If you’re a a late Gen X or Millennial parent, you’ve probably noticed that parenting advice and styles seem a lot different from when we were kids.
Or perhaps it’s just that parenting advice is a lot more available now than it was when our parents had us (thank you, interwebs!).
Either way, times have changed, and there’s a lot of emphasis on positive parenting, gentle parenting, responsive parenting, or whatever you want to call it.
My experience growing up, at least, is that kids were expected to be kept “in line.” After all, the world works on the premise that there is always someone who has authority over you, and you need to obey that authority. One day we would be all sent out as adults, and we needed to know how the world works.
If you show up late, you’d get written up.
If you don’t perform at your job, you’d be fired.
If you break the law, you’d get arrested.
Therefore, it was imperative that we learned that misbehavior led to punishment, so we wouldn’t screw up too badly later once the stakes were too high.
Of course, this is only my experience, and it’s influenced by the cultural, social, and religious atmosphere I was brought up in, but I’m sure there are more of us who were exposed to these ideas. But wow, what a dismal view of the world… there’s not a lot of grace in this scenario!
While of course I want my children to accept responsibility for their actions and to respect others, I don’t want every choice they make to stem from a place of fear! So that’s why I’ve started looking into more positive parenting styles. I want my children’s actions to flow from a heart that is secure in love.
And as it turns out, science has shown that the way many of us were raised actually isn’t even effective! So let’s look at one of the most contested old-school styles of discipline, corporal punishment, and why positive parenting (or responsive parenting) is so much better.
Why is spanking not helpful?
Ah yes. Spanking. Some have no experience with spanking, while others of us are intimately familiar with it, either as someone who has used it or who has been on the receiving end.
For those of us who were spanked (or maybe you have used spanking with your own kids), maybe your family came from the school where they “spanked from a place of love, not anger,” and your parents had control over themselves when it happened. You were told why you were about to be punished, the spanking happened, and then there was a discussion afterwards.
Others of us may only remember being spanked when a parent was so furious that they seemed to not to be discipling as much as flying off the handle and taking their rage out on our us.
And if this happened to you, I’m not trying to imply that your parents abused you. At the same time, I’m also not trying to excuse parents’ abusive actions as “discipline.” I am certainly not going to judge where that line is. But perhaps the fact that the line between the two can be so fuzzy is exactly one of the reasons to avoid spanking (as this guy found out recently).
Beyond that concern, though, is the bigger picture: Does spanking even work? Time and again, research has said no.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and several other organizations all say that not only is spanking ineffective, it actually harms children in the long run. And to be clear, we’re separating spanking from clear physical abuse here: they’re only counting “noninjurious, open-handed hitting” (so not even the belt that some of us got as kids!). Children who were spanked more than twice monthly at three years old were more aggressive as five-year olds, and if they were spanked as five-year olds, the trend continued on when they were nine. In fact, by the time these kids were nine, they had lower vocabularies and more aggressive, anti-social behaviors than their peers who weren’t spanked.
Spanking doesn’t effectively stop negative behaviors
“But Samantha,” you say, “spanking get kids to stop their bad behavior!” Actually, it doesn’t. Yes, kids stop what they’re doing right that moment, but a recent study showed that nearly three-quarters of kids who were spanked/swatted/ had some kind of corporal punishment used on them went right back to that behavior within ten minutes. Not only that, but children who are spanked are more likely to be defiant and aggressive in the future.
Bottom line: with spanking, you may (very briefly) win the battle, but you’re ultimately going to lose the war for your kids, both in their relationship with you and for their future emotional health.
Spanking is an especially dangerous route for parents dealing with stress or mental health issues
When you’re depressed or have gone through trauma yourself, you don’t see the world the same way as those who haven’t gone through these experiences. Unfortunately, depression and anxiety cause you to see your children through a more negative lens, so if you’re someone who gives yourself permission to spank, you’re likely to do it more often and more harshly. Not only that, but spanking is associated with increased risk of mental health disorders for children!
