Care and Feeding

My Therapist Insists My Great-Grandmother’s Spankings Were Abuse. I’m Not So Sure.

The woman was born in 1908—she didn’t know any better!

A woman sits on a couch, touching both sides of her head in frustration, as she talks to her therapist, who sits across from her taking notes on a clipboard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chadchai Krisadapong/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was raised in a multigenerational household. My mother was a single parent for most of my childhood, and at various times in my life, we lived with my maternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandmother. My great-grandmother was quite advanced in her age; she actually lived to be over 100 and died when I was 12. Since my mom and grandparents both worked, my great-grandmother was often my primary babysitter. My great-grandma was born in 1908. She had one of those hard, rural, country music–ass lives and, as a result, was a very tough and firm woman. To just be blunt about it, she used physical discipline: spoons, hairbrushes, switches, belts, rulers, etc.

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None of the other adults in my life ever hit me, so I always chalked this up to her age. (She would have been in her 90s when she was babysitting me. I always assumed she felt overwhelmed or overpowered by me.) My therapist and I recently discussed this, and he classified her behavior as child abuse. We had quite a heated discussion because I feel like he is divorcing actions from context. My great-grandma was a woman from another era, born the year the Model T debuted! I feel like it’s just crazy to pass judgment on her and her parenting of me when that was all she knew. My family is very loving, but when I was growing up, there was a lot of turmoil and dysfunction, and she was saddled with babysitting a wild child due to absolute necessity when she was so old she needed a walker and could not make me listen or behave. I was very attached to my great-grandmother (obviously, I would not be writing otherwise), and my therapist is now claiming I simply don’t want to face the truth.

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Am I crazy and gaslit for not calling this abusive? I feel like I can understand her actions. I personally harbor no resentment toward her. She was an exceptionally strong woman, and by the time I was 7 or 8, she no longer implemented physical discipline because I was no longer terrible and uncontrollable; I would classify our relationship as great, then and now. Honestly, I’m thinking of switching therapists over this. I have no children, and personally never plan on so much as spanking any if I do have some, nor do I plan on using any of her “tactics” on anyone, ever. I don’t agree with hitting children, but I also don’t agree with classifying my great-grandmother’s physical discipline as abuse. My therapist is accusing me of “protecting my abuser,” and I’m accusing him of living in academic and clinical terminology divorced from real poverty and shitty circumstances. Help?

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—Another Time

Dear AT,

It is possible that both of you are correct: that your therapist is failing to acknowledge the reality of that generation’s approach to discipline, and that you are refusing to see how it may have affected you. What your great-grandmother did is considered to be abusive; studies have proved that this sort of discipline has long-term effects and is ill-advised by most anyone considered to be an expert on human development. Violence, as we know, is not good for people, and is especially dangerous for children.

You were not “terrible and uncontrollable,” nor is any other child. By your own admission, there was a lot going on during your youth, and it’s not surprising that your behavior would reflect that tumult. Furthermore, you do know that you never deserved to be hit, right? Not even once. You may have warranted correction, you may have needed to experience consequences for your actions, but no child has ever deserved to be hit, because hitting doesn’t help children. Your great-grandmother’s lack of awareness may be enough for you to avoid having any hostility toward her, but it’s still important for you to know that no one should have hit you and that it was never your fault that you got hit.

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That said, just as folks once smoked cigarettes with reckless abandon not knowing that they were deadly, generations of parents believed that sparing the rod would spoil the child, and they behaved accordingly. You can acknowledge that your great-grandmother may not have intended to do you harm and believed she was acting in your best interests, while also acknowledging that being beaten by someone who loves you may have been damaging.
You can forgive your great-granny for doing something that was wrong that she did not know was wrong to begin with.

Your therapist has a lot more context about your life than I do. Is it a possibility that he is reacting to what he sees as trauma resulting from your great-grandmother’s methods of punishing you? If so, he may be particularly motivated to get you on board with seeing her methods differently. Either way, it could be that this therapist just isn’t a good fit for you. While he’s within his rights to call out abuse when he sees it, his refusal to acknowledge your great-grandmother’s context may speak to a simple inability to communicate with you in a way that will be effective and in support of your peace. Give it another session, consider what I’ve asked you to think about here, and as you listen to him speak, I think the answer will be clear. Good luck to you.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been estranged from my father and his wife, who is the impetus for our estrangement, to various degrees for about 20 years; words were exchanged about 10 years ago, around the time I got married, but there has been no personal contact since. I now have a little boy and a little girl of my own, and I assume that my father learned about their births from my brother. Every December, my dad and his wife send Christmas presents for both of the children and birthday gifts for my daughter, who was born right after the holidays. However, when my son’s birthday rolls around, there is no gift, which my daughter has begun to notice (she’s 7, he’s 2.5).

