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Never Strike Your Child

Excerpted from

It's Not That Complicated: The Twelve Rules for Raising Happy, Self-Reliant Children


The Most Asinine of Proverbs

And the winner is: "Spare the rod and spoil the child."

What rubbish. It's one of those unenlightened and illogical clichés incurious people fall back on instead of assuming the responsibility of thinking for themselves. The needless pain and psychological damage that have been inflicted by dumb adherence to it are tragic. We don't permit corporal punishment of even our worst criminals. Why should we do it to our children? The simple fact is this: there is nothing positive that spanking can achieve that noncorporal disciplinary measures cannot.

And so, bottom line, unless you want to teach your child that it is appropriate for the stronger to physically hurt the weaker, there is no legitimate reason to ever hit your child. It's not that complicated.

The Menacing Emotion

Nineteen times out of twenty, physical punishment is inflicted not as the result of the parent's calm and rational assessment that it is needed. It is done for no other reason than the parent is angry and wants to vent. Thus the line between corporal punishment and abuse is very, very thin.

In the heat of the moment, which is when most physical punishment occurs, a spanking is nothing more than a parent wanting to haul off and hit something. At heart, then, it is a selfish act by the mother or father and most definitely not a legitimate tool of parenting.

Who's in Control?

But, say some, a parent has to show the child who's boss. Bull. It's obvious who's boss. You're older, bigger. You have control over all aspects of your child's life. You tell her when to get up, when to go to school, when to go to sleep. She is at your mercy for the food and clothing she receives.

Of course you're the boss. Maybe you, in your own insecure mind, need reinforcement of the fact by belting her every so often, but she sure doesn't.

The Brutality of Confused Thinking

Before you decide to spank next time, just stop and think. Exactly what is it you're trying to accomplish?

Some say it is to teach the difference between right and wrong. But that makes no sense. If a child does not know the difference between right and wrong, what right have you to punish him? Punishment is not teaching; it is reinforcement. You punish only when he knows the difference between right and wrong-and chooses to do wrong. At that point punishment is, at its very best, nothing more than an artificial disciplinary system intended to serve until your child develops his own self-discipline.

Teaching must always come before punishment, and so the correct order of events is this:

Step 1. Make sure that you communicate to your child that his action is unacceptable. The word "no" and a stern voice are the indispensable tools by which you accomplish this. The goal is very simple: to let him know what it is you want him to do or stop doing.

Step 2. Once that communication is accomplished and your child chooses to defy you, then punishment is in order.

Appropriate Methods

The key to effective punishment is denial of privileges. That's the way it works in real life.

  • If we don't eat the right foods, we get sick and can't enjoy the fun foods.

  • If we procrastinate and don't do our work when we're supposed to, we won't be able to play tennis later.

  • If we're unkind to our friends, they will no longer want to be in our company.

  • If we don't pay our bills, we lose the privilege of managing our own finances.

  • If we cannot keep ourselves from acting in a way that endangers others, we lose our freedom.

If we are to prepare our children for this system, then we must impose a similar code of conduct within our homes. The trick is to link the offense and the punishment in a way that mirrors the realities your child will face in the adult world.

And thus:

  • If your child won't eat her broccoli, she can't have cake.

  • If she doesn't do her homework, she can't watch television.

  • If she's unkind to her friends, she cannot play with them for a period of time.

  • If she spends money when she shouldn't, she loses the privilege of making her own spending decisions.

  • If she cannot keep herself from acting in a way that endangers others, she is grounded.

Reason, Not Brute Strength, Governs

We don't need to delve into the intricacies of child psychology to recognize the fact that spanking sends the wrong message. It says to a child that at least some forms of hitting are okay; that in some circumstances it's just fine that a stronger person exercises his dominion over another by inflicting pain.

This is not a lesson we want to teach our children, for the simple reason that our laws and our society support the opposite belief: Reason and justice rule, not brute strength.

It doesn't take any genius to see that hitting your child also perpetuates the practice and passes it down through the generations. It is the abused-from habit or misdirected retaliation-who are likely to abuse their own children.

It's tragic and ghastly, but it's not that complicated.

It's your duty to break the chain.

Hitting Also Hurts the Hitter

In the housewares section of Kmart, I am next to a young mother with a one-year-old boy in the child seat of her shopping cart. She and I are pooling our knowledge in an attempt to figure out how to operate a food processor displayed for sale on a middle shelf.

From his high perch the little boy reaches up to the top shelf and hauls down a Pyrex measuring cup. He obviously enjoys the grip of his little hand on the thin, smooth handle.

The mother notices what he is doing. She takes the cup from his hand and says, gently, "No, no. Mustn't touch." She replaces the cup atop the shelf and returns her attention to the food processor.

The little boy wrinkles his brow at this encroachment on his freedom. He narrows his eyes at me as if to say, Can you believe what she just did? He reaches up and grabs the cup.

Mom notices again, takes the cup from his hand and repeats, in the same gentle voice, "No, no. Mustn't touch." She replaces the cup on the shelf.

Now he's ticked. Before she has time to turn her attention away from him, he makes certain she sees him again take the cup off the shelf. He looks her right in the eye. It is an unequivocal challenge.

"No, no," she says again like a talking doll, "Mustn't touch." Again she takes the cup from him and puts it on the shelf. And of course he immediately grabs it back. She moves her hand to take the cup from him, and he jerks away defiantly.

"No!" he shouts at her, furrowing his brow and gritting his teeth.

Heretofore gentle Mom snaps. She grabs the cup from him and slaps his hand with a loud smack. For the first hundredth of a second he is stunned. After that he is shrieking. As she wheels him off toward the checkout, Mom says, loudly enough for me to hear over his screaming, "Serves you right."

No doubt she is trying to convince herself as much as me.

A Slippery Slope

There was absolutely no need for this mom to inflict physical pain had she acted thoughtfully and logically. Instead, she let the situation get out of hand; not only did her child lose his cool, but so did she.

That, I would submit, is the pattern of the majority of occasions when parents resort to corporal punishment: They lose control of their children-and of themselves.

It doesn't have to happen. In the incident just described, the first time the child grabbed the measuring cup he probably didn't know he was doing anything wrong. And maybe he still had doubt the second time. On both occasions his mom acted appropriately with her gentle voice and clear use of the word "no."

But after the third time there was no more room for doubt. The dividing line between right and wrong had been crisply communicated to the boy. From here on out his was an act of defiance.

And so it was time to initiate appropriate punishment. In this instance, two measures should have been taken immediately:

1. Mom needed to change her tone of voice. A gentle inflection is perfect when teaching. It obviously does not work when punishing. Instead, she needed to look the child right in the eye and let him know unequivocally by her frown and her stern voice that she was unhappy with him. Her displeasure itself would have been a punishment.

2. Mom also needed to move the cart so that her child could not reach the cup. That, too, would have served as an appropriate punishment-i.e., denying him the ability to further offend.

If at this point he had thrown a tantrum, Mom's only choice would have been to calmly stand her ground and remove him from the area and the store if necessary. Sooner or later, once he understood that the status quo was not going to change, he would have had no choice but to relent.

That's the key: You must be steadfast until he knows his conniption will not buy him any advantage. It's not a pretty thing. But that, sometimes, is the unavoidable nature of raising a child. And you can bet that if you don't take care of business now, it will only get uglier later.

Tags: Parenting and Families