In fact, even groups that give spanking the okay suggest you don’t use this discipline method if you’re emotionally volatile or reactive. But if that’s true for people dealing with anger issues, shouldn’t this be true for all of us?
If I’m being honest, I still have a knee-jerk desire to use corporal punishment occasionally. I don’t, because I’ve made the up-front choice not to, but the urge is still there sometimes. And do you know when I’m most tempted to wallop my kids? When I’m mad and feel like I have no control over them. And since we’ve already established that when you’re angry and out-of-control is the least good time to hit your child, it’s best just to leave spanking off the table.
But I had a religious upbringing that says you’re supposed to spank!
I don’t address religion much on this blog, largely because I don’t want to exclude anyone. However, I know spanking is a hot-button topic among some faiths. And while I can’t speak to others’ beliefs or experiences, I’ll address what I grew up with: conservative Christianity.
I heard it from the pulpit: Beat him with the rod and deliver his soul from hell (Cue the old geezers who hadn’t been whipped in decades mumbling “amen!”). And while parents were told you didn’t have to use a literal rod and you shouldn’t do any real damage, the message was clear: only bad, permissive parents who didn’t care about their kids’ futures refused to use corporal punishment.
And I’ll be honest: it felt really confusing for me. When my oldest was an infant, I even asked another young mother when you were “supposed” to start spanking your kids. Without skipping a beat, she replied, “Six months.”
“For what?!” I asked, kind of incredulous but also assuming she must be right.
“Well, for trying to roll away when you’re changing their diaper or any time they’re not doing what you want them to.”
But this didn’t resonate with me, and by “didn’t resonate,” I mean, “honestly sounded off the deep end.” (Also, this is super wrong, like, you could hurt your baby). And the more I learned about child development, the more I decided there was nothing okay about the idea of hitting an infant.
I’ll say this in a nutshell: the word “discipline” is related to the word “disciple.” Discipline isn’t about beating behaviors out of kids, but about guiding them and mentoring them.
By the way, if you are interested in careful interpretation of Biblical passages that are often used to support spanking, Lizzy of The Moving Mama wrote a great article that gets down to the nitty-gritty of reading into the original Hebrew these passages were written in. Spoiler alert: these verses are not advocating spanking small children.
So what options do I have if I choose not to spank?
Much of the time, people use spanking when they feel like they’ve lost control of a situation. And I promise, I don’t say that in judgement. Parenting is hard, and you never realize how little control you have over the world around you until you’re faced with your own defiant toddler (and it doesn’t get easier from there). The trick to finding better ways to handle your kids is twofold.
First, you need to develop your own sense of what you can control.
The fact is, you can’t physically make your kid do anything. All you can do is control your own response to your child. And let’s be real, that’s a lifetime worth of work.
But there’s no day like today to start! Check out my post on mindfulness for help with learning how to control your own reaction to your kids.
Secondly, you have to extend your parenting toolkit to more effective means.
Even if you choose to spank, there will come a time where it simply will no longer work. Case in point: my grandfather told a story of when he was in his early teens. I kind of think my Poppa was a bit of a rounder as a young man, but I’ll never know for sure.
Anyways, he’d gotten in trouble for something, so his mother proceeded to whip him. I guess he was trying to put on some bravado for my great-grandmother, so he laughed at her attempts at punishing him. You can guess at how that was received. She continued to whip him (whup him, as we’d say back home) until she was flat wore out. Exhausted, she told him, “You stay right here, boy, because when I get my breath back, we’re goin’ a second round.”
He still laughed when telling this story, so I guess he wasn’t scarred for life, but the bottom line is this: we need other tools, better tools, that will continue to work no matter how big our kids are.
That’s why I’ve developed a list of prompts for you to help you get your kids to cooperate without yelling or nagging (or resorting to threats of corporal punishment!) Sign up here to get your FREE cheat-sheet to help you develop your parenting arsenal!
How do your views on parenting differ from those you were raised with? Let us know in the comments. Until next time, happy parenting!