Spanking is a topic that can break a room in half in a matter of seconds. For this exact reason I have been cautious, thoughtful, and patient about when I would approach it. Last night I watched CNN as several talking heads spoke of Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back who is currently being investigated for beating his 4-year-old son with a switch. The commentators brought up all sorts of reasons, judgments, and statistics. Some I had never heard and two shocked me to the core: 70% of Americans approve of “a good hard spanking” and 94% of parents of children ages 3-4 report spanking their children. The time finally felt right for me to write what I know about spanking and what I call “fear based discipline.”
The statistics and multiple negative outcomes of children that are disciplined with corporal punishment are well known to those who work with children. Children’s Trends , a research group, found that corporal punishment increases negative outcomes in adolescence like low academic achievement, alcohol and drug use, antisocial behavior. They also found that the older the age of the child, the greater the negative outcomes. So why do 70% of parents in the United States believe in spanking?
I like to be practical and real. The reason parents spank, scream, and threaten is because when you do, the change and response in the child is often immediate. But what have you taught the child? I have consulted with parents whose little ones are hitting their friends at school, to the parents’ distress. Then I ask, do you spank them? Yes. What does the child experience? They learn that when someone is doing something wrong and you don’t like what they are doing you hit them. Cut to the child at school and his friend takes his toy. He thinks I don’t like what you are doing and it is wrong so….he hits his friend. This is the 4-year-old version of hitting.
A further problem with fear based discipline is that the child builds a tolerance to the punishment. Instead of understanding that we do not climb the bookshelf because it can be dangerous, the 3-year-old now has a new goal of climbing the bookshelf without getting hit. They will try and try until they meet their need of exploring the wonderful bookshelf that to him looks more like a fun ladder to climb. The other problem with the child’s tolerance is that the parent has to continue to escalate their response to the child. First you scream, then you have to scream and hit a table to make a loud sound, later you have to scream hit the table and grab the child and finally you end up hitting your 3-year-old child in full adult rage. Fear based discipline–corporal punishment--puts you in the risk of escalating to a point where you may regret to what degree you hurt your child.
Parents often tell me. I was hit with “the switch, la chancleta, the belt” and I’m okay. Are you really? Do you remember what it was like to be hit? Did you feel understood? In the moment could you honestly trust and love your parent or where you feeling betrayed and hurt? If you think about it today, did you stop doing whatever you were doing because you understood why it should not be done or because you were afraid of losing your parent’s love and connection? Most parents tell me they want their children to count on them and talk to them about everything. Those of you who were hit, did you tell your parent everything or did you keep some things to yourself in fear of losing your connection and your love with your parent? I think the one outcome of being hit by a parent or being disciplined with fear that many adults overlook is something I see in both my therapy clients and friends in my circle. Many adults are out in the world uncertain about their decisions, wondering should I or shouldn’t I. An inheritance of being told what to do and being scared into submitting to do what the caregiver tells you is a questioning of those answers that come innately from you. Be honest with yourself and see if corporal punishment is truly for you and your children. To me, if we can change this we can change a whole new generation of citizens for the better.