by Leslie Morgan Steiner
One month into summer (aka, kids tearing through the house seven day a week, enjoying unstructured time, driving us caregivers crazy) seems a natural moment to tackle one of the modern dilemmas of parenthood no one likes to discuss honestly: to spank or not to spank.
Now of course most parents – especially mature, well-educated adults like us -- KNOW spanking is barbaric, ineffective, old-fashioned or at least unnecessary. But you can stop holding your breath: I have met few parents who have never spanked a child. And 100% of those have only one child.
First, let’s define terms: spanking means a light swat on a child’s clothed bottom, an area of the body without much feeling that is in fact designed to cushion blows. The goal of a spank is twofold: to get a young child’s attention, and to communicate that they have done something dangerous, destructive or disrespectful that should never be repeated. As a victim of family violence myself, I need to underscore the dramatic difference between a spank and physical abuse. There is no comparison between the two.
In principle, spanking sounds logical and reasonable. After all, part of our responsibility as parents is to teach children not to act destructively or recklessly. Not to run into the street. Not to put the new kitten headfirst in the toilet. Not to use Mommy’s fuschia toenail polish to color the living room walls. If a light swat on the tush works, it works.
The problem is that few of us pass the test for effective spanking. As every parent knows, the moment you witness your five-year-old putting a pillow over your newborn’s face, or your two-year-old dashing toward that delivery truck backing up in the pediatrician’s parking lot, you lose control. Your heart races, your blood pulses, your face contorts like an alien. You go for the spank with far more intensity than parenting experts would ever condone, and afterwards thank the universe your family did not make the cut for that reality television show.
If the child remembers the spank – and your fury -- but not the reason for it, the spank has failed. In general, adults have far more leverage than children (although I know at times it does not feel this way). Spanking and other physical forms of discipline are tools that are all too easy to abuse. Other signs of failure: your palm stings, a hand-print remains on the child’s derriere, you look around for appalled witnesses, or you cannot sleep that night for feeling ashamed of yourself. These are indications that you should remove yourself to the no-spanking list forevermore.
But what can one do INSTEAD?
Enter the “psychological spank ,” recently explained by Good Morning America host (and dad of two young girls) George Stephanopoulos. The goal is the same: a child stops the bad behavior voluntarily. The tools differ: no physical contact. You use your voice, either by raising it, changing the tone, or whispering. (In my loud household, nothing makes the kids freeze faster than Mommy whispering “I am so angry right now.”) Other tools include a timeout in another room, loss of privileges like dessert or tv time, a playdate cancelled. But note well: you must carry out the punishment, even after your anger has cooled and the child has apologized, begged, cajoled and learned the lesson.
Final notes: please don’t judge people who discipline their kids differently. Parenting is the hardest task we’ve ever tackled, and there are endless ways to do it well and do it badly. Don’t berate yourself for your mistakes – we all make ‘em. And even if you are the rare parent who spanks effectively, kids outgrow spanking. When your child starts to laugh when you threaten to spank, you know the gig is up. You also know you passed the good parent test, because that laughter is a sign that you and your child are on your way to equal footing. Which is the longterm goal of every well-intentioned parent, right?