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April 19, 2024

Crime and Punishment - or - Discipline via the "Berlin Bear"

Germany has quite a complicated history.  In 1949 after World War II, Germany was divided by the victorious countries (namely the US, England, France, and the Soviet Union) into four distinct occupation zones.  For a number of years, we came to know the French, British, and US-occupied zones as West Germany; and the Soviet-occupied zone as East Germany.


Berlin, Germany’s capital, was located in the middle of the Soviet zone or East Germany.  During this time, the city of Berlin too was divvied up and occupied by the four victors.  During this time, just like Germany, Berlin’s US, British, and French sectors became known as West Berlin, with the Soviet sector referred to as East Berlin. West Berlin was in the Center of East German (or Soviet) territory and surrounded by the Berlin Wall (from 1961 through 1989).


During this time, Bonn became the West German capital and East Berlin was declared the capital of East Germany.  Following German Reunification in 1990, Berlin once again became the capital of all of Germany.

The above explanation is to set the stage for this post.  In an earlier post (here's the link StayPositive), I wrote about my grandfather and the love of his life, Dorothy.  Dorothy had passed away of cancer when my father was two years old.  To help care for and raise their toddler, Dorothy’s mother moved in with the young widower, my grandfather.  It certainly must not have been an easy situation. 

They lived in Berlin (later West Berlin) in a condominium on the 4th floor of a residential multi-story row house, not far from the Olympic Park.  The windows of the living room and Great-grandmother’s room faced south and overlooked the private gardens of the condo owners.  Grandfather and dad’s shared bedroom faced east and overlooked a courtyard.  Here a playground was set up with swings, a sandbox, and climbing bars.  The bathroom, kitchen, and pantry’s windows faced west, this one too was overlooking another courtyard.  This one was used by the building residents to hang up their laundry to dry. 

My father was quite a mischievous, rebellious little boy.  In those days, corporal punishment was de rigueur (Sorry, I don’t know how to put this into plain English.  However, according to Webster’s dictionary, “de rigueur” comes from French and means "out of strictness" or "according to strict etiquette"; one definition of the English word rigor, to which de rigueur is related, is "the quality of being strict, unyielding, or inflexible." In English, we tend to use de rigueur to describe a fashion or custom that is so commonplace within a context that it seems a prescribed, mandatory part of it.)  So, to get on with the story, how can a little old grandmother dole out corporal punishment to a boy?

The Berlin Bear

I was told that my Great-grandmother would resort to grabbing a typical reed carpet beater to swat my father’s bottom. Seeing her armed with the carpet beater, my father in turn would try to escape and outrun her, and be chased around the kitchen table by her.    With Grandpa’s wry sense of humor, he had named the carpet beater the “Berlin Bear”.   

Berlin Bear

Grandpa’s “Berlin Bear” was actually named after the symbol of the city of Berlin: a Bear.  The Bear (not the carpet beater) has been found on Berlin’s coat of arms in one form or another since the mid-1200s and continues to be the city’s mascot to this very day.

Berlin Bear
Like any mischievous child, my father would try to hide from my Great-grandmother, to avoid being whacked by the Berlin Bear.  One day, he decided to hide from her in the pantry.  Hearing the boy giggling to himself thinking he had outsmarted Great-grandmother, she quietly approached the pantry and locked its door.  Yes, the pantry door had a lock and key!  That will teach him a lesson! 

Pantry Jail

Thus, my father was locked up in "pantry jail".  The pantry was sparsely stocked, as food was being rationed in 1930s Germany.  However, the shelves contained a few jars of vegetables and fruit they had grown in the garden that Great-grandma had “put up”, or preserved: turnips, carrots, beans, peas, apples, pears, etc.

Berlin Bear

A neighbor lady knocked on the apartment door to tell Great-grandmother that the local grocers had just received delivery of new food rations.  The ladies quickly decided to join the queue that formed to purchase some of these precious groceries.  When they returned home a while later, there was quite a commotion outside of the building.  With a flurry of excitement, several neighbors ran up to Great-grandmother with the news of the latest calamity!

How to Entertain Oneself in Pantry-Jail?

It appears, that my father quickly grew bored being locked up in pantry jail.  He considered different ways to amuse himself. His mouth was watering, when he saw a jar of preserved cherries.  He tried to pry off the jar's lid with his little fingers.  To no avail.  The rubber seal placed between the jar and its lid would not budge.

