SPANKING - Questions and answers about disciplinary violence
Olivier Maurel

4 - How can we raise children without hitting?  

What principles are followed to teach a child without hitting?

The principles are extremely simple and can be understood by everyone. It is only in putting them into practice that difficulty arises. The principle of non-violent upbringing comes down to three words: respect the child. The practical application of this respect is also easily defined: treat the child as we would want to be treated. The bulk of what a child learns, he learns by imitation as if he were a mirror, determined less by what we want him to learn than by how we act toward him. Do we want him to know how to love? Let's love him. That he know how to show affection? Let's show affection to him. That he respect others? Let's respect him. That he be patient and tolerant? Let's be patient and tolerant with him. That he never inflict violence once he has grown up? Let's never inflict violence on him. That he have an independent personality. Let's respect his independence to the maximum. Understanding this is within anyone's grasp.  

What's the difficulty, then?

The difficulty of raising a child, of course, comes from the fact that living with a child, especially one who has a lively and active nature, or if you are dealing with hardships, can be not just tiring but frankly exhausting. All the more so if you have several. And still more so for the mother (more often than the father) who is alone while taking care of them. The mother or maternal figure no longer belongs to herself, which can cause her great frustration, even though she loves her child. Current living conditions, moreover, while undoubtedly more comfortable than the living conditions of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, force parents into life rhythms that are stressful for them as well as for their children. But the challenge one faces in not hitting is tied less to these objective difficulties than to parents' history and to the fact that rarely will all their needs have been respected when they were children. Hence, it is likewise rare that they will spontaneously know how to respect all of their child's needs. As Alice Miller writes, "Only by facing up to the fact that we were victims do we have any chance of opting out of the exploiter-victim spiral and giving up both roles." 1  We should therefore consider what are a child's abilities and basic needs and ask ourselves whether those needs were respected in our own childhood. Some parents don't know how to cuddle their babies because they themselves were not cuddled. Or they neglect their child because they themselves were neglected. It is good to be aware of such things and, if necessary, to get a psychologist's help to get beyond this difficulty and not cause our child to suffer the same deficiencies in the present that we suffered in the past.  

What are a child's basic needs?

These can be identified simply by recalling what the mother's body provided to the child before birth. A warm surrounding environment? He needs the same warmth, the same envelopment, and the same tenderness as suits his own tenderness, which is to say his fragility and sensitivity. Protection from shocks and collisions? He will need the same protection for a long time, and the protective role of parents is clearly undermined if they themselves are hitting him. A nourishing environment? It is necessary for him to have something to take the place of the umbilical cord: the mother's breast, or failing that, a bottle, along with the assurance that someone will tend to his needs for many years to come. Natural "cleansing" as ensured by the blood's circulation? For some years he will need his parents to keep him clean until he is capable of doing so himself. Relative freedom of movement? He should have all the relative freedom of movement that is commensurate with his ongoing development. Close communication and sympathy ("feeling for") between himself and his mother? Throughout his entire life he will need to have sympathy for others, and he will know how to share in others' feelings if those around him in childhood know how to share in his. Recognition of biological uniqueness? He will seek all his life to be acknowledged and accepted as a unique individual. Such are the elements of the "second-egg phase" which Marie Thirion discusses in her book Les Compétences du nouveau-né [The skills of a newborn] 2  and are absolutely vital for a baby during its first years. To the degree that we respond to a child's needs, he will understand that he must also respect his parents' needs.  

Pierre Lassus says the same thing in different terms when he defines the roles of parents using this mnemonic phrase: Protect, Provide, Permit [in the sense of allowing to thrive]. These are the exact functions which the mother's body carries out during pregnancy. The familial "body" which surrounds the child must carry out the same functions, while also offering models of behavior by word and, most importantly, by example.

Doesn't permissiveness have more serious consequences than a loving but strict upbringing accompanied by a few timely whacks?  

In reality, spanking and permissiveness frequently go hand-in-hand. Quite often one finds that parents lack consistency, smacking the child without really requiring him to comply with the order he is given. On the other hand, the use of violent means to make children obey may get results up to a certain age, but once the child can escape into the street, or even run away from home, or when his size and strength exceeds that of his parents, the parents are left without recourse. The child, for his part, if used to behaving only because of sanctions he received, is left without an internal compass and given to all sorts of influences. So parents are reduced to lax, powerless figures just when teens most need their affection and involvement.  

The choice, then, is not between spanking and permissiveness. What children need, as described by Steve and Shaaron Biddulph, 3 are the duo of soft love and firm love. Soft love does not mean letting children do whatever they want. And firm love excludes not only hitting but also verbal violence, judging, and threats. We will see examples of both later on.  

Doesn't a child also need limits?

The idea that children need limits is frequently argued by certain people, psychoanalysts in particular, as if limits were a good thing in and of themselves. As they see it, if the law did not prohibit things, such rules would practically have to be invented. They think that the child, driven by dangerous impulses, must have strict limits imposed upon him.

