Disciplining Love

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:1-4

I am sure when St. Paul wrote these instructions to the children of Ephesus, he did not know what it was like to be one.

I grew up in a household where Catholic virtues were ingrained to the fabric of my existence. My father was active in church as a lay minister, while my mother went on pilgrimages without fail every first Sunday of the month. My brother and I attended a Jesuit school, joined catechism programmes, conducted social outreach, and recited litanies from memory. As a child, I had learned Bible stories earlier than how to read or write.

Every Sunday, we attended church like clockwork, donned in our best clothes and utmost behaviour. After mass outside the church, we congregated with our neighbours, and in a typical Asian fashion, swapped “news”: Neighbor X’s son got first honours. Neighbor Y’s daughter was praised for her violin recital. Neighbor Z’s twins competed in a math competition. My parents, also in a typical Asian fashion, flaunted our news: my awards in school, my brother’s sports medals, and other achievements both real and imaginary. I see my parents’ eyes glistened whenever other parents manage to put awry smiles on the faces and tell them, “You are so blessed to have well-behaved children!” before turning to their own kids, “Why can’t you be like them?”

Awards and accomplishments signified that our upbringing was done right. Whenever my parents were able to show us off, they felt that our accomplishments were also their own. Every social occasion and family gathering was an opportunity for them to exhibit us like trophies in a glass menagerie. The image of the perfect Catholic household — faithful, God-fearing, loving — was successfully cultivated.

But what was not discussed in those post-liturgical congregations was how much discipline was involved. It is an open secret in every Filipino family that discipline is the key to raising well-mannered and accomplished children. In fact, if children were not disciplined, it reflected badly on the parents. The degree or severity of discipline was founded on a family’s ideological, cultural, or, in my family’s case, religious leanings.

Source: BrianAJackson. Getty Images/iStockphoto.

My parents belonged to a generation where corporal punishment was fashionable. Like their forefathers, they have adhered to the instructions of the Holy Book: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” For them, discipline and punishment were synonymous that both instruments became inheritable for each family.

Performing household chores was our first understanding of what discipline meant. My brother and I took turns in doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, and cleaning the toilet. When plates were not clean, we lost TV privileges. When our beds were not fixed, we could not come out to play.

Soon, it was extended to our school performance. Good grades were rewarded with a trip to the bookstore or music store; poor grades meant no TV for the entire semester. While I excelled at History and Civics, English, and Religion, Science and Mathematics were my Waterloo. Hence, there were countless times when I could not relate to the shows my classmates were discussing. I’d pretend to know, but in reality, I was every bit jealous of how lax some parents can be.

As I slowly advanced to middle school, I noticed how discipline became more severe. Every minor misdemeanour meant “the flying tsinelas (slippers)”. Every infraction, a hard pinch on my ears or hips. Sometimes my bottom would taste the metal hanger or the bamboo rod. Each varied in degrees of hurt (sometimes the hooked end of the hanger caught my skin that it caused for it to tear, while the bamboo would hit the pelvic bone), but both were painful.

Going through my teens was one of my toughest times. I underwent a “rebellious phase” (not to the extent of wearing Goth, tattoos or piercings) that manifested as a crisis of faith. I read history books and studied the condition of humanity through time: the rise and fall of civilizations, the inhumanity of wars, the oppression and cruelty that perpetuated in other forms. I encountered Nietzche, Marx, and Rizal, whose writings had exposed religion’s follies, being “the opium of the masses”. It prompted me to ask questions about God, religion, suffering, and existence.

My newfound knowledge did not sit well with my family’s conservative values. I can’t exactly remember what we were arguing about but I recall how I once spoke to my father out of turn in middle school. My father, being a strict disciplinarian with a heavy hand, took the belt from his waist and rolled it in his right hand, first with the leather end before letting the buckle loose. He lifted the belt high enough that it would make me remember the gravity of my fault. I cowered in the corner as I protected my head, the only asset that kept me from losing myself. The crack of the leather on my skin ensured that my senses were awake. The next morning, I woke up with swollen belt marks on my forearm, torso, and legs. I wore a jacket the entire day as my school uniform was not long enough to hide these. When we had to strip down for our swimming class, my classmates gasped at the marks I sustained. I faked a smile and said I had a bad fall. What was most comforting to know was that my classmates and I knew that it was a lie.

In high school, I experienced another type of discipline in the form of rock salt and uncooked mung bean mixture. I had the misfortune of encountering these when I went against my parents’ wishes. Details were pretty blurry, but the pain was very vivid. The mixture was placed on a newspaper on the floor where I was made to kneel on it for a full hour. The hard and uneven surface of the mung beans dented and punctured my knees. However, it was the rock salt that defined the pain. Its sharp edges created the skin cuts, while its natural properties came in contact with the open wounds. To make things more challenging, a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica was placed on each outstretched hand, like Christ on the cross. I writhed in agony and begged for mercy as my father stood unmoved like the praetorian in front of me. After the ordeal, like Christ, I managed to walk only on the third day.

But of all forms of discipline, my mother’s was worst: she wielded the power of words. Mothers have this uncanny ability to dig all of your faults from time immemorial and hurl them at you without pause. Even when I was already working as a professional, I continued to receive her jabs. She began her litanies with themes about motherhood, respect for the elderly, the pain of childbirth and ingratitude. The shrill in her voice made her words seem like knives flying indiscriminately in all directions. At one point, I was accused of being “high, mighty, and arrogant” for using my education to point out her mistakes. Then, she would not speak to me for weeks until I apologized.

If I had to choose between my father’s primitive methods and my mother’s words, I’d prefer the former. Mortal wounds can always heal, but words remained in places that do not fully recover.

When things simmered, I asked my mom why she needed to hurt me. She replied, “Because to discipline is to love.”

I was confused with her reply. How can discipline be a form of love? With domestic animals, discipline came in the form of taming that involves the process of removing unwanted behaviour with the aim of abiding with the rules of the tamer. It involved a variety of time-tested strategies, from operant conditioning, rewards and punishment, and tools such as food, pats, whips, and muzzles in highly regulated spaces. Circus animals, for instance, existed in controlled environments that allowed them to be trained. If performance is the output, then the sales are the indicator. Higher revenues allowed for circus animals to have food and shelter, hoping that it would maintain or lead to higher sales. For as long as the circus animals trusted their trainers, discipline guarantees everyone’s survival.

Does this imply that love only emerges when there is a manifestation of discipline? Is the quality of love dependent on how a child performs, acts, or accomplishes, in relation to how the parent’s wishes have been fulfilled? Did I just accede to the notion that parents know best, and the children should just blindly follow that?

But each time I am met with the slap on the face, lash of a belt, or a volley of scathing words, the more that I am confused about who or what to resent. Is it my parents? Or discipline? Or this particular brand of love which is hinged on results? The fine line between discipline and punishment lies with the obsession to care about what other people might say or react, rather than for the child’s well-being. Resorting to punishment in the guise of discipline creates mindlessness and strips the creative capacities for a child to grow, in the hope that children will be tamed like animals. Discipline is clearly not a unidirectional process where it enforces one’s will to suit one’s interests. Love precedes discipline and not the other way around.

But it will be a while before my parents get to understand what it means to be a child. Come Sunday, I will have to put on my best clothes, go to church, and exchange pleasantries with the neighbours. My parents will continue to exhibit their children’s accomplishments. Meanwhile, I will need to play the part by putting up a convincing smile, while I conceal the black and blue patches on my forearm.

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