Monday, September 22, 2014

Peterson, Spanking, and Child Abuse: Part II

Football star Adrian Peterson is not a good parent. "Good parenting" in no way is compatible with the extent of injuries his little boy suffered. But not all parents who spank are bad parents. Good parents lose their cool. Good parents make mistakes. If a parent has shamed their kid, screamed at them, or spanked them, that doesn't make them a terrible person, that makes them human. What is unacceptable is taking a parenting mistake and making it a virtue. Hitting kids should always fall under the category of "mistake," for which we can be forgiven, from which we can learn to do better. Spanking is no more a legitimate parenting tool than is giving a kid a lollipop every time they whine.

I keep speaking of tools. When I had two tiny and very difficult toddlers, I found it helpful to think of parenting as a skill I could develop—like woodworking, knitting, or playing piano. We may have creative instincts, but expertise requires time and training. Our parenting instincts are reasonably good at keeping the kid alive, which is all evolution really cares about. Instincts help less when it comes to managing specific behaviors. If you don't have the skills to manage discipline problems, you're going to fall back on the authoritarian bludgeons of coercion and fear ... or lapse into permissive passivity.

I joined a supportive parenting group online. We were a couple-dozen moms from all over the world who were united in one goal: we wanted to raise our kids with respectful discipline. We didn't want to resort to coercion, fear, shaming, screaming, hitting. But we also wanted to raise kids who took responsibility and were kind, polite, helpful, respectful, and empathetic. Kids don't want to live with screamy parents, parents don't want to live with screamy kids. Year after year, we tried things. We exchanged tips. We read books. Eventually, our kids became kind, polite, helpful, respectful, and empathetic. It worked! Someone said, "We ought to compile our resources. Other parents need to have this list." So I did. These tools below are our best of the best. I hope they help other frustrated parents find new ways to manage discipline problems.

1. Instead of saying "no," or "don't," tell children what you do want them to do. "Feet stay on the floor." "Chairs are for sitting." "Gentle hands."

2. Focus on solutions instead of blame. When your child spills milk, don't say, "You spilled milk!" Say, "There is spilled milk. Here is a sponge to wipe it up," and let the child wipe it up. I've observed that most kids are happy to make reparations if we allow them to, if we don't force them into defensiveness by blaming or shaming them.

3. Examine your expectations. Is it reasonable for your child to behave the way you're expecting him to? Children can only work with the tools they have, which are limited by age and maturity.

4. Give limited choices. "We can change your diaper on the bed or the changing table." "You can have soup or a sandwich for lunch." "When we cross the street, you can hold my hand or I can carry you.”

5. Withdraw from conflict. If your anger is getting the best of you, take a time-out for yourself. This can model the best of what time-out has to offer, which is that it is a voluntary cooling-off period. Don't storm off, but calmly let him know that you need a break and will be in the next room.

6. Forewarn. Let him know what to expect so he can prepare. "We'll leave in 5 minutes," followed up 5 minutes later with, "One more time down the slide and off we go!" (And follow through.) It also helps us a lot to get our kids' minds focused on the next step—on what we will do when we get home, for example. It helps them get their minds out of "park mode" and into "home mode." Caveat: Too many warnings can cause some children to get very tense; it may take experimenting to figure out the optimal number for your child.

7. Use two yeses for every no. Whatever it is he isn't supposed to do, give him two alternatives. The choice of two other things is key, because it really takes their attention off the "no-no" and onto making a totally new choice. "I see you want to throw something! Would you like to throw a paper airplane or a balloon?"

8. Model the behavior you want. Show your child how you expect him to behave. If you want him to use please and thank you, make sure you use those words yourself. If you want him to handle his anger appropriately, make sure you are handling yours appropriately as well.

9. Don't feel you have to stop every tantrum. Assuming it's not caused by something fixable (like hunger), and assuming you're at home, allow the storm to wash through the child. (If the noise stresses you out, pop in some earbuds and tune into something soothing.) Emotions are always okay, although some behaviors are not. Make the difference clear to your child. It's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hit people. Train a child to express her strong emotions through tears and words so that she doesn't have to resort to hitting, biting, screaming, and other unacceptable behaviors.

