Jane is a 31-year old mother of a three-year old terror. She writes: “A few days ago I was on the phone with my mom discussing an issue we disagree about. My 3 year old son was being his usual loud and rowdy self, jumping around, trying to climb on my lap, whining, screaming, just mad that I was not giving him my undivided attention. Suddenly I lost it. I threw the phone on the sofa and gave him a couple of whacks on his behind while yelling for him to leave me alone because I was on the phone with granny. He was fully clothed so I knew the spank didn’t hurt him, but he looked at me surprised and really didn’t know how to react. I had never hit him before. He just plopped down on the floor and scowled at me. I got back on the phone and told mom we would have to argue later. I hung up and said mommy could play with him but he would have no part of it. I was marinating in guilt and I think he knew it. Have I ruined this kid for life? Have I put him on the road to dealing with conflict by being aggressive and lashing out at others?”

It’s not unusual for a parent to feel guilty after spanking a child. Even though many parents find childrearing quite a chore while the kids are young and at home, they try not to take out their frustrations on their children, especially by physically punishing them. Sometimes in the heat of battle, however, a well-placed smack on the buttocks or hand occurs almost automatically, before the parent even has time to reflect on the wisdom of the action. As a result, the parent may feel guilty afterward; “I spanked my kid. I’m a terrible parent and I’m ruining my kid for life!” The fact of the matter is, fearing such a long-term effect is not a reasonable fear in this situation.

A well-placed hand on a clothed child’s buttocks to make a firm point about an action (maybe something potentially dangerous like running into the street) is one thing; a consistent, daily pattern of hitting a child as the typical and standard way of delivering discipline is quite another. The former is not going to damage a child for life; the latter, however, the ongoing consistent pattern of physical punishment, just may do considerable psychological damage to a child. It is also important to distinguish spanking from out-and-out physical abuse, which would involve bruising and other physical injuries, and using objects like paddles and belts. We can’t imagine any situation that condones such abuse.

Here’s another story: “To be clear, I was most certainly not beaten as a child. However, once or twice ‘back in the day’ my father did threaten me with a belt (a wide leather strap really) that he had around the house. Well one day my unruly side came out and I did get the belt, on the backside…one time. That’s all it took. For the rest of my childhood that belt stayed in the doorway that led to our basement, and just seeing it was all the influence I really needed.  Was it effective punishment? Yes, but what did I really learn?  I learned to stay in line and to fear the belt, I suppose. But also, didn’t that fear then put my father in a negative light as the enforcer of the belt?  I suppose that could be true in many cases and possibly affect attachments down the line, but that one episode didn’t have long-term adverse effects on me.

“I have my own kids now and I don’t use any physical punishment, nor does my wife. These days it’s just too easy to be accused of simple spanking crossing a very blurry line and becoming something that say a teacher under strict mandated reporting has the duty to report further.  I don’t need that!  I also believe that violent acts breed violent acts; I spank, I teach the kid violence is the way to handle things. Not worth it.”

The observation about teaching a child inappropriate behavior is well-put. There can be no doubt that if you spank your child, even if only rarely, you are providing an aggressive model for the child. The fact that the punishment is given only rarely may not matter; in many cases, children show considerable learning from just one exposure to an aggressive model. The fact that the event is rare seems to produce more of an impression.

Here’s a teacher’s perspective: “Physical punishment only sends the message to fear the instrument (or provider) and not actually curb the behavior. In schools, we clearly can’t resort to physical punishment, but we do have the option of response-cost (taking away something preferred) or positive reinforcement (giving something preferred). I tend to use the latter much more often because it seems to be more effective. I’d rather do something to earn something (say, a paycheck) than have to act simply to avoid punishment.”

Disciplining a child without the use of physical punishment is a preferable parental style these days. Here are some steps to follow to help you adopt that style:

—-Accept that you are at times tempted to lash out physically; you are normal in that temptation.

—-If you act on the temptation, accept any guilt you may feel. Do not turn your guilt inward and decide that you are an evil person and terrible parent.

—-Identify elements of a situation that make you want to engage in physical punishment. Examine and evaluate those elements and your reactions so you can consider alternative forms of discipline.

—-Develop ways to remind the child that you are the one who controls rewards and privileges, and assert yourself by exercising that control without physical punishment.

—-Practice being verbally assertive in situations where you are tempted to lash out physically in anger.

—-Use positive methods like approval and rewards. You can be powerful and effective without having to resort to physically-hurtful actions.

—-If you are habitually using physical punishment against a child, seek help because your actions will only escalate into child abuse. You are probably insecure, on some sort of power trip, and have weak interpersonal skills. Excessive physical punishment will only hurt you and your children in the long-run anyway, so gaining just a bit of insight and exploring alternative actions can go a long way.





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