Like the majority of Americans I was raised in a home that used corporal punishment . My mom broke a fair share of wooden spoons on my rear end. To this day I take pride in the fact that my parents don’t have any wooden spoons in the kitchen because my hide was tough enough to eliminate them all. As I got older to where my mothers punishment wasn’t quite as effective, I remember transitioning to the “Wait till your father gets home” punishment. Looking back, I realize that half the punishment was what we would have considered a “time-out” today as I sat in dreadful anticipation of what was to come. There was never any arguing over the punishment (except for the pleading “don’t tell dad”). I knew that arguing or fighting back just made matters worse. I’d take my couple of swats and afterwards sit on the edge of the bed, usually two hands under me massaging my now tender buttocks, and “think about what I had done”. This was how I was raised and how I intended to raise my kids. Like so many people out there my thought was “I got spanked growing up and I turned out just fine”.
I never considered my punishment a “beating” or “whoopin'” like some call it. That always seemed overdramatizing the situation. It was a simple spanking. I never had to “fetch a switch” or pull down my pants. We didn’t even have an official paddle like some of my friends parents had. Today, I don’t remember how often I was spanked or for what. What I do remember is what happened after every time though. Whoever gave out the spanking would come back into the bedroom and sit down next to me. They’d put their arms around me and wipe away the tears that were still trickling down my cheeks. It always finished with “you know I don’t like spanking you. I love you very much and am sorry. We know you are a great kid and want you to be as great as we believe you are”. There’d be an explanation of why what I did was wrong and I’d be sent off to play. But that was a different time.
Apparently corporal punishment is still very common although a bit faux pas. According to research led by Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas nearly three fourths of US parents spank their children at least once a year. Nineteen states still utilize corporal punishment in the school system where some 200,000 students receive spankings each year. So at first the story of Adrian Peterson seemed a bit silly to most Americans. In case you hadn’t heard Adrian Peterson, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, turned himself in a week ago on charges of child abuse. The details I gathered from the story are his 4 year old son pushed his other son off of a toy. Peterson then used a “switch” to spank the child. Sounds pretty normal for any of us who grew up fetching a dad’s belt from the closet, and initially many people defended his actions. The problem arose when the child’s mother took him to the doctor for lacerations to his legs. As I read the story the first thing that came to my mind was “why does a 260 lb professional athlete need a weapon to discipline a four year old?”.
The problem with child discipline is that there’s a thin line between discipline and abuse. For every parent who takes the time to love on their child afterwards like mine did, there is one who uses the opportunity to relieve themselves of stress at the expense of a defenseless child; boys and girls who couldn’t sit for days or had black eyes for “sassing their parents” are all too common. It’s for this reason that the UN passed a resolution to the basic human rights of children urging states to prohibit corporal punishment. I realized the fine line very quickly as a father. I scared myself as I felt myself losing control and spanking out of anger. I had a rule that I would never use an object to discipline my boys. I know how strong I am and I wasn’t going to allow myself to inflict harm. But inevitably comes those moments as your arguing with your child and you lose your temper. It was in those moments where I would grab my son and hold him tight, keeping him safe from me as we calmed ourselves down together. I understand those parents who say “I never meant to hurt them”. It’s so easy to lose control in the midst of a child’s temper tantrum as they are kicking and screaming at you.
What makes it even worse is trying to find the alternative. How do you respond when a kid is stubborn and/or disrespectful? Time-out is a joke for them. It’s not easy reasoning with a child. I’ve read the research and understand the Psychological effects physical violence have on children. But for all the research that says don’t spank, there’s little to none that give helpful alternatives. I know I can’t have the same level of discourse with a toddler about right and wrong as I can with a 13 year old due to their cognitive development. If I take a four year old and explain to them in great detail that if you grab the dogs tail he will bite, what do you think will happen the next time that child sees a dog with it’s tail wagging? I don’t believe they’ll stop and say “I remember that fantastic conversation with father about the perils of aggravating the dog”. Most likely they will grab the dogs tail, get nipped at, and come crying to mom. The reality is that the nip from the dog, the burn on the hand, or the slap on the wrist is what reinforces that was a bad decision. It’s not a preferred consequence, but how many times have you told a child “no” to find them right back at it again as soon as you turn your back?
I don’t believe spanking is wrong, but like all things there comes a point where it is used extremely or improperly. I don’t believe scolding a child is wrong, but I have friends who have gone through years of therapy for the emotional and verbal abuse they received as a child. It’s hard as a parent to discover what kind of punishment is effective for your children. There’s no manual for this kind of thing. They don’t teach it in life skills at school, so each of us grows up making decisions about our parenting based on our childhood experiences and the personality of our children. Every kid is different. For some a time-out is all that’s needed. Others need to lose their toys and others don’t respond unless there’s a physical response, be it a slap on the wrist or a swat on the rear. There are plenty of us out there who got spanked and grew up just fine and there are plenty of people out there who know first hand what a parent losing control and using extreme measures looks like. My boys are just now in elementary school and thankfully they are smart enough that I can’t remember the last time one of them got spanked. And I’m thankful every time I don’t have to either.