“I was spanked and I turned out fine!” Uh…let’s talk.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have a strong opinion on spanking. It’s something that matters to me. I have been meaning to write a post about it but have been putting it off because I know it’s a highly controversial parenting practice and, to be honest, I’ve been afraid of how people would respond. Too often, I stay silent about things that matter to me because I don’t like to argue or upset anyone. With yesterday being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I saw the above quote multiple times and made a pact with myself to be more vocal about “things that matter.” I decided it’s time to put my fear of being ridiculed aside and advocate for kids like my education should compel me to do.

In church last Sunday, (in a sermon totally unrelated to spanking) my pastor mentioned that when he used to be a youth pastor, their goal was to “scare the hell” out of the kids. They would have them watch videos, tell them stories, etc. that would basically scare them into believing in God and following His word. He was recalling this practice with an attitude conveying he knew it was no longer considered a useful way to teach children. He said, “It worked.” Then, he held up his hand and spaced his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, “For about this long,” he said.

“Yes,” I thought. “Exactly.”

We no longer teach with fear anything we expect children to learn. Would you use fear to teach a child to read? What about math? Do you think scaring a child would make him learn his multiplication facts? Is that how you would want to be taught? No, of course not. Had I been taught that way, I would have hated school and resented my teachers.

We expect everything else — reading, math, science, social studies, art, religion — to be taught with kindness, compassion, understanding, patience. This is interesting, because the way we want our children to be taught is also what we expect their behavior to reflect — kindness, compassion, understanding, patience. So why then, when it comes to children’s behavior, do we, the adults, often lash out in a manner that contradicts the very way we actually want our children to behave?

I would argue that people do it because they are simply uneducated and inexperienced in appropriate and effective discipline practices for young children. I think many people spank because it’s how they were disciplined as children and it’s what they know how to do. It’s the “quick and easy” solution; it requires little thought.  Do I think parents who spank their kids are mean-spirited? Bad parents? Ruining their children? Of course not. I think most parents who spank genuinely believe they are doing the right thing for their children and I understand that mindset.

But, I also believe, based on evidence-based research and my own education of child development, that there are more effective ways to discipline a child than spanking and that spanking can do more harm than good.  Please don’t misunderstand.  Discipline is very important.  Our society just needs to understand that “discipline” is not synonymous with “spanking.”

I have outlined below some reasons why spanking is an undesirable and ineffective form of discipline:

1.  “Spanking” is a euphemism for “hitting.”  People call it “spanking” because it justifies the act for them.  They are conscious of the fact that calling it “hitting” would sound terrible.  It is what it is, no matter how instructive you try to make it sound.

2. Spanking says, “It’s okay to hit.”  It’s unreasonable to spank your child, yet expect her to not hit others.  Children mimic the behavior you model.

3.  Spanking too often leads to abuse.  Since spanking does not work to change behavior, parents often feel that since it’s not working, the solution is to spank harder.  Continuing with that cycle, spanking or hitting often gets out of control and results in abuse.

4. Spanking teaches compliance through fear, not responsibility — “It’s not wrong if I don’t get caught.”

5. Spanking doesn’t work.  It may seem to work in the moment, but the disciplinary effects of spanking are not long term.  The emotional effects, however, can be.

Consider this scenario: A five year old child, Johnny, is interacting with another child, Billy, on the playground. Johnny gets upset about something and, because young children lack impulse control, he hits Billy, knocking him to the ground.

Let’s pretend for a moment that Johnny is a child who is disciplined by being spanked. He has learned that certain behaviors are wrong only if an authority figure witnesses them. After hitting Billy then, Johnny quickly looks around, realizes no one saw him do it, and leaves Billy on the ground crying while he runs away to play with something else, happy he didn’t get caught.

Now let’s pretend that Johnny has been disciplined using positive discipline.  His parents have talked with him about his actions and emotions and have helped him understand right from wrong.  In this case, when Johnny hits Billy, his moral code tells him he has done something wrong.  He walks over to Billy, apologizes and helps him up.

The child in the spanking scenario is different from the child in the positive discipline scenario because he doesn’t understand why his actions are wrong.  He thinks he has done something wrong only if he gets caught. The child in the positive discipline scenario, while still acting with the lack of impulse control of a five year old, understands his wrongdoing after he hits the other child and makes an effort to correct his behavior.

I think it’s worth repeating — “spanking” is not synonymous with “discipline.” There are many ways to discipline a child that do not include spanking. Here are a few:

1.  Use natural and logical consequences.  An example of a natural consequence would be, if a child throws a ball over the fence, he doesn’t have the ball to play with anymore.  An example of a logical consequence would be, if a child dumps his milk on the floor, he has to help clean it up.

2.  For the very young child, redirection works well.  A young child cannot relate a punishment, like spanking, to whatever they did to receive the punishment.  It doesn’t make sense to them.  For example, let’s say a one-year old is playing with something he shouldn’t be.  Your best bet is to remove the child from the situation and direct them to something they can play with.

