I actually posted this the first time in July of 2006, when my son was 15 and my daughter 11. Recently I was in an exchange on Facebook regarding a photo of a man and his child on the street, the child holding a sign reading “I lied to my dad.” There were a lot of views about whether this was take-charge parenting or bullying. My position was, and still is, public humiliation is not an effective method of conflict resolution. As a parent, I would not model that for my child. After a few comments about my own parenting style and how I handle conflicts with often very difficult kids at school, someone suggested I write more.
I’m starting with this recycled entry from my old blog, and I’ll probably add more later. The original post was the result of an email from a gentleman who used to send emails to me when responding to my blog, preferring to do that rather than leave comments. He suggested that I write about spanking children.
I was spanked, as were the vast majority of my friends. You know those little toy paddles with the red rubber ball attached on a piece of elastic? I imagine they’re made of plastic these days, if they’re still made at all, but when I was a kid they were wooden, and my parents broke the ball off and used the paddle on our backsides. The wood was sturdy enough to cause a sting, but the paddle broad enough that it couldn’t do any real damage. (We are definitely talking about a spanking, here, not child abuse.)
My mother, being the one who spent the most time with us, spanked far more often than my father, but my father’s spankings hurt more. Then again, it may have been psychological. I was such a daddy’s girl. It killed me to make him mad enough to spank me. My brother and I had been known on more than one occasion to take the paddles out to the neighbor’s trash on trash day and bury them in the can as it sat on the curb. I paid for this one day. My mother, unable to find an official paddle, dug one out of my toy box, broke the ball off, and let me have it. Mental note: leave official paddles where you find them. It was a consequence to be avoided, but I didn’t fear my parents or suffer from long-term damage to my fuzzy-wuzzy little self-esteem (FWLSE).
In my studies to become a teacher, I had to take a lot of child development classes. The more I thought about discipline, the more I realized two things: The first is that teachers manage thirty or more children at once, and they are not permitted to use corporal punishment, so obviously, a single child (or two or three) can be managed successfully without hitting them. The other is that I wanted to make it very clear to my own kids that hitting is not an acceptable means of conflict resolution, and kids learn from what you do, not what you say. My brother and I did get into physical fights, and he’s three years older than I am, so you know who generally won those. (Then he got spanked for hitting his sister.) At any rate, I decided that I would not ever hit my children.
My husband said we couldn’t pull it off. He was convinced that it was impossible to raise well-behaved children without hitting them. Now, he’s right in there with me in supporting the idea of raising kids without spanking. For one thing, from the very beginning, I tried to go with logical consequences first. If my toddler son hit the dog with his toy fire truck, the fire truck was taken away for the rest of the afternoon. I also worked hard to “catch him being good.” When he was being appropriate with the dog, I’d say, “Oh, you’re being so sweet to Brandy. See how much she loves being with you when you pet her so nicely?” Time-out was a last resort. If you use it too much, the kid figures out that it’s really no big deal. I also felt no compunction about saying to him, “I don’t want to be with you when you are behaving this way.” That’s an important life lesson. No one wants to be with you when you’re acting like a brat. Bear in mind that I also told him how much I enjoyed being with him when he was behaving appropriately, so I wasn’t just ragging on his FWLSE.
When time-out was over, I would pull him onto my lap and ask four questions: 1. What did you do that landed you in time-out? 2. Why was that not okay? 3. What were you feeling when you did it? 4. What would be a better thing to do the next time you feel that way? I did this with him EVERY time. He was not allowed out of time-out until he had provided thoughtful answers, even when he was only three years old. He quickly learned that he got out of time-out faster if he started thinking about how he would answer the questions before the time was up, which meant that he did exactly what I wanted him to do in time-out. He thought about his actions in a productive way.
By the time he was four, he went through these questions before he acted, making good choices for the most part, and avoiding punishment altogether. I haven’t had to really punish him since then. Every now and then he makes a poor choice, but we simply have a more sophisticated review of those four questions and it’s sufficient.
My daughter was a bit more of a challenge, at first. For one thing, when I’d sent my son to time-out, he stayed put and cried pitifully. My daughter would not stay there. I had to hold her there. Now, any reinforcement of a behavior, even if it’s in anger, is reinforcement. (Got that in a child development class.) If I held her down and scolded her, she’d keep doing it. So I held her down and gazed calmly out the window, refusing to look at her or talk to her, despite the fact that she was screaming and struggling and pitching a fit. I had to do this on six or seven different occasions before she finally gave up and stayed where I put her. Also, she never got to the point where she’d think about the questions in time-out. The debriefing process was much longer, because the questions always seemed to take her by surprise. At one point, though, she just made the jump to thinking before acting, skipping the intermediate part of thinking while in time-out. Nonetheless, by the age of four, she was staying out of trouble, for the most part.
Is this an incredibly time-consuming process? Yes. Was it worth it in the long-run? Oh, yeah. The end result is that people often comment on how “lucky” I am to have such well-behaved children. My daughter had a bit of an adjustment learning to keep her mouth closed in school, so we put her on weekly reports and enforced consequences at home at the beginning of each school year (which was when she’d always test to see if her latest teacher didn’t mind chatter-boxes). We’d keep this in place for the first four weeks or so, until she got a grip, and the rest of the school year would be fine. By third grade, she got the message—we were just as consistent about this as we were about everything else. Now she gets straight A’s in citizenship. All this, and my children have never physically fought with each other. Oh, they drive each other crazy in the back seat of the car, committing such abominations as touching, breathing on, and looking at each other. They are far from perfect, but neither one has hit the other one in anger since my daughter was a tiny toddler and still learning not to hit.
In the end, I don’t think that either hitting or time-out is what makes the difference. It’s really about consistency. The out-of-control kids I’ve known are mostly out of control because consequences are not consistent. Sometimes they’re allowed to do things and sometimes they’re not. They attach consequences to what kind of mood the adults around them are in, rather than to their own behavior. Also, parents have to take the time to teach their kids how to think. Those four simple questions I asked them covered the most important things to consider when choosing a course of action. If I do this, will it be okay? What will the consequences be? Why do I want to do this? How can I meet my needs in a way that won’t cause unwanted consequences? Yes, it’s hard to do all of this, especially with the needed consistency, when your kids are small. Every time I had to turn off the stove in the middle of cooking dinner or take a break in a shopping trip that I’d hoped was going to be a short one, I promised myself that it would pay off in the long-term, and it has.
Time warp back to 2012:
My son is almost 22 and my daughter 17. I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote before. One thing I would add is the way those four questions cultivated a sense of the importance of relationships and compassion. The answer to the second question, “Why wasn’t that okay?” usually revolved around things like “because it hurt…” (the dog, my sister, my friend, whomever) or “because it was…” (mean, dishonest, dangerous, etc.). The third question allowed them to own their feelings. It was always okay to be angry or frustrated. They weren’t in trouble for their feelings, or even their attitude. They were in trouble for their actions, and actions have consequences–not so much the time-out, but the hurting of someone’s feelings or the violation of a very important, fundamental value. As I said, I started this as soon as they were old enough to verbalize these ideas, even in the simplest terms, so considering them would become second nature. It’s worked out well at our house.
The other thing I’ll add is that both of my kids work with kids. My son’s summer job is at a day camp for 10- to 12-year-olds; my daughter works with 2- and 3-year-olds at church every Sunday. Both get high marks from supervisors for being able to firmly manage children’s behavior without hurting or humiliating them.