To Spank Or Not To Spank?

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.

SPANKING

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

From Child Protection Worker to Mommy: Learning How to Let Go

I always said that working in child protection was like living the news. I somehow managed to maintain a sincere love for my job despite the looming mound of paperwork, unrelenting demands, constant feelings of inadequacy, and the roller coaster of fear, apprehension, and anxiety that I rode on a daily basis.

Anytime I told someone what I did for work I received the same response without fail, “wow, that must be really tough [hard, difficult].” How do you explain loving a job that has all the characteristics of a truly undesirable job (low pay, high stress, long hours)? I sought a job in child protection simply because I wanted to help kids, but that’s not the reason I loved it. Sure, I developed relationships with some pretty great kids that I will never forget, but it was my ability to relate to the parents that led to my unexpected love for child protection. The parents I developed relationships with weren’t uncaring people intending to harm their children. Just the opposite. They were people who loved their children and were doing the best they could with what they knew. They were people with amazing stories of childhood struggles, lives of hardship, and attempts to overcome parenting challenges. Some of them succeeded in overcoming those challenges. Some did not.

There were times when I found myself saying, “this situation could happen to me” or “this could happen to anyone.” The statistics became so ingrained in my mind that they haunted my dreams. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the age of eighteen, usually by a family member or someone the family knows and trusts. I saw parents struggle with feelings of frustration and anger that led to events that would impact their children forever. I saw relationships falter under the stress of having children and crumble, leaving the children lost in the debris of a broken home, a struggling mother, and custody disputes.

I left child protection to be home with my son after five years of service. Though I am removed from the day to day of child protection, I struggle to let go of the fear, to forget the statistics, and believe that my son will be okay despite the dangers that exist in this world. I recently read an article entitled, Our Children Are Safer Than They Have Ever Been, and it really struck a cord with me. I have been trained to anticipate the danger and to evaluate the worst case scenarios. It is so deeply ingrained in me that it feels natural to worry about the dangers that don’t exist in my son’s life rather than focus on the safety that surrounds him.

The mere fact that I know what could happen means that I will spend my energy ensuring it doesn’t. I am my son’s protective factor. I believe it’s the knowledge we have and the individual steps we take to protect our children that has impacted our communities and created safer environments for our children to play and grow. We know the dangers. We know ways to build their protection. We know how to teach them to keep themselves safe. Now, we just need to learn how to let them go. We need to learn to trust them and trust that the lessons we are teaching them will keep them safe. We need to let go of the statics, of the fear, and learn to trust humanity again.

JOURNEY PHOTOGRAPHY

Photo credit: Journey Photography