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I don’t know why they send only my daughter a gift—the most charitable (and I assume most likely) explanation is because they know her birthday is somewhere around Christmas, and Christmas is just SO easy to remember—and any explanation I might give for why they send her a gift and not her brother would include said hypothesis (without the snarky commentary). It’s not about the gifts—whether they send something is entirely up to them. The problem is the lack of fairness in giving one child a birthday present but not the other. When I sent thank-you notes this year, I included a letter that stated that they need to send birthday gifts to both kids or neither of them, and that if they continue what they’ve been doing, I will give the present that they send to my daughter to charity. But how do I approach this with my daughter? Should I just hide the gift and donate it (not my ideal solution as I would prefer to be as open with her as possible)? Should I tell her about it and have her decide what to do with it? Should I just return the gifts and use the store credit on something we need as a family? Should I forward any package back to my father’s home? Unless this would be unhelpful? My instinct is transparency, but I don’t know if that will do more harm than good at this age.

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—Can’t You Do Better This Time Around

Dear CYDBTTA,

Hopefully, they will send a birthday present for your son this year. If they don’t, but send something for your daughter again, return it and get something for them both.

I think your signoff says a lot about why this is bothering you so much. Your father, who has presumably let you down in some profound way(s), and his wife insist upon forcing their way into your space via presents, but can only be bothered to perform such a kind gesture once a year. This is forcing you to have an expectation of a person you have long known to be unable to meet your expectations. Now that you have communicated your needs to him, you are bracing yourself for the likelihood that you will be disappointed yet again.

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It seems that the only way you can avoid these feelings altogether is to shut down the gift-giving. Let’s say they get it together and do presents for both kids’ birthdays—what happens when they start giving them items you don’t approve of, or if there’s ever a drastic imbalance in how they spend on your son and daughter one Christmas? Having this channel open, even if only to give your children free goodies until they are old enough to truly learn the reasons for the estrangement, leaves you vulnerable to the triggers your father and his wife represent.

If you choose to allow the presents to continue, try to divest yourself from any expectation that they will be given in a way you approve of, and be prepared to make adjustments (returns, exchanges, and/or buying a gift for your son and saying it came from them so that he’s not forced to deal with the truth about your dad earlier than he can comprehend it). Wishing you all the best in your continued healing.

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• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I just turned 13 a few days ago, and my whole family was making a big deal about my “big COVID birthday!” I was super grateful, and this weekend we were even supposed to have a fun family “party” for me, but then my grandpa passed away. He had cancer for a while, and after my stepgrandma died last year, he decided to stop his treatments. My mom was heartbroken, and I tried my best to support her, but I’ve never been good with emotions. We knew he was going to die soon, but we thought we had at least another month with him. When he died three days after my birthday, we were all shocked.

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We’re back home after the (small) funeral, and my mom is so sad. She’s cried every night and is sleeping all the time. I keep trying to support her in any way I possibly can, but I can’t help but feel sad about my big birthday celebration! I know it’s selfish, but my parents have completely forgotten about my birthday. They haven’t given me the last few days of gifts (in my family we turn birthdays into a weeklong celebration, where the gifts increase in size each day), and I just really wanted to celebrate as normally as possible. I tried talking to my dad about it, but he just yelled at me for being a selfish teenager who is ungrateful. How can I support my mom AND celebrate my birthday with her in mind?

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—Not Trying to Be Selfish

Dear NTtBS,

Oh, honey. I am so sorry for the loss of your grandpa and for the loss of your 13th birthday celebration. Your special week was supposed to a bright light during this really difficult period of time, and instead, something awful that you knew was coming down the line showed up to take away what might have been the only thing you were truly looking forward to in the immediate future. You have EVERY RIGHT to feel disappointed, angry, let down, and frustrated. It sucks, it’s not fair, and this is not what you wanted to happen.

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However, you must connect those feelings to the situation that led to them, not to the people who are going through this with you. Your parents did not take your birthday away from you any more than your grandfather did; they are coping with a loss that is profound for all of you but especially devastating to your mother. We know from childhood that the natural order of the world is for us to bury our parents, but what I have observed from those who have done so is that the knowledge that it was coming does not protect you from the devastation of it happening.

