This is a follow-up article to the one I wrote on disciplining my 1-year old daughter, Catalina, which resulted in some eyebrow raising because I talked about spanking. Let it be said that I’m not an advocate of spanking for EVERY wrong behavior that needs correcting. I believe there are different ways to apply healthy correction that produce right thinking and behavior in the hearts and minds of our children. However, I refuse to accept the notion that spanking is the same thing as physical abuse, as some have so quickly labeled it.
First of all, let’s make some clarifications about spanking. Spanking is…
…NOT whacking my child in anger, repeatedly, for every wrong action or behavior.
…NOT a random consequence dependent on how I feel about the situation.
…NOT to be administered before a child understands “NO” or exhibits defiance.
…NOT as effective after the age of 6.
…NOT as effective when a parent uses it as a threat to coerce behavior.
…NOT about using an instrument that will break the skin or bruise it.
…NOT the only way to discipline a child.
…NOT to be used as a method of disciplining if a parent doesn’t have a good, loving relationship with his or her child.
…NOT to be used as a method of disciplining if only one parent applies it and the other doesn’t.
…NOT to be used if the rule that was broken wasn’t clearly explained to the child.
- The most aggressive children tend to be those who are never spanked.
- Of the many parents who spank, a minuscule number actually wind up abusing their children. Sweden outlawed parenting spanking in 1979. A decade later, Bob Larzelere conducted a follow-up study in which he found that child abuse had increased significantly since the ban.
- Diana Baumrind (considered the foremost researcher in the area of parenting style outcomes) has found that parents who are philosophically opposed to spanking are more likely to overreact to their children’s misbehaviour than parents who have no such philosophical objection. (For example, some parents resort to yelling at their children in order to control their behavior.)
- The more often a child is spanked, the less effective the spanking becomes. (A parent needs to consider their overall approach to discipline.)
The above information is taken from John Rosemond’s book, Parenting by the Book (pg. 216 – 219.)
I’ve said this before but I will say it again for the sake of those who may misunderstand spanking. I can count the number of times I’ve spanked each of my children over the course of their early childhood years. In other words, Edric and I haven’t had to spank our children a lot. If a parent spanks very often they need to revisit their parenting in general. Furthermore, there may be other factors that are undermining their attempts to discipline and disciple their kids such as…
…unresolved conflicts within the marriage
…frequent and hurtful displays of anger in the home
…hypocrisy (telling their children to do one thing but modeling the opposite)
…an insubordinate spirit on display, where a wife doesn’t model submission to the authority of her husband
…different parenting styles and philosophies on raising children between husband and wife
…application of unhealthy parenting styles like child-centrism
…relatives or househelp who contradict parents’ rules
…allowing children to have regular exposure to people or media content that opposes the values and character traits that a parent is trying to instill
Here are some common issues that parents may have to deal with and suggestions on how to discipline for these:
Dealing with eating issues – A parent can remove snacks in between meals, take away child’s plate so they get hungry by the next meal, or disallow a fun activity that should’ve followed after meal. We’ve had to do this with Titus. Of all the kids, he isn’t allowed to eat anything in between meals because he takes a long time to finish his food and he gets distracted while eating.
Tantrums and fussiness – Speak to your child calmly and let them that you will not give in to their behavior until they stop. Example, “Mommy will not carry you until you stop.” Don’t give in or pick them up to encourage their behavior. When they stop crying or stop making a scene then you can take them and say, “Very good, you stopped, now mommy will carry you.”
We encourage our kids by reminding them of our rule, “No being fussy.” Even our little 20 month old daughter knows this rule. Unless she makes her requests with a smile and a “please,” we don’t give in to her fussing or tantrums. She can pout all she wants (which ends up being very short-lived because no one will pay attention to her doing so). Most of the time, she will change her whining to a sweet “please” and a smile. However, if she screams in disrespect and continues to do so even after being told to stop, Edric and I will spank for this.
Impatience – Teach children to wait before you give them an object or an item that they are clamoring for. Until they stop demanding for it, they don’t get it. I’ve also observed that limiting time on gadgets and playing games on the computer or IPad increases my children’s ability to wait. In contrast, the instant gratification they receive from gadgets and playing games conditions them to be impatient so less is better when it comes to gadges like IPads.
Not sharing/selfishness – Confiscate the toy that two or three children are fighting over if asking them to take turns is not working. When my kids are unable to share a toy, I say, “I have to take it away because you guys aren’t sharing. When you are ready to share, I will give it back to you.”
Fighting with siblings – I sit them down together and we review bible verses on loving one another and treating one another with kindness. Then I ask them, “Are you behaving in a way that pleases God?” and let them come to their own conclusions about their attitudes towards one another. I follow up with a question like, “How can you improve or act in a more loving way?”
When it’s a toddler who bullies or hits their older sibling or other children, I take them aside and talk with them, demonstrating what it means to be gentle. However, if the hitting will put another child in danger (like my 8 month old nephew over Christmas), Edric and I will spank if our child disobeys a command like, “Don’t hit your cousin.”
Interestingly, spanking doesn’t cause a child to be confused when they are disciplined properly (not in anger, not using the hand). The focus is on spanking for disobedience of the command. Occasionally, Catalina will whack her siblings when they pull a toy away from her, as an act of self-defense and frustration. These moments are becoming fewer and far between because she can now articulate herself better. At the same time, I let my older children know that grabbing from Catalina causes her to react in anger so they should ask her nicely before they borrow the toy she is playing with.