3.  Talk about it.  Explain to a child what they have done wrong.  Give them words for their emotions so they can learn to use words instead of actions.  For example, a three year old pushes another child out of anger.  You can say to the child, “I can see that you are angry, but it is not okay to push.”  Help the child find the words he needs to convey his feelings.

4.  Use positive guidance.  Instead of constantly punishing a child for doing wrong, notice what she does right.  Your children want to please you.  Help them know when they are doing so and they will strive toward that kind of behavior more often.

5. Model the behavior you desire.  You simply cannot expect your child to display behavior that you, yourself, do not model for him.  If you want your child to be kind to others or use a quiet tone of voice or eat their vegetables, you have to first show them what those things look like.

Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t. That’s okay. We all have our own personal opinions and I’m not asking you to abandon yours. I’m just asking you to set aside any defensiveness you may feel or emotions you may have surrounding the topic and look at the facts, the research. Don’t take my word for it. Consider the educated opinions of those who have dedicated themselves to researching how a child’s brain works and how a child learns, like Dr. Sears or the American Academy of Pediatrics. I strongly recommend Dr. Sears’ articles, “10 Reasons Not to Hit Your Child” and “Top Ten Discipline Principles.” Also, click here to browse through many other articles on the topic of discipline.

Tell me how you feel about spanking and why you feel the way you do. But, be warned — any reasoning similar to, “I was spanked and I turned out just fine” will be difficult for me to take seriously. Research has come a long way. You don’t paint your home with lead-based paint. You don’t use a drop-side crib. You make your child ride in a car seat. Let’s take the same proactive, educated approach when it comes to discipline.

If you’re still thinking, “Well, I was spanked and I turned out fine,” I’ll leave you with this quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

“It is true that many adults who were spanked as children may be well-adjusted and caring people today. However, research has shown that, when compared with children who are not spanked, children who are spanked are more likely to become adults who are depressed, use alcohol, have more anger, hit their own children, hit their spouses, and engage in crime and violence. These adult outcomes make sense because spanking teaches a child that causing others pain is OK if you’re frustrated or want to maintain control—even with those you love. A child is not likely to see the difference between getting spanked from his parents and hitting a sibling or another child when he doesn’t get what he wants” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2012).

Read the full article here.

Wait…I feel immaturity coming on.  I have to say it — I wasn’t spanked and I turned out fine!  Okay, now back to adulthood. 😉

Let the comments begin! I’m interested in your opinion.

Note:  If you think your discipline may be out of control, click here for a list of signs that you may need help. You may be surprised.

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12 thoughts on ““I was spanked and I turned out fine!” Uh…let’s talk.

  1. I’ve gotten more flack for my position on this issue than any other in my 40 years (20 of which were spent parenting!). Violence towards a child is never appropriate, and a society which condones it leads to violent adults.

    Astrid Lindgren, who wrote the Pippi Longstocking books, had some very wise words:

    When I was about 20 years old, I met an old pastor’s wife who told me
    that when she was young and had her first child, she didn’t believe in
    striking children, although spanking kids with a switch pulled from a
    tree was standard practice at the time. But one day when her son was
    four or five, he did something that she felt warranted a spanking — the
    first of his life. An d she told him that he would have to go outside
    and find a switch for her to hit him with. The boy was gone a long
    time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, “Mama,
    I couldn’t find a switch, but here’s a rock that you can throw at me.”

    All of a sudden the mother understood how the situation felt from a
    child’s point of view: that if my mother wants to hurt me, then it
    makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with
    a stone. And the mother took the boy onto her lap and they both cried.
    Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself
    forever: never violence. And that is something I think every should
    keep in mind. Because violence begins in the nursery — one can raise
    children into violence.” by Astrid Lindgren

  2. I’m proud of you for this blog post. I need to print this off and keep it forever! I know it’s hard for you to say what you believe and have learned and researched, but I’m sure there are some parents who really appreciate it!

  3. I totally agree with your post, and I love the reply from athirdandahalf about the author Astrid Lindgren’s story. I didn’t spank you and Kennedy, and you both “turned out” BETTER than “fine.” 🙂

  4. First off, the following comment is not an attack but merely curiosity. Were you spanked as discipline growing up? I don’t believe in spanking and use other discipline in my house. I was simply just wondering.

