Monday, April 11, 2011

questioning the philosophy behind spanking

Last year before Judah was born I wrote about my unease with spanking. I am not outright against it, I know many people that I think are good parents that choose to spank (both Isaac and mine included), but what will we choose? Whatever we decide, it needs to be well-reasoned, and I have big questions about the philosophy behind spanking.

First off, let's grant that we're talking about spanking, not beating. There is a difference. My other presupposition is that discipline IS important and it can be implemented without spanking.

So - is spanking needed if there are other methods of discipline? Even if it's not needed, many say it's really something that should be used because it is a good or better form of discipline that is really needed sometimes. Generally when people are explaining this to me they say that other methods of discipline may be good enough most of the time, but spanking is really needed at some times. "It can't be ruled out", because then the child knows that you will never go there and they have that much more power in the relationship.

Thoughts in response to that line of thinking.

1. Power. There is a lot of discussion in evangelical parenting methodology about power and not letting a child win a power play. I agree that as kids grow up they naturally begin to assert their will and want their will to dominate all others - hello terrible twos! I agree that kids need to learn that they don't get to win and do whatever they want to do. However, is the correct response to a kid's power play really to dominate and win? Isn't that sort of just winning their game instead of teaching them the game isn't any good in the first place?

2. If spanking is a last resort or perhaps the most effective form of discipline for the most obstinate of situations, why is that? What makes spanking potentially so much more effective than other forms? The answer is that it uses physical pain to teach a lesson.

Let me think about that for a minute. It's true that physical pain is a powerful motivator. Is this a good motivator, though? My initial response was - of course not, no. Why would we want to cause our children pain? However, I have to pause on that one now. Last year I read The Road Less Traveled by psychologist M. Scott Peck.  Peck is not at all a good moral example, but his first chapter on problems and pain really captured my attention. He talked about how much we avoid pain, and we only start to truly grow when the pain of growth appears to be less than the pain of staying as we are. He said:
 Therefore let us inculcate in ourselves and in our children the means of achieving mental and spiritual health. By this I mean let us teach ourselves and our children the necessity for suffering and the value thereof, the need to face problems directly and to experience the pain involved. I have stated that discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. It will become clear that these tools are techniques of suffering, means by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way as to work them through and solve them successfully, learning and growing in the process. When we teach ourselves and our children discipline, we are teaching them and ourselves how to suffer and also how to grow.
That made me think a bit. I perceive causing pain as negative, but shouldn't we teach our kids about pain? Shouldn't pain and suffering (in a very mild way) naturally result from bad decisions? Shouldn't we teach our kids how to learn from that and how to deal with it maturely? Doesn't God allow us to experience pain and suffering?

However, to take it back to spanking... the need to experience and learn to deal maturely with pain and suffering doesn't necessarily mean that should be physical pain. All forms of discipline are some sort of suffering.

I suppose this is my central concern. Spanking is effective because it uses physical pain, and I'm not sure that this a good reason for why spanking is better or needed.

A few comments:
- I am most at ease with spanking when it refers to a little swat or hand smack on a 1-3 year old. In that age, it doesn't have to actually even hurt. It sometimes just startles a kid and/or they somehow understand that it is negative feedback, and this is the age when they learn best by behavioral feedback. It sends a message at an age when they aren't ready for logic. Later on spanking actually has to be painful to be effective, and increasingly the power of the discipline is in pain, control, anger, and/or shame. I am more and more uneasy.
- I think spanking is a very risky thing for parents, perhaps even more so than for kids. Even the parents who have a great philosophy of how to spank (i.e., talk through it with kids, express love, do not spank in anger), end up having a time or two when they did end up being angry when they spanked their child. The risk of crossing the line into beating and the risk of spanking in anger is pretty high. Even if you only do it once.... I honestly think that those experiences often ARE remembered by the child, and remembered with personal hurt.

- I know that discipline should take into account the personality of the child. Within my family we reacted to various punishments in different ways, and varied in our levels of how much we outwardly and openly disobeyed. For a social kid, grounding is brutal. For an active kid, sitting a corner is near maddening. For a reader like me, taking away my books was awful. For a sensitive kid, spanking might just be cruel. For an extra-stubborn kid, it's possible that spanking might be the very best way to send the message. Isaac says he was that kid.

