Spanking children is a topic which people feel very strongly either one way or the other. There are plenty of passages in the bible that promote spanking or other forms of physical punishment in order to discourage bad behavior in our children. Many people, to this day quote a piece of the 17th century poem by Samuel Butler called Hudibras “… spare the rod and spoil the child”. I’m definitely not here to parent shame people. What I want to do is open up the idea that perhaps there is a better way to discourage negative behavior and encourage positive behavior in children. After all, why should we still take notes from the 17th century when so much of our civilization and culture has evolved since then? Women also used to regularly drink alcohol during pregnancy much more recently than the 17th century, but we now know better. While not all babies ended up with FAS when a mother drank alcohol during pregnancy, I certainly wasn’t about to roll the dice on my pregnancies with my children knowing the risks.
So, let me be very honest here with the possibility of being scrutinized; I used to spank my children. I’ve since stopped and realized I am not happy with my original choice. Spanking our children for punishment was a decision my children’s father and I agreed on together when we decided to have children. We both thought that spanking wasn’t abuse, and that it was just enough to startle the child to know that what they did, their behavior in a given situation, was not welcome. We both agreed to the notion that if you spare the rod you spoiled the child, and that spanking was a perfectly acceptable punishment for a child misbehaving. If you still believe these things, trust me I get it. I was there only a couple years ago or so.
Something changed, though. I noticed my relationship going downhill with my ex. I could see him get angry and punish our children for very minor infractions, the punishment seemed to be based more on his anger than on their infractions. I started to feel like I needed to be the protector from spankings. When I would pick up our son from preschool, almost every couple of days I heard reports of my son hitting or kicking or biting teachers and other children. I couldn’t help but wonder if spanking our son at home made him believe that hitting other people was a way of getting them to do what he wanted them to do. Consider how simple children’s logic is. They see parents hit them for doing something wrong, someone in preschool is doing something THEY think is wrong, so they hit that person to get them to stop. It makes sense.
I realize toddlers and preschoolers have a wide variety of emotions. They are learning to communicate effectively. They feel unheard and get frustrated. They have to learn to share in a large group at preschool or daycare. It is not easy being a toddler or preschooler and perhaps spanking our son was not the reason he went to preschool and hit others. Perhaps there are parents who have never spanked their children, and yet their toddlers and preschoolers still hit and kick and bite at daycare and preschool. But I cannot deny the facts when it came to my son. We spanked him. He hit others.
I thought about this more and more as time went on. How the way I live my life and raise them affects others. I thought to myself, how do I want my children to raise their children some day, assuming they choose to have children? Would I be proud to share my decision with how I punish my children? Would I want my actions posted on the front page news? These are all typical ethics questions that I started to think about while I was in college taking ethics courses, as most people do as parents (ha!). The more questions I asked myself, the more clear it was to me that I am not comfortable spanking my children anymore. So I stopped.
I think I stopped completely around the time that I left my ex, maybe a while before. The damage, that I saw, though, is still lingering in my kids, especially with my son. When he was upset he would throw tantrums, and he still does, but they are less frequent. When I asked for him to come to me, there was ALWAYS hesitation as he was worried he was going to get in trouble and be spanked. Still to this day there is a very slight hesitation when I call my children to “come here” when they are fighting. Even though I haven’t spanked them in a couple years and their “fighting with each other” punishment usually involves both of them apologizing to each other and hugging.
I told them directly I was no longer going to spank them. I had a very honest discussion with them that there will be other forms of punishment, but that I would no longer spank them and that I don’t want them to be afraid of me. Now if they are misbehaving, they will be grounded to their room until it’s clean, or get electronics taken away for a day or two, or something along those lines. On the flip side of that, though, is they get rewarded when they are doing good things. They get special treats when they do well at school and the teacher sends me a special note. When they work very hard on something, they get a treat of picking whatever dinner they want that night, which usually ends up being McDonalds. (Side note: I’m working on refining their taste buds.) They are at a school that hands out tickets for displaying positive behaviors.
I have never seen them light up so much than when they tell me about why they got a ticket at their school. I have never been so proud of my daughter than when I saw all the work she put into her school musical as a member of one of the ensembles (not a speaking part). Her eyes lit up when my son and I surprised her with a bouquet of flowers after her first performance. There is absolutely nothing more magical than to see your child, who frequently threw tantrums and fits and was angry a lot start to show positive behavior and become noticeably more relaxed at home. I’m telling you, it is night and day.
Here is my thought process. If we want to raise a generation of thoughtful, empathetic individuals to show love and compassion (which is my goal), we need to do EXACTLY that with our children. It is hard, believe me I understand. When my son threw a tantrum the other day after I asked him to fold his laundry, I almost lost my cool. Instead I gave him a nice long hug, asked him why he was upset, and talked about it with him. Turns out he was frustrated because he didn’t feel like he knew how to fold his laundry the right way and he thought he was going to do it wrong. If I had spanked him for throwing a tantrum I can guarantee you based on previous experience with him, it would have only escalated the behavior and he would not have ended up folding his own laundry. Instead I showed my son that I cared enough about his feelings to let him talk to me, even when he was misbehaving. I let him know I am a safe person. I showed him love with a warm hug even while he was still yelling and crying. It took him a while to settle down from the fit, but he did fold his laundry and I was able to teach my son how to be compassionate by my example of showing him compassion. Big win!
I am not going to tell you what is right or wrong to do in your family. That would make me a huge hypocrite. However, if even for only a moment you’ve wondered if spanking may be causing more damage than it is preventing, I would challenge you to take a break and find other methods of punishment and rewards for a while – maybe start with 90 days and see if your child starts to react differently to you. What does it hurt to try something different?