I had been working in child protection for a year and a half before I met the family that made such a profound impact on me that I continue to think of them to this day. I became involved with a little girl after an altercation with her father that left bruises. I learned of her life, her history, and years of physical abuse, or what the father called, “discipline.” This little girl was outgoing, bubbly, and creative. As she approached her teenage years, the scars that had developed and healed throughout her childhood began to surface in her personality, her attitude, and in the way she manipulated her appearance. Though she loved her dad, the relationship was marred by the fear and anger that was boiling within her. The father told me that he had been spanking as a punishment throughout her childhood, but as she got older, it no longer “worked.” He told me that I would not be able to understand until I had children of my own.
I have always remembered this. As I was attempting to console my screaming newborn and felt my blood boiling up, I remembered this. As I attempted to repeatedly redirect unwanted behavior and felt the frustration building, I remembered this. As I took a deep breath and went inside myself for a few minutes until I could speak to my son without screaming, I remembered this. Yes, I do understand the frustration that comes with parenting. Having my own child has helped me to better understand the frustration he had to overcome. The piece I still cannot wrap my head around is the indication he was looking for to determine his discipline was “working.” As he lashed out in anger at this child who’s wellbeing he was responsible for, the punishments became more and more severe until the little girl began to cry. He viewed her tears and begging for him to leave her alone as an indication that she had realized what she did was wrong. I see this as an indication that he had broken her. He had broken her spirit. He had broken her trust. He had broken her strength and her confidence. She was no longer learning to decide for herself what was right or wrong, only learning what might set him off, and was ready to say whatever she had to to make it stop.
I recently saw a picture posted by a friend that had also been posted by thousands of other Facebook users. The picture is captioned, “a well-deserved spanking is not child abuse.” It’s true. Spanking is not child abuse in most states and there was a time when I would have simply agreed with the captioned photo. I can recall saying, “my dad spanked me and I turned out fine.” I can also recall times I saw kids loosing their shit in a store and thinking, “that kid needs to get his ass beat.” After years of working in child protection and witnessing various parenting styles first hand, there are a couple of things I think we should consider.
- In most places, the legal definition of abuse does not include spanking. The distinction between a spanking and abuse is usually bruising. If a parent were to give a child a swat on their bottom, there would normally be no indication of this only moments later and no issue from a child protection stand-point. Spankings can, however, cross into abuse very easily because they are usually given in a moment of extreme frustration and used as a last resort. At a point where parents are feeling the effects of the increased adrenaline (“stress hormones”), they may not realize how much force they are using and unintentionally cause harm, thus crossing that line into being considered abusive.
- Discipline as a means of teaching vs. punishment. There are two ways to look at discipline. The first way is to look at discipline as a means of teaching your child right from wrong. Children are born knowing absolutely nothing about the world. We teach our children how and where to walk, how to make and treat friends, how to manage their emotions, etc. Thinking about discipline as teaching, a parent might demonstrate, explain, and take things away that a child might not yet be ready for. Another way to look at discipline is as a punishment. This is based on the idea that the parent tells their child what is right or wrong and expects the child to remember and understand what they’ve been told. When the child fails to follow these directions, they receive a spanking as a consequence to reinforce more strongly the importance of what they were told or the importance of doing what the parent tells them. Many research articles have shown that spanking is ineffective at teaching children right from wrong. Often, the children remember the punishment and the way the punishment made them feel, but they don’t always remember the lesson. I was spanked as a child. I can remember those spankings, but I don’t always remember why I was spanked. I don’t remember each of the lessons they were supposed to teach me. Yes, I turned out fine. Some might say I turned out fine because of the spankings. Others might say I turned out fine despite the spankings.
- Some parents with young children have told me that yelling or spanking is the only thing that has an immediate effect and seems to be what “works.” The yelling or hitting causes their child stop in their tracks, no longer focused on what it was they wanted, but rather focused on the negative response. The piece that’s hard for us to anticipate is the long-term results, whether we are giving in with a reward or standing firm with a strict punishment, it is difficult to anticipate how our actions will impact our child’s personality and ability to make good decisions in the future. Using discipline as a punishment seems to miss the mark when it comes to teaching children how to make good decisions for themselves as they get older. Many campaigns have focused on “talking to your children.” Talk to them about drugs. Talk to them about sex. Talk to them about staying in school. I believe this is because many children are raised in a way that says they should or should not do something “because I said so.” Well, what if a parent didn’t tell a child what s/he should think about drugs? The “because I said so” or you get a spanking method of discipline might very well work in that moment, but it is not teaching a child to think for themselves and to be able to determine for themselves why something might be a good or bad decision.
- If the child is doing something so bad that s/he “deserves” to be hit then the parent hasn’t been effective in teaching them right from wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the parent is entirely to blame, I do understand that some children are more spirited (read difficult) than others. I have one of those more challenging children myself. But I would never give up/ give in to what my son wants thus rewarding his efforts because I know it would only make it worse in the long-term. Spanking seems like one of those things. I know that yelling at him or spanking him might get his attention now, but it’s not going to teach him the lessons he needs to learn to be successful in his life. And thats the goal, right?
Why do we continue to justify spanking our children, America, when many other nations have completely eliminated the practice (American Academy of Pediatrics)? Why to we hang tight to this form of discipline when we have numerous studies telling us that this does not work? I do not blame past generations for using this method of discipline because they did not know any different. They did not have all of the information we have now. They were not given alternatives. The internet is now exploding with alternative techniques. The libraries carry free books filled with strategies and suggestions. There are parenting classes available, and often for free, for parents willing to take the time. We want the best for our children. It’s time we admit that spanking is not the best. We can do better. You can do better.