- I definitely think that one thing about discipline is consistency and clarity of expectations. The kid has to know that if they do A, the punishment is B. Kids have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and we need to let them know what the rules are. I also am absolutely in the boat that parents should be of one mind on the discipline thing or else kids will play one parent against the other. That's why I'm writing this... because Isaac and I are talking so much about what we want to do.


Jaimie said...

"However, is the correct response to a kid's power play really to dominate and win? Isn't that sort of just winning their game instead of teaching them the game isn't any good in the first place?"

I really like that.

Then I thought about it.

Then I realized most of the time the parents are establishing the "game" to begin with. For instance: Kid, you can't yell in the grocery store. The "game" is established, the rules. Kid breaks the rules. So the whole "We're above games" thing doesn't apply there. ... and since this is about kids disobeying, I don't know where it would apply. You're setting the rules.

I don't have strong feelings about this, though. I would probably spank a kid because physical pain gets someone's attention. Physical anything gets anyone's attention. And pain is a perfectly natural part of life. Sex involves pain. Exercise involves pain. Pain is really not bad. Suffering is bad, but momentary pain does not suffering make.

Re: parents crossing the line into beating...

I think a parent can inflict any form of discipline poorly and hurt a kid. (And emotional damage is just as bad as physical.) One time I was grounded for three days for not stopping at a stop sign. I remember that.

Jaimie said...

Oh, I should clarify. I did stop, sorta. A roll-through stop. And it was in a gated neighborhood with 20 houses, the only stop sign in the whole place. So it's not like they were teaching me to be safe.

Melissa said...

i was thinking back to discipline in my past when i was reading this. my parents spanked, and i remember that to a certain extent, but it's definitely associated in my mind as deserved because at those times i was willfully disobedient to something i obviously knew i shouldn't have done. however, anger directed towards me for things i didn't even know i had done wrong or things that were accidents, those are the things i remember with hurt. i don't really think spanking or not spanking is as big of a deal as how parents discipline in general. discipline should be clear and make sense to the child as a result of an action they knew they were not supposed to do, not a result of the parent's emotion about the situation.

Rach said...

I think an important distinction needs to be made between "discipline" and "punishment". Discipline is good. It is is wise. Punishment, in the definition I use, refers to "blame, shame, and pain". That is NOT something I want to do to my kid. Sure, I want my child(ren) to experience pain. They will get plenty of that in life, I'm sure. I am a big fan of natural consequences; many "bad things" that kids do have a natural consequence. There are some excellent grace-based parenting books that approach this from a Christian perspective.

One thing I wanted to add, was that although I agree that a gentle swat on a toddler may not hurt and might serve it's purpose, I wouldn't do it. Kids go through enough of a hitting stage already...I wouldn't encourage that in any way by emulating it. We make it very clear in our household that hands are not for hitting. Just my two cents. Good post!

Rach said...

Oh, I wanted to add a link to my post called "Is Punishment Biblical?" It is my most popular blog post to date (by number of readers), interestingly enough.

Kacie said...

Good points, everyone. Jaimie, I agree that all forms of discipline can cross the line into abusive. An article I recently read pointed out that some non-spankers yell and scream like nobody's business, and is that any better? No.

And Melissa, I'm right with you. Most of the time I think I don't even remember being spanked and most of the time I think it was a reasonable punishment that was implemented well. There are those very few times when I felt like it wasn't deserved or wasn't done lovingly that I remember with pain. Since it only took the once or twice to mark those in my mind, I'm pretty nervous about the power of spanking.

Rach, I've read your post before, of course, and it's a good one. I am also a big fan of natural consequences, but that's hard when you are responding to an arbitrary household rule. For instance - stay in bed after bedtime. So if the kid keeps getting up, what's the natural consequence? The rule is for you, and for their sleep, but really you as the parent are the one that suffers. So, when natural consequences don't work, then I think there needs to be other discipline. Not that spanking is the natural option there, there are plenty of others and that's one of my biggest points. There are other options! Why go with the risky one?

Young Mom said...

I feel that spanking contributes to the "power struggle" between children and parents. I'm one of the non-spanking camp, it just doesn't make any sense to me anymore. I like how you are dissecting the issue and not just buying whatever "God" says* like I did. (*Meaning christian leaders who insist they know what God says.)

William L. said...

kacie, i love your heart to do the right thing. praying for you guys as you try to figure out how the Lord wants you to discipline your boy!

William L. said...

and that is from brittany not william! :)

Kacie said...

Brittany, I just wish you were to talk over the decisions you'll be making too! :)