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You seem to understand that on some level, as you express concern here for your mother’s well-being and that you want to be as helpful as you can right now. It is entirely possible for you to be deeply disappointed on your own behalf and to show care to her at the same time. Do not feel guilty for feeling bad; just because the loss of a birthday week isn’t as profound as the loss of a parent or grandparent doesn’t mean it isn’t painful, and just because you also lost a loved one, that does not mean that you aren’t allowed to feel hurt about something that seems silly in comparison.

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I want to tell you to consider marking six months from your birthday on the calendar and, when we’re a few weeks out from that date, asking your parents if they’d consider doing a half-birthday celebration since you weren’t able to finish your planned B-day. But I’m slightly hesitant. You’ll have to really think about what’s going on in the world, and in your family, around that time, and if it would be appropriate. If your mother is still in a deep cycle of grief, it may actually upset her to think back to this time. But if things are going better around the house, I’d also consider that a family that takes birthdays seriously enough to dedicate a week to them might be willing to do a belated celebration.

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That said, I’ll also add that one of the same reasons that you may want so badly to celebrate this birthday might be why it’s so difficult to do so. Thirteen is, of course, the first year of teenagerhood. In some cultures, it is a time for rituals that symbolize entry into or the journey toward adulthood. Part of becoming more adultlike is adapting to the realization that the world we live in is much bigger than ourselves and that the hugest events in our own lives are teeny-tiny compared with the grand scale of the universe. You’re not a little kid anymore. Though the people around you will continue to love you, they won’t be doing quite as much to protect you from being disappointed by the refusal of the earth to revolve around you.

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Regardless of what your parents do, or what you share with them about what is on your heart right now, I want you to know that turning 13 is special, that you deserve to be celebrated, and that you should be proud of yourself. Look back at the ways you have matured in the past year, in the past few years. Look at your baby and toddler pics, and see the version of yourself who couldn’t do any of the cool things you do now. Watch the TV shows that may have been off limits when they were too scary or “mature.” Make your own snack. Pat yourself on the back for being one year smarter, cooler, and better. You deserve it! Happy birthday.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have two boys, 4 and 7. About six months ago, she told me she wanted a divorce, and we’ve been separated since. It turns out the reason she wanted to divorce and was so eager to immediately kick me out of the house during a pandemic when we have two small children is that she had been having an affair with our downstairs neighbor. (We lived in a two-family house. He’s got the other unit.) The very same day I moved out of the house for good, my 7-year-old told me on the phone about how much fun he had playing in the yard with “the neighbor.” Needless to say, I asked him to put his mother on the phone and gave her the business about how unbelievably inappropriate it is to have your young children play with your new boyfriend hours after their father moved out of the house. For a while, I thought she got the message, but it’s still happening. The kids didn’t have any kind of relationship with this guy before. They knew who he was because he lives downstairs and would say hello, but that’s about it.

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—Cucked in Colonia

Dear CiC,

What your ex-wife-to-be is doing, in terms of integrating this person into your kids’ life somehow, is shortsighted and can have long-term ramifications for all of you. If you have not begun speaking to a lawyer, it is time for you to do so. It seems likely that you and your ex will require mediation to set terms regarding how new partners are introduced to your children, among other things. It is certainly stunning, in the absence of any abuse or cruelty, for someone to be so cavalier about how they negotiate the end of a relationship with the parent of their children. Because of how she is operating, I advise you to get all the support you need to navigate this shifting moment.

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In addition to legal help, I strongly urge you to speak to a therapist or other mental health provider. Your wife is doing something that is hurtful to you, and you must take great care of yourself and your spirit right now. Your kids do not need to see you lose your temper and disrespect their mother or to watch you unravel over time. You must manage your anger, sadness, or any other feelings that are brought to the fore by this divorce in the best way possible, because you need to be healthy and whole for them and for yourself. Wishing you all the best.

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—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My partner and I, who are in a gay relationship, are close friends with a lesbian couple. “Mary” and “Jean” desperately want a baby, and after some discussion my partner decided to donate his sperm. We have no interest in being parents but are happy to be uncles. Unfortunately Mary experienced a significant illness and Jane got laid off from work, and now they are worried they can’t afford in vitro fertilization. Mary is infertile, and Jane is already 38, so waiting until their financial situation improves might not be an option. Mary and Jane have now asked whether Jane can conceive a baby with my partner the old-fashioned way. My partner and Jane used to date in their 20s so it won’t be anything new. I totally trust my partner, but this is just too much for me. Am I being too old-fashioned? Should I let this happen so my two wonderful friends can become parents without spending tens of thousands of dollars?

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