We are having a baby this year! My partner and I have very different ideas about discipline in general and spanking in particular. I think this is an important part of parenting, and I would like us to have a strategy in place as early as possible. Thoughts?
It is commendable that you recognize that you and your partner have different ideas about discipline for your child right from the start. This presents a fantastic opportunity to have a conversation about the conditioning from your childhood that you each have around those ideas. When you initiate the conversation, try to avoid placing judgment about what your partner’s thoughts are on discipline. It’s more important to understand the roots of those ideas.
Oftentimes, our forms of discipline as parents directly correlate to the way in which our parents, guardians, and other caregivers disciplined us. We may not take the time to consider how those methods affected us or whether we have to or should choose to discipline our own children in the same ways. We simply act out what’s easiest for our brains to access based on our coding. Just as our children model our behaviors, we tend to model the same behaviors from the adults who raised us, unless we make a choice to find an alternative.
Talking about examples from your upbringing and what kinds of discipline took place might be the start. Give yourself the space to share those stories and see what kind of emotions pop up as a result of those memories. Discern what kinds of lessons were learned from various types of discipline or lack of discipline in your upbringing. If any of those lessons were attached to guilt, shame, long-lasting physical pain, resentment, and fear, examine that and discuss if those feelings are what you envision your little one experiencing. If it seems that the forms of discipline either of you endured resulted in a healthy sense of self, awareness of the needs of others, and a knowledge of how to stay safe, then consider keeping those as part of your discipline strategy toolkit.
One activity that might help you and your partner early on is to create a list of scenarios and possible consequences or disciplinary actions. This may also help both of you strategize about what will feel most appropriate. When doing this, it’s important to think about whether the consequence truly fits the negative behavior.
As parents, it can be difficult in the moment to make a distinction about appropriate consequences for our children based on whether the kids have made a mistake versus behaviors that are harmful or damaging and must be corrected. Thinking about these together may help you come to an agreement about the best courses of action when the time comes.
Regarding spanking or other forms of corporal punishment, the American Psychological Association encourages parents and caregivers to use alternatives to physical punishment. Scientific evidence of harm to the mental health of children as well as a possible increase in aggressive behavior were cited as reasons to avoid this type of punishment. Ultimately, physical punishment, which is intended to inflict pain in order to express dissatisfaction with a behavior, tends to be a temporary fix. The desired behavior caregivers are seeking are rarely achieved in the long term. Furthermore, aggressive behaviors towards children often result in aggressive or violent behaviors increasing in children over time.
Numerous studies have also shown that corporal punishment increases anxiety, tends to lower a child’s IQ levels due to stress, and teaches forced compliance by means of violence. If you were raised in a household where you were spanked and you have determined that you turned out just fine, consider whether your child will be able to regulate how they harm others outside of your care. You may have arrived to adulthood without harm to others, but your child may conclude that physical pain from loved ones is to be expected when there is a misstep. Their acceptance of this may lead to normalizing and accepting other forms of harm in their relationships with others. Also, consider that many behaviors that were once socially sanctioned are no longer deemed appropriate, as we learn more and more about long-term effects on mental health through behavioral science.
If either of you are uncomfortable with spanking, try checking in with each other about other ways of expressing disappointment and anger in your child’s potential behavior. Parenting can be incredibly challenging. At times it will feel like your child is deliberately trying to anger you. The truth is, children will often force caregivers to reinforce established boundaries as they continue to push on them. The goal is not to avoid anger, but to avoid harmful ways of expressing anger toward your child. Of course, this is often easier said than done, and you may not always feel good about your reaction. However, practicing techniques to distance yourself from hurtful reactions can prove to be incredibly helpful. Consistently engaging in the practice of mindful breathing, or giving yourself and your child space and time to process what is happening before you discipline him will provide opportunities for the least harmful and most effective outcomes of discipline.
At the very least, make the decision early on to communicate with each other if your partner’s disciplinary action makes you uncomfortable. Open discussion with your partner about parenting and your boundaries, including when and how to intervene if necessary, can help you create union rather than discord when it comes to your styles of discipline.