Undoubtedly, children should be informed of prohibitions that exist in the society in which they live. They must know the dangers of infringing upon them. Which is not to say that parents should always justify them. Some parents who live in a society overrun with multiple taboos should make their child aware of them, but should not necessarily oblige him to respect those norms, and it is even desirable, if they are absurd, to point out the absurdity to him. Aside from that, the only prohibitions that are desirable to inculcate in a child are those having to do with respect for others, especially towards those who are weaker. But these are taught mainly by the very manner in which the child is treated. It is rare for a child who is loved and who has never borne the brunt even of gestures suggestive of hitting will hit other children, and he does not need to be told not to. Or if he sometimes does it in imitation of others, an explanation generally suffices for him to stop hitting. As for the rule against incest between brothers and sisters, which does call for due vigilance, transgressions seem most prone to occur in families where there is not much talking, or where parents themselves create a sexually charged atmosphere because they do not recognize the boundaries between the kind of tenderness and verbal expressions that is proper to erotic love and that which is proper to simple affection, or perhaps when one child has himself suffered sexual abuse of maltreatment which impels him to establish a relationship of power over his siblings. But in a family where lines are clearly drawn between conjugal eroticism and parental affection, immediate and straightforward answers to the questions children ask combined with the simple fact of having been raised together, which, as with apes, inhibits the sexual instinct vis-à-vis brothers and sisters, are enough to prevent the risk of incest.

By not hitting children, don't we risk turning them into "little emperors/empresses"?  

It is wrong to think that hitting a child will keep him from becoming spoiled or even tyrannical toward others. A lot of children react to blows with defiance and arrogance and become veritable tyrants, not with their parents, but with their brothers and sisters and those around them. The hickory-stick approach, moreover, is often accompanied by inconsistency and slackness. What allows children to become respectful young adults, then, is having lived with adults who respected them as well as each other. In this way, the child acquires, without having to be punished or constantly lectured, the capacity to feel equal with others, neither superior nor inferior.  

Doesn't hitting a child prepare him for the harshness of life?

What prepares a child to face the harshness of life are good foundations, whose establishment is made possible by respecting him throughout his childhood and by responding to his need for affection. These are what give him the solid bases, emotional balance, clear intelligence, and fertile imagination that will enable him to overcome difficulties, whatever they may be. Being hit can only lead to he himself becoming an element of "life's harshness" 

What is it that makes someone prone to hit?  

Later we shall see the difficulties which have to do with the child's behavior itself and how they can be addressed. But we should first be aware that it is extremely rare that someone is prepared for the role of father or mother. More often than not, we have only the experience of our own upbringing. Which means that we are more or less inclined to raise a child by hitting, depending on the harshness of blows we received. Each person has this habit written into their body and mind. So raising their child or children without hitting will not be automatic. It will be easier for those who were not hit themselves. But even then, the example set by other parents hitting their children, society's general acceptance of slapping and spankings, or particular trials with one's children can lead some parents who were not themselves hit (or who do not remember being hit--though their neurons certainly do!) to go along with custom.  

Why is it necessary to ban hitting?  

The role of parents is a role attended by risks. One has in their hands enormous power over the child, and where there is power there is also the risk of abuse of power. When you drive a car, you are seated in a heavy, swift, and powerful projectile, which can do fatal harm if it is not driven carefully and if the rules of the road are not heeded. When you are a parent, you are a heavy, swift, and powerful being who can cause, physically and morally, fatal harm to a child. It is therefore necessary to set rules of the parenting road, since society has not done so, that will make it possible to live with children without crushing or colliding with them. This does not come naturally, if you yourself were crushed and collided with.

Isn't the best method of raising a child to "go by feel"?  

We would certainly like to think so. Unfortunately, the way we were raised seldom allows us to be completely ourselves. We are not always the true authors of our spontaneous reactions, especially when it comes to raising children. When we hit a child, is it really us who are hitting? Or is it our mother or father hitting through us?  

Doesn't a ban on hitting take away from having a spontaneous and natural rapport with the child?  

On the contrary, by accepting corporal punishment, accepting that a child can be beaten or hit, even lightly, we are actually renouncing ourselves. We are approving the blows which we received as children, for reasons we cannot even discern and which, as good as our parents may have been, were certainly wrong. It is a literal forsaking of our inner child. It is to turn away from his or her  suffering, which could never be taken seriously. It is to make light of our suffering, of our child's tears. It is to look down on those tears with an air of adult superiority in the belief that we have every right to hit a child. It is to amputate completely a part of ourselves, of what is most precious: our earliest emotions.  

So, when we decide not to hit, it is a ban we impose not on ourselves, but rather on the conditioned reflex we acquired from the first slaps we received. To not punish, to not hit, is to get back in touch with our true selves. As children, we did not like being hit and punished. By deciding to break with this practice, we become ourselves once again, we rediscover our deep need to have with others, and especially with our child, a relationship of complete trust, sympathy, affection, the same kind we appreciate having with those whom we love the most, and which we would lose if they were to start beating us.   

Doesn't raising a child consist of instilling rules in him, one way or another?  

