"There's a fine line between spanking and child abuse." That was perhaps the most common reaction to the news that NFL star Adrian Peterson had "disciplined" his child to the point of leaving bruises. (He struck the 4-year-old boy in the testicles with a wooden spoon, among other things.) Many talking heads, including conservative commentator Sean Hannity, defended Peterson's right to parent as he sees fit. Hannity echoed many when he recalled his own beatings from his childhood, a recollection he spoke of with a fond smile as he demonstratively whacked the hell out of the news desk with his leather belt.
|Spare the rod, spoil the desk|
People who defend spanking have a short list of terrible arguments. The favorite is Argument from I Was Spanked And I Survived. (Argument ad survivum.) Surviving a thing, of course, doesn't recommend it. I was in a terrible car accident when I was a teenager. I survived it. I don't recommend it to other teenagers. I also survived a dog bite, yet I've never insisted my children go dangle their arms in front the nearest frothing pit bull. (We could have matching scars, sweetie!) Next up is the Argument from Spoiled Children. (Argument ad brattius.) If a child is behaving badly, or even just crying, the adults around her often assume it's because that child's parents aren't spanking often or vigorously enough. In fact, most American parents spank their kids, so that "little brat" you see having a meltdown at WalMart is statistically likely to be a spanked kid. This ties into a third defense, which is the Argument from Hitting Kids Works (Argument ad stoppum.) Even when spanking stops the immediate behavior, which it doesn't always do, it is less effective over time than other discipline methods, because spanking does not teach children self control. It teaches children that big people hit little people. It teaches kids to be craftier about their misdeeds. And it teaches kids aggression works: spanked kids are more likely to be aggressive than their unspanked peers.
I could parry pro-spanking arguments all day (and I have), but the spanking debate is not just about the theory of child discipline. It's also about desperate parents. Some parents spank because their preacher told them to, or they read it in a book, and they "just believe in it" as a legitimate child-rearing tool. These sorts of people are worth debating, because they have ideas. But I suspect most parents who spank their kids don't have much of a belief system about it, they are just at their wits' end. They've got a kid who is doing something that needs to stop, and spanking is the primary tool in their toolbox. Spanking is no more of a thoughtful strategy than yelling. For these parents, what's needed is more tools in the toolbox. Once it becomes apparent you can get the behavior you want from a child without hitting, of course you're going to stop hitting.
Let me rephrase that as a question: if you can discipline effectively without hitting, is there any reason to keep hitting?
I've asked this question of many spanking parents, and only a few have said "yes." It's only the most ideologically-driven who would continue to smack a kid if it's unnecessary. And of course, of course, hitting is not necessary. If you remove that tool from your toolbox, you are not giving up on parenting entirely. Even the most committed spanker has other tools. Once a parent has understood this, and is willing to commit to parenting without hitting, it's amazing what opens up. Parenting becomes so much more conscious and creative. Children cease to be tiny enemies that need controlling and become family members that need understanding. Most of the irritating behaviors of kids happen for a reason, and once you get the reason you also have a solution. (Hint: it's not "give the kid everything she wants.")
Tomorrow, come back for Part II: What parents can do instead of hitting.