Spanking and Non-Spanking Parents
Most parents in Canada spank their children. A lot of parents take spanking for granted and don't give it much thought. They got spanked for being naughty when they were children. Now they've got children they hand the spanking out. What's the big deal?
Some parents feel more strongly than that about spanking. There's a group that feels spanking is an important part of bringing up children; not only a parental right, but a duty. There's also a group that doesn't really approve of spanking; wouldn't ever plan to spank, or do it in cold blood, but can nevertheless be driven to spanking and then regret it.
Finally, there are a few parents who feel that spanking is a very big deal indeed and wouldn't lay a finger on their children however maddening they were. Some of them have spanked a child once or twice and never forgotten it. Non-spanking parents aren't especially saintly or especially patient:they aren't all middle-class people with (or without) nannies; they don't all have loving partners, supportive families, nice homes or good jobs and they don't only have little girls or just one child each. In fact, there isn't anything special at all about parents who don't spank. They are just people who have thought about hitting children and decided it's got no place in their family relationships because it is unjust and it doesn't help "discipline" either.
Those parents care just as much as everyone else about their children's behaviour. In fact, a lot of them are rather strict parents who set clear limits.
I am a part of that non-spanking group, both as a mother and as a psychologist. I believe that spanking-or tapping, or slapping, or cuffing, or shaking, or beating or whipping-children is actually wrong. I also believe (and hope to show) that far from producing better disciplined people, spanking makes it much more difficult to teach children how to behave.
Spanking is a shortcut to nowhere. To get where we want to go with our children we need to take a longer route, teaching them with our heads and hearts rather than with our hands and belts.
Spanking has to be wrong because we all agree that hitting people is wrong and children are people - aren't they?
When a bigger child hits a smaller one in the playground, to get his candy or his turn, we call him a bully...
When a youth hits an old lady to get her purse, we call him a mugger...
When a parent hits a child to make him or her obey, is it really any different?
Maybe you will say it is different because that parent's motive is good. She spanks her child 'for good reason'; maybe even 'she does it for the child's sake'. But our society doesn't accept that 'good motives' can make hitting people right. A policeman who hits a suspect behaves wrongly, however keen he may be to solve a crime.
Maybe you will say that spanking children is different because it's in the family and therefore part of a relationship which is both loving and stressful. But that would make it perfectly alright for your partner to end arguments with you by giving you a good slap. And that isn't all right at all. If your partner did that he'd be called a 'wife-beater'.
Under Canadian law, parents (and other caregivers) can hit children as much as they like, short of doing them serious injury, but hitting anyone else is a criminal assault.
If any spanking is wrong, all spanking must be wrong. Lots of parents agree that hitting children and causing real pain is wrong but believe that what they do doesn't count because 'I only give a little tap'.
Of course there are degrees of wrongness. It's worse to murder someone than to mug her and worse to thrash a child with a belt than to spank with your hand. But that doesn't make the 'little tap' all right because it isn't the degree of pain that makes the difference, it's inflicting any pain (or 'sting' or 'smart') on purpose. Every parent will sometimes have to grab a child at the edge of the road or snatch a small hand before it can touch the iron. Sometimes that kind of safety action will hurt a child and lead to tears. But it wasn't meant to hurt, it was meant to prevent hurt.
One mother said, 'Don't talk about hitting and pain. You're making an ordinary slap sound cruel and horrible on purpose...' But when her two year old bothered her while we were talking she slapped him, and she chose his bare legs rather than his diaper-padded bottom. She did hurt him on purpose and it was horrible.
SO WHY DO PARENTS SPANK?
Children cannot be allowed to endanger themselves or other people or things. They have to be persuaded to behave in ways their parents can stand because if parents can't stand their children's behaviour, homes are full of frustration and anger and nobody has any fun. By the time they are through the toddler stage and mixing with other children at nursery and at school they have to learn the social rules that will make them acceptable to people outside the family as well. It's part of good parenting to make sure that a child can be a beloved playmate, welcome visitor and eager member of a class. So clear limits on the one hand, and positive discipline on the other, are so important that if spanking really did help them along we should all have to ask ourselves whether those unjust means were justified by desirable ends. The fact is though, that spanking doesn't help but makes that vital learning much more difficult.
The Evidence that Spanking Doesn't Help
Families who start spanking babies before they are a year old (and 63% of mothers surveyed in 1985 said they did this) are just as likely to spank them very frequently when they are four-year-olds as families which don't start spanking until later. In fact almost all four year olds are spanked (97% of a big random sample of British children), so spanking babies and toddlers clearly does not produce better-behaved pre-school children.
