Carla: So yesterday, one of my Facebook friends had the following status update: “taught the preschool Sunday school today. During prayers, one kid said ‘thank you God for today and please no more spankies with the wooden spoon.’”
That status broke my heart. Poor little bug! But what really started to get me stirred up were the responses to this status. Things like “at least he’s going to the right source. Only God can help us not be bad” and “if she’d said ‘sploon’ it was probably one of mine, LOL!” Other people gave a little virtual chuckle, others noted how cute that was.
Cute? A 4-year-old asking Jesus to make something painful stop is cute?!? I posted my own comment on how sad that prayer made me and that I hope Mom and Dad give the spoon a rest, but I seemed to be the only one who saw a problem rather than a charming anecdote.
Of course, I should know better. I know how a lot of Christian parents are about spanking. I know they truly believe it’s the godly way to discipline and that it’s actually a good thing that this little peanut wants it to stop because that’s how she will learn to be obedient to the authority of her parents and therefore God.
And let me also qualify the rant that is about to come thusly: I have several dear, lovely, beloved friends who are wonderful parents and who spank their kids. I don’t think parents who spank are evil or abusive or horrid. And while my husband and I don’t believe spanking is an effective form of discipline, we have each spanked exactly once. I gave my oldest daughter a single swat on the tush when she was about 6 because I was angry and fed up and lashed out at her in an instant of frustration. My husband spanked our son on an occasion when it seemed that nothing else was working; they both cried for a good 20 minutes when it was over.
That said, here’s why I think spanking ought to be the exception rather than the rule:
1) As a form of true discipline, it’s not very effective. It doesn’t teach a child anything except that her parents are in charge and she isn’t. I’m not sure that’s the most important lesson a child needs to learn–and most kids figure that out without someone hitting them. It might change behavior, but it doesn’t reinforce positive character formation, which is the point of discipline.
2) It ignores the reality of a child’s cognitive development. The little sweet pea praying for the spankings to stop? She’s not asking God to help her behave. She’s asking God to make her parents stop hurting her. She isn’t developmentally able to make the abstract connection that if she changes her behavior the spanking will stop. That’s because her parents most likely don’t spank her for a specific type of behavior but rather for a general set of behaviors that they believe to be disobedience. If a child is only spanked when she pinches the baby, then spanking might lead to her no longer pinching the baby. But if she’s spanked when she pinches the baby, when she paints the walls, when she refuses to put her shoes on, when she dumps all of mommy’s jewelry in the toilet, then in her mind there is no rhyme or reason to the spanking because each of those behaviors is the result of a specific set of emotions or thought processes in a child. She can’t connect one incident to the other because they don’t share any common motivation. She doesn’t know what motivates her to do what she does any more than most adults. I mean, when you yell at your child, how long does it take you to consider why you have done so? More than a few minutes I would guess.
3) It ignores the reality of a child’s behavioral development. Toddlers and preschoolers are certainly capable of being naughty. But most of the time they aren’t trying to misbehave. They are trying to learn, to figure out the world around them, to test out the rules and the expectations. The tantrums of a 2-year-old aren’t intended to drive you nuts. They are the result of the most explosive brain development a human being ever experiences. Toddlers and preschoolers live in a near-constant state of frustration. They want to do things their bodies can’t do very well–like run or walk or go up and down stairs or climb or ask for something by name or pronounce words in a way that you can understand. They want to taste and touch everything around them and they have no idea that when they pull on that pretty planter it will fall over. They aren’t all that sure that if they pull on it again it will fall over again. So they try, they test, the explore. Too often, I hear about parents spanking their children for being children, for going where they shouldn’t go or touching what they shouldn’t touch. It’s the equivalent of your boss smacking you on the head every time you asked a question. They are learning. Give them a break.
4) It works, but not for the reasons we think it does. Spanking doesn’t teach a child much of anything except how to avoid pain. Personally, I don’t want my kids to be motivated by fear of pain. I want them to be motivated by the desire to treat others with respect and care, to listen to their parents because we are part of a family and that’s how families work. I want to shape their hearts not just change their behavior. I’d rather raise kids who make mistakes for the right reasons than kids who do everything right for the wrong ones. I mean, if good behavior is the goal, there are far more effective ways to scare kids into it.
