As a passionate advocate for children, it is hard for me to see certain parenting practices flourish. It is my belief, though, that every parent is working with the tools they have at the moment. Our compassion and kind attempts to share information, not our criticism and judgment, will usually do more to change a person’s mind and heart.
In today’s guest post, my friend Destany shares a story that illustrates the above. It took the gentle example of some non-spanking families to convince Destany that she could parent effectively without hitting. Now, Destany hopes to be a kind example for the next person.
You can read more about Destany at the end of the post. If you feel so moved, please leave a comment of support here or at Destany’s site.
I’m going to admit something here that I rarely tell anyone, and I’m going to be blunt. I used to spank my kids, but now I don’t.
Before I go into why I changed my mind, let me explain why I spanked them in the first place. It wasn’t because I am a neanderthal or that I didn’t have self-discipline. It wasn’t because I’m a brute who has no idea how to parent. I believed in spanking for the same reason up to 90% of parents choose to spank: I truly believed I was doing right by my kids. I considered it my parental duty, that if I didn’t, my children would grow up and have serious behavioral problems.
Many parents today grew up in a spanking culture. Spanking is a parenting practice that has been around for . . . well, for a long time. Ours is not the only culture to have considered corporal punishment not only acceptable, but necessary for the upbringing of stalwart human beings. I am not justifying spanking in any regard. I am only pointing out that those who practice it often do so with heavy hearts, not because they are terrible parents with no coping skills, because they believe that they have to. Most of the people I know spank their kids, and most of them are wonderful, loving, caring parents who are truly trying to do what is best for their children. For the record, I do want to say that I did not spank my children often – and only, I felt, as a last resort when all of the other strategies I had tried weren’t working. Nonetheless.
Changing mentalities of an entire culture – and nixing practices that have been in place for as long as anyone can recall, is an incredible feat. We have the smoke screen of our culture to contend with, the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbors, even perfect strangers who feed and nurture an idea.
I had, indeed, heard word from experts telling me that spanking was not a good idea, and that there are better ways to teach young children. I compared their information against (what I thought was) thousands of years of (supposedly good) parental wisdom and chose to go with what I considered “tried and true” methods. Their arguments had little impact on me because they did not live in my world. As far as I was concerned, they were the ones whose children would throw themselves on the floor and beat their fists against their parents’ legs if they didn’t get a candy bar at the grocery store. Those were the kids who were going to come out messed up in the end. Honestly, I used to think that by the time those kids became teenagers, their parents were going to regret not being harsher with them while they were young. Keep in mind that the majority of parents still believe this.
So what changed my mind? It wasn’t an article, a book, a television show. It wasn’t anything anybody told me. It came from meeting some members of a local Attachment Parenting group and interacting with several children whose parents have never spanked them – not just when they were melting down in the check-out line, but spending time with them on a regular basis and really getting to know them. And it was these children, ages three, four, five and six who taught me one of the biggest parenting lessons I could ever learn. They taught me that children are so much more capable than most adults give them credit for. Children as young as three can rationalize their way through a conflict, if they are taught to do so.
I learned that un-spanked children are not undisciplined children, and that spanking does not equal discipline.
When I was first getting to know these kids who were the same age as my children, I could hardly suppress my surprise when they would have an argument and instead of yelling, screaming, hitting or pushing (all common reactions for most preschoolers), they would express their feelings in a distinctly mature way. “I was playing with that, and you took it from me.”
My kids didn’t know what to think of them. The calm and rational manner of speaking, from a five year old – particularly when she was extremely angry – was surprising to them as well. These children did occasionally use force with each other, but it was very uncommon. The reason was glaringly simple and plain: their parents had worked with them from infancy to articulate their emotions and work on solving problems in a logical, level-headed way. They didn’t boss them around, and they most certainly did not spank them.
My children soon began picking these habits up, and so did I. It wasn’t just my views on spanking that were changing, but my attitude towards parenting in general. You see, these parents not only never spanked, they practiced consensual living. I’d never even heard of it before, and the concepts were completely foreign to me. So even though I rarely spanked, I still used time-outs, threats, taking away toys and other privileges, and otherwise felt that it was my duty as a parent to make my kids behave. That’s a really prevalent idea in our society, that parents are responsible for their children’s behavior. When children are acting in ways that others find frustrating, the parents are always blamed for it.
So these new little kids . . . In all of my years as a parent, a daycare provider, and auntie – I had never met anything like these kids. To see a child on the verge of melting down stop and give careful thought to a matter before coming up with a solution all on her own was astounding. And rather than running to their parents every five minutes to ask them to solve an issue or a dispute, these kids normally solved their own conflicts, even the three year old. They compromised with each other, they took turns, they worked together, they acted in a cooperative, consensual way.
I began looking at my children in a whole new light. I still didn’t consider spanking to be harmful or damaging, but I had come to the conclusion that there is a better way to discipline than in the traditional authoritarian manner. Infinitely better, I will add. So I started checking out different kinds of parenting books. I put them to practice and slowly watched my children learn to solve conflicts with positive discussion rather than bopping each other over the head in frustration. It’s hard for them, as they are new at this. It isn’t something they have been taught since toddlerhood. This also takes greater patience on my part.
