Spanked with Words: More Damaging than We May Realize
While conducting therapy with children, I often ask them about their understanding of why their parents discipline them and the kinds of disciplinary practices in which their parents engage. I also attempt to gain their perspective of how justified they consider the disciplinary measures to be and what, if anything, they learn from their parents’ actions. Interestingly, when I initiate a discussion about discipline, almost all children respond as if discipline were synonymous with punishment. I might add that their parents respond in a similar fashion. That is understandable since the word discipline typically evokes images of punishing or being punished. Yet, as my colleague Dr. Sam Goldstein and I emphasize in our book Raising a Self-Disciplined Child, we believe that one of the most effective and powerful forms of discipline is positive feedback and encouragement. Punishment teaches children what not to do rather than reinforcing what they should do.
Consequences and Spanking
As many of my readers are aware, I am a strong advocate that when children misbehave there should be consequences for their negative actions, although I believe that any punishment should be guided by the use of natural and logical consequences. Such consequences promote responsibility and accountability rather than anger and resentment. Of concern is an issue I addressed in my March, 2001 website article, namely, punishment that is expressed through corporal punishment. In that article I wrote that we must remember that the word discipline stems from the word disciple and is best understood as a teaching process. As a form of education, discipline should not be associated with so-called teaching practices that serve to humiliate, scare, or embarrass children. I emphasized two of the main functions of discipline. One was to ensure a safe and secure environment in which children not only learn the importance of rules, limits, and consequences but they also appreciate the reasons that rules and limits exist.
The second purpose of discipline I highlighted was to develop self-discipline or self-control, a major skill that underlies success in almost all facets of our lives. Self-discipline implies that children have incorporated rules so that even when adults are not present, they will act in a reflective manner, assuming ownership and responsibility for their behavior. I believe that the emergence of self-discipline is hampered when spanking becomes a major disciplinary tactic. In my workshops some parents have contended that spanking is effective, that it stops behaviors in their children that are unacceptable. That may be true, but in my experience corporal punishment also contributes to children acting out behind our backs and/or becoming increasingly angry.
In my 2001 article I quoted the words of Nancy Samalin, a friend and colleague and a well-known authority on the theme of discipline. In an issue of Sesame Street Parents Magazine, Nancy, together with editor Susan Lapinski, wrote an article titled, “The Spanking Report.” They observe, “The child who gets an occasional swat across the bottom when the parents regretfully lose control is not the child most professionals worry about. It’s when spanking becomes a habit that a child—and his family—may be at risk. And spanking is a habit for a majority of American families according to the results of a study of 3,000 adults last summer by pollster Daniel Yankelovich. The study revealed that 61% of the adults who responded condone spanking as a regular form of punishment.”
Nancy and Susan quote Dr. Murray Straus, founder and co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and the author of Beating the Devil Out of Them, a book detailing the impact of spanking on children. Straus notes, “In the last three years, we’ve had a revolution in our state of knowledge about spanking and violence. Spanking increases the probability of kids hitting other kids. It often leads to antisocial behavior like cheating and getting into trouble at school. When they grow up, kids who have been spanked are more likely to hit their partners than kids who haven’t.”
Similar to Nancy and Susan, I am not concerned about the child who infrequently receives a swat on the rear end, although I would even like to see that parental response cease. I do not want parents who have ever spanked their child to feel I am unfairly criticizing them; I have discovered many loving parents who at some point have done so. However, I feel it is our responsibility as parents to learn more effective ways of teaching and correcting our children.
I am most troubled by parents who spank their children on a regular basis and/or parents who do not confine a slap to the rear end, but rather hit children with force all over the body, sometimes using an accessory such as a belt. I am of the opinion that in these instances spanking begins to border on child abuse. I know that there are individuals on each side of the spanking argument who would disagree with my perspective. There are those who believe any form of spanking is abusive even if it only involves a quick slap to the child’s behind, while others believe that spanking is a parent’s right and a proper form of teaching children. My position is aligned much closer to the former group.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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