For a while now, I’ve been torn between two worlds, kid-discipline-wise.
Since spring of 2011 (coming up on four years now), we’ve been striving to move towards positive or gentle parenting in our home. The word “spank” is now extremely rare (typically said in a moment of frustration, before stopping and changing course) and actual spankings? I don’t even remember the last time.
But I was a spanking parent, once. I understand what it’s like. I understand the feelings of wanting to make sure your child grows up to be a respectful, likable, contributing member of society. I understand believing that spanking for serious offenses is an important part of raising a child to become such an adult.
Now, I am not a spanking parent anymore. I know what this is like. I understand the feelings of wanting your child to grow up to be respectful and likable but not afraid to challenge the status quo, share their feelings, and respect others’ bodies and property. I understand that spanking — hitting — has no place in these goals, for non-spanking parents, and even goes against so much of what you are trying to teach.
And yet, I feel like there is so much animosity and deliberate misunderstanding of each side, from the other side.
Spankers think that non-spankers let their children run wild, disobey authority, and that most of the problems in society stem from these people who are afraid to hurt their children and just want to be their friends.
Non-spankers think that spankers are child abusers, who are using their power and greater size to oppressively force a child into obedience and automatic compliance, with no room for questions or grace and no critical thinking skills.
In a world where we all just want the same thing — to raise happy, loving, respectful members of society — can’t we see that these stereotypes and arguments are getting us nowhere?
Based on my experiences, I’m going to advocate, in this post, specifically against spanking. But if you do spank your children, I will not call you a child abuser. I know your goals are the same as mine. I know you love your children and are doing what you believe is best. So hear me out, please.
Advocates on Both Sides are Wrong
I’ve done a lot of reading from both pro-spanking and anti-spanking advocates lately. I’ve specifically looked at some of the major books and websites, to get a true feel for what each side is teaching and believing. A lot of what I read on both sides made me hesitate.
Pro-spanking advocates called out parents who don’t spank as weak-willed and helpless. One shared an anecdote about a young mom whose toddler was repeatedly throwing items (which she continued to hand back to him) and then running around the room and grabbing things from others and hitting them. His solution was to hit the child calmly with a switch until the child understood what was expected of him. His perception was clearly that this mother was not disciplining her child properly, and that spanking was the only solution. (I agree with the former point — she wasn’t addressing the child — but disagree that spanking was the only answer.) In another post, someone said that parents who do not dole out “painful consequences” for incorrect actions are not disciplining their children properly. The message was clear — spanking is necessary, and not spanking is associated with no discipline at all.
But on the anti-spanking side, I read suggestions on how to stop spanking. They advocated walking up to strangers and interrupting them, saying, “Stop hitting your child.” Or standing and staring at them with a disapproving look, and if asked “What are you looking at?” to reply with “Child abuse.” They recommended asking store managers or other bystanders to intervene, label the person a child abuser, and get between parent and child. And if others would not help, to call the media and say that the store/restaurant allows child abuse to happen. They even recommended calling CPS, even for “offenses” as minor as swatting a child’s hand lightly.
I just can’t get behind either one of these approaches.
Telling a parent that they have to hit their child or they don’t love them and don’t discipline them is wrong. There are many other ways to teach and train your children that do not involve hitting. Saying that a parent lets their children run wild and has no expectations for them and doesn’t discipline them just because they don’t spank is wrong. These things are not mutually exclusive. And frankly, natural consequences can be “painful” sometimes, emotionally. Even if they are not, that does not mean they are not effective. But we’ll get to that.
Calling parents child abusers for swatting a child’s hand or bottom? (If you’re beating your kid repeatedly with a stick in a public place while they scream, we might need to have a different conversation.) Just how in the world is labeling a spanking parent as an abuser going to help them learn another way? How is calling CPS for minor issues going to do anything but make the parent angry and embarrassed? How is approaching a stranger and saying “Stop hitting your child, that is abuse” going to leave them open to learning from you? It won’t. I know if I were having a bad day and I yelled at my child or spanked them (back when I did so) I’d have been absolutely furious at the person who approached me that way. How dare they judge what they only think they understand?
Yeah, that anti-spanking stuff is a bit of a trigger for me. I know I was in those shoes only a few years ago, and I needed new information and a new way, but if someone had tried that approach on me, I would have been seriously turned off. I might even still be spanking my children, and advocating for spanking. And since that’s kind of the opposite of what they’re going for, I think a new approach is needed…
Let’s Start on the Same Page
You know I am against harsh advocacy in general. I like to be pro-education and pro-information and you choose what works for you. I am not going to condemn you for choosing differently than I do.