In fact, for a long period, the child does not need any upbringing. He only requires that adults tend to his needs, protect him, and allow him to develop. "Respecting children," writes Marie Thirion, "starts first and foremost with respect for their natural rhythms and for the unique beings they are. A child's awakening and education will come from within, from what he wonders, because a happy, free, and peaceful child always wishes to learn and evolve" (Les Compétences du nouveau-né ["Skills of the newborn"], p.219). This idea is key upon reading Chantal de Truchis's book, L'Eveil de votre enfant ["Your child's awakening"] and Christiane Bopp-Limoge's, L'Eveil à l'enfant, Enfants/Adultes 4, which is based on the experience of the nursery of Dr. Emmi Pikler in Budapest. The double benefit of this method of awakening is that it never sets up the child to fail and that the child is allowed to deploy his abilities and discover for himself what his own possibilities are. What's more, it prevents the child from skipping stages of development, such as crawling on all fours, which are evidently important for certain learning tasks. In fact, as Norm Lee writes, "Children are born with the drive to acquire discipline in their own way" as needed to live, provided that he has good models. He should also be granted maximum freedom within safety limits. If the child, before he begins to walk, which is to say when we are obliged to place limits on him, has had his needs respected, it will be easier to raise him without even punishing him when constraints become necessary.  

What behaviors by parents risk creating conflicts?

Any misplacement of the child with respect to oneself is conflict-generating. The right placement of the parents is surely beside the child, neither above nor below, and neither too close nor too far. Putting yourself above the child, establishes a relationship of power over him. Examples: making yourself out to be infallible; judging the child; humiliating him; insulting him; giving him orders rather than inviting him to do things with the same respect you expect from him; not letting the child have any freedom or peace and quiet; nagging him; mocking him; teasing him; demanding his respect without respecting him yourself; claiming to "know" the child, which risks pigeon-holing him into a sense of self that comes from without. Putting yourself below the child is to assume a permanent state of powerlessness. Pleading with the child to do what he should; whining if he doesn't do it; giving him orders without making sure he complies; not taking your own needs into account. Putting yourself too close to the child is to not give him space; requiring constant shows of affections from him; not giving him free time; seeking to have an exclusive relationship with him that interferes with his other relationships; getting "on his nerves". Putting yourself too far, is neglecting him, not spending time with him; not cuddling him; not playing with him; not talking enough to him; not looking at him; being cold towards him. An inconsistent attitude, sometimes authoritarian, sometimes permissive, is not recommended either. Not doing what you say you'll do; acting contrary to what you say ("No, no! We don't ever say no!", or  "There, take that! That'll teach you not to hit someone smaller than you!"); to blow hot and cold.   

What behaviors by children frequently cause parents exasperation, and how should they respond?

Crying, and particularly the nighttime crying of an infant. Possible responses: find out the reason for the crying and remedy it; comforting and speaking softly; rocking and repositioning; taking turns being with the child; telling yourself (though the sleepless nights are long!) that it's a temporary phase that won't last for a long time. Some parents decide on "co-sleeping" (having the infant sleep with the parents, either on a mattress beside their bed or in the very same bed with them) and find it to be calm and pleasant. Humankind has spent nights this way for millennia. So the howls of protest that sometimes greet this idea are unwarranted. It can be tried, if it is tolerable. When the child is older and can be reasoned with: asking him why he's crying; solving the problem if possible; not telling him to stop crying, since he may need to; avoid telling him, "It's no big deal," since he is obviously pained. If the child cries continually, or "throws a fit", and if you've really done all you can and your nerves are frayed/frazzled, one possibility is to install a "cry room", which is any room in the house (not a dark closet, of course!) where the child is entitled to go and cry and where it is understood that he will stay until he has calmed down; the door is shut but definitely not locked, the room is lighted, and he exits of his own volition once he has calmed down. Do not send him there in a spirit of punishment, but very lovingly tell him the truth: the noise of his crying is making you a little tired, and if he needs to cry, he can go cry for as long as he wants in the "cry room." There is no reason why you cannot use the cry room yourself for the same purpose so that he will see it is not a punishment place. Using the cry room is different than the use of "time out," recommended in America, as an alternative to corporal punishment, and which consists of enclosing the child for a set time according to his age (one minute per year old). But here you start getting into punishment, which is best to avoid completely if possible.

This suggestion of the "cry room," which I made in the first edition of this book, is nonetheless only a makeshift solution, and it has been pointed out to me that it risks giving the child the impression that we are not attentive to their suffering. What Steve and Shaaron Biddulph propose, a "stand and think," 5 strikes me as more positive in that it requires the child only to stay in a corner of the room he happens to be in and to think about ways to solve his problem. It should not be framed as a punishment but as a moment for reflection, while really engaging his imagination. And it should be followed by a discussion with him.

Violent or aggressive gestures sometimes are due to simple exuberance. Maybe the young child hits his parents with his hands or feet, pinches, bites, twists their noses or ears, pokes their eyes, etc. Possible responses: initially, the child has no idea he is doing anything wrong; to him it is just another game and at times a sign of affection. Christiane Bopp-Limoge writes that "the act of biting is a sign of love . . . he bites that which he loves just as he has suckled at the breast of the one he loves . . . the biting child who is scolded can experience great distress." (L'Eveil à l'enfant, p. 37). So it is necessary to teach him that he should not bite while recognizing the non-aggressive nature of his impulse. One should avoid laughing at his behavior, lest he make a game out of it. Talking to him, even if he is only an infant who seems unable to understand. Not telling him, "Stop, you're being bad!" but rather: "You're hurting me," or better yet: "I hurt when you do that." (The use of "I" to express sensation and emotion is better understood than the accusatory "you're") and, if he starts doing it again, placing him on the floor and walking away after telling him why. If these small aggressions are repeated, trying to figure out the cause (jealousy, or some other kind of interpersonal problem?). If necessary, talking about it with a doctor or psychologist.  

