Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It's Not Just About Spanking

Rome visit, June 2008 - 57
Image credit Ed Yourdon on Flickr

"I just don't know what to do.  I don't want to hit her, but how else can I control her?"
"Well, I have found loss of privilege to be effective.  If she doesn't do what you want, start taking away things that matter to her.  Cut off any spending money, time on the computer, going out with friends.  Or you can always do a time-out."
"I tried that, but she gets so worked up.  You should have seen her tantrum the other day!  She came home from work and had a meltdown for no reason.  She wanted me to help clean the house or something, and when I said no, she flipped."
"Yeah, my wife does that, too.  The important thing is to never give in.  Stay strong and refuse to pay any attention.  Eventually, she'll stop."
"You're right.  I can't let her win, or she will just learn that she can get what she wants any time she cries.  I just feel like she doesn't respect me."
"That is awful.  Do you think her friends are a bad influence?"
"Yeah, I should probably limit her time with them.  Our marriage was so much easier before."

Even when we choose not to spank, it can be incredibly difficult to get out of the punitive mindset.  I know that a parent-child relationship has some differences from a marriage, but I still think that it is ludicrous to suppose that domineering, adversarial thinking is healthy for *any* relationship.  Looking to other forms of punishment such as time-out, etc., perpetuates the same dynamic as spanking, even if it is physically more gentle.  It is very difficult to change, though.  It is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we rarely notice the contradictions or absurdity of the way we relate to children.

Striking a child is a tangible act.  Emotional punishments are much more subtle.  Yet can we really suppose that deliberately hurting our child emotionally is benign?  How many adults still struggle with the shaming messages that they heard as children?  If we shun and isolate our children for expressing big emotions, can we logically expect them to confide in us as they grow older?  If we are constantly suspicious of negative intentions on their part, when will they realize that we are going to believe the worst anyway and stop trying to please us?  If we treat them as nuisances, how are they to know they are worth any more than that?  If we still try to manipulate them through rewards and punishments, does it erode intrinsic motivation any less simply because the punishment isn't physical?

One of the glaring problems in the dialogue at the beginning of the post was the focus of the relationship: control.  Control should never be the focus of a loving relationship.  "But I am the parent!  I have to control my child!"  Certainly, you have a responsibility to keep your child and others safe.  But if your are trying to control their emotions, thoughts and beliefs, or emphasizing control rather than connection, your attempts are misguided and will ultimately hurt you both, because you are violating healthy boundaries.  Instead, you need to respectfully give them tools which they can use to express themselves in healthy ways, and set your mind and heart on loving them.

But the Bible says that children should obey their parents!  Yes, it does.  That is talking to the children, not to the parents.  It does not say that parents should force children to obey.  In Hebrew, obedience means that one has fully heard, understood from the heart and chosen to obey.  Crystal Lutton has some great resources on this.  True obedience is like respect--something that is freely granted, not demanded or coerced.

I get that there are times (rarely) where we may have to require compliance when obedience isn't granted.  In those cases, we can make it as respectful as possible.  Think of how you would treat an honored guest in that position.  Maintain emotional boundaries--that means control your own emotions, not theirs.  Give them as much dignity as you can.  (You are much more likely to retain your own dignity that way!).

The truth is that every argument against spanking applies just as well to other forms of punishment.  We must renew our minds.  Jesus warned that putting new wine into old wineskins doesn't work out well.  Once we taste the new wine of grace based discipline, if we try to put it into our old paradigms of punishment and control, we are just asking for explosions.

Grace is about a whole new outlook.  It means treating my children the way I would want to be treated if I were them in that situation.  It means forgiveness, compassion and connection.  It means assigning positive intent.  It means that I don't have to be the bad guy, because we are not enemies.  It means finding ways to work together so that everyone's needs are met, and all healthy boundaries are honored.  It isn't just about spanking or not spanking--it is about growing together in respect and love.


Melissa said...

Yes! This took a little longer for me, when I quit spanking cold-turkey, I relied heavily on other punishments, then I slowly weaned myself off of them and I can say now that I truely have no need to punish. I would have never believed it possible, but respect and perspective have eliminated it.

shadowspring said...

I agree with you on this aspect: punishment is the wrong mind-set, and respect is the natural outgrowth of love that flows in both directions. Respect your child and love them freely, and you will find they respect you and love you freely.

The huge majority of the time, merely listening to a child and considering their developmental ability with solve most 'discipline' issues. Are they tired? Hungry? Is the request age- appropriate? Is the environment age-appropriate? Are your child's emotional needs met? There is much to consider.

However, there is a place for consequences. Time-out is appropriate for behavior that, left unchecked, will result in society enforcing an even greater time out! Violence on your child's part is a great example. They may be biting out of frustration, which you as a parent should hear and help resolve, but anti-social behavior still needs to be addressed.

Time-outs are not meant to be punitive, but are meant to remove the child from the frustrating situation and give them space to collect themselves and calm down. If someone is using time-out as a punishment, then they don't understand the concept.

By the way, I used to put myself in time-out when I was a young mom. I think it was a wonderful teaching tool. I would say, Mommy is getting very frustrated right now, and I need to go in time-out and calm down. Then I would go and sit on the stairs, take some deep breaths, pray, meditate, whatevs, until I was calm and self-controlled.