Plenty of spankings at four don't make for better behaved seven year olds either. Although some children are spanked less by that age, three quarters of that British sample were still spanked regularly 1 - 6 times a week and one in eight were spanked at least once a day. For some, 'ordinary spanking' has clearly not produced behaviour the parents found acceptable because by their seventh birthday a quarter of all boys and nearly as many girls have been hit with a belt or a strap, a cane or stick, or with any 'suitable' object that came to hand such as a slipper or a wooden spoon.
Whatever lessons those parents are trying to teach, their children clearly are not learning them. There is even some evidence from the British study that they may be less able to learn because physical punishments reduce children's IQ.
If caning or strapping in school had worked as the 'last resort' or 'final sanction' which teachers argued that they needed, you'd expect that one or two beatings would have been enough to 'teach a lesson' to any child. But until physical punishments were banned by law in state schools in 1987, their own punishment books told the opposite story. In every school that used the cane it was the same handful of pupils who were hit with it, again and again, sometimes as often as 10 times over a school year. Even if those were the 'naughtiest' pupils who 'needed the cane' most, being beaten with it certainly did not make them into better pupils who 'needed' it less.
But the clearest evidence that physical punishments don't help to produce well-behaved, socialized people comes from studies of murderers, rapists, muggers and other violent criminals who threaten the lives and security of ordinary people. The life histories of notorious individuals - Adolf Hitler amongst them - record excessive physical discipline in childhood. Studies of whole prison populations all over the Western world show that criminals who use violence against their victims almost invariably had violence used against them when they were children. If our society is becoming increasingly violent it is certainly not because parents 'spare the rod'.
If you still feel all that is somewhat different from what goes on in your family and that spanking, as you do it, really does help your children learn how to behave, try a small piece of research for yourself. Next time you spank a child who is old enough to talk fluently, wait until the row is over and then ask what the spanking was for. You will almost certainly find that s/he hasn't the least idea. The child will remember every detail of what happened, for weeks and maybe for life, but the nearest s/he will get to why it happened will be "you were cross" or perhaps "I was bad".
However carefully you tell a child why you are spanking, reason always gets lost in the feelings the punishment produces. A baby or toddler is as amazed and horrified when a beloved parent spanks as you would be if the family dog suddenly turned around and took a chunk out of your leg. At that age a child will often turn to you to make the hurt better.
A child of four or five is overwhelmed with rage which s/he dare not show to you and must bury until it can be taken out on someone or something else.
An older child is angry too but also deeply humiliated. The blow may hurt self-esteem much more than it hurts a backside. Those feelings leave no room for remorse or determination to do better in future. Spanked or beaten children cannot think about what they have done because they are full of what parents have done to them.
Do you, in fact, always know what you spanked your child for? In a lot of families most slaps are not really given to punish one behaviour or encourage another. They are given to relieve the feeling of parents who have been driven "too far"...
See if you recognize these as spanking situations:
We all know how maddening it can be to try to finish a chore against a child's whining. But could that child possibly understand that she was hit for "being maddening"? As far as she was concerned, she got hurt for crying. And of course her parents didn't get what they wanted either. Stinging legs didn't turn that child into a cheerful, trouble-free companion. They made her bawl.
A mother with a five year old and a toddler struggles onto a crowded train. She finally gets children, bags and coats organized into seats but neither child gives her a moment to relax. The older one asks a stream of loud excited questions while her embarrassed mother tries to hush her. The toddler explores everything including the arm-rest ashtray. Suddenly the ashtray turns itself upside down; ash spills everywhere and the mother wallops the toddler on the hand.
That child wasn't really slapped for touching the ashtray. He couldn't possibly have known that it was an ashtray, let alone that it would spill. He was slapped because the ash was the last straw for a harassed parent. Understandable? Oh yes. A useful piece of 'discipline'? Oh no.
If whining can be maddening, so can the particular noise brothers and sisters make when they are squabbling and fighting. That noise is often the real reason for slaps that parents think of as "punishment" for hurting little sister..."A lot of parents who don't spank often do think it's right to spank when children hurt each other, or hurt animals, so:
Pinned under his father's arm, the seven year old gets a spanking and as he spanks the father says "I will not have you hitting people..."
Does that child really get the message 'hitting people is wrong'? Or does he get a different message such as 'hitting people is a good way to make them do what you want but you'd better be sure they're littler than you...?
A mother tells me: 'I used to spank Joe quite a lot but once the baby was born I found that every time I spanked him, he spanked her. I spanked him for that too, for a bit, but then I realized I was doing to him exactly what I was telling him not to do to her. So I changed my tune. I said, 'nobody in this house is to hit anyone'.
The Dangers of Slapping and Spanking
The difference between 'reasonable punishment' and 'cruel abuse' is only a matter of degree. It's a thin line and, wherever you choose to draw that line in your family, it is easily overstepped.