10. Rephrase. When a child is disrespectful, help her rephrase what she is saying in an acceptable way. "I hate you!" becomes, "I'm so angry with you!" Another example: "Gimme that!" or "I want that now!" becomes "May I please have that," or "I'm having a hard time waiting patiently for that."

11. If you can't change a mind, change a mood. Infusing a situation with humor can go a long way to avoiding conflict. "I see sugar bugs eating all your teeth because you won't brush them! I see pizza bugs in there! I see yogurt bugs! Aaaaa, they're taking over! Quick, help me get them out before it's too late!" I found it useful to pull very dramatic, silly faces, especially when frustration began to build. I would make a hugely overdramatic "frustrated" face, combined with groans and/or roars, which made me and the kids both laugh.

12. Communicate your feelings. "I feel so angry when I see dirt all over my floor!" Be careful to express your feelings without blaming or shaming your child—your feelings are your responsibility, not your child's. At the same time, it helps children to know how their actions effect other people, and to see what anger, sadness, resentment, and frustration look like. Model your anger in ways you would want your child to act when he is angry.

13. Structure your routine so something nice happens after something that is usually a struggle. The nice thing doesn't happen until the not-so-nice thing is done. Example: let's say brushing teeth before bed is becoming a struggle. Structure it so stories don't get read until teeth are brushed. It's not a bribe, you are not adding anything to the routine, just rearranging it so the child is more motivated to get through the unpleasant things in order to get to the good stuff.

14. Think of both you and your child as learners. You are learning how to be a better parent; no matter how great you are, there is always room for improvement and learning. Your child is learning, too—learning how to grow up, learning about feelings, learning the rules, learning how to get what he wants and avoid what he doesn't want. Learners make mistakes, learners are not perfect. Give yourself and your child room to grow, to make mistakes and learn from them. To borrow from author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka: "Progress, not perfection, is the goal."

15. Notice your child doing things well. He needs to hear more positives than negatives, more about what he is doing right than doing wrong. "You worked on that project all morning—that's what I call perseverance." "You played by yourself for 15 minutes!" "I liked the way you and Tommy shared today." We don't have to get heavily into praise, just notice it, let them know what they are doing right so they can do it again.

16. Call in the authorities. Whenever my daughter was disobeying some rule in a public place (talking loudly in the library, going down the slide the wrong way at the pool) I would take her over to whatever "authority" was around and ask them to explain the rule to her. They were always happy to and were kind about it. My daughter's eyes got very round and she seemed quite impressed. She listened well to me too but sometimes having something reinforced by someone "outside" could really make all the difference. If she would start to slip I would remind her, "Honey do you remember what the librarian/lifeguard said?"

17. Make confident statements. Show your child you are confident he can overcome a problem. "You are getting less and less afraid of bugs every day," or "You've forgotten your violin three times. Since you are a resourceful person, I know you can figure out a way to remember your violin in the future."

18. Make a hand signal. If a child interrupts, for example, come up with a signal she can use to let you know she wants a turn, and a signal you can give her back to let her know her turn is next.

19. Make a list. Example: If your child is going through a phase of wanting to do everything himself, and is getting really angry when you don't foresee something he wants to do himself, add that item to an ongoing list titled, "Things I Want To Do Myself." Write the list down and post it somewhere he can see it, so he knows you respect his feelings. This can shortcut a lot of power struggles and unpleasant scenes.

20. Write a note. Instead of constantly nagging kids to do something, post a reminder note in large letters in an obvious place, like putting "Take Off Shoes" next to the front door. Even better, have the child help make or decorate the note. This can also work for preliterate kids, who want to know what the note says.

21. Make an observation. When you see two kids fighting over toys, instead of rushing in to solve the problem, just describe what you see. "I see two kids who want the same toy." Another example: "I see a coat on the floor that needs to be picked up."

22. Use one word. Instead of a long lecture on neatness, just say "towel!" when your child leaves his towel on the floor.

23. Put it in your pocket. Example: Before going into a place where silly behavior might not be acceptable, have your kids "put their sillies in their pocket."