If the child attacks, pinches, bites, or pulls the hair of his brother or sister or other children, you can try to make him appreciate the fact that such behavior brings rejection by others. To that end, you might put on a slightly overdramatic skit, performed when the child seems to be in the mood to understand, and in which he is not the aggressor but the victim, the part of the aggressor being played by one of the parents or by an older brother or sister. A parent then steps in and takes the aggressor aside to a designated room to spend some time away, obliged to stay there until he or she promises not to attack the repeat-aggressor-turned-victim anymore. In this way, he will comprehend that the steps taken to protect those whom he attacks would also be done for him if he were attacked. And then, if he starts up again, go through the procedure of taking him aside, without getting angry, not as a punishment but as a consequence of his behavior, which has forced us to protect those he is attacking by moving him away.  

A child's reckless and impulsive behavior often scares parents and consequently will often provoke spankings. The most commonly cited example is the child who runs out into the road without looking and whom the mother or father, venting their fear, spanks. If the child is inclined toward impulsive reactions, shaking him is not the way to get him to be more thoughtful. At the most, he will stop himself out of fear when his parents are present. But, when he no longer has to fear getting spanked, he will no longer control himself. Possible responses: explain to him that you were afraid for him; explain to him what the danger is; hold his hand while on the street as long as he is not capable of self-control; teach him how to use the crosswalk by making a game where the red-green buddy tells us when we can cross. If the child has gone over to the neighbors without telling his mother and she got distressed not knowing where he was, explain to him that she was scared because she loves him, and he must always announce his ventures outside. If necessary, placing by the door some kind of sound signal (like a bell or whistle) for the sole purpose of letting his parents know he is going out. 

Damage caused willfully or accidentally by the child is another source of parental anger. The child writes with a marker on the wallpaper of the floor, tears the wallpaper, knocks over your great uncle's Ming vase, etc . . . Generally the child means no harm. He is exploring his world, experiencing things. Peeling away wallpaper is a wondrous and fascinating experiment in which all of us have indulged. Solution: the first principle is obviously to arrange the child's living space so that all fragile valuables are out of the child's reach, along with anything else that he should not touch, and to lock up cupboards where such items are kept and putting away the key for safe keeping. As a trade-off, you can grant him permission to take out things which are set aside for him in plastic bins and let him play with the empty bins. This does not make working in and moving about the kitchen easier, but it is worth the peace of mind. As for his adventures in drawing and painting, provide some sheets of paper taped to the walls. It may be necessary and wise to demonstrate for toddlers how not go outside the edges of the paper.

Noise. Silence is definitely not children's strong suit. Even the most serene children are capable of yelling in such a way that puts adult eardrums to the test. To alleviate this stressor, you can adapt your living space and muffle the shouts as much as possible by putting carpets on the floors and walls. You can accustom the child to shouting as little as possible by trying to avoid shouting yourself, whether in talking to the child or to your spouse (the best way to restore calm in a classroom that's a little stirred up is to lower your own voice). It's OK to grant the child opportunities to let off steam; in return he is expected to express himself without shouting the rest of the time. One can, if it is feasible (though to have it sometimes you have to really want it) have a soundproof room to retreat into from time to time while your spouse takes over the supervision. It may be necessary, if you've reached your personal threshold of tolerance, to move into a larger apartment or a villa. The author of this book and his wife always preferred to sacrifice a sizable portion of their meager single-income (beginning teacher's salary) in order to be able to rent a villa, which saved them a lot of annoyance with their five children. It can ultimately be said that the racket-filled times are not very long, that those years of noisy childhood will quickly pass. 

Tantrums. In Isabelle Filliozat's book Au cœur des émotions de l'enfant ["At the heart of the child's emotions"] 6 which I can't recommend highly enough to every parent, she explains that tantrums, as trying as they can be for parents, is a normal way for children to affirm their needs and wants. It is a normal stage of what is known as the "grieving process" that follows the inevitable frustrations in the life of a child. It is also a way for the child to express his feelings, which means that it is, despite appearances, a bond the child establishes with his family circle. "Maintain the bond," she writes, "while remaining present, attentive and respectful."). And she calls for us to make a distinction between tantrums and violence. No easy task, given that in many cases, our own tantrums having been disregarded when we were children, we are afraid of that which still seethes within us and which we recognize in our child. A tantrum should therefore be heeded because it signals a need. But if the child's tantrum rises to the level of violence, particularly against his sibling, it is also up to the parents to contain the violence and to prevent him from doing harm.

"Fits" at the supermarket. Everything in a supermarket is practically tailor-made to kindle children's desires. When parents refuse to satisfy these desires, it often brings on loud and tearful protests, which attract attention from all the customers and put parents to a hard test. Prevention lies in setting out clear rules about what is acceptable behavior. The majority of children readily accept these rules. But it is often when a child gets angry that parents, under the pressure of looks from the crowd or because it is their usual manner of treating their child, resort to hitting. How to act without resorting to such measures? It all depends on your personal ability to withstand disapproving looks from other customers. If it is strong enough that you do not leave the store without completing the purchase of everything on your shopping list, you can tell your child that although you're really sorry that you couldn't buy everything he wanted, it was truly not possible. But, you can still imagine together what it would be like if he (or she) had that coveted racecar (or doll). How he will play with it if by chance he asks for it for Christmas or his birthday. The simple act of daydreaming about those toys can momentarily suffice. And if he continues to cry, you can do as Edwige Antier recommends and explain to the customers that he is tired.

