At my small private elementary school they opened a “store” at Christmas-time. That way, we kids could buy gifts for our parents (with their own money of course) and surprise them with things like an all-in-one adjustable screwdriver or a travel sewing kit. One year, I picked out for my dad an adjustable mini-hacksaw, thinking, “My dad saws stuff sometimes. He’d like this.” On Christmas morning when he opened it I’m sure he thought, “Huh?”, but he said something like “I love this Danny!”
For the sake of good storytelling, let’s assume that was the same Christmas my sister Sarah was playing around in torn gift-wrap paper and empty gift boxes. While rolling around on the floor, she found a piece of industrial style packing tape with her dirty blond-haired head. That was fine with me, because I was just minding my own five- or six-year-old business. Until she told my parents that the tape-to-hair fiasco came from my naughty little five- or six-year-old hands.
“Danny,” Mom said, “Why did you put tape in your sister’s hair?”
“I didn’t. She got in there herself.” (I can see, in retrospect, how my very true story looked shady to my parents).
“Danny, don’t lie to me. Did you put tape in your sister’s hair?”
I stuck to my story.
“Jeff,” my mom called out to the Enforcer. She explained the situation to him.
So Dad put me on time out for the tape-to-hair trick, and spanked me for lying about it. Of course, I got spanked and put on the bench unjustly. I remind my family of that occasionally. (They all chuckle, especially Sarah.)
Fast forward a few months. I did something wrong at school or after school and Mom found out (she was a teacher there). Before we left she did the classic, “I’ll let your Father take care of this” routine, making the ride home in our suburban feel like the grey-bus ride toward Shawshank. When we pulled into the driveway, Dad was in the yard, working on a broken sprinkler pipe. I had the window of the passenger seat rolled down to taste the last wafts of sweet un-spanked air. But all I was thinking was “spanking” “spanking” “spanking”. In the pre-cellular age of my youth, he didn’t know about his impending task yet.
So he smiled big and waved, holding up that mini-hacksaw, and said, “Hey, look what I’m using!”
He meant for the pipe. But, remember, all I could think about was my soon-to-be-swatted backside.
“No!” I screamed, and started crying (I wasn’t a very tough little guy).
My parents realized how my mind had connected everything and assured me that we weren’t in Singapore and that Dad was only planning to use the hacksaw on the pipe and not on me.
After that, the standard wooden spoon hurt a little bit less, considering the alternative.
All of this is to say that my Dad used to spank me when I disobeyed. The family rules were pretty simple for us: break our rules, we swat your backside a few times.
Apparently it worked.
My aunt Cory and uncle Roy (really my godparents) had decided they weren’t going to use “corporal punishment” on their daughter, Amanda, who is a lot younger than Sarah and me. Until, I guess Sarah and I behaved in a noticeably different way than other kids, and everyone agreed that discipline by spanking had a lot to do with it. Cory and Roy decided that discipline like that would help rather than hurt a child. (I agree, because all children are naturally disobedient.)
My dad spanked us, because a good father disciplines his children. And I have a great father. Of course, dad made a lot of mistakes, even when he didn’t know it (like, for instance, the tape incident). But he knew that dads should discipline, and that discipline should be memorable, and it should hurt enough or it won’t do any good.
But he also knew that a spanking should not be cruel. It might seem silly to even say it, but he would never have thought to use a hacksaw on my five-year-old butt.
I write poetry sometimes, and it probably isn’t nearly as good as I think it is. A little while ago, I tried to win a sonnet contest. (I didn’t even get honorable mention.) The poem had to be, in some way, about love. Here’s what I wrote:
My dad had never used that spoon before–
it had a hole centered in its wooden bowl.
My sister had done something wrong. “Now you’re
going to get a spanking, sweetie, though
it hurts me more than you.” So to her bare
rear end he slapped that shallow spoon; it snapped
with stinging force — she screamed and where
it struck a welt drew red, a circle like that
new spoon’s round hole. That single swat was all
dad gave. Because as Sarah cried, he dropped
that spoon and hugged her close; and through her bawl
he said, “I’m sorry, my sweetie, and I will not
ever use that spoon again.” So right there and then
he snapped that spoon in half with his bare hands.
In a lot of ways I think that this poem captures the love of a father. Love enough to spank and love enough not to be cruel. For a father to be a father there are a couple of things he has to have. He needs authority. He needs strength. He needs compassion. In small ways I saw these things in my dad, but maybe you’re not like me. Maybe your father bounced out when you were so young that you don’t remember him. Maybe you wish he had, because of how much he hurt you. Maybe your father was there and did alright, but you would never want to write a book about the good times you had. I could keep making generalized statements about possible foils to what a good dad should be. But the point is that all of our dads/fathers were or are somewhere on the scale of great-to-good-to-mediocre-to-awful.
And all of this is only a way of analogy, and none of it pigeonholes any of us to any certain fate.
Because there is another Father, in heaven, who ought to define what that concept means to us. Though our own father has influenced it in some way, for good or bad, the concept needs redefinition based on what the Father has said of himself.
Our Father in heaven is good and worthy of trust.