Why not spank?

In doing some research for this article, I typed “Spanking” into Google, you would be amazed at what I found.  After about an hour, I finally found some articles that related to parenting.  The act of Spanking, aka corporal punishment, has been used for centuries on children and teenagers.  And I saw it last week.

I was standing in a hot, humid grocery store, with line-ups 5 angry people deep at every open till.  I was standing 3 people away from an exasperated father of 2.  This was a father who was clearly nearing the end of his rope and was on the verge of a meltdown.  I wanted to help him with either a kind word, a distracting question about ANYTHING, or just a hug to tell him that ‘this too shall pass’.  But I elected to say nothing as I sensed he was already feeling judged by everyone who had eyes.

After another brief altercation between his tired, bored children, the father unfortunately chose to roughly spank his oldest son on the bottom. He then delivered this classic line, “Stop hitting your brother!!!!” in a loud authoritative voice. Failing to see the irony of the situation; that he was hitting in a misguided effort to correct the behaviour of hitting.

When people find out I am a parenting ‘enthusiast’, I am often asked my opinion on spanking, a powder keg of a topic.  This time it was, of all places, around a campfire – the question hung in the moonlight, “What do you think about spanking?  Is it ok?”

I try to choose my words very carefully as I know spanking is a very controversial topic and I do not want to judge, alienate, or fire anyone up, especially not around a campfire.   Whatever side of the spanking fence you are on, I want to share my thoughts and offer some more effective alternatives to spanking.

For me, spanking is never an option I want available to me when I am dealing with a difficult situation.  But the response around the campfire was immediate… “Well, did you get spanked as a child?  You did?  You turned out okay…”, “Didn’t do you any long term harm…”, and then the debate escalated to “you know ‘these kids today’ don’t know respect…” Yada yada yada…..

What’s wrong with a little spank on the bum now and then to correct bad behaviour?  “It works!” —   “Spankers” will tell you it works!!!  In the short term, spanking stops whatever behaviour is annoying you, but what is the long term impact?

Spanking is hitting.  Somehow when this act is referred to as ‘spanking’ it feels more justified, more acceptable within the realm of raising children.  First of all, let’s be clear, this act is one human being hitting another smaller human being.  Spanking feels the same to a child whether the parent has love or frustration in their heart.

When it is an adult who is hit, we call it assault.

When it is an animal, we call it cruelty.

And when it is a child, we call it discipline.

If “Discipline” is defined as “to teach”, what are you really teaching by hitting someone else?  Are you teaching respect?

Let’s take a classic ‘spanking’ incident, one that may be played out over and over in neighbourhoods across this country.  A 4 year old child, let’s call him Billy, is happily playing in his front yard with his favourite ball.  The ball suddenly bounces onto the road, and Billy runs after it.   Billy’s mom yells at him as she runs over to scoop him off the road.  She plops Billy down on the sidewalk and WHACK, spanks him, and with a wagging finger in his face, asks him “How many times have I told you to NOT chase your ball when it goes on the street?  Now get inside – you are in time out!”

Can you picture this scene?  Billy is isolated away in room in a time-out, in theory, a time to think about what he just did, but Billy is not thinking about THAT.   Right now, he is thinking about how much he hates his mom, how embarrassed he is that she spanked him in front of Mr. Johnson, his favourite neighbour, and perhaps how he won’t get caught next time.  So the next time Billy is out in the front yard and his ball goes on the street, his impulse will be to NOT look both ways for danger and cars, but rather to look both ways for Mom, and then go get the ball.

What could have the parent done differently in this little scene?  Spanking tends to be always be REACTIVE.   Could Billy’s parents have been proactive?  “Billy, if your balls goes on the road, remember to come and get Daddy or Mommy, and/or look both ways”… Could the dangers of the road be explained to Billy?  Could Billy have been shown the dangers? (i.e. pointing out dead squirrels on the road and discussing the dangers of cars?)   Should Billy have been playing so near the road?

