Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

To Spank or Not to Spank?

Posted on: January 30, 2018

For many generations,  punishing a child physically for misdeeds was not only accepted practice, but approved and universal. As parenting has become more thoughtful and as we have become vigilant about child abuse, views on this have been changed. There has been an evolution in what are considered appropriate ways to modify a child’s behavior, and as a therapist in private practice, I have had a unique opportunity to watch and advise on this. There are three issues to consider:

First, schools and most parents are teaching their children from early on to “use their words” to  set limits on another’s behavior. “Instead of hitting Johnny when he takes your ball, tell him to STOP IT!”. A child who doesn’t learn this lesson will have problems with teachers, other kids and their parents. Hitting at school is universally unacceptable. If a parent uses physical means to discipline their child at home, they are modeling unacceptable behavior.  I’ve even heard parents say to their kids, “I’ll teach you not to hit your brother –WHACK, WHACK!”. What you model at home is what your child will learn to do with their angry, hurt or frustrated feelings out in the world.

A second problem with physical means of discipline is the message it sends about the position  your child holds in your estimation. A parent’s physical actions  may send the message that they are bigger, stronger, “own” their children and can do what they like. This was illustrated beautifully for my by an 11 year old girl I was seeing in my practice. Her mother was suffering through the pre-adolescent sassiness of her daughter. At one heightened point of rudeness, the mother slapped the girl across the face. The girl very perceptively protested that, “When you’re mad at Daddy, you don’t hit him and when you’re mad at Grandma, you don’t hit her! Why do you think you can hit me?”.  These practices have the potential, years hence, to help your child decide that they don’t like you very much and would prefer to  put emotional or geographical distance between you. Now, I know some of you were physically disciplined and have a great relationship with your parents. The problem is that others do not, and  you won’t know how it will turn out until it’s too late.

Lastly, parents have to be aware of the extreme governmental focus on child abuse. Because this has been ignored for too long, Children’s Protective Services are doing their job passionately, and you can end up in BIG trouble. I have dealt with three families – all very nice, educated and well-meaning but OLD FASHIONED parents – whose children inadvertently “spilled the beans” on a parent to a mandated reporter – a teacher, a therapist, etc. – who must report potential child abuse. In one case, a child away at camp shared with her bunkmate that her father used physical punishment. The bunkmate told the counselor, who told the director who called the police. The other children in the family were taken into protective custody until the father was removed from the household. After many months, many thousands of dollars in attorney fees, and tragic emotional consequences for the family, the situation was righted. In other cases, small children who come to school or camp with a bruise or mark that they “explain” was caused by a parent set off similar investigations and actions.

For all these reasons, correcting behavior using incentives and/or consequences ( that are not physical) can teach the lessons you want your children to learn and maintain a rational and loving relationship between parent and child.

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