This post was first published on Vie de Cirque in 2014. I am reposting it in light of the recent policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending that parents avoid corporal punishment to manage challenging behaviour.
Yesterday, I was advised to spank my children for getting out of bed after bedtime. I was venting about our bedtime routine, gone wild with the longer summer days and the end of napping for the twins. Our twins are 2-and-a-half and our daughter is 5. All three have a hard time stopping long enough to let sleep overcome them. After sharing with friends everything we had tried, one of them suggested spanking them if they got out of bed. I was taken aback, a little speechless, and blurted out: “They would have no idea why I’m hitting them.” I would have liked to be able to say: “I never spank my children.”
I used to spank but I don’t anymore. When my four older children were young, I believed that spanking was part of any parent’s discipline toolbox. I believed, as I had been told by other parents, that nothing cleared the air like a good swat on the bum. That spanking was the only way to ensure compliance in certain situations. That some defiant behaviours such as willful disobedience and lying should be nipped in the bud quickly and unequivocally through spanking. The books I read were reasonable. Nobody suggested spanking infants or school-aged children. Every author or speaker insisted that parents should never spank in anger. That the bum-swat should be applied swiftly and unemotionally to children who are too young to understand the gravity of their actions. All the while, spanking made my children angry or miserable, not compliant. And rather than be unemotional about it, I was racked by guilt and the impression that there had to be a better way to raise respectful and considerate children. The reality was that I always spanked in anger: when I wasn’t angry, I could always find more constructive and respectful ways to get what I needed from my children.
When my 5th child was born, I decided to stop spanking. I decided that if hitting my child was the only way to gain the upper hand, I deserved to lose that hand. I would drop an argument before resorting to spanking. You see, the problem with spanking or yelling or any anger fuelled response is that it works. It works to blow-off steam; it works to obtain compliance from our children; it works to leave a lasting impression. The problem with spanking is not whether it works or not, but why it works so well. A toddler who resorts to hitting and biting understands how expedient physical punishment can be. And when I spanked my children, however rarely, I felt at the mental capacity of a toddler. There had to be a better way, for my children and for myself as I sought to become a better parent.
Why does spanking work? Is it merely the fear of pain that snaps our children back on the straight and narrow? Is the pain inflicted on your bum by a parent the same as the pain that is inflicted by a fall on the playground? Does spanking work on defiance just like a fat lip works on couch acrobatics? Or is there something about the pain inflicted by a parent that makes it more efficient? Any parent of a playground acrobat knows that pain is not always a deterrent. My two-year-old son was chasing a soccer ball in the driveway when the ball rolled under our van. Without thinking twice about his height in relation to the van’s clearance, he ducked under the van but hit the bumper then the pavement face first. He stood up, shook himself up, and carried on the pursuit with a bad case of road rash. Without a single tear. Yet, the same day, when he was particularly defiant at bedtime, I flicked his diaper area with one finger to hurry him along and the screams of pain were completely disproportionate to the “pain” I had inflicted. If pain was the only deterrent involved in spanking, toddlers who bite, hit and shove would be widely respected at home and on the playground. There is a singularity to parents hitting children that makes the pain more searing. We often justify spanking by saying that we do not really hurt our children. We know, even if we do not like to admit it, that spanking is not about the physical pain we inflict but about its emotional impact on our children. Spanking works. Not because it hurts but because the hurt comes from our hand.
When we hit our children, no matter how good the reason seems to be, we use the love and trust that bind us to our children against them. We play-up their natural fear of losing our love and affection and use it against them. Because let’s be honest here, what makes spanking so expedient is not the fear of physical pain but the fear of loss. And the loss feared is the most profound. Hitting our children, when it works in achieving compliance, is hitting at their core, not their bums. This breaks my heart when I think about it. In hindsight, I am glad that spanking never worked for us. I take comfort in the fact that it made my children angry rather than compliant. I am thankful that they were secure enough in my love to call my bluff.
Spanking works, but it works for the wrong reasons. It is also a behavior that is self-reinforcing because it yields immediate results while giving vent to our frustration. The positive feedback loop afforded by spanking when we are at our wits’ end quickly becomes hardwired. Even 10 years after I made the decision to stop spanking, I can still be heard threatening my children with a bum-whacking whenever I reach the end of my rope. I never follow through and they know that. But I hate that my mind still goes there more often than I like to admit. And my children, when looking after their younger siblings, can often be heard threatening them with a spanking if they don’t straighten up. The urge to hit in frustration is a powerful one. Once our brain has tasted the relief, it is hard to give it up.
I still hit the wall. Often. It happens when my children are simply so defiant and disobedient that hitting seems to be the only way to get respect. It happens at bedtime when the children take 2 hours to fall asleep and I need a break. It happens when they run away from me in a busy parking lot. It happens when I am desperately trying to leave and my efforts are met with stubborn resistance. It happens when my children are disrespectful and mean to me and each other. It happened recently when the twins and my 5-year-old were playing in the bathtub. That was the day my daughter slew me.
The children were in the bathtub, all 3 of them. I turned my back for 5 seconds to pick up my crying infant and in that split second, they dumped the entire content of a large jug of expensive body wash in the bathtub. I didn’t realize it immediately until they started crying because the soap was hurting them. Yes, soap, in large quantity, will burn your skin. I was so mad! This was not the first time. Earlier, we had vacuumed the entire content of a sunscreen bottle carefully massaged into our carpet. For my children, if it can be dumped or smeared, it has no reason to stay in a container. This is an ongoing issue with my 3 youngest, one of whom is old enough to know better. My daughter was crying that the soap was hurting her private parts. I was mad at her for letting the twins dump a $15 soap bottle in the bath without even calling me. In exasperation, I said: “I am so mad at you, I really feel like giving you a good spanking!” And she blurted out, in tears:
“No! Don’t hit my bum! My bum already hurts! I don’t need a spanking when my bum hurts like this, I NEED A HUG!!”
I felt like I had been struck by lightning. Even today, I can’t think about this episode without feeling a big lump in my throat. When our children push us to the limit, they are more likely in need of more care and affection than a sound ass-whippin’. My children resist bedtime when I am too busy to take them to the park after dinner. My 8-year-old middle child is rude when I’ve been putting off our game of Uno once too many. My 5-year-old is defiant when she needs more thoughtful attention, not more spanking. As for my toddlers, their thirst for discovery, their curiosity and their unbridled energy are qualities needing careful supervision until they can be channeled into useful accomplishments.
Parenting will bring you to your knees. If it doesn’t, you are doing it wrong. But ultimately, the flaws of stubborn determination, independence and curiosity will blossom into their most successful qualities. Don’t spank it out of them.