A Better Yesterday

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.  – Maya Angelou

My 17-year-old grandson was sitting next to me at dinner last night.  He looked over at me and asked, “How does it feel to look across the table at Dad knowing you used to beat him?”

Sucker punch!  We joked our way to another subject, but I want him to have an answer.

Dear Grandson,

How does it feel?  It feels bad.  I have reasons and no excuses.  Here is some insight into who I was and how it was in those times.

We follow the patterns we know in life until we learn a different way of doing things.  When I was growing up the cultural norm was to spank a disobedient child.  It was even common at school.  When I was in the second grade I ran in the school hall and was spanked by the principal.  In high school, the vice-principal had a wooden paddle with which he administered a “swat” to miscreants.  I went to the school boiler room in the basement with a few boys to receive that punishment.  I didn’t tell my parents about either spanking,  knowing that I’d receive more punishment when I got home.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a way of life in my family.  My father was a gentle man so the rod was used sparingly, but his hand was applied to my derriere with frequency because I was a bit of a trial to my mother.

“Wait ‘til your father gets home,” was another recurrent theme of my childhood.  Mom wasn’t emotionally or physically capable of determining and administering punishment until we were old enough to be “grounded.”  When I misbehaved, I waited with dread until my Dad got home from work, always hoping that my misdeeds might be forgotten before his arrival.

We were inventive about it.  One time my sister and I decided to put books in our pants in order to soften the blows.  Luckily for me, my sister was first in line and seeing Dad’s shock, I removed my book.  Oh well!  My sister was mad because it had been my idea and Dad was mad at both of us.

I felt more scarred from my mother’s erratic behavior than from the spankings,  so when I had my own children and wanted to change the pattern of my childhood,  I only changed part of it: I didn’t wait for Grampy to get home.  I took full responsibility and punished in the way I knew.  I didn’t do all of the wrong things. I never slapped anyone (although one time I came close.)   But I sent them out to pick their own switch from the big willow tree in the front yard.  I spanked them with a belt a couple of times.

Then when your Dad was in the fourth grade things began to change.  The Parent/Teacher Association sponsored classes on parenting.  It was a new subject for me.  Shame and guilt sat with me in those classes.  I didn’t learn everything then but I started reading and talking and changing. I’m still learning.

I wish I could take those years back from my children.  I wish I could wash their memories and their little psyches with loving thoughts and wishes.  But it’s over.

Your Dad is the one who first told me, “Sooner or later one must give up all hope of a better yesterday.”  I’ve given up the hope of changing the past, but I still hope that my kids can look at me and not always see the woman who “beat” them.  I hope they have lots of memories of the times when I was fun and silly.  I hope they know that I tried to be fair.   I hope they remember being loved and feel loved now.

You will make changes when you raise your children.  Each generation in our family learns more about parenting.  There isn’t a way for any of us to be perfect; or to be everything, or give everything that our child needs.  But we all wish to have that parent and I wanted to be that parent.

It’s important that “when we know better, we do better.”*


“Maya Angelou


  1. I have to say that though I remember…. I wonder how much is real and how much is the family lore created by conversations at the dinner table. I remember the boys doing the book thing….and getting away with it. True or a story created that became my reality? It’s all as far away in my memory as seeing you smoke. It was someone else in a different time and space, because it certainly isn’t the you that I know and love now. xxoo


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