As for Catalina, I ask, “Do you want people to hit you?” She will actually reply with a “No” and apologize to her siblings. The point is to let her think about what it will be like to be on the receiving end of a slap on the shoulder from her own siblings. Even if she is just a one year old, she understands! I wouldn’t recommend this as a full-proof solution to children who hit others since it’s hard for them to reason this way at such a young age. But I also think even very young children should start learning the golden rule, “Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:31)
Teaching kids to get along doesn’t happen overnight and it involves giving them the opportunity to acknowledge their wrong and ask for forgiveness from one another when they hurt each other. We tell our kids to hug and express a sincere apology when they have conflicts. There’s something about requiring them to hug that softens their hearts and there’s something about making sure they say, “Will you forgive me?” that expresses the kind of humility that repairs their relationships. Sometimes, my kids are required to hug for at least 10 seconds so their hard faces turn into smiles!
Destroying objects or toys or losing them – When kids destroy their toys, don’t get them new ones to replace them. Let them realize that they need to practice good stewardship. If they were keen on breaking a toy, they can live with it broken or buy themselves a new one.
Children tend to lose objects and toys, too. One of our sons really liked a marble toy that he got for Christmas a few years back. It came with special, metal marbles. But he would misplace the marbles often. As a consequence, he wasn’t allowed to play with the toy until he found the marbles. Did he do his best to find them? Yes.
Messiness – It took a number of years for our kids to internalize the importance of cleaning up after their mess. But Edric and I refused to let them move on to the next toy or another room to mess up until they cleaned up the one they were first playing in. I don’t mind if they make a mess while they play for as long as they pick up afterwards. Afterall, mess is part of the fun (for as long as they aren’t doing something reckless like drawing on the walls or pulling the stuffing out of their pillows).
When they go to other people’s houses, they aren’t allowed to leave it without picking up the toys they played with. Even if we are in a hurry to leave, Edric and I will give them time to fix up. Some years ago, my sister-in-law temporarily banned them from using her kids’ playroom because they made a big mess and ruined some toys. I thought it was a great way to communicate to my kids that they need to be mindful of the way they play and deal with their mess in other people’s houses.
Being loud and obnoxious – If there’s one thing my children sometimes do that can drive me nuts it’s their boisterousness. For some reason, riding together in a vehicle gives them the prime opportunity to talk and laugh loudly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because they are thoroughly enjoying one another’s company. But tight spaces and public ones aren’t the best places for them to kick up the volume of their voices. It can be rude and assaulting to the senses.
To deal with this, I talk to them with a serious tone and explain why it’s not appropriate. Most of the time, they respond to this positively because they have learned to obey. If they don’t, I apply a consequence like withdrawal of a privilege. For younger kids, this can be tough. Catalina screamed like a banshee in her car seat for a good number of hours when our family drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was completely unpleasant! But, we had to keep her in that seat for safety reasons so we 1. Let her cry until she got tired. 2. Sat her beside an older sibling who could entertain her. 3. Distracted her with toys or the IPad.
Running off in public places – My kids know that they aren’t supposed to run off while we are in public spaces. With all their expendable energy waiting to be released, this can be really difficult for them. They love to run down mall aisles and hide behind clothing racks. So I let them know our rules for going out together (especially since I don’t bring househelp when it’s just the four older kids). Before we leave the vehicle, I will ask them to repeat what our rule for being in public is. “Stay close to mommy.” They know the risks of getting separated or taken by strangers. But I still remind them, “If you don’t stay near me, you won’t get to come with me the next time.” This usually works because they know I have every intention of implementing this consequence if they don’t follow the rule.
Lying – My personal conviction about a child who lies habitually is they may not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. John 8:44 says, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
If a child already has a relationship with Jesus but is still young, they may not fully understand what lying is. So a parent needs to explain what truthfulness is and make their child feel like home is a safe place for honesty and confession.
Some children may lie because they are afraid that they will be scolded, lectured, shamed or punished if they admit to their mistake or fault. If this is the case then a parent needs to consider whether they encourage open communication in their home or make it challenging for their children to speak the truth. Do our children feel the liberty to share what’s really going on in their hearts?
Dr. Harold Sala, author of The Parent Map, outlines 10 guidelines for successful discipline (pg. 151 – 161). I will summarize them here, but if you have the opportunity to, grab a copy of his book at OMF Literature. It’s one of the most complete books I’ve read on parenting.
1. Establish clear limits of behavior. Dr. Haim Ginnot wrote that children “need a definition that tells them clearly what constitutes unacceptable conduct and what substitute will be accepted. The limits must be stated firmly so that it carries only one message, ‘This prohibition is for real. I mean business.'” Dr. Sala encourages us to expect our children to comply immediately. We shouldn’t be counting 1, 2, 3 and so on before they obey.
2. Enforce boundaries with consistent discipline. Spouses need to agree on the same rules and hold their children accountable for them without contradicting one another.
3. Discipline in private. I’ve made the mistake of correcting one of my sons in public one too many times. By public, I mean at the dinner table, in front of his siblings. He does much