The constant "No!"  This is a phase that nearly all children go through at some point, saying "No!" to all our commands. Paradoxically, it is a matter of asserting himself in the negative. It is also his way of echoing our own "No!"'s, which have maybe been too frequent. One step to prevent the constant "No!" might be, as seen earlier, to arrange the child's play space so as to not have to say "No!" too often. That said, this time of particular trial cannot be avoided altogether, and you have to feel sorry for those parents--especially when everyone must be dressed in the morning before school. When the child has entered this period, one possible tactic is simply to look for him to say "No!" to some command which his own needs will pretty much require him to accept. For example, when he is told to come to the table:
  -- "No!" 
-- "No? All right, then!"
and you remove, without anger or apparent satisfaction, his place setting as if it were completely natural. And you stick to it, depending on his age, whether it be until everyone has begun eating and the child has had time to start worrying he won't get to eat at all or, if he is a bit older, until the next meal. In other instances, you can bypass the "No!" by proposing an alternative to which the child can neither answer yes or no. For example: "Would you rather take your bath before of after supper?" Or: "Do you want me to undress you, or would you rather get undressed yourself?" This trick, like any other, does not always work, but it can be useful for a time, as long as it is not repeated too often. But the "No!" phase itself lasts only for a time . . .  

Arguing. What I have said concerning noise also applies in part to arguments between children, which are even more trying because parents feel like their vision of domestic harmony and family unity is under attack. It is therefore quite tempting to settle conflicts by treating the warring parties to a double spanking. Possible responses: Try not to suppress the fits and minor scuffles which often are games and relationship skill-builders in which they can learn to show restraint; accept some brawling up to a certain point, while telling the children they must not be dangerous toward each other (I can still hear my father saying, "Go ahead and fight, just don't hurt each other!"); set up a "ruckus corner" out of rugs and cushions. Do not take sides. Invite the possibly injured party to try to work things out with his brother, sister, or playmate. Remind the children that you do not hit them (if true!), so they shouldn't hit each other either, except playfully without trying to hurt. Intervene if you see things are getting out of hand, saying, for example: "That's it now, you've beaten up each other enough" and/or by diverting them toward another activity that you can get going with them.  

Disobedience. Disobedience is normal. Nobody likes having to take orders. And if the parenting role sometimes calls for making children do things they don't feel like doing, they shouldn't be taught to obey in the sense of doing things with neither approval nor understanding. It is one thing to get a child to do what he is told but another thing to teach him to obey orders he receives whether he understands and approves of them or not. It is important, from a very early age, to explain to him why one does this or that thing at this or that moment. You should keep to a minimum the disagreeable things that you must impose on him. There is no point in creating more opportunities for conflict. We can make the clock an ally as early as possible: "As soon as the big hand is at the top/bottom, it will be time to take a bath." For certain tasks, such as putting away toys, it is necessary to undertake them with the child, while trying to make a game out of the procedure: "We're going to put all the toys beddie-bye, then into their home inside the cupboard-house." In some instances, when the child is vacillating, you must explain to him that time is short and take him by the hand or arm, not violently, but firmly and with a resolute tone of voice, as children are very good at sensing hesitation in a parent's voice. That being said, there's no reason exceptions can't be made from time to time, but it must be made clear that they are exceptions due to having a little extra time. The key is always to respect the child's needs, all the while being true to yourself and respecting your own needs.  

Is it difficult not to hit?

The author of this book and his spouse, who, following the advice of Dr. Spock, avoided striking their children, in fact did not strike them for as long as they had only two, both of them girls. Things changed with the birth of the following two, both of them boys. This number made for a more difficult situation, and as Spock used to say, "a spanking can clear the air," so there were some punishments, and some slapping. With the raising of the fifth child, however, born seven years after the previous one, things went back to being quite easy, and he never received the slightest smack or punishment. Thing would have undoubtedly gone better had we applied the method prescribed by Norm Lee, who explains how every weekend he conducted "general assemblies" 7  with his two children as soon as they were able to take part, chaired by each member of the family in turn, during which the family would make a weekly report and where everyone, children and parents alike, had the right to express their criticisms and their demands as well as their causes for satisfaction. And the whole family worked together to solve problems. This method enabled Norm Lee to never scold nor punish his two sons, much less hit them.  

How do you move beyond reflex to reflection?

First, you have to make the decision to do so. This can be personal and unspoken. But it might do well to be public and a bit formal. A reader of Spanking told me of convening his children after reading the book, and telling them, "Well, this book convinced me that spanking is wrong. So I've decided I won't be hitting you anymore." "And it worked," he told me. A year later, I followed up: "So, it's still working?" - "Yep, still working!" Another account on the discussion group Parents_conscients: "The day the family made a rule against assaulting one another in any way (smacks, slapping, spanking, etc.), Elfie announced, 'OK, I won't hit my little brother ever again,' and her behavior changed radically. They have taken to roughhousing for fun. At times it goes overboard, but that's a different story . . ."  