Rubber seal for canned preserves

He found a hammer in grandpa’s toolbox.  But smashing the glass jar would leave glass fragments in the precious cherries.  He did not want to risk eating those and cutting his tongue or worse!

So he looked on the shelves, to see if the special tool to open the jars was accidentally left in the pantry.

Glass jar opener

This was the tool they used to open the jars.  The wire loop was placed up against the rubber seal, the screw at the right end of the handle would be turned, to tighten the wire.  Once the wire slid under the rubber gasket and a wee bit of air was let in, the lid would loosen. Alas, the jar opener was in the kitchen cabinet, and not in the pantry.

He looked around.  How else to amuse oneself?  The tiny open window in the pantry was too far off the ground for him to peer out of the window and observe the neighborhood.  Every once in a while, he saw a bird fly by.  He decided not to climb on the pantry shelves to catch a better view, as they would not have supported his weight he reasoned.  There no longer were any crates to climb on, as he had just helped grandpa to move them into the cellar days before.

Then he came upon the brilliant idea to teach himself how to juggle like he saw at the circus that summer.  No balls handy?  No problem.  The potatoes in the potato box would serve this exercise well.  First, he started with two potatoes and quickly graduated to three.  But when he added the fourth, one of them disappeared through the small open pantry window.  Oops.  But wait.  That was fascinating.  The potato had flown upwards out of the window and then he briefly saw it again as it made the arch of its descent.  Let’s see that again, as he tossed another potato out the window. This is so cool, he thought to himself.  One by one, he repeated the exercise.

All of a sudden, he heard a lot of yelling and a great commotion in the courtyard.  The neighbors discovered that it was raining potatoes from the 4th story pantry window, soiling the freshly washed white sheets drying in the courtyard below!

“Der verdammte Bengel wirft all die Kartoffeln aus dem Fenster!”  (That damn kid is throwing all of the potatoes out the window!)

To borrow the phrase from the Canadian Comedian, Russel Peters: "Somebody Gonna Get a Hurt Real Bad!!" (<<check out the link).

That evening the Berlin Bear went dancing on my father’s seat.

- - - - I can see the funny side to what happened above.  On the other side of the coin, though, from my grandfather's and great grandmother's perspective during this era, when food was quite scarce and being rationed, punishment was definitely on the menu.

From the Berlin Bear to the Wooden Spoon

As a parent, what would you have done?  Is spanking your child the answer?  Does it lead to future violence?  What else can a parent do?

From my own experience, I must confess, that spanking certainly was the primary method that both my parents employed.  Although, in their case, it was not the Berlin Bear, rather the dreaded “Wooden Spoon”.  My dad would grab a regular wooden spoon like this one.

Wooden spoon

 Whereas my mother preferred to use the one with the hole in the middle.


Berlin Bear

I mention both types because my parents also had the bizarre child-rearing habit of spanking both my older brother and me for the same infraction either one of us committed.  Their explanation to us was based on the buddy system, to help one another, to watch out for one another, and to protect one another.  My parents told us “you two are responsible for one another and have to keep your sibling out of trouble.”  

So, if my brother was naughty or “bad”, both of us got it, and vice versa.  Not fair, was it?  In fact, after a whupping, my brother and I would count the welts on the other’s seat and in order to confirm if we had received equal punishment.  The wooden spoon with the hole in the middle caused more discomfort, as its surface was flat, but it also left a peculiar, yet temporary mark behind, which was easier to count.

Either one would dance on our bare bottom, with no fabric in between to lighten the blows. Ouch!  Before the spanking began, my father would always say: "This will hurt me more, than it will hurt you."  However, I was never convinced to that!  There were times after a spanking when we were not able to sit down for a few hours.  Pretty brutal.

Did this type of “behavior modification” work?  I don’t think so, as we were not "bad", undisciplined, vicious, or mean children.  Did it scar us for life?  No.  However, it certainly made me brutally aware not to perpetuate that kind of violence.  I remember how physically painful and unjust this method was.  

A Different Approach

As a parent, I was keen to explore different methods for correcting behavior and handing out punishment.  When my husband shared with me that his parents would withdraw privileges or send him to his room, I initially questioned those methods.  I reasoned that had my parents sent me to my room, I would have just played with my dolls and forgotten all about my transgression.