5) It is far more about the parents’ response than the child’s behavior. Spanking seems to be the punishment of choice when parents are tired, irritated, or out of ideas for how to deal with a child’s behavior. Believe me, there are days when I could smack my kids just for standing in the wrong place. But spanking them because I can’t come up with a better option seems, well, wrong. And…
6) There are better options, such as:
Helping children develop language skills–whether it’s early signing, simple words, other signals–makes a tremendous difference in their frustration level. Children have wants and needs and nothing is more frustrating for them than not being able to express those wants and needs to the people whose help they need to meet them. Give them the tools to express themselves and they will truly be happier.
Giving them emotional language. When you help a child identify what he’s feeling, you give him the ability to deal with those feelings in ways that don’t involve misbehavior. When a child seems frustrated, tell him you see his frustration, then help him figure out how to solve whatever the problem is. Of course this takes work, patience, and more effort than most of us have in us some days. But it’s what our kids need.
Giving them time and space to calm themselves. Being frustrated or irritable isn’t a punishable offense. It’s an emotional response to something. So when we give kids a comfy chair, a quiet corner, a calm setting where they can settle themselves, we help them learn how to work through their feelings in healthy, non-injurious ways. I know this sound super-flaky, but I swear it works. I have three strong-willed children and all three of them have used the “calm-down” chair since they were two. Sometimes I put them there, sometimes they put themselves there, sometimes I have to go there. But it seriously works wonders.
Okay. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I mean, seriously, this thing kept me up last night, thinking about this precious baby asking Jesus for help, knowing that her parents would keep doing it and she would wonder why Jesus never heard her prayer. Dramatic? Yeah, but that’s what happens to me at 2 a.m.
Caryn: So, people, can you just join me in saying that the above is the reason Carla needs to write the definitive Christian Parenting book for our generation? Does she not need to be the new Dr. Spock?
Well said, Carla. And I’m impressed that you did this while you were supposed to be meeting that Dietrich Bonhoeffer deadline. Glad you have your priorities.
But back to the matter at hand…. It’s funny that you write this now because as I type I’m sitting on my front porch watching my mud-covered, only-in-a-diaper 2-year-old frolic in the front yard. I’m slightly panicked because he’s a street darter. Scares the heck out of me. And, as it so happens, just yesterday, I gave my second-ever spanking—in my seven years of motherhood.
We, too, are non-spankers (mostly, because my husband is really anti-spanking and I submitted…. PLUS the fact that I’d never hit a pet or horse or anything kind of carries over into how I feel about spanking kids). But yesterday after my son did his 4th in a row dash into the street, after I tried yelling “NO!” into his face and kind of giving him a firm grip thing three times. After “explaining” how a car could come along and make him “SPLAT” with a big loud hand-clap, he still gleefully ran into the street.
So I picked up my by and smacked his butt. Of course, he turned to me and smiled. And tried to run back into the street as soon as I put him down.
I always thought running into the street was the sort of “justified” spanking. When nothing else will do. But even here it does nothing. At least with my kids. I realized all kids are different–and that I’ve got three of the strongest-willed children on earth. Seriously, if we were spankers, we’d have to do it morning, noon, and night.
I do understand that perhaps with a different “‘type” of kid, the occasional swat might do wonders. It did “cure” my other son of jumping up and down in the bathtub back when he was 2, but I just don’t think it’s a good go-to discipline. Before it was just because of my instinct. Now, thanks to you, wise Carla, I’ve got some good reasons to back me up.
Of course, I still need a good way to keep my boy from running into the street (he did it again just two minutes ago—I caught him). I may need to look into shock collars. (KIDDING. Don’t use them for your dogs, either!!!!)
Carla: I am the new Dr. Spock! Does that mean someone younger than me will play me in the next movie? Oh, you mean the other Dr. Spock. Sorry.
I have another friend–the one I’m worried will read this and think I think ill of her when I totally don’t–who spanked her oldest son even though she swore she never would. He would have these huge, destructive tantrums and she just didn’t know what else to do. And I don’t blame her. I might very well have done the same thing.
As for your disobedient son who clearly has no respect for you or the Lord, I say you haul him in the house every time he makes a break for it. He doesn’t get to be outside unless he can stay out of the street. The other option is to walk over to the other side with him, satisfy his curiosity and see if he still feels the need to give it a go after that. I am full of advice, as you know, so message me if you really want a play-by-play on this.
Of course, we didn’t even bring up the whole misreading of “spare the rod” that makes this a theological issue for so many people. That’s because that justification for spanking is so ridiculously out of line with what that passage actually means that we’re not even giving it blog space. If someone has convinced you that this passage means you need to spank your kids to be a good Christian parent, they have seriously mislead you.