If you try to discuss the issue of spanking vs. not spanking in today’s world you will usually receive comments like, “The problem with our society today is that parents have become too soft on kids. I was spanked when I was a kid. When I was spanked I knew I had it coming.”
Because of the frustration parents feel when children do not obey; because we sense intuitively that children need to be accountable for their behavior; because we feel that standards are important; because we want quick fixes to solutions; we focus on the method of training rather than on the problem. Children do not change because of what parents do. Children change because they decide to change.
“Yes,” you may say, “When my parents spanked me, I decided I needed to change. They got my attention.” When changes occur it is not because of spanking. Children decide to change because that is what they want to do.
Awhile back I was talking on the phone with my mother. I was talking about a Parenting Class I was teaching. I indicated that I was explaining to a parent how important it was to help children live by standards. I indicated how learning takes place from the inside out, not from the outside in. I then explained to her how ineffective spanking was as a tool to help children learn from the inside out. My mother then said, “Well look at you. Your Dad and I spanked you and you turned out o.k.” I responded to Mom by saying, “We turned out o.k. because we loved you and understood what you were trying to teach us. Not because you spanked us.”
I think this is the key to helping children. Whatever is done needs to be done in a spirit of understanding and love. Even when we must help them understand that what they are doing is unwise.
When a child is spanked he/she feels physical pain. Physical pain is a teacher when it is experienced as a result of an accident or mistake and the pain is not life threatening. Most children decide not to repeat touching a hot stove. The child learns that the hot stove is dangerous and something to be avoided. The child’s relationship with the stove is one of caution and distrust.
Pain inflicted by a parent is a teacher also. It teaches the child that the parent is dangerous and someone to be avoided. Spanking may lead to feeling of distrust and caution. Spanking is not a tool recommended to enhance the relationship that a child has with the parent.
When a child is spanked he/she does make some decisions. The child decides that he /she wants to avoid the pain inflicted by the parent he/she needs to refrain from certain behavior when the parent is around or if the parent may find out about the behavior.
This is learning from the outside in. It is not long lasting and it is not built on internal thinking or convictions. This type of learning requires little thinking on to part of the child or the parent. When spanked the child’s behavior is temporarily influenced by the presence of the parent. The child does not stop to think why pain was inflicted. He or she may not even know why pain was inflicted. When spanked the child’s behavior is temporally influenced by the parent’s behavior, not by changes in the child’s thinking about his or her behavior.
What a parent desires is permanent learning on the part of the child. Because spanking is so effective immediately, parents make an assumption that the learning on the part of the child is permanent. This is only an illusion. This illusion is fueled by the desire of the parent to help the child do what is best, and to do it now! We only kid ourselves if we believe that the caring, complex adult that we hope our child will become can be molded in quick fix, spanking sessions.
In the next article on spanking I will go into more detail on the assumptions behind the practice of spanking and the consequences of spanking children. There is not enough space in one column to discuss all the ramifications of this common method of discipline. But it is not fair to discuss spanking, with all its shortcomings, without discussing what to do instead. How to help children learn and be held accountable for their behavior without spanking will be discussed in future columns.
For now, just keep in mind that spanking may be a teacher but it is a poor teacher. The learning is quick, not permanent. The learning is from the outside in, not the inside out. There is also the risk of possible harm to the child when the parents spank. But the saddest thing about spanking is the risk that is taken with the most precious that the parent shares with the child, their relationship.