Thursday, May 9, 2013

Criticism As Discipline


Sometimes we live through situations that take years to sort out, at least that’s what I’ve been thinking. We make decisions in the heat of the moment that prove to be good or bad only in the playing out of events over time. I’ve been thinking of my parents and the way I was brought up. In particular the mistakes they made. This will undoubtedly sound as criticism in spite of the fact that I think my parents did the best they could, that they loved us children and tried to be good parents to me and my brothers and sister. My mother in particular made many sacrifices for us. I could write a book about how much I owe her.


An incident when I was maybe 10 years old started this line of thought. My mother, sister, and I often visited my mother’s family and took dinner with them on Sundays. Grandma Shumpert was always old and walked like she endured pain in her hips. Living with her were two unmarried daughters and an unmarried son, all of them complex if not inscrutable characters.

On this particular day, we sat at the dinner table, but I didn’t take food on my plate because of a stomach problem of some kind, don’t remember what exactly, which my mother knew about. Somebody pressed a dish, say beans, on me and I said something to the effect that I couldn’t eat beans. My uncle took offense, said if I couldn’t eat food his mother had prepared for me I shouldn’t be at the table. I hadn’t meant that I didn’t want the food or that it was unpalatable. I meant I had a stomach ache, and I waited for my mother to explain. Silences at our tables were common, but this one was loaded with enmity. That my mother didn’t defend me left me alone, as if she too thought I shouldn't be at the table whatever the condition of my stomach.

 If my uncle ever said anything else to me the many times I was in his home, I don’t remember it. Though he's long since deceased, he’s still something of an enigma to me, a stranger who didn’t befriend me in spite of the many times I was briefly in his presence. He didn’t stay in the house when we visited nor did he have conversations with my mother. He used to sit outside under the shelter of the tool shed on a tree trunk stool most of the time and smoked. He was short with receding hair. Never married. I have no clue what he thought about anything. He seemed to avoid not just me but all of us children, but got along well with Grandma (who’s another story). If he had an emotional life, I have no clue to what it was. Others of the family have said he worked hard as a farmer especially after my grandfather died. I haven’t thought of it before, but he was the only man in a house with three women, only one of whom worked, and she was a beautician. In those days, my aunt worked in another woman’s salon and made $.50 tips. My uncle must have provided the resources they all lived on.

Anyway, back to parenting, in particular that of my parents. In terms of discipline, my father took the switch to me. Once I was sent to a bush in the yard to pick the switch he used on me. My mother used the fly swat. But they were not strict with me nor with my brothers and sister. I can’t remember them ever punishing any of my siblings with switches or the fly swat. Maybe I was the incorrigible child. My mom once said that she could hardly punish my younger brother David because my sister cried more than he did.


It’s only come to my attention years after the fact that we four children had different experiences in our family. Each of us had unique relationships with our parents. It’s almost as if we developed in different worlds. Perhaps I’ve suppressed some memories that have been coming back to me. In particular, the time David ran away from home. I’d never seen my mother so distraught.

David got into a dispute with my father, I don’t remember what it was about, but by the time he was in high school he was expected to mess up, regardless of what he did. Anyway, my father ordered David off the place. And he left. We heard he went to Florida. My mother wanted to go after him, but what could she do? How could she find a runaway? She couldn’t even drive. She was furious with our father. My brother eventually returned. It must have been an edgy time for both him and my father.

Just because I had a reasonably happy childhood in our family didn’t mean that my brothers and sister did. It’s taken me years to realize this. What’s more, though my eyes saw as a child, I didn’t comprehend what was going on. David’s experience in particular has been a closed door to me for years. I can only guess at what my older brother and younger sister experienced in our family. 


The thought at the bottom of all this rambling is that I hope I haven’t made some of the mistakes my parents made. In particular, I hope I didn’t mistake criticism for discipline.

For whatever reason, my older brother took sinister amusement in David. He mocked him for sucking his thumb. Ridiculed his athletic attempts. He could always find some reason to make fun of David, who was “Cotton Top” as a kid and graduated to “Zero,” after a brainless character in the Sad Sack comics. The label stuck and many people called him “Zero.”

My father didn’t protect David from his older brother’s derision. In fact, he seemed to ignore it. I have to wonder if my older brother was acting out some hostility my father couldn’t or wouldn’t express.

My mother was exasperated by my older brother’s conduct and sharply criticized him, but in spite of all that she said, he continued to belittle David. So it was that my older brother came in for badgering and criticism with no clear direction that he was wrong to treat David the way he did. To this day, he has no idea of the hurt he inflicted on his brother.

The result has been that David has had to get away from his older brother to have any self-respect. He lives far away and I hope he’s happy. My older brother is as much a victim of the family dynamic as is David. He’s lost a brother he loves, and, in many respects, it’s the fault of our parents. It would break my mother’s heart to read what I’ve just written, and I couldn’t have written it if she were still alive. My father would be hurt, but he’d think I had it wrong. 

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