We Do Not Hit!

Editor’s Note: This post was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.

Children are like sponges, always soaking up the world around them. Every little detail is noticed, especially when you least expect it. I have noticed this, for better or worse, with my daughter. From little mannerisms, to phrases of speech, my daughter imitates “mommy” and “daddy” more than anyone else in her life. This forces me to be on top of my game at all times—always vigilant so as to not model some horrific behavior that will only bring trouble for her. The interaction I witnessed between a mother and child today tells me not everyone is this aware of the impact their behavior will have on their children’s.

The topic of my last entry was on positive mimesis—this one will cover the negative side of imitation.

This particular encounter played out as follows:

A 3-year-old girl begins to “act out” and in doing so, hits her mother across the face. Her mother grabs the little girl’s wrist and smacks her on the hand—while at the same time saying “we do not hit!”

(While the negative effects of spanking [euphemism for hitting] are not the primary topic of this article, I would like to mention how opposed I am to the practice. Please look up as much data as you can prior to deciding “to spank or not to spank.”)

In the scenario above, the mother is not in fact teaching her child not to hit. Instead, she is teaching her child two things—both unintentional consequences of her actions. First, she is modeling for the child “how” to hit others. In this instance, she showed how to grab someone’s wrist, control it, and smack the back of the hand. Second, she is displaying her brute, physical force; now modeling “when” to hit someone. When her child gets bigger and is strong enough to control someone who is smaller and probably younger, she will more than likely use her own physical force to control and hit that smaller and younger person. More than likely, this will be a younger sibling and/or peer at school. The little girl may have heard, “We do not hit”; but she will more than likely copy her mother and do so anyway.

Rene Girard, in The One Whom Scandal Comes, writes:

To escape responsibility for violence we imagine it is enough to pledge never to be the first to do violence. But no one ever sees himself as casting the first stone. Even the most violent persons believe that they are always reacting to a violence committed in the first instance by someone else.”

In this particular case, the mother probably viewed her 3 year-old’s violence as “bad” because it was the “original” act of aggression. The mother’s violence—her “eye for an eye”—was good because it would “teach her daughter a lesson”. The reality, however, is that the 3 year-old girl learned the act of hitting from somewhere…and, more often than not, it is from one or both parents. So, who is responsible for the first stone, the child or the parent? Who will be responsible when the child copies her mother while at school, the child or the parent? Who is responsible when two siblings hit each other, the children or the parents who “spank” them for it?

There may not always be a direct correlation, but if I may use one piece of anecdotal evidence—my daughter, who is not spanked, never uses violence when dealing with adults, peers, or those younger than her. As much as I notice her imitation of me, I cannot help but think if I hit her in order to “teach her a lesson”; she would also imitate that at some point. I have no evidence to believe otherwise.

Where I used to see the most extreme examples this type of negative mimesis is when I worked in youth group homes. Part of my job was to monitor visits between parents and residents of the home. Inevitably, I would learn back-stories, histories, and, all too often, tragedies. There were stories of abuse and neglect—violence and madness—all manners of evil. Not to minimize spanking, but we are talking much more than spanking here! The kids I worked with for 8 years were the most abused of victims. And yet, they often became victimizers themselves. It was on one hand tragic, but on the other, all too predictable. In their situation, who is responsible? Given the dire circumstances many were in, and given that we are not autonomous beings but interdividuals (Girard’s term), I cannot conclude the youth were 100% responsible for all their actions all the time. As Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15 NRSV). I am certain the abused children I worked with for so many years felt like that many times in their lives.

My point in this entry is not to point out people’s behavior so I can then judge them—far from it. I am, however, dead set on pointing out behaviors that model “how to commit violence against others”. In doing so, my hope is that more and more people will acknowledge that all of us have this potential violence in us; all of us imitate each other and enter into mimetic conflicts. And all of us imitate self-destructive behavior from time to time. If we can acknowledge this, I believe we can then focus our energy onto positive imitation. When energy is focused on positive imitation of others, namely forgiveness, mercy, grace, peace, and love, real change can occur.

So, my goal is for those who engage in any form of violence—intentional or unintentional—to recognize the slavery it causes and progress toward a more peaceful “self”. In modeling peace, we free ourselves to experience true relationship with others. We discover our true humanness when we serve others wholeheartedly. Let’s start modeling that type of behavior. The sky is the limit as to how far humanity can go if we all begin to model peace.

MattMatthew Distefano is writing his first book on universal reconciliation and advocate for non-violence. He lives in Northern California and is married with one daughter.

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