Dear Walmart Dad,
I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ended up looking at the pictures of you dragging your daughter by the hair through a Walmart right here in my home state of Texas. They were all over my news feed, accompanied by one-sentence notes: “Can you believe this?” or “That poor little girl!” punctuated by sad face and mad face and broken heart emojis. I didn’t really want to look.
But here I am, writing an open letter (something else I never thought I’d do) to a stranger because this is my job, and that involved bringing up Erika Burch’s viral post where your daughter’s pleading face and your impassive one feature prominently.
I looked, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to gawk. I know what it’s like to be gawked at by people when a parent is punishing you in public. I grew up that way, except there were no Erika Burches when I was your daughter’s age. I grew up like your daughter, and it seems I grew up the way you did too (at least based on your “defense” for your actions).
You see, when the media came to talk to her, she said that you told her “[You] grew up just fine, do you see any of her hair missing?” So I’m going to do something else I don’t love to do and assume something. I’m going to assume that your parents did things like this. You wouldn’t be the first person to justify the continuation of it by saying that because you “turned out fine,” after a childhood of physical punishment like spankings.
And Walmart Dad, I know it’s tempting to think it. But dude, when you grow up with parents who think dragging a kid around by their hair is OK, you’re really not “just fine.”
People are fond of saying that kids need more discipline, and maybe that’s true. What they don’t need is punishment, which is what maybe you got and what your daughter got and what I got. There is a difference, believe it or not.
Discipline is an appropriate consequence for an inappropriate behavior. Punishment is an overreaction. It’s getting even. It’s wrapping your child’s hair around a pushcart like you did, because she wandered too far from the cart. Or wrapping packing tape around your kid’s head and marching her around town to get her to shut up when adults are talking, like my mother did. Punishment needs shame to be effective. It needs its subject to beg, like your daughter did. Like I did. It needs pain. It needs a witness or a scar.
And sometimes, those scars don’t show up where you think they do.
I know the birthright that is fury. The inability to understand why your kid can’t just do the thing you tell them to do. To act right. I know how it can bubble up and make you much angrier than it ought to. The temptation of thinking that a little public humiliation — and I don’t know you, but I know from experience that what a parent gets away with in public sometimes emboldens what they do in private — or private pain might be good for them. If it happened to you, maybe it was good for you. You turned out fine, after all.
But that. That right there: That justification is what means we didn’t turn out OK. That little voice at the back of our heads that tells us to lash out and breathes oxygen on the little indignant sparks so they flare up into rage. That’s not actually normal. It’s not healthy. It’s a lot of things, but “just fine” ain’t one of ’em.
I have never done what you’ve done. Even in my darkest, least fine moments, my anger has never manifested itself in physical punishment enacted on my kid. And I know you’ve got a lot of people tugging you in every direction. Telling you you’re a piece of garbage and jumping to conclusions about what you do to your kids when no one is watching. Then you’ve got the people defending you. They level their judgment at your little girl instead, who they are sure undoubtedly deserved what she got. On Facebook, there’s a woman who called your daughter a “piece of shit,” and I cringed with the same shame I did when I first saw these pictures. When I was serving my own little punishments.
I don’t want to call you names. I don’t even really want to judge you, even though that’s extremely difficult. I definitely don’t want to relate to you (even though a part of me does), and I’ll do a lot for this job but I won’t defend you.
So I’ll just tell you this. You and me are cut from the same cloth. There are good things about us, and there are bad things too. Maybe I’m wrong and your parents never laid a hand on you. So maybe I’m more like your daughter instead. And when it comes to the shame and pain we got as “punishment” from our own parents, we’re not just fine.
But we can both get there if we try.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below: