.
I think we’re all really sick of absent and permissive.
Absent, permissive, abusive: I say let’s retire all three.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Mondays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.