The risk of overstepping that line lies in the ineffectiveness of slapping as a means of teaching your child, combined with its effectiveness in relieving your feelings.
A 'little tap' doesn't stop your child doing whatever is irritating you so you give a 'quick slap'. One slap doesn't work for more than a minute or two so you try a couple and it's because those slaps don't work either that they can so easily become the spankings which then tip you over that line into beatings or whippings and the headline horrors that turn all our stomachs.
You probably feel that it simply could not happen to you: that there is no way you could ever seriously hurt or injure your child. But do remember that even 'mild' punishment can cause serious injury simply because your child is so much smaller and more fragile than you and because young children's heads are big and heavy in relation to their bodies. A blow aimed at a bottom can catch a child off balance so that s/he falls and hits that head on something. A boxed ear can mean a burst eardrum. A good shaking can rattle the brain inside the skull so that the child you never meant to hurt ends up with concussion. It happens somewhere every day.
Do also remember that most of the parents who are prosecuted for cruelty would once have rejected the suggestion that they might 'go too far' as indignantly as you do now. They saw themselves as ordinary parents. They meant to do a good job for their children. They got caught up in a vicious circle of trying to discipline those children by force, failing and trying more force. A spiral of violence within the family, along with varying stresses outside it and within themselves, eventually pushed them over that thin line so that now they find themselves beyond the pale.
How Children Learn to Behave
Like other kinds of apprentices, children learn by being with you; watching and listening to you, imitating you, trying things out and getting them wrong, trying again and getting them right.... One day each of your children will have learned so much that s/he will be ready to function as an independent adult and maybe pass all that learning on to your grandchildren.
Bringing up a child to be a socially acceptable adult is harder work than teaching a youth to be a Master Carpenter because you've got to teach your child everything you know or feel about everything, rather than just your craft skills. But it's easier and more rewarding as well because you don't have to prove yourself to earn your child's love and loyalty. From the earliest months when s/he learns to tell you apart from everyone else, your baby will take it for granted that you are perfect.
Indeed you can't help being perfect for your own child because you're the only Mom or Dad s/he is ever going to have. You don't have to earn his or her love: you have it. You don't even have to work at hanging on to it because, during the first years at least, it's almost impossible to lose it. Your child is totally dependent on you emotionally as well as physically and that gives you such enormous power that you can, and must, use it gently.
Children want to learn because wanting to know is built into them. They particularly want to learn how they should behave because (whether it looks that way today or not!) they want to please you. But children can only learn at the pace their individual development, mental, physical and emotional, allows. So trying to teach them to behave in ways they can't yet manage, or expecting them to grow up faster than they can, stores up unnecessary misery for everyone. The very quickest way to lose the co-operation which is the foundation of good and easy discipline is to ask the impossible of your child and imply that unless s/he performs it s/he will lose your love.
At two or three your child does know that you and he are separate people but he isn't at all sure that he welcomes that. One bit of him wants to get on with growing up and become independent but another bit of him finds it scary and wishes he were still a babe in your arms. That's why you get shouts of 'me do it' one moment, and floods of tears the next because you've taken him at his word and left him to struggle on his own. Giving him room to grow up but not enough space to feel lonely makes this a difficult stage for you, but it's much worse for him. He gets angry and frustrated and afraid. He may throw tantrums, bite and kick. But it's himself he's angry with: his own smallness, incompetence and fearfulness. The more competent, in control and able to manage he can feel, the calmer and easier to handle he will be. And it's your constant calm and kindly control that will give him those feelings.
Two-year olds cannot be 'good' or 'naughty' on purpose because they do not yet know right from wrong or understand what makes the difference.
Why is it clever to turn out a sandcastle and naughty to turn out your pudding? Why is it 'dirty' to dabble in wee in a potty and 'clean' to dabble in soapy water in a basin?
Your toddler will be 'good' whenever you can arrange for her to want to do what you want her to do. Want those toys picked up? Tell her she must and she may easily refuse because she doesn't want to pick them up nor understand that she should do things just because you want them done. If she says 'No!' you can scold, shout, slap, reduce her to a jelly of misery, but you'll still have to pick up the toys yourself. But say 'I bet you can't pick all those up before I've tidied your bed...' and there's a good chance she'll do the job with no tears for either of you. And while she's doing it, she's learning that toys live in the toy cupboard rather than on the floor.
Toddlers grow up. By the time yours is three or four s/he will be capable of understanding most of your feelings and your rights, will be able to remember most of your instructions, and will be able to foresee the results of many actions. When s/he reaches that stage s/he will be able to be 'good' or 'naughty' on purpose but which s/he chooses will mostly depend on how s/he feels about you.
