It seemed to have a life and presence of its own - - the ubiquitous wooden spoon, sometimes hanging on its hook on the side of the scarred kitchen cupboard over the sink, sometimes hidden in the narrow, dust laden space between the refrigerator and the wall, sometimes resting with latent threat on the top of the stove. The wooden spoon. It was my mom’s chief implement of order and discipline when we were growing up. The merest mention of “the wooden spoon” could bring about an instant change in behavior. Ever so occasionally, the transformation didn’t come quickly enough and the spoon would flash through space toward the nearest offending bottom – frequently making contact with retreating flesh. It was the kind of thing that stories are made of, stories of its stinging contact, of its threat, of its gradual splintering as it often made contact with a stair railing or a door frame rather than with the mischievous rump for which it was intended.
As we grew up, we found increasingly innovative ways to disguise and hide it, watching and waiting with conspiratorial giggles as we heard my mom muttering “Where is that spoon when I need it?” There were five of us. In her defense, I suppose she needed something and the spoon was fairly innocuous as instruments of discipline go. As years went by, and we grew too old for spankings, the terrible threat was reduced to the simple determination to find the spoon that seemed always to be missing. When we heard “I’m getting the spoon!” we knew we had crossed the line and the spoon never actually materialized.
My own kids used to get a kick out of hearing about their Nan and the wooden spoon. Hard for kids to imagine their own parents ever getting into mischief or needing to be disciplined. Funny how stories work. Early on, I would wave a wooden spoon to get the desired behavioral results. Later on I would count to “3” while the unspoken spoon-word hovered in the air and order was miraculously restored. Eventually, parenting classes that were never available to my own mother began to emerge in the ‘70s. I learned to “take my sails out of their wind” and to let go of my end of the “tug of war” when conflict was brewing. Understanding about the use and misuse of power in family dynamics became a tool in building family cooperation. Respecting a child’s right to make mistakes and experience consequences took the place of continual verbal “spooning.”
Now, I watch my grandkids. I hear their parents tell them to “use your words” as an alternative to lashing out with their hands and feet. Physical reprimands of any kind are not an option anymore. I hear their teachers telling them they have the intelligence to resolve their conflicts without hurting each other. I am learning to trust that they do. The strategy now is to sit them down together on the front porch and tell them they must find a way to solve their problem together. When they are finished we will be able to do something fun together. I leave them to it. Within five minutes they come indoors to report their plan for getting along and we are off to the beach.
I have a lovely, worn collection of wooden spoons and paddles.The most involved they ever get in family dynamics is when they are called upon to mix pancake batter or toss vegetables in a stir fry. They are excellent cooking implements – but not very good disciplinarians. Even wooden spoons can evolve into implements of nonviolent living.