Several weeks ago, a Raleigh man was banned from Middle Creek Elementary School after spanking his son, a student at Middle Creek, in the school hallway. The spanking and the subsequent exile twisted knickers on both sides of the corporal punishment issue as columnists and readers weighed in. For me, though, the most interesting assessment of the situation came from a customer at the Wilco gas and convenience store on Durham's Hillsborough Road. The man's wife was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, reading bits of the story out loud, her sympathies clearly with the child. Her husband serenely pumped gas, his jaw stuck out in amusement. "Aw, come on," he said. "Man oughta be able to whip his own kid. He was just giving that boy the Wal-Mart Special."
The Wal-Mart Special. Some famous comedian, I forget who, recently called Wal-Mart America's new woodshed. Which I can vouch for as the truth, on account of I spend a lot of time at the Wal-Mart. It wasn't always that way. For most of my adult life, I steered clear of superstores, with their anaesthetized sales clerks and corporate sheen. Then, nearly five years ago, when my first baby was only a few weeks old, I came home to Wal-Mart.
What happened was, the baby had colic. Not your routine evening fussiness, which is bad enough, but full-blown, plaster-crumbling, round-the-clock screaming. It was bad bad bad bad bad. The tabby cat holed up in the linen closet and spat at anyone who reached for a towel. The sweet-tempered dog chewed up and swallowed the rug in the entrance foyer. The lawyer husband left to try a long and complicated case. So it was me and baby Henry, the H-Bomb. One night, I remember, I got up to feed the baby and fell down the steps. I recall thinking, on the way down, that maybe I'd break something and develop an infection and the doctors would have to put me in isolation, sequestered in a cool, green hospital room. I landed unhurt.
A week went by. I took Henry to the doctor, where he obligingly screamed for an hour in the waiting room and another 20 minutes in the examining room. Chinks of mortar fell from the brickwork. The doctor approached the baby warily, like an exorcist. He prodded Henry's tummy and looked at me. I had slept maybe 12 hours in six weeks and his face came in and out of focus. "Nowadays we don't usually medicate colicky babies," he said grimly, writing out a prescription for an intestinal sedative.
I grabbed it and drove to the nearest drug store. Henry was fussing to be nursed, making little pursy-sucky sounds. The pharmacist was a tidy woman in a white coat. Her makeup and hair were perfect, her skirt crisp, her eyes alert and intelligent. I envied her the way you envy a supermodel in a magazine. I wanted her life. She took the prescription. "You understand, this will make the baby sleepy," she said sternly. I tried to understand. The pharmacist's words seemed like big handles I struggled to grasp as they went by. Sleepy? Wasn't that good?
When I bent to write the check, milk streamed down my arms, smeared the check, dripped on the floor. As I walked out the door, a clerk shot me a nasty look, got out the WET FLOOR sign and went for a mop.
That afternoon, I put the medicine in a cabinet and vowed not to open it. Still, a change had occurred. I had a colicky baby and I'd run straight for drugs. I wasn't going to be a perfect mother after all. I looked at Henry fussing in his little bucket seat. We needed diapers and a tube of Balmex. There was spit-up in my hair and my socks didn't match. My blouse smelled like sour milk. There was only one thing to do. Me and the H-Bomb went to Wal-Mart.
Now, four and a half years later, the whole family are regulars, devoted to the Ur-womb of one-stop shopping. Myself, I've come to understand that entire lives unfold at the Wal-Mart. I've watched people court each other in the hardware section, argue in household goods, make up next to the laxative shelf. I've witnessed family dramas unfold at the blood-pressure cuff, seen meltdowns in the seasonal goods aisle, heavy petting in the fabrics. I once saw a woman storm off into the parking lot after her husband insisted on buying a camouflage jumpsuit when she needed the money for a curling iron. Afterward, a clerk who had overheard the spat walked over and told me that just a couple of weeks ago he'd watched a couple about break up over a box of lemon-scented bleach. "I never worked anywhere," he said, "where you get to know so much about how to treat a lady. For real, it's been a learning place."
For real. And now that I've got two small children I'm especially interested in learning about parenting. Of course, I have at my disposal the usual sources of advice: grandparents and T. Berry Brazleton and Penelope Leach and scores of mothers who are wise and gentle. These resources are helpful, but they lack a certain authority, the gritty, real-life, hand-held-camera parenting you see at Wal-Mart. It was there, for instance, that I learned it's OK to open a bag of Cheetos you have no intention of buying in order to keep a child happy. That children will occupy themselves for long stretches examining the rifle scopes in the hunting section. That the wizened little man in lawn-and-garden means no harm when he gives your children handfuls of Chicklets.
The last year or so, I've been especially interested in seeing how other parents discipline their children. My own attempts at reasoning, dialoguing, cajoling, pleading, bargaining and groveling, I've noticed, sometimes fall short. Plus which, I was intrigued by that story out of Middle Creek Elementary School, the support that Raleigh father got for spanking his kid. So I've begun paying attention to the Wal-Mart Special.
I understand all the arguments against spanking, but I've always suspected there was something to it if you could figure out how to do it right. Most child-raising books, realizing parents are going to pop their children once in a while, offer grudging advice: Don't spank in anger; lightly smack the soft part of the fanny; always give a hug afterward. All of which strikes me as somewhat cold-blooded and, for the child, weirdly confusing.
Anyway, one day at the Wal-Mart I watched a woman spank her little boy after he pulled a column of greeting cards off the display stand. The child had been trying to get his mother's attention for several minutes, tugging at the hem of her skirt before he gave up and went after the cards. Another woman, obviously the first woman's sister, was clearly upset by the spanking. Her own child, a little girl, was picking up the toppled cards and tossing them into the air. The first woman gave her sister a hard look and said, "You better learn how to do it, missy thing, or you'll be sorry." Then, to demonstrate, she held one hand up in the air like she was taking an oath. "You just apply this" (pointing to the palm of her hand), "to that" (pointing to her son).
The second woman wasn't impressed. "Maybe you should give a class in whippin'," she said acidly.
"Yeah, well, somebody ought to."
I have no idea how to teach whipping, but I can give a pretty good description of the Wal-Mart Special, which goes something like this:
1. Prelude to a Whipping.
Every Wal-Mart whipping is preceded by a lengthy interval of misbehaving: whining, fussing, running wild, clinging, sleeve tugging, sulking, screaming or begging. Although this misbehavior is on the part of the child (whippee), it is occasionally performed by the mother's (whipper's) boyfriend or husband. In any case, it is the child who is whipped. (Men rarely whip their children at the Wal-Mart, though they may on occasion reach down and "pop" them.) The most accomplished whiner I've ever witnessed was a small girl who clung possum-style to her mother's back, waving a bag of gummy bears and sobbing "I wannum, mama, I wannum" for 15 horrifying minutes. During the prelude, the whipper becomes increasingly agitated and/or grim-faced. There are frequent admonishments to "act right" and threats of bodily harm, which the whippee either ignores or adds to his load of grievances.
2. The Pursuit.
Toward the end of the prelude, something in the whipper snaps. This snap is sometimes occasioned by a new form of misbehavior (like pulling greeting cards off the stand); more often it is a result of repeated low-grade agitation. Whatever the case, it takes the whippee one half of one second to register the change and take off down the nearest aisle, dodging shoppers, carts and display cases. Although the whippee is younger, faster and more agile than the whipper, there is in his panicked skedaddling a certain futility, rather like the doomed flight of a gazelle before the lioness.
3. Positioning the Whippee.
It is here that the water gets hot, from the perspective of child-care advocates, horrified onlookers and shoulder dislocation specialists. The whipper grabs the whippee by the elbow and yanks him firmly off the floor. The whippee squirms, buckles, kicks, flails and arches. If the child is large or heavy, his legs may drag on the floor; ideally, though, he will be kept dangling above the floor like a rug about to be beat.
4. The Whipping.
A minimum of three smacks, to the behind or legs.
5. The Aftermath.
Depending on the violence of the whipping, the whipper may be forced to deal with the reaction of onlookers. I watched a whipping two weeks ago at the Hillsborough Wal-Mart that stopped traffic on the chips-and-candy aisle. At the end, the whipper looked up, put her hands on her hips and declared in a loud voice that she had the right to hit her children any time she wanted and if there was one thing she hated it was people looking at her when she hit her children and it was a free country last time she looked and she had a right.
In the absence of spectator reaction, the Wal-Mart whipper lets loose a volley of verbal abuse on the whippee, the primary message of which is "I told you I was gonna tan your hide if you didn't act right." The whipper usually goes on to recite a litany of the whippee's immediate crimes, plus one or two generalizations about his character. The whippee is then hauled through the check-out counter and out the door.
The woman who spanked her son at the greeting card display was not without support. Although her sister objected, a third woman stepped in to defend the spanking. She held a box of scented candles in one hand and offered a brief homily on the benefits of a good whipping. "You see a young person that's got his act together," she said, "and that's a person what's had his hide tanned once or twice."
"Isn't it the truth?" the other mother said.
"Mmmm hmmm," the scented candle lady said. "And nowadays everybody's against it. You can't look sideways at your children anymore without somebody saying something about it. Corporate punishment is a disappearing art."