I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of spanking as a form of discipline. I promised an explanation, and now is a good time to slip it in.
Before I start, I need to acknowledge that spanking is incredibly common, and when done correctly (it should leave no marks or bruises), it’s perfectly legal. I’m certainly not looking to condemn anyone (especially my own parents), so please do not be offended or hurt by what I have to say. I’ll try really hard to keep it educational.
Spanking is the most classic form of punishment, and there’s a good reason why: It works. Getting a spanking isn’t fun at all, so of course the threat of getting one can be enough to prevent misbehavior. It’s the same idea we talked about in the last post with the shock-collared dog–it trains, but doesn’t necessarily discipline.
I think another reason why spanking has been perpetuated is partially due to an Old Testament scripture that has been taken out of context. In Proverbs 13:24 it says, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” From this came the common phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Both are fabulous bits of advice, but many people have interpreted them to mean, “Good parents hit their kids with a stick when they’re bad.” What? That can’t be right.
In the Old Testament, a rod usually refers to a shepherd’s rod. This rod was used to fend off wolves that threatened the flock, or it was used to guide the sheep to the desired destination. I don’t think the rod was used to actually hit the sheep–I’d imagine a hurt sheep was less valuable. If we keep that in mind, we can interpret the scripture to mean, “He who fails to protect and guide his son hates his son.” I don’t know about you, but that makes a lot more sense than the idea of hitting a kid with a stick.
Regardless of the reason why a parent uses spanking, we have to take into consideration what spanking teaches kids, since discipline is instruction. Spanking without teaching and explaining is just punishment, and that isn’t desirable because nothing is learned. When a parent uses spanking as a predictable consequence for misbehavior then proceeds to teach the child how to do things differently next time, etc, it becomes discipline. This is just about as effective at preventing misbehavior as any other type of negative-consequence-related discipline. Perfect! So what’s wrong with spanking?
Unfortunately, a child learns a lot more from spanking than just the simple message that they aren’t to misbehave. Here’s an example, then I’ll break it down:
A child is arguing with his sister, and soon it escalates into him punching his sister. The family’s consequence for hitting is a spanking. After the mother calmly finds out what happened, she takes the child aside, calmly explains to him that punching his sister is unacceptable and also hurts his sister. Then the mother reminds him that the consequence for hitting is getting a spanking. She then tells him that the next time his sister is bothering him he can walk away from her and try playing with something else for a while. Then, true to her established consequence, she spanks him. She then asks him to apologize to his sister.
If this sounds ridiculous, you’re right. Who spanks a child calmly? Spanking happens in the heat of the moment, not after a meaningful teaching moment. This is what normally happens:
A child is arguing with his sister, and it soon escalates into him punching his sister. The mother hears the sister’s screams and bounds into the room. As soon as she gets the jest of what happened, she spanks her son. She admonishes him, “Don’t hit your sister! We do not do this in our family!” She then sends him to his room.
That sounds more like it, right? Not calm at all. That’s our first clue that spanking isn’t the best kind of punishment. When done in the heat of the moment, spanking is natural and makes sense, but when done calmly it seems awkward and…well, dumb.
You might have noted the irony of the consequence in both examples. The consequence for hitting was hitting. Does that seem strange to you? It does to me. This sends very confusing and contrasting messages to the child. On the one hand, he’s being told not to hit. But at the same time, his mother is spanking him (which is essentially hitting). So is hitting ok or not? When is it ok to hit? Is it ok when you’re an adult? Is it ok if someone is breaking a rule? It’s very confusing to a child. Actions speak louder than words, and it’s no exception with parenting. The child ends up reasoning, “If mom hits, it must be ok. She says it’s not good, but if it really wasn’t good, she wouldn’t do it.”
Even if spanking is given as a consequence for misbehavior other than hitting, it still teaches weird lessons. I’ll never forget an experience I had when I was in kindergarten. I was playing house with a friend my age, and she was playing the mom while I played the daughter. At some point I did something she didn’t like, so she slapped me on the face. Hard. Looking back, it’s obvious that’s how it worked in her family. When she and her siblings didn’t do what their parents wanted, they were slapped. She had thus learned that when someone doesn’t do what you want, you can slap them. That wasn’t what her parents had intended, I’m sure, but that’s what she’d picked up from what she saw at her house.
We must keep in mind that spanking isn’t the only form of punishment out there that teaches weird, contradictory lessons. A little while ago this Youtube video was circulating around Facebook. You can watch it if you want–it’s fairly entertaining–but it’s kind of long, so I’ll summarize. Basically, a daughter wrote this huge complaint on Facebook about how much work she has to do and how much her parents pick on her. Her dad found it and decided to retaliate. He made this video to formally address her complaints, and at the end he shot her laptop to teach her to not complain about her parents on Facebook anymore.
There were several comments along the lines of, “Atta boy! Way to teach her!” and, “Finally someone out there is willing to man up and be a dad instead of a friend!” While I do give him props for doing something, I feel his response was very inappropriate. Much like my example of punishing hitting with hitting, this father was trying to teach her not to complain on Facebook… by complaining on Youtube. Very mature. Also, by shooting her laptop, he inadvertently taught her that if someone says something bad about you on Facebook, it’s ok to shoot their stuff. See, weird lessons.
How parents handle frustrating or annoying situations is a child’s main model for how he or she should handle frustrating or annoying situations. If parents are modeling a hot burst of anger and mild violence to solve problems, it’s only natural that the child will use the exact same skills to solve his or her own problems. This isn’t how we want children to behave, so why on earth would we act like this ourselves? If we discipline in such a way that models calm, rational, and non-contradictory problem-solving skills, the kids learn to use these skills too.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Next time I’ll talk about ways this can be done.
- Any impulsive punishment that gets its power from your anger probably isn’t a very good punishment.
- Pay close attention to what a punishment actually teaches.
- Don’t give your kids a rule you aren’t willing to follow.
- Solve problems the exact same way you want your child to solve problems.