24. Take a positive time-out. Don't use time-out as a punishment, but as a cooling-off period. Go with the child to a cooling-off place and if he wants company, stay with him until he is calm. when he is calm, then the problem can be discussed. Holding a child is an excellent thing to do in positive time-out, if he is open to that. Hugs can work as a very quick positive time-out. Kids often need positive attention when they seem very least deserving of it, and positive attention at seemingly odd times, like after a child has misbehaved, can do more to turn around the behavior than any punishment.

25. Involve the child in choosing a solution. Give the child responsibility in solving the problem. Example: "You want me to play with you, and I need to get dinner done. Is there a way we can fix this problem that will leave both of us happy?"

26. Rewind/do-over. "Oops, you forgot to take off your shoes! Let's step back outside and try again." Or, "Oops, that's not quite what happened, let's hear what happened again."

27. Role-play. Play-act a difficult situation before it arises. You can either assume the roles yourself or give the roles to dolls/stuffed animals/action figures. This is a good way to prepare for dinners where extra-polite behavior might be expected, or for difficult/scary encounters like the dentist. Also helpful in working out ongoing problems, like sharing: have your child "help" two dolls take turns sharing a toy.

28. Play the stop game. As in "red light/green light." Games like this train a child reflexively to freeze in place when you say "stop!" Critical for when the child starts to run toward traffic or pick up a sharp knife.

29. Use a timer or clock to signal the start and stop of an activity. "You need to be dressed by the time the little hand gets to five," or "I need to finish with the dishes, but I will play with you when all the sand in this egg timer is at the bottom."

30. Use wishful thinking. Let the child know you respect her wishes, and let her go ahead and fantasize about having her wish granted. Good way to avoid power struggles. "You really want more chocolate. I want more chocolate, too. I wish we had a whole room full of chocolate!"

31. Play "what if?" Example: What if we never went to bed? What might happen? What if we never picked up our wet towels? Would they grow mold on them? Eeeewww!

32. Use natural consequences. These happen without your needing to do anything—she refuses to put on a coat, so let her go outside without a coat and find out for herself why you have this rule (don't make her suffer, though...bring her coat outside with you, put it on when she asks, and avoid the temptation to say "I told you so."). She throws applesauce off the high-chair tray and has no applesauce to eat.

33. Use logical consequences. These are imposed by the parent but relate *directly* to the behavior and help teach cause/effect. She throws a toy, the toy gets put up for a while. He writes with crayons on the wall, so he needs to help mommy clean it up. Parental attitude is important—an attitude of "I'm getting back at you" turns a consequence into a punishment, and kids know the difference. Punishment makes kids feel bad, that's the whole purpose. It's hard for a child who feels bad to act good.

34. Praise effort, not talent. This is a skill I didn't pick up till my kids were nearly teenagers. Say, "you worked so hard on that" rather than "you're so smart!" Studies have found that kids who are praised for innate talent or smarts are more easily frustrated than kids who are praised for the effort they put into a skill. So if you are teaching your kid to tie her shoes, or to learn an instrument, remember to acknowledge that her progress is a result of her own hard work, not her inborn talent. While she may indeed have inborn talent, she can't take any credit for that, and failures and frustrations will be interpreted by her as a sign that her talent or intelligence isn't real. A frustrated kid, trust me, is going to cause much more discipline problems than a patient, persistent one.

This is such a long list you probably can't digest it all. I found it useful to post it on the fridge and focus on one technique at a time. Some of these are immediate "tricks" you can try right away, some are helpful attitude shifts. And as long as this list is ... it's still just a drop in the bucket. The number of alternatives to spanking, I have discovered, is actually infinite.

Thirteen years later, they've never been spanked


  1. Great suggestions. Some of those I already do, others I can't wait to try.

    1. If you have any successes, come back and let us know!

  2. What a terrific list! Really. As per the third one, it reminds me of the time I heard parents yell at their little one to "Act his age!" when the poor kid was only TWO.

    1. Aww. :( I'm sure the irony was lost on them.

  3. That's an excellent list. I am already sick of "tea party" emails that are getting past my spam. They say that this poor guy is being punished for spanking his child. I really wish I'd had that list when my kids were young.