Once the decision has been made not to hit, and if possible, not to punish, the hard part is to de-condition oneself from the acquired reflex, which is not really natural for us, and to retrace its path internally like returning to a fork in the road where we got off course and set out again in the right direction. One must learn to take the pause needed to counter reflex with reflection, placing individual thought against the frequent radio-controlled reaction that originates from the first blows we received as children. Keeping in mind that, like all parents, we generally wish for our children to learn to control themselves and not hit their little brother or sister can help us to stay in control of ourselves. 

A few deep breaths "from the stomach", which causes the diaphragm to lower and relax, can help us find our center and step back a little from the situation, when we are at risk of getting "beside ourselves." Practicing yoga or other relaxation techniques can also help. To achieve this internal distance from the situation, you might also quite simply place some external distance between yourself and the child, for example leaving the room. Canadian psychologist Daniel Lambert, for one, suggests adopting a signal whose meaning children will have explained to them (for example, an open hand as if to say "Stop!") that expresses one's risk of no longer being able to control oneself and that a break is needed so as not to end up hitting. Another purpose of the signal is to avoid using words that in moments of stress could be hurtful and accusatory. The aim is to find a way to behave that will dismantle within the child the reflex which he has begun to pick up in response to our attitude.   

Acting indifferent to certain behaviors that are exasperating but not really serious, yelling for example, can also be a way of dismantling this kind of reflex. The child who, having grown accustomed to seeing his parents react at the drop of a hat, can't resist provoking this reaction, and often gives it up when he sees his attitude is no longer having the same effect. This takes a bit of time and effort at the beginning, especially if there is a longstanding habit of hitting, but then, as the reflexes start to fade away, solutions come more easily.

For example: "Matthew doesn’t want to eat, he just won't eat!" Conditioned reflex: I scold him, I yell, and I give him a smack. Reflection: "Is it really that he doesn't eat? In fact, he's in good health, he is full of energy, so he must be eating. Is he really slow to eat? Yes, he dawdles. What can be done to prevent this? Maybe serve food to myself but not to him. Not to punish him, but because after all he is not obliged to be hungry at the same time I am. Wait for him to ask for food. At most, if he doesn't ask, let him skip a meal. If he does ask, give him just a small portion, two or three mouthfuls. Wait for him to ask for seconds and give him less than I think he's going to eat. In other words, take apart the conditioned reflex of command-disobedience-punishment and start over on the twin bases of the child's feeling of hunger and the mother or father's need to see the child eat without it being a big production.

"When Trevor eats with his sister, he insists on making obnoxious noises and yelling, which drives me crazy, especially when we're visiting friends or our parents!" Conditioned reflex: I give him a smack and send him to his room. Reflection: What personal need of mine makes me unable to put up with this behavior? The need to eat in peace, free from racket; to have my children not disturb the people whose home I happen to be in? For his part, what need drives Trevor to behave this way? On the one hand, there is his normal and natural exuberance; on the other hand, no doubt, my reactions which have set off in him a conditioned reflex of provocation. There are apt to be several solutions. In this case, having the children eat before the adults. Make the meal a time for telling Trevor a story. Giving permission for a bit of a ruckus before the meal, but asking the children to speak calmly at mealtime. Asking my partner, if he or she is less "on edge," to take charge of mealtime for a while in exchange for another task to make up for the time spent disarming the reflex.    

Another example: "Billy doesn't listen. I always have to repeat everything!" Conditioned reflex: When I've asked him three times to put on his slippers and he hasn't done it, I storm into his room, and he gets a spanking. Self-reflection and reflection on the situation: "Is it really that he doesn't listen? There are things he hears loud and clear and does right away. What does he not listen to? Orders that annoy him, that interfere with his playing. I don't like it either when I'm given tedious orders and interrupted in the middle of doing something I enjoy. Is it really necessary for him to wear his slippers? If it's summertime, there's no harm if he goes barefoot. If it's cold, if he is prone to catch cold, he really must put them on." The problem is better defined. It's no longer about laying judgment on Billy. It's about figuring out how to get him in the habit of wearing his slippers. It's up to me to use some imagination and find a trick: some funny slippers that look like mice, or telling him a story about how his feet are bunny rabbits that like to keep warm in their holes, etc.  

Another example: "Laura is a crybaby, she whines and cries over nothing." Conditioned reflex: When Laura starts crying, I lose it and give her a smack. Reflection on my goals, on myself, and on Laura: "Is Laura really a crybaby? I can't say whether it is her nature; maybe it's a passing thing. Does she cry over nothing? It's true that she's crying a lot right now. On account of what exactly? She might be having some sort of problem. But what? I'll try to talk to her about it when she's not so upset. Could she be jealous of her little brother . . . ? At the same time, why does her crying irritate me so much? Isn't it true there are things irritating me which have nothing to do with Laura?" The spouse of this book's author has used, when facing this type of difficulty with one of her children, a process of visualization and positive reprogramming. It involved focusing her mind on how the child was at other times: cheerful, lighthearted, and full of laughter, and putting herself, even as the child was being sullen, in the frame of mind she had at that earlier time. It did not take long to yield positive results.  

