My mother worked with children for over 30 years. She describes her disciplinary style as “nurturing but strict.” Between my dad’s strong personality, high intelligence, and his parents’ neglect, he found a lot of creative ways to keep himself occupied as a child. So anything we even thought about doing, he had either done or thought about doing. I think many parents probably believe this of themselves, but I digress. Of the three, Nancy stands out as the most reasonable and effective disciplinarian. Nearly as strict as mother, creative like father, but she bested them both in consistency and structure. During the first several years that Nancy lived with us, she left us with little time to get into trouble. She came up with appropriate punishments and applied them consistently to any child in the family. She made reasonable rules, and if she made changes, they made sense and did not apply retroactively.
My parents strongly believed in the punishment fitting the crime, but often disagreed on the details when it came to living out that philosophy. The rules of the house and the consequences of breaking them changed frequently. Sometimes a rule seemingly erupted from nowhere, with additional consequences for not inherently knowing how to behave. They enforced most rules sporadically. If one parent disagreed with another’s discipline, they simply overrode it with their own harsher or more lenient punishment, or disregarded it. Like most children of the eighties, we got time outs. We lost toys and privileges. We occasionally got spanked. I think this one may be more of a cultural thing than an era thing, but we occasionally got “whupped” with a “switch,” or a long, thin hickory twig stripped of its leaves. For the worst infractions, we had to select the switch ourselves. It had to be just the right thickness, color, and length. Then we had to strip the leaves from it ourselves. Occasionally, the entire punishment consisted of the mental anguish and anticipation involved in choosing and preparing the switch. Dad still kept that switch handy for a few days to help us remember not to repeat the infraction. When we got “a whoopin,” he aimed to leave marks and make it painful for us to sit the next day as a reminder of our wrongdoing, without breaking the skin. And he never did break the skin. I say he because although mother might occasionally prescribe the switch, she never implemented it herself. That task belonged to father. Mother preferred a wooden spoon.
My teen years brought many changes. My parents were trying to learn how to function as a stable married couple, and we all had to learn how to operate as a family unit without Nancy and Ellie (we still saw them most days, but it’s different when you live in different houses). My dad was adjusting to life without drugs, learning how to be a full-time father and husband, trying to get to know this God who pulled him from the very brink of death, and rebuilding himself and his entire life. My mother was living with some serious health problems and had to take a prolonged leave of absence from work. And, there were three teenagers living under one roof.
Grounding became the punishment of choice. Grounding ranged from simply being confined to the house for a few days to losing everything in our rooms, including furniture, except for bare essentials, then being confined to our room for up to a month with no phone privileges, no visitors. This is where the inconsistent discipline really blossomed. Whatever level of grounding we originally received never stood. Within a day, the length of the grounding got extended or shortened, and might change again several times before someone decided we had learned our lesson and earned our privileges back. The severity also fluctuated from day to day and from child to child. My brother always received preferential treatment, but after Nancy and Ellie moved out in junior high, the favoritism exploded. He got away with things “us girls” never could, and when he did get in trouble he got off a lot easier than either of us. My sister and I felt like either she or I might receive favor while the other sister sunk to the status of “the bad one.” These roles usually lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before reversing.
We may have gotten jealous from time to time, but we never resented my brother for his position in the family. He did nothing to try to earn or gain special treatment, it was simply bestowed upon him. And whichever of us was on good terms with our parents always tried to help the other one out if we could without jeopardizing our own favor. We had kind of an understanding about that. On rare occasions, neither of us were favored and we just walked on eggshells together until they either decided one of us was worse or better than the other again, thus giving one of us the coveted position of Favorite Daughter.