If your child reaches that stage of development feeling that you are basically loving, approving, and on his side, he will want (most of the time) to please you and he will behave (with many lapses) as you wish. But if he reaches that stage feeling that you are overpowering, incomprehensible and against him, he may decide that trying to please you is hopeless because you never are pleased; that minding when you are cross is too painful because you are cross too often and that loving you is too dangerous because you have so often seemed not to love him.
This is often an age for filthy clothes and filthy language, for defiance, and dumb insolence as well as for real sympathy, generosity and caring. Your child needs you to sort out the bad bits from the good bits and to tell him or her which is which. S/he doesn't just know that 'f...' is worse than 'fiddle' or that calling an adult a 'silly cow' is quite different from yelling it in the playground. Tell him or her. S/he doesn't just know that the trouble s/he took over your Mother's Day card lit up your whole week either. Tell him or her that, too.
Children need parents to explain to them about grown-up behaviours and feelings but they still need to be allowed to be children. They need assurance that one day they will graduate from apprentice to adult person but that in the meantime, however idiotic their behaviour may be, they themselves are loved and valued and everything you could want in a child.
Positive Discipline - Without Violence
People learn much more through co-operation and rewards than through coercion and punishments. Think of adults at work. A stake in the management together with piecework raises productivity because people understand why they're doing what they're doing, and the more they do the more they earn. But a bossy boss who docks wages every time someone is late or goes to the dentist doesn't have at all the same effect. Punishments don't motivate people to try harder or do more; they make people angry and obstinate instead.
Your child is a person and also learns more from rewards than punishments. The rewards don't have to be tangible things like money or sweets because what children really want is parental attention. They want you to notice them, talk to them, share your life with them.
At some stages, of course, a child will want all your attention and whine and cling because s/he can't have it, but at almost every stage children will do whatever they must to get your attention, and if certain behaviours guarantee that you'll ignore the child until they stop, they will stop pretty quickly.
Your Attention is Your Child's Reward
Who gets not just attention but candy in the supermarket: the child who is whining or the one who is helping? It's usually the tiresome child who is bribed to co-operate but if there are sweets on offer at all, they should really go to the one who is co-operating already. Who gets taken out to play football on Sunday afternoon: the child who plays quietly while you read the paper or the child who will not give Dad a moment's peace? It's usually the child who is being a pain but it should be the child who is being a pleasure.
Some parents deliberately ration attention and treats for 'fear of spoiling'. And that's sad because it's impossible to 'spoil' a child with too much talk, play and laughter, too many hugs or even too many presents, provided you give them because you want to. "Spoiling' isn't about indulgence and fun, it's about power backed by blackmail. The child who may be at risk of turning into a selfish, 'spoiled' person with no consideration for others isn't necessarily the one who is given a great deal but the one who gets whatever s/he does get by bullying parents to give in against their better judgment. So if you enjoy playing with your children and enjoy their pleasure in the things you do for them and give to them, don't hold back. You only have to think about 'spoiling' when you give in to prevent a scene or give things to make up for a shortage of love or time.
Your child-apprentice makes good use of all the time you can possibly give because as well as enjoying your company, s/he learns from being with you. However busy you are, try not to take shortcuts all the time.
It's quicker to suggest TV to a bored nine-year old than to play a board game with him. It's quicker to close a five-year old's mouth with candy than to listen to her story. It's quicker to give them a slap instead of explanations, too. But while all those shortcuts may help you through a rushed and stressful evening, they will not advance the real journey you are making with your children.
Teaching children how to behave doesn't really mean ensuring that they obey you and behave as you want while you are watching them; it means helping them grow into people who will one day do as they should and behave as they ought when there's nobody watching them and no chance that they will be found out if they do wrong. That means that you aren't just disciplining them from outside, but trying to help them build the kind of self-discipline we call 'conscience'. To build that, children need to understand each tiny everyday instruction or scolding so that they can fit it into the bigger pattern of how people should 'behave' which is forming inside them.
While you keep children safe, and protect others from them, you are teaching them to keep themselves safe and to care for other people. While you control them, you are helping them to control themselves. And while you explain the moral values - like honesty, justice or respect for others - that lie behind your orders and exhortations, you are offering those values to your children so that they can take them in and make them part of themselves.
Children Model Themselves on Parents
Do as you would be done by:
Practical Ideas for Avoiding Spanking
Above all - do talk. The people who say that children prefer quick slaps to boring lectures don't realize that children aren't bored when parents tell them what they think and feel and want. They want adults to treat them the way other people treat each other--and they don't want to be hurt any more than adults do. Much is made of the fact that other animals control their young with nips and blows, but are you rearing a lion cub or a person? Human beings have the unique advantage of being able to talk. Let's do it.
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