However withdrawing privileges, that certainly was an interesting approach.  Discouraging negative behavior with a frown, a disapproving look, a sad or disapproving look works really well with a small child, as can rewarding good behavior with a smile, a hug, a kiss, a loving caress on the cheek, a cuddle.  

As far as withdrawing privileges, confiscating a favorite toy, and placing it on the top shelf of the bookcase worked really well with our son.  We would explain, why the behavior was not acceptable and what would have been a better behavior.  The “punishment” was that the toy would remain up there within his sight for a few hours or at most a couple of days.  He would have to exhibit good behavior to “earn” the toy back.

One time, when my son was about five years old, I punished him by sending him to his room for a transgression and I suggested that while he was there to tidy up and pick up his toys.  Today, I really cannot recall, what the transgression was.  However, after about half an hour, I decided to go to his room to check on him and talk to him about if he thought about what he had done wrong and how he would behave differently in the future.  

As I opened the door, I spied him blissfully playing with his Legos in the middle of his even messier room.  Nothing had been tidied up!  It looked like a tornado had struck.  In fact, the scene was more chaotic, than when I had sent him there in the first place.

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, “I thought I had asked you to clean up your room?  Did you think about your behavior?” – “Yes, I did.  I did not do anything wrong, and I would do it again.” – “Oh, really?” – “Yes, really!”  - - “What about cleaning up your room?” - - “This is my room.  I like it like this!” – “Listen here, young man.  You don’t talk to your mother like that!  If I had spoken to my mother like that, I would have gotten spanked with the wooden spoon!” His next response absolutely flabbergasted me. “Don’t tell me about your private hell.” I could not believe my ears, this was out of the mouth of a five-year-old!  I left the room, to collect myself and think about the whole episode.

Had I been unreasonable to want to punish him?  Had I been looking at his transgression through the eyes of my own parents?  I reflected on the times when I had been punished unjustly by my own parents.  At the time, I swore to myself, that I would do things differently as a parent.  

I have learned, that being a parent is not an easy task.  We must set a good example as a parent, explain different choices to a child, point out a bad, good and better choice and thus guide our children to make the right decision.  For sure, that takes more time, patience and self-discipline, than responding with a slap or a spanking.  

And the bottom line is this: reward good behavior with a smile, a hug, a kiss, a loving caress on the cheek, a cuddle.  This will lead them to make better decisions, right choices.  The best things we can give our children are our time, love, compassion, guidance, understanding, and lots and lots of hugs.  


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  1. The story of the wooden spoon with the hole in it is gut-wrenching :(

    1. The ugly truth. Nowadays it would be labeled "Child Abuse".

      Children learn certain behaviors from their parents. When I was little and getting spanked with the wooden spoon, I told myself, that I would NEVER do that to my child. Growing up, I did not have any examples of a different approach my parents could have used to change our behavior.

      Sometimes I wonder, if my husband would have had similar experiences in his childhood, would we as a couple have perpetuated this cycle of violence?

  2. Version 2 of the room cleanup: it would have been hilarious for a 3rd person to witness when the room was totally cleaned-up by the kid... but the same mess was just transferred from the visible part of the room... to the closet. And the eyes of the kid yelled the biggest "NO NO NO NONOONONONONOOooooooo" as mom slowly opened up the closet door...

    1. Ha ha ha! Actually, what you describe actually did happen. The old "let's toss everything in the closet" clean up trick. Ha ha ha. It was either, toss it in the closet, or shove everything under the bed. Out of sight, out of mind.

  3. "Don't tell me about your private hell.": couldn't help but find humor in such bravado.

    1. Precisely, "J."! Ha ha ha. On one hand, I was trying to follow through with the discipline, only to get blindsided by this little whippersnapper! I had to bite my tongue, not to laugh out loud. Thus, I pivoted on my heel, and left the room. - - A 5 year old! Out of the mouths of babes! Where did that come from? - - And yet, in a way he was right. What did my private hell of getting spanked as a child have to do with him. So, his punishment was to clean up his room. Big deal. But, to him, there was no need to tidy up. He was content with his mess. Both of us had time to think about the situation in the mean time. Whatever the transgression had been, it was not earth shaking. - - But, still so many years later and I can't help but chuckle at his comment "Don't tell me about your private hell." - - It'll be interesting to see his parenting style when the time comes.


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