Learning that discipline does not equal spanking, time outs, punishments – especially so late in the game as I am, makes for some unique challenges. My oldest is 15 years old. I have spent the last year relearning how to parent, when I thought I was doing it the best way all along. And then an incident occurred which brought about a profound moment of clarity that truly devastated me.
My two oldest boys got into a fight. These are boys who are adult sized and now bigger than my husband and me. So when the younger one hit the older one, I was powerless in that moment. I was even more so when the older one doubled up his fist and slugged the younger one square in the jaw. I watched my young son crumple to the floor, and I was certain his jaw had to be broken. And I knew right away that the entire incident was all on me.
Fortunately, there was no real physical damage, but I was faced with the undeniable realization that I had failed my children in a significant way, and that my spanking them did indeed cause them harm. I sat my sons down and explained to them that we need to practice not hitting, no matter what. This is what I told them:
“When you were little and you would misbehave, I would hit you to make you listen to me. I didn’t teach you why or how, I taught you that you had to listen to me because I’m bigger and stronger, and I hit harder. Therefore you learned that to make others comply and solve disputes, you have to hit them harder.”
That was one of the most difficult conversations that I have ever had with my children. I apologized to them for being so mistaken. I cried and told them that I did the best I could at that time, and that I never guessed I was hurting them in some way. I told them that I was grateful I figured it out while they were still young enough to to learn from me. By relearning to parent my younger kids in the way I now wish I had parented my older kids, my older kids are in fact learning to do it right and will carry the lessons with them when they are parents themselves.
I’m not going to lie. This stuff is hard work. When my children used to argue, I would often tell them to go outside or take away the item they were fighting about. I would separate them or distract them. Now, I try to help them find solutions so that they can learn to solve their own disputes more often. In the past, if my children took apart the sofa and dumped Fruity Pebbles all over the inside of it, I would yell and send them to their rooms. Now I explain myself – how they have made more work for me, how they wasted all of the cereal and now we won’t have any for breakfast in the morning, and I ask them to help me clean it up. Sometimes they say no. (Okay, usually they do.) Instead of threatening to spank them, I have to look for other ways to deal. I still struggle with the notion that children must always be compliant and that insubordination should not be tolerated.
I am also dealing with an awful lot of guilt. When I do lose my temper and start the yelling, I see my children flinch and fear pass into their faces. I hate myself for putting it there. In the past year, I have also had to convince my husband to change his opinion on discipline. He has not had the benefit of seeing first hand how children raised with consensual practices interact with one another and deal with confrontation. However, a few weeks ago when he and I were having a heated argument, and when we began raising our voices, our six year old walked up straight up to us with his hands up and said, “I need you guys to calm down.”
My husband simply gaped at him in disbelief, and we did most certainly get our voices under control. My husband is not completely convinced yet, but he has agreed to defer to me when issues arise rather than spank. I believe that in time, he will see the merits of taking the gentler more consensual approach, through our own children.
So we are learning, but it takes a lot of effort. I also feel terribly judged. Both by parents who spank, and those who do not. When I see or hear comments that children who are not spanked are what is wrong with the world, I shake my head in frustration. If only they could see. But I am also very honest with myself and realize that it wasn’t so long ago that I felt the same exact way. I have made many new friends recently, and they are assertive about their belief that spanking is abuse. That’s so hard to hear. One friend recently told me that she covers her children’s ears when the “S word” is said, because she doesn’t want them to know that some children are spanked. That really hurt my feelings, but I know it wasn’t her intention.
As hard as this is, and amidst the judgement, I keep at it. The pay off is just too huge to give up. I’m not kidding. I know I’m on the right track, because I was blessed enough to see what the result of parenting in a consensual way truly is. Not the child who is freaking out in public while the spectators tut and tsk at the mother for her child’s lack of discipline, but the child who is mindful and capable of handling stress most of the time. And I’m seeing this in my kids, although we are all still learning. It’s not an overnight switch.
I know it is going to take a lot to change attitudes. Most of the time, seeing is truly believing. Most of society believes vehemently in corporal punishment, and they are not going to be convinced by science, research or a child psychologist on the Dr. Phil show. They are not going to be convinced by the child screaming for cookies. They will only be convinced if they are confronted point blank with proof that is undeniable. I can’t give them that, I can only tell my own story and hope that it helps a little.
Here are some online places I go to when I need help, or when I need a reminder to be more lenient.
Living Peacefully with Children
“United Family” at Natural Parents Network
“Punishment Perspective” at Our Mindful Life
Destany is an old-young mama to four and married to her high school sweetheart. Whether she is making something tasty in the kitchen, something pretty of her walls, or a sentimental treasure for a friend, she strives to bring beauty and peace in her life and those she shares it with. She shares her love of life and family at They Are All of Me.
Photo Credits for Collage, clockwise from top left: hortongrou; Ben Earwicker; wonders777; agastecheg; NateOne; 0Odyssey0; asifthebes