Cooperation, self-control, consideration for others are all concepts egocentric young children need to learn. Teaching is a good thing.

melissa said...

Thank you for this, Dulce. Avoiding physical punishment is important, but there are so many other punitive methods that we can use without even realizing it, because they're so deeply ingrained in our culture. This post have given me a lot to ponder!

dulce de leche said...

Melissa and melissa, I am right there with you! It is definitely a process for me, but a good one.

Shadowspring, thanks so much for your comment. I agree with so much of what you said! I think perhaps any miscommunication is in how we are defining time out.

The way I see it used by most people is very punitive. It typically involves forcing a child to sit still for a determined time period (generally one minute for year of age, but often more) and with the shaming idea of "Think about how you were bad!" It is intended as a negative experience that the child will want to avoid.

I wholeheartedly agree with removing a child from a dangerous or violent situation in order to keep everyone safe, and I love the idea of a comfort corner that the child (or parent!) can retreat to until they are calm.

To me, the distinction lies in whether it is intended to be a negative experience for the child, or a positive tool for the child to regain self-control. In the latter, there is no arbitrary time period, and not even necessarily isolation--it may mean a parent gently stroking a child's back while they listen to music together, if the child finds that soothing.

I like this pdf on it:

Meredith said...

Thank you for another wonderful and thoughtful post <3

Christie M said...

What a wonderful post. You posted what I have been a little afraid to post. LOL
Afraid because people think you are endorsing anarchy when that couldn't be further from the truth!

I remember just about a month ago re reading I believe it was Titus or Ephesians?? (now I gotta go look) about Husbands love your wives....Wives submit to your husbands, slaves masters, children parents. I have heard sermon after sermon on this....saying "This is as unto the Lord, a direct command from scripture. Husbands worry about husband stuff, wives wife stuff.... In other words, wives should say, "You aren't loving me!" and Husbands shouldn't demand, "SUBMIT!"
But I have yet to hear a sermon that includes the children.... obey your parents "as unto the Lord"..... and this is not something forced or demanded upon them, but something they will do out of love for the Lord and parents.
The punitive parenting model is so destructive. I find myself treading onto it sometimes when I feel "offended" myself....but it NEVER works in the long run. Oh, it may work....but now how we want it to. It will bring about bitterness.

Samuel Martin said...

Hi Dulce...

Really enjoyed this.

Thanks so much

samuel martin

Unknown said...

VERY good post! Sure gave me a lot to think about :D

Elin said...

I think you are right about punishments being other things than spanking and I also find timeouts as punishment offensive.

I was given timeouts (rarely) but they were to calm down and/or stop behaving badly and my mother would simply say that I should come back when I could behave better. My mother and father encouraged good behavior and if I asked nicely I might get the things I wanted at the store but if I yelled and screamed I never got them. Never. I quickly learned that it was useless to scream but that asking nicely was more productive, and isn't that so in real life as well? I think I learned something good from that.

Brianna Graber said...

Great post! I really enjoyed sum it up well- choosing not to spank is just an element of how we choose to parent. Our whole philosophy isn't about not spanking...not spanking just makes sense in light of striving for a grace-filled mutual relationship with each of our kids.

Anonymous said...

Okay, got the philosophy, but how would this look in a real situation? At a playdate, your child is bullying/hitting/shoving/biting... in the grocery store and he/she is screaming for something, pulling your hair, etc... at home and he/she's throwing stuff across the room, being naughty in general?

dulce de leche said...

Anonymous, those are good questions. It would depend on why my child was doing that. Are they tired/hungry/not feeling well, etc? Then give a snack or leave and take a nap or whatever is needed. Is it a developmental thing? Then teach them what they should do instead.

A couple of the scenarios you mentioned sound like a child who feels intense feelings and doesn't know a healthy way to express them. There are a lot of physical ways to express intense emotions (dancing, stomping, running, drawing) if "using their words" isn't enough of a release for the child.

In any violent situation (hitting, biting, hair-pulling, etc), the safety of everyone involved is extremely important. I would remove the child or the victim immediately, and if it was a developmental stage, I would be hovering and ready to intervene immediately so that no one got hurt.

I believe firmly in boundaries; just not in punishments. :)

dulce de leche said...

A link that you might enjoy is:

(The comments are great on this--full of practical examples.)

Bron said...

Hi there,

Thanks for this post. I'm just beginning to think through all this stuff. My little girl is 2 and a quarter and I'm finding punitive discipline is not often very helpful. I've only just started reading about a more gentle, cooperative approach. I read Barbera Coloroso's book Kids Are Worth It and I liked a lot of what she said. But so far with what I've read I'm having a lot of trouble seeing how to practically apply it during the toddler years - particularly early on when communication is still really developing.

Can you recommend any books that are quite practical and specific to the toddler age group?

Thanks :)

dulce de leche said...

Thank you so much, Bron! I am so excited for you and your family. <3 My favorite book for little ones that is *full* of practical, real-life examples and tips is Adventures in Gentle Discipline by Hilary Flower. I also have a list of my favorite discipline books here. :)