There is a plethora of evidence from lab coat guys that support the simple idea that “Children that are spanked tend to be more violent and aggressive as they get older”… well, of course they are!  They have learned that hitting is the way to handle problems – somebody hits (and WINS) and somebody cries (and LOSES).  But that child that was spanked grows up knowing that one day, one day THEY will win… and someone ELSE will lose.  The cycle continues…

When a child is in the throws of a wild temper tantrum, does a spank stop it?  Yes… most likely, but why?  Why does that spanked child now have a different look in their eye?  How could Daddy do that to me?  He says he loves me and says I’m his special little guy, but why did he do that to me?  After the shock wears off, new emotions will surface in that powerless spanked child.  Call those new emotions the 4 R’s… Resentment, Rebellion, Revenge, and/or the most scary — Retreat.

What happens when the spanking isn’t effective anymore?  What do you do then?  Much like bribing a child to do what you want, the price for compliance will have to keep increasing.  Since no parent is going to resort to stronger physical discipline, what will happen?  The child’s behaviours will become more unmanageable, now amplified with presence of the 4 Rs.  Frustration will only increase…. Could it be that spanking is the “default” reaction when exhausted parents run out of ways to handle their child’s behaviour?

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada, was asked to rule on whether spanking constitutes “reasonable force” for disciplining children, or whether it is a form of abuse – under section 43 in the criminal code of Canada– a section enacted in 1892.  Let me say that again, in 1892.

Well, without going into too much detail, still section 43 survives basically unchanged today.  Again… yes, there were some small amendments like you weren’t allowed to hit kids under 2 or teenagers (but 2-12 is fair game); teachers and parents are not lumped together anymore; you aren’t allowed to strike a child with an instrument now, ie. Belt, ruler, wooden spoon; and you aren’t allowed to hit a child in the face or head.   SO essentially, we are “disciplining” children like folks did back in ol’ 1892.

When a child is spanked, not only does self-esteem take a hit, but that parent-child relationship also takes a hit – trust may become a major issue.  The next time that child is in trouble, is which direction is he running?

Inspired from an often cited article by Aletha Solter, “20 Alternatives to Punishment”, here are 7 quick ideas to strongly consider before considering spanking…

  1. ** Check in with yourself – How are you feeling?  Stressed?  Anxious?  Tired?  Hungry?  Frustrated?  Is your current mood affecting how you are going to deal with this situation?   Do YOU need a time out to calm and regain good judgment?
  2. Always ask yourself when faced with a potentially ‘spankable’ situation, “What is my intention here?”  – is your intention to punish? (shame /humiliate) or is it help to your child learn to control their emotion?
  3. Turn your judgment into curiosity about the situation – What is the real unmet need here?  Can you change the environment or situation to ease the situation?  (ie.. give your child something to do to ease boredom in long bank lineup).
  4. Give your children choices rather than commands (blue pajamas or red pajamas?) – this will empower children and lessen the likelihood of a power struggle.
  5. Let your children enjoy natural consequences.  If you daughter wants to go out in the snow barefoot, she will quickly discover that boots might be a good idea.  As long as they are safe and nothing will harm them… let your son choose his outfit for school.   What is the worst that could happen?
  6. Remember to always phrase the behaviour you DO want, not what don’t want (“Let’s keep the sand IN the sand table!” “Walking feet by the pool”)
  7. Diffuse the situation with humour – laughter can help resolve anger and feelings of powerlessness

And finally you, as a parent and/or a partner of a parenting team, must commit to NEVER being a spanker – agree to never have ‘hitting’ as a viable approach.  The harm you inflict will last much longer than the hurt bottom.  Don’t buy into the notion of “these kids today don’t know what respect is…” – well, they do if you teach them.

Back in my humid grocery store, I can still see that little boy; red-faced, teary eyed, and embarrassed in front of a group of strangers.  He may not remember the behaviour that led to the scene, but he will never forget the result.  The boy will remember the flood of feelings that rushed through him; the fear, humiliation, hate, and the notion that “I am bad and daddy hit me”.

In that moment, if one was able to freeze time, like a “Keanu Reeves-matrix-style moment”, would that father, knowing how his actions would affect his child long term, still choose spanking as a way to handle/control the situation?   Would he want fear, humiliation, and hate to be part of one of the most important relationships in his life?

Think big picture, long term, and think about what YOU want your relationship to look like with your children.

“No Pain, No Gain” is not a slogan for parenting.     Your thoughts??  What do YOU think?

Until next time…