Posted by Karen O'Hanlon
It happened before I was a formally trained teacher, and still a new parent. My husband and I had just met a couple with two young kids about the same age as ours. David and Shelly were fairly sociable, seemingly well-intentioned parents, who appeared to care for their kids.
I was shocked to discover the extreme form of spanking they used regularly as a way of disciplining their children. Throughout each day, long days since the mom was home-schooling her kids, the parents kept a kind of tally of misbehaviors. Each time that one of the children didn’t mind right away or did anything unacceptable, they put a mark on a chart. Then later they did the spankings all at once. Sometimes before dinner or sometimes after, other times right before bedtime. Sometimes first thing in the morning for all the misbehaviors on the previous day.
I think the parents had rationalized what they were doing by telling themselves that systematizing and delaying punishment made it less volatile, less emotional. They did not see their actions as abusive. It was impossible for me to see it that way. Setting up a system where children can look forward to being spanked at the end or beginning of each day, based on their mistakes, puts the focus on everything they do wrong in a very intense way. (I’m convinced it’s even more abusive psychologically than physically.)
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when the mom described her system of discipline. At the time, inexperienced as a parent and before my teacher training, I still had a gut-level reaction against spanking as a method of discipline. But trying to explain it to David and Shelly would have been fruitless—I wasn’t informed enough to elaborate all the reasons that I thought it was wrong. My reaction was so strong that on the way home from their house I told my husband I didn’t want my children around such a negative environment. I couldn’t even stand being around it myself. I couldn't imagine furthering our relationship, and shortly after we stopped seeing David and Shelly.
Now, with both parenting and teaching experience under my belt, I would be better prepared to address why this manner of discipline is destructive. There are mountains of research which, for varying reasons, condemn even occasional spanking as a disciplinary approach. For instance, spanking prohibits certain behaviors, but actually interferes with children learning the difference between right and wrong. Personally I believe this is because the moment “hitting” becomes a factor, a child can no longer focus on any reasonable verbal discussion. Spanking can cause a rift of mistrust between parent and child by showing that force is an acceptable way to get what you want. It also appears to increase aggression when used frequently.
You can probably tell that I am generally negative about spanking, but no matter how you feel about spanking, a spanking system makes even less sense. If a child is spanked and then told to go to sleep, how are they supposed to reflect on what they did wrong? If you spank a child ten times first thing in the morning, how are they supposed to feel good about themselves and have a day full of positive achievements?
During the course of any day, kids will have failures as well as successes. Shape their behavior by reinforcing what a child has done well, talking with them at the end of each day about their successes. You can still use a chart, but instead of charting mistakes and poor choices, you can help them to keep track of their best behaviors.
The last time I heard, David and Shelly’s kids were teenagers with some pretty serious problems. Running away, encounters with juvenile hall, high school pregnancy. It’s easy to stand at a distance and look down on your neighbors, and I certainly don’t want to be that kind of person. But I can’t help but feel things could've worked out better for their family if David and Shelly had spared the rod a lot more often.