“When she was young and had her first child, she didn’t believe in striking children, although spanking kids with a switch pulled from a tree was standard punishment at the time. But one day when her son was four or five, he did something that she felt warranted a spanking–the first of his life. And she told him that he would have to go outside and find a switch for her to hit him with. The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, “Mama, I couldn’t find a switch, but here’s a rock that you can throw at me.”
Parenting, for most of us, isn’t what we expect it to be. More days than not, it’s full of power struggles and complaining; tantrums and sullenness; irritation interrupted by moments of pure joy. It’s struggle. A beautiful struggle, I’d argue, but it’s not easy.
Today is National Spank Out Day. Before I begin (what? I haven’t even gotten started yet), let me be completely clear: I have spanked Cole. In his six years, I’ve probably spanked him four or five times. You’re not going to hear judgmental railing from me. I understand how it feels to have your back against a wall.
I have always hated spanking, but I believed, for a long time, that it was sometimes acceptable under certain circumstances. The last time it happened in our house, I gave Cole several warnings prior. He knew he was pushing me to the very edge. He pushed me over. I sent him to his room to await that dreaded spanking. I sat down and stared at the carpet. Because I’d told him that he was getting a spanking, I knew I had no choice. Either I followed through or I would look like I didn’t mean what I had said. I’d look weak. And so I steeled myself. I hardened my heart. And I popped him twice on his legs. He wailed. I left the room and wailed, too.
I read this, about how a child’s brain reacts to a spanking, over at hand-in-hand parenting:
When a child is spanked, his or her limbic system (the emotional center of the brain, and the part of the mind that mediates learning and understanding) goes into alarm mode. The child’s brain clearly perceives spanking as an occasion of danger, and responds accordingly.
For the child, it is an experience of being small and unable to control an overwhelming and unpredictable force. In this state, his mind can learn nothing. His prefrontal cortex, the center of reason and judgment, shuts down. Hence, a child’s behavior during and after a spanking is not thoughtful behavior. It’s reactive.
The “control” that the parent is striving for has everything to do with fear, and nothing to do with teaching, learning, or a child’s understanding of concepts of right and wrong. What the child “learns” is that, seemingly out of the blue, for reasons he can’t fathom, he has been hit or hurt by a person who loves him. This is a confusing lesson indeed.
Spankings are perceived by a child to be random acts of violence. Over time, they create a wedge of fear and resentment between child and parent. The more time a child spends with his mind shut down by the fear response that physical attack brings, the more reactive his behavior becomes. A vicious cycle results: a fearful child becomes aggressive or withdrawn, the parent spanks in response, the child becomes more frightened, and loses control of his own behavior more often.
So, though a spanking may result in a quieter, more cautious child for a few hours, that apparent peace has a high price. A child’s sense of safety, and with it, his ability to reason, to cooperate, to learn, and to trust are all eroded with every spanking—so is a child’s openness to love from his parent.
How do you feel about that? It tears me up. I think it should.
The more toward Buddhism (and Christianity – what the hell) I leaned, the less I spanked, until it became so distasteful to me that I knew I’d never do it again. It was a gradual awakening, but it came. It’s the same reason I yell a lot less and I generally lose my shit fairly infrequently.
Months ago, and before I determined that this sort of violence would never again happen in my home, I had told Cole that if he came home with another red card from school that he’d get a spanking. Well the red came. The spanking did not. He remembered though, and when he climbed into the car with me that afternoon, he asked me if he was going to get a spanking. I said no. And I let myself be weak. I let myself be honest.
“I made a mistake when I said that, Cole. We’re not going to spank anymore.”
“Never again. I don’t think it’s ok. I don’t like it.”
I haven’t, and I won’t.
Spanking is violence. And worse than violence, it’s hitting a defenseless being – your defenseless being. When you reach out your hand with the intent to hurt, it’s violence. If I hit an adult for disappointing me or pissing me off, I’d be facing assault charges. Why are we not extending the same courtesy of “personhood” to our children? Spanking devalues a child. It also devalues a parent. If Cole obeys me because he fears me, well, that’s not really respect, is it?
They’re people. They’re little and they’re silly and they’re sometimes irrational (heeeeey, I’m little and I’m silly and I’m sometimes irrational). We teach our children not to hit. And we teach them that if a friend or a stranger hurts them, to find an adult and get help. And yet, we also teach them that being subject to parental violence is somehow a condition of childhood. That it’s alright if the violence is coming from mom or dad. That’s some bullshit, innit?
There are better ways. There are ways that aren’t dehumanizing for child and for parent, and ways that don’t breed distrust and fear. For me, it’s stopping to remember that a six-year old and a thirty-two-year old have disparate points of view. It’s also stopping to look at my child and say to myself, “I love this human being more than I’ve ever loved another. Why would I ever hurt him?”
Ten times outta ten, Cole isn’t making a concerted decision to annoy, disrespect, or harass me. He’s six. He wants things just like I do. He feels things just like I do. When he misbehaves, it’s typically born of a wish for significance, belonging, or autonomy.
And what do I do? I relax. I listen. We talk. Sometimes, we do a little quiet time. Sometimes, I walk away; I have a smoke. And sometimes I still raise my voice. But when he is man grown, maybe with children of his own, I’d like Cole to have those tools. I’d like him to remember what his mother used her hands for – to hold and hug and tickle and arm-wrestle and paint and guide – not to hit.