And if you're pressed for time?

Time shortages definitely do not make it easier to adopt nonviolent disciplinary methods. What to do, for instance, when you have to get big sister to school by eight-thirty and little brother refuses to let himself be dressed? Solutions will tend to focus on prevention, as in an earlier wake-up call, or being dressed as a requirement for breakfast. Or even doing away with certain demands: having little brother sleep in outer clothes so as not to have to change, for example. It is clear, however, that mothers who find themselves alone with several children and who have to run around constantly just to get the most essential things done--and then some--need extra patience and determination not to give in to those moments when it would be very easy to slap or to spank.

And when you are close to snapping and saying or doing something unpleasant?

Here's a suggestion from Blandine, a poster on the Parents conscients discussion group: "When I have a certain degree of detachment, I'll use Captain Haddock insults 8  . . . that's enough that we all end up laughing. . . mind you, though, I can't be too worked up, and I have be able to step back from it all to just the right degree . . ."  

Suggestion from Fabienne, in the same group: "When I feel like my anger's rising, I growl. A kind of growl that I've developed, very low that comes from the belly (and gives a nice massage to the diaphragm and sternum). The result is rather comical. To "see myself" growling like that, it just makes me want to laugh. My daughter doesn't like it too much, of course. She says, "Mommy, stop doing that," to which I answer, "I'm growling because I've had enough of such and such." That usually works to defuse the situation. Another "method," in "cooperation," with my little girl: when sparks are flying between us, we start barking, even doing like wolves. Aurrooo! Au! Au! Aurrooo! This makes us stop and break out laughing. Another way to say "Don't be such a pain" while at the same time defusing the situation. Along the same lines, if a situation is on the verge of degenerating, I put it into song, loudly if I can, and if possible in a comical manner. Example : "We got those girls-stuck-here-in-the-car blu-u-u-ues again! What's taking Dad so lo-ong at the darn ATM?! Oh, where could he beeeeeeee? We are so hungryyyyyyy. We want to go home, you seeeeeeee."  

They are only clever gimmicks, but, as Fabienne goes on to write: "I like the idea of having a wide variety of 'tricks' at my disposal, that way I can run through them by turns. Sometimes, relaxation is most helpful, other times it's singing, sometimes it's going for silly laughs, like pretending to be a dog, you know, nothing works all the time, but I have some aces up my sleeve for when I'm . . . just about to fold. The hardest part is remembering that you have all those aces. In the midst of a tantrum being thrown, you forget everything. It really takes discipline to remember that there's a way out. It takes a while to get the knack . . . you've got your work cut out for you ;-)".  

Should parents express their own feelings and needs?

Just as parents must be attentive to the needs of their children, they must be attentive to their own needs, expressing them along with the feelings that they give rise to. This point cannot be elaborated here, but it is a very important point. For readers who wish to consider it more in depth, there are two books they will want to check out: Isabelle Filliozat's Au cœur des émotions de l'enfant ["At the heart of the child's emotions"], mentioned above, and Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life. The first is more geared toward raising children. The second is a general method of nonviolent communication of which many elements can be very useful in parent-child relationships.  

What to do with a particularly violent child?

Account of an adoptive father: "I have a little boy who's four years old. He has quite a remarkable talent for provoking and being confrontational. This child has lived through intense physical abuse . . .  (...) He was entrusted to me with some apologies for his being 'difficult,' and people are always telling me 'good luck' with an air of resignation. I have found him to be an extremely easy child, but at the slightest annoyance (or for no apparent reason) he is capable of hitting me, biting me, insulting me or breaking everything around him. I've had to set firm limits (it's not that I'm letting him do these thing!), but the easy thing for me would have been to say, 'You're not being nice to me, so I'll give you a spanking, and when you've come to your senses we can get along like before.' No doubt that would have worked, but I think we would still be the same boat today. Since I've never responded violently to his own violence, I think that allowed him over time to ponder the correct way to express his expectations, his frustrations, his fears. He is a child given to verbalizing. I remember one day when while having a tantrum he said, 'But Daddy, I want you to hit me!' I held him tightly in my arms, and he had a good long cry. Since that day, his physical attacks have come to be more symbolic (along the lines of: 'In that case, I'll give you a good kick,' but without doing it...). It seems to me that not getting physical in response to his violence allowed him to gain awareness of the nature of the forces at play and then to get past it." (Forum Droits de l'enfant (Children's Rights Forum), posted by Philippe, October 13, 1999).  

Online testimonial (January 30, 2002) from a Quebec educator, Stéphane Vincelette, who has had to deal with some particularly violent children: "What is the proper reaction when a young child throws a 'royal fit,' lashing out and screaming at the top of his lungs? It could be to go about your business and tell him that you'll be willing to listen to him just as soon as he is ready to talk. Naturally, the tantrum may last for several minutes and will certainly be nerve-wracking. Then again, if the child is putting himself or anyone else in danger, including yourself, physically putting a stop to things is called for. With a physical intervention, the idea is to contain the child and not to hurt him. Getting behind the child and holding his arms will usually be enough to get him to calm down after a few minutes. The interpersonal aspect always being crucial, always speak calmly to him, telling him that you are there with him. Tell him that you'll let go of him once he calms downs, but not before he has calmed down. If he calms down, let go of him. If he starts right up again, repeat the process as many times as needed. Only then will he understand that the rule is hard and fast.  