Normally I do not advocate for any specific position, but today I do want to talk to you about choosing not to spank. If you are a spanking parent, please hear me out. I do not expect you to change just because of what I say, but I hope that I can help you find information and to understand how not spanking is a perfectly viable way to raise your children and that you can get the same result — who knows, maybe better results! — when you opt for a peaceful or gentle approach.
Here’s what I believe we all want:
- A respectful, respectable person
- A person who understands others’ boundaries
- A person who treats others kindly and gently
- A person who works hard and is gainfully employed
- A person who knows when to submit to authority, and when to refuse
- A person who does what is right, because it is right (even if no one’s looking)
Right? That, in general, is what we want our children to be when they grow up. I understand and share your concerns. I don’t want a child who is mouthy, rude, disrespectful, and selfish, either. If I had a child who grew up to act that way regularly, I’d feel like I’d failed.
Here’s where we diverge: I don’t think I have to spank my kids — ever — to get that result.
Honestly, it’s true. I can tell you from experience that since we stopped spanking (and after we got past a few months of “tests of will” from the kids — they first tried to push our buttons to see if we would break down and spank them anyway), our home is more peaceful and our children tend to listen more easily, more quickly, and be gentler and kinder in general. Our younger ones, who’ve really never been spanked, have been more compliant (at an age-appropriate level) and just…easier, in many ways.
This is the key though: there are firm boundaries. And we hold them to those boundaries. (As much as possible. We’re human too, and sometimes we make mistakes or are too tired.)
Firm Boundaries, No Spanking
Here’s another point we actually agree on: there must be clear boundaries and clear expectations. It’s not fair to hold a child accountable for their actions if they were never told what they are doing is wrong. I read this in pro-spanking texts: be careful to always share your expectations up front, and take the time to train your child in how to meet those expectations. Help them to be successful. Only hold them accountable, and only punish for wrongdoing, when you know that they understood.
We agree on the clear expectations, and on holding a child accountable. What we may disagree on is what “holding them accountable” looks like.
The idea behind spanking is negative reinforcement. That is, if a child engages in unacceptable behavior, you issue a painful consequence, so that they associate the wrong action with the pain, and learn not to do it.
A very common example is a child who runs into the street. No one wants their child to do this, because it could be a life-or-death situation, depending on the street, the current traffic, etc. It’s necessary to keep children safe in this situation. Parents often spank for this out of fear — what could have happened? What could happen next time if they don’t learn?
If we don’t spank, how do we teach them not to do this?
- Step 1: Don’t give them the opportunity. When they are still too young to be trusted to stay close to you, do not let them play near busy streets. Do not put them down in a parking lot. Do not give them a chance to run to a street. Hold them, wear them, strap them in a stroller, put a leash on them! Whatever you have to do.
- Step 2: Explain the danger. When they are old enough to understand, explain the danger of running into a street. Show them how fast the cars move as you stand near a street (but safely back and holding onto them).
- Step 3: Explain the expectations. Tell the child they are to keep their hand on the car, the stroller, in yours, or wherever you know is safest when they are near streets. Or that they are not to go closer than a certain line or marker (i.e. past the sidewalk) if they are playing outside. Issue reminders to help them remember the expectations.
- Step 4: Consequences for breaking the rules. Instead of spanking, try one of these instead. End play time immediately if they cannot stay away from the street when you are outside. Refuse to let them walk in parking lots; carry them or place them immediately in a cart or stroller (and let them know why they are not allowed to get down). Firmly tell them “No, this is dangerous! You must stay with Mommy!” Make them get back in the car immediately and practice getting out again safely and staying next to the car (this works better for kids who are least 4 – 5 and yes, I have done this).
These consequences are enough to deter running in the street. Really. You do not have to spank your child to get the message across. If they bolt for the street, you are likely going to run, scream, and grab them. You freaking out is pretty scary — a spanking is unnecessary. Ending outdoor play time because a child can’t stay away from the street is a pretty strong deterrent too (“If you can’t stay safe, then we can’t play outside.”)
This is just one of the most common examples. But this is how positive/gentle parenting works. The first parts are really similar to what spanking parents practice — keeping them safe when they are too young to understand, explaining the situation and expectations. Only the last part — the type of consequences doled out for breaking the rules — differs. But there are clear boundaries, and there are consequences for wrong actions.
What About Obedience?
This is probably going to be the clincher for some spanking parents — what happens to obedience?
The goals of positive/authoritative parents and authoritarian (spanking) parents are going to differ here.
As best I understand, from my reading and my own mindset a few years ago, authoritarian parents believe like this:
I am the adult in the home. I know what is best for my children — what is safest for them and for the whole family, and what produces the happiest household. As such, my children are required to submit to me as their authority. God has commanded that they do so, and this is practice for when they will obey Him later in life. Obedience should be first-time, without question. Questioning directions is to defy my authority and to disrespect me.
