From the growing up file, I have two vivid memories of corporal punishment on the home front. Not to bore you with details, but there was a smack! from my mother and a swat! from my dad.
Both were delivered impulsively; both were deserved – if a 5-year-old can make that distinction. These were not disturbing repressed memories uncovered years later with the help of a therapist. Both examples have been sitting right there in the cache, along with thousands of other recollections of kisses, cuddles, laughter, and loving – all the standard stuff that makes up a wonderful childhood. There were probably others, but I suppose these two memories stick out because they were atypical, as spanking wasn’t a consistent part of my parents’ system for discipline.
School was a different story all together. A product of a parochial education, I learned quickly that the nuns’ discipline playbook was much more original than that of my parents. There was Sister Catherine Joseph, who made the boys (because only boys misbehaved back then) stretch their arms out to their sides and hold dictionaries in each of their hands. When those scrawny second-grade arms began to sink under the weight of the books, Sister’s eyebrow would raise at a commensurate rate. I watched another nun (who apparently did not subscribe to the bad boys only theory) drag Joanne Shrimp across the room by her ponytail.
But that was decades ago. Things are different now. At school, certainly. And at home, too, right?
Now, wince if you watched a frazzled mom unload on a preschooler at Target during the holidays. Nod if you’ve ever had a close friend share his or her strategy for discipline and it made you feel a little more than slightly uncomfortable.
The truth is, lots of parents have spanked, swatted, and smacked their kids. Some do it consistently as part of a system. Others do it occasionally, like my parents did, on impulse. And some experts will tell you there’s no good reason to avoid spanking completely. In fact, I read with great interest a report that said young kids who were never spanked weren’t turning out any better than kids who were disciplined corporally. Whatever better means.
For a long time, research was tricky terrain for social scientists in need of a control group. With over 90 percent of parents having spanked their offspring at some point, it was hard to track down kids who had never been spanked. But now, things are shifting a bit. It seems that about a quarter of parents refrain from using corporal punishment in disciplining their kids.
I remember when our oldest was closing in on two and irritating the heck out of me. She had polished her perfect baby image and here she was, in toddlerhood, doing everything she could to dismantle it. Indeed, it was time to talk about discipline. We needed a plan. Okay, having just left my full-time job outside the home to be a stay-at-home mom, and presumably, make even more of these little hellions – I was the one who needed a plan.
Expert research and social science had little to do with our decision to spank or not to spank. In hindsight, I can say with great confidence that the fear-based compliance that the nuns were after wasn’t what we wanted from our kids. I can also say now that I object to the notion of modeling for kids that aggressive behavior gets results.
But back then, it was all about the talk. Our decision not to spank our children came squarely from a place of introspection. By taking corporal punishment out of the parental toolbox from the beginning, we both knew we would never put ourselves in a position where discipline might quickly morph into something much different, fueled by, like it or not, anger and hostility.
No matter what side you come down on now, before you lay a hand of discipline on your child, start by looking into your own heart. Next, talk at length about what you see in there. Then make a discipline plan and a pact with your partner and yourself, and stick to it.