    1. I wish I'd had it earlier. I was not an especially patient mother (I'm still not) and my kids, when they were little, were not easygoing. (And I hear you about those emails. It can be hard to rid one's system of that sort of thing.)

  4. As a youngest child (trying to imagine that, 69 years ago) of a mother who went the opposite way on most of these (not the physical ones, as far as I remember), I'll point out a area not spoken to in your great post.
    This is a great list, every parent should follow the suggestions.
    The thing though that's left unanswered, is what about the mothers (let's do fathers too) who would never read this?
    In some ways, you're preaching to the choir here; I'm guessing that most of your readers are disposed to have your instincts and, like Janie above, and Ms Bowers previously, would do the same general things. Your suggestions would help them to refine their techniques, and be better parents.
    I'm guessing that the vast majority of parents who hit their children will never read this, or other blogs like this, or most other sources that could help them.
    They do other things....they drink, they do meth, or going the opposite direction they work two jobs at minimum wage, and they don't have another parent at home, and by Friday they are tired and irritable. How do we reach or help them?
    My suggestion would be a national health care system and policy that would provide high quality day care, job leave policies that permit new mothers to have time to take care of their kids, to have a nationally paid system of post-birth leave for one of the parents.
    I don't think we can make a significant dent in this problem nationally by going at it locally. Maybe for a few, but not all or most.
    We need a sea change in how we look at our responsibility for other people, children. What it will do for us if we actually make sure that all children have equal opportunities.

    1. You are too right. One of the first and most influential books I read as a new mom was "Children First" by Penelope Leach, which speaks exactly to what you're talking about. I do what I can (voting and pinging my representatives) to change things on the national level. But don't underestimate the power of social media. You may think the "vast majority" of parents who need to read this won't, but bear in mind some 80% of American parents still hit their kids, according to some surveys. It's not just those in deepest poverty who hit, not by any stretch. I'm getting more hits (erm, so to speak) on these that two posts than I've had on anything else I've written in a long time, and I'm confident most of those readers, while they remain silent, are spankers or were spanked. It almost has to be true, statistically speaking. It's not an either-or situation: we can tackle this problem in a number of ways.

    2. You're correct of course. It's just that this topic seriously chaps my ass, as my uncle used to say.
      My mother left me and her other kids with the worst of training; control your kids by yelling, was our one known reaction. I consciously resisted it, and made sure I went an entirely different way with my kids.
      If I did it, anyone can. I have no patience whatsoever with parents who either hit their children, or use intimidation to get their kids to obey them.
      But, you're entirely correct, this and other social media can and will help people.
      80%???? Hell's wrong with us?

    3. Kudos to you for choosing a different path. That takes more grit than people realize. To the 80%, the US so often mirrors the stats of the developing world, and Europe and the UK look at us like "what are you doing?" In 38 countries, spanking is illegal. Denmark is one of them. I'm going to quote my Danish friend here. "Danish kids are generally quite well-behaved, these days almost to the point of being too well-behaved. Mind you, though, that they are not necessarily well-behaved in the sense of having learned by heart a long list of stiff, formal mannerisms. We are generally very informal and distrustful of hierarchy here. People who hit their kids are rarely discovered. It is likely to be reasonably rare, and when it does occur is probably mostly on the very emotional spur of the moment, such as when a child has put itself or others in mortal danger. It does occur, of course, but when reported and prosecuted is often as part of a wider case of general and systematic abuse."

  5. Your list is a great one, Stephanie. I'm so glad you put it out there.
    I hope that Adrian Peterson goes to a parenting class and comes out of it a better adult. That would be ideal. The professional athletes in the news lately are shockingly thuggish; I would love to see them change their ways. 'Bout time they promoted a different game plan for family relationships.

    1. Even the NFL seems to be slightly concerned with the pummeling its image has taken lately, so one can hope their chagrin translates to something more than "let's hide this better!" How great would it be if they helped their players behave more like decent men? Parenting classes (and husbanding classes? Ray Rice et al) would be such a good step. In Scandinavian countries, parents who are caught breaking the no-hitting-kids law are not punished (usually), but offered help to become better parents. How enlightened.


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