"I myself endured the tirade of a ten-year-old which lasted for more than three hours (five hours if you count the build-up) and went through all the stages: violence, blackmail, intimidation, appeals to pity, sulking… Most likely this was effective in his usual environment and he couldn't imagine anyone being able to withstand his "war arsenal" for such a long period. He began to realize that my "barricade" was maybe more solid than his "cannonballs," made from the same stuff as the house of the third little pig, of bricks and mortar. It was then that he shyly held out an "olive branch" which I used with some humor in order to let the air out of the situation. That was likewise the chance to show that I could still laugh with him spite of this meltdown he'd just had, and most of all accept him in spite of it. One part of the story I haven't told you up 'til now is that I had his teeth marks engraved on my arm for weeks afterwards . . . 

The point is really that what determines the medium- and long-term 'winners' with a tantrum situation, a mini-tantrum, or simply the breaking of a rule, is your patience and ability to intervene rather than react to the behavior. If you react, you're bound to end up with two losers--you and your child--with no winner. On the other hand, if you intervene appropriately, there will be two winners: you and, just as surely and equally so, your child."  

With older children and teenagers, bad habits are often already established: They have integrated the mechanisms of violence which they have endured and recreate them more or less on a daily basis. How should someone react to their violent reactions?   

When a fabric is folded, the crease is difficult to erase. But a teen or a still-young adult has within him human capabilities which, despite being misdirected and atrophied by violence suffered in childhood, can be reactivated.

The best policy is always genuine respect for the child or young adult, along with self-respect, expressing and listening to emotions: telling the child how you feel while tuning in to what he feels. The nonviolent communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg, based on the expression and listening to feelings and needs, something which most of us were not used to in our own childhood, can be a useful tool in helping teens accustomed to the language of hitting and violence to enter into verbal dialogue. The November 15, 2001 edition of Envoyé spécial [newscast of TV channel France 2] showed the extraordinary work realized by a psychologist in a South African prison with gang leaders. At the end of some mutual expression and listening sessions, these rapists and ruthless killers, who at the beginning of the experiment just wanted to kill the psychologist out of fear that he would weaken their stature within the prison, were starting to express themselves in deeply moving ways. Although they were not cured, they clearly had taken a step in that direction. If it can work with hardened killers, it should be all the more possible with petty thieves or children with violent tendencies.

Recap: 12 useful principles to avoid disciplinary violence9

  • Make the decision not to hit.
  • Know what effects corporal punishment has on children.
  • Arrange the child's living space so that you're not constantly having to deny him things.
  • Practice the golden rule: treat the child as you would want to be treated under the same circumstances.  
  • Be receptive to all of the child's feelings, even if they come across as negative (jealousy, for example). While he is not entitled to hit his little brother, his feelings are his own, and he is entitled not to love him.
  • In situations of conflict, seek "win-win" solutions (as opposed to "win-lose") that satisfy the needs (not necessarily the wants!) of each person.  
  • Make a habit of identifying the reason for conflicts in an effort to prevent them, rather than having to mend them.
  • Offer diversions: drawing, a story, a game in the bathtub, taking a walk to leave situations that have gotten too difficult.
  • Ask yourself, "Is this something I will laugh about later?" If yes, why not go ahead and laugh right away? Humor can transform a lot of stressful situations: "Oh, no! You've colored yourself green just when we're leaving to visit Grandma and Grandpa . . . Hold on, I've got to get my camera!" 
  • Know your own limitations and hold firm on matters where they have been reached. 
  • Know how to let your partner take over. 
  • Ask for help, even if it's just to confide your distress: talking to a friend on the phone, your mother, fellow members of an Internet discussion group, or anywhere you know you can find someone friendly, willing to listen, and possibly able to offer solutions.

Proceed/return to:


1 – A Brief History of Disciplinary Violence
2 – The Nature of Disciplinary Violence and Opinions on the Matter
3 – Why we must stop using corporal punishment
4 – How can we raise children without hitting?
5 – Why is it necessary to ban disciplinary violence?
6 – What to do?
7 – Question for the author
8 – Questions for the reader

World geography of disciplinary violence by continent and country

I – Introduction for the EMIDA Family Education Program
II – Why the Church must denounce ordinary disciplinary violence
III – Resistance every advocate of a spanking ban can expect to face
IV – Declaration against "disciplinary" violence



1. Paths of Life, p. 90

2. J'ai lu (publisher), 1994

3. More Secrets of Happy Children, Marlowe & Company, 2003

4. Chronique Sociale, (publisher)

5. More Secrets of Happy Children, Marlowe & Company, 2003

6. Éditions JC Lattès (publisher), 1999

7. A good guide to having family meetings is found in The Parent's Handbook, by Don Dinkmeyer and Gary D. McKay (American Guidance Service, 1997).

8. TRANSLATOR'S NOTES: Captain Haddock is a cantankerous character from the popular Belgian comic strip Tintin, known for his prolific use of humorously inventive, sometimes off-the-wall, insults.

9. Some of these are inspired by Jan Hunt's "Ten Alternatives to Punishment."