Authoritative parents, on the other hand, believe rather differently about obedience. I know that if you believe what I wrote above, in general, your first thought is going to be to reject what I say next. Hang with me on this one — I’ll explain.
I am in the adult in the home. I know what is best for my children — what is safest for them. However, I am human and I make mistakes, and so do my children. Except in circumstances of safety, first-time obedience is not required. Children may question what I ask of them, as long as they do it in a respectful manner. When I issue directions, I should be respectful as well. It is my goal to teach my child to discern right from wrong and to encourage listening to one another and helping one another for the sake of the family harmony, but ordering instant and unquestioning obedience is not one of my goals. Calm discussion is encouraged and “I’ll be there in a minute” is okay (in most cases).
It’s a bit more of a democratic approach. Children do not have to obey immediately and without question. In fact, they are allowed to ask questions or even refuse if it’s age-appropriate. (A 2-year-old refusing a nap when they are tired would not be age-appropriate refusal as they do not understand the consequences of that choice — being tired and fussy.) Discussion is encouraged. Critical thinking is engaged. The goal is to teach them self-control, rather than parent-control.
As for the religious aspects of this, I believe that if children are allowed to develop their own relationship with Jesus and God, and to see us model prayer and obedience, they will be more likely to do it too. They will choose it when they are ready, rather than having it simply ingrained in them. Ultimately, everyone has to choose to follow God (or not). How many of us, honestly, as adults, obey what we believe God’s will is in our lives, 100% of the time, without question? None. Training our kids to accept our authority without question will not teach them to do that.
I also do not believe that a literal interpretation of the Proverbs verses is correct — the “rod” was used for guiding, not hitting. We can interpret the most common verse to me “He who ignores his child and places no boundaries or expectations on him, nor corrects wrong behavior hates him” not “He who doesn’t spank his child hates him.” Yes, it’s absolutely important to have expectations for your children and help them meet those, and have consequences (other than spanking) if they do not.
Plus, as far as actual “obedience” goes, I find that we battle a lot less when we are all respectful and we have grace. “I don’t want to” is uncommon, because they love us and want to please us (hey, we’re nice to them and tell them what good people they are!). It’s also not met with “You have directly defied me, so now I will spank you.” Instead, it’s met with, for example, “Come talk to me.” We look into their eyes. We stay calm. We say, “We cannot move on to our next activity until we have finished cleaning up these toys. Let’s just get this done now.” If it becomes a battle, then perhaps the toys get put up for awhile, or some of them do — if they are struggling to take care of so many toys at once, then fewer of them will be better for awhile so that we simply do not need to battle.
The end result is basically the same — kids basically do what you want, and take care of their things, with some age-appropriate reminders. Demanding obedience is not needed to teach these skills. Our older kids are quite reliable in cleaning up after themselves or helping out around the house when asked, usually pretty quickly or immediately, even though we do not demand “first time obedience.” It takes a bit longer to get there (2-year-olds do not do it; 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds are very iffy; by age 5 they’re pretty darn good).
There is Help to Stop Spanking
I think at this point, a number of you are intrigued by the idea of achieving good results and a (mostly!) harmonious household without spanking. I can tell you that I have loved the changes we have seen — less crying, less fighting, more empathy and genuine concern.
The concern most parents have at this point is, “What do I do now?”
I know in the early months I went back and forth a lot. I didn’t know what I should do when things went south if I didn’t have spanking in my toolbox. Sometimes I felt like I was losing control of the situation and I’d end up threatening, and sometimes spanking anyway. I felt like I could be “in control” more and keep everyone calmer if I knew I could go back to that if nothing else was working.
Over time I learned to have different expectations, to replace old patterns with new ones, and to replace old behaviors with new ones. It was not a quick or easy process, but it did happen.
First, check out this post, 9 Examples of Positive Discipline, for practical examples of how I might handle specific situations. That post can’t answer all questions, though (nor can it account for different families, situations, etc.).
I’d like to help more, though. If you are struggling with this — whether or not to stop spanking, or how to actually do it — I want to help you. Please leave your questions and concerns in the comments section. I’ll write a follow-up post to address the most common ones. I promise not to judge you. I know you are a good parent who is struggling with this particular issue. If you break down and spank even though you didn’t want to, I understand the frustration you feel. Your feelings are valid. I won’t call you names. Let’s talk about how to make it better.
If you still think spanking is necessary, I understand. I disagree with you strongly and I’ll keep saying so. But I’m not going to call you a bad person or a bad parent for it. Please don’t call me, or others, a bad person or bad parent (or “not a Biblical Christian”) because we choose not to spank. We can keep this civil. We can discuss this like adults. And maybe, at some point, we’ll have to agree to disagree.
Have you struggled with whether or not to spank?