  5. Nanci, I agree that “spanking” is just another word for “hitting,” but I do have a couple of objections to some of the things stated. I have seldom spanked any of my four children, but will admit that they have all had a spanking or two in their lives. I know it must not have hurt Dave or Tina as they are both very loving, caring adults that have contributed a lot to society. Not saying it was right, but not totally agreeing it was wrong. You talk about natural consequenses, which I believe can be a great teacher, but on the other hand, if my child is in the street and a car is coming, I am not going to stand there and watch the natural consequences. i am probably going to grab my child (maybe not in a soft and gentle way) before the car has hit them. I may even swat their bottom because I am terrified and I feel it’s the best way to get their attention, but then I’m going to take them and hug them and explain why mommy was so upset. Also, I don’t believe that you can reason with a one, two or even some three year olds. Redirection helps with some children, but others have a one track mind. Time outs may help for awhile, but at some point they lose their effectiveness. I wish there were a one size fit all discipline, because then maybe we could teach all parents to disciplin the same way, and then teachers wouldn’t have to put up with such disrespective students. I can testify that 22 years ago when I started teaching, students were much more respectful of others, now a lot of them come to kindergarten already disrespecting athority and peers. Don’t know if it has been a shift in discipline or not, but I do know a lot of parents that really frown on any discipline we try to give their children which leads me to believe that very little discipline of any kind is going on at home. Like I stated, I think a lot of these ideas are great, but we also learn that every child is different and not one or two methods will fit all. I know you will be a great parent however you decide to discipline. Just sharing my thoughts.

  6. This doesn’t have anything to do with your post, just something I was thinking about and thought I would share for you and others with soon to be children or small children in their home. I was 19 and 20 when I had my first two children, and 38 and almost 44 when the other two came along. Maybe age is a great teacher, or we just look at things differently when we are older. When my oldest were young children I would get upset if they spilled something, dragged in mud, broke something…you get the idea. Years later when I had the other two, my perspective had really changed. They spill something and I just clean it up and say, it’s only spilled milk, no big deal, it’s just mud, let it dry and vaccum it up later, and when a ball or other flying toy hits something and breaks it I ask myself why did I have it out if I didn’t want it broken. I guess I took a lesson from the book “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff!” I do worry more now about them getting hurt and the dangers I have no control over, (I don’t think I was smart enough at 20 to worry about broken necks, there was no H1N1, and things like that) but my house is my children’s home, and they deserve to be able to “Live” in it, and not be sent to their rooms if they wanted to play. The house may be messy at times, there may be some spots on the floor, and I may be minus a few nick-nacks, but my children know that small stuff is just that!

  7. Cathy, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and opinion! Great conversation starter.

    You pointed out that your children were sometimes spanked when they were young and that they are now loving people, contributing to society. Like the quote I cited from the American Academy of Pediatrics states, many kids who are spanked do grow up to be “well-adjusted” adults, so obviously yours have lived up to that. However, it also states that the statistics are clear that children who are spanked are more likely to have problems as adults than children who are not spanked.

    I also like this point that Dr. Sears makes in his article about discipline, “But, you say, “I don’t spank my child that often or that hard. Most of the time I show him lots of love and gentleness. An occasional swat on the bottom won’t bother him.” This rationalization holds true for some children, but other children remember spanking messages more than nurturing ones. You may have a hug-hit ratio of 100:1 in your home, but you run the risk of your child remembering and being influenced more by the one hit than the 100 hugs, especially if that hit was delivered in anger or unjustly, which happens all too often, (Sears, 2012).”

    I definitely agree with your comment that there can’t be a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to discipline, or any other aspect of child development for that matter. Like you said, all kids are different and develop at their own pace. However, there are also LOTS of different disciplinary approaches to choose from, which don’t include spanking, to use for any type of child.

    Regarding natural consequences, clearly I didn’t mean that it would be okay to allow the natural consequence of a life or death situation to occur, like letting a car hit a child because she runs out in front of it. No one would ever suggest that. How barbaric would that be?! 🙂 However, you mentioned that you might spank in that situation because you are terrified. I understand, but, in my opinion, that would be unleashing my own emotions on the child and displaying a lack of self-control. This goes back to modeling behavior for children — I can’t expect my child to display self-control if I don’t model it for her.

    You’re definitely right about being unable to reason with infants or toddlers. At that age, they don’t yet have the ability to reason, which is why I believe consistent redirection is best for very young children. You’re also correct about kids that age having a “one-track mind.” That’s definitely a typical trait of a toddler. Some kids are more persistent than others and might require more patience and more effort with redirection, but consistent redirection has almost always worked for me with all the toddlers I’ve worked with.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and helping me to think deeper about the issues!

  8. I agree with much of what you have written. Spanking has become an “old fashioned” mode of punishment that is no longer accepted by society as an appropriate method of correcting a child. I was spanked as a child growing up in the 60’s. As a result, I did not become aggressive towards others, drink alcohol or become an abusive parent. I respected my parents and I learned what not to do again.

    The important part to remember is the emotions of the parent when using spanking. If you are frustrated, angry, upset, and you spank (hit) your child; it is physical abuse, no matter what they did. If you spank (hit) your child hard enough to leave marks; it is physical abuse. If you do this in front of others to humiliate or shame the child, then add emotional abuse as well.

    As parents, we all do the best that we can. All families have some level of dysfunction, there are no perfect families that exist. At some point, all children will challenge and push to the limit. What I find even more distressing is that people want to judge others for their parenting styles, but not get involved when they suspect child abuse. Now, to me, that’s a controversial subject.

  9. Reading the story about the little boy who brought the rock to his mother brought tears to my eyes!!! What a way to look at it from the kid’s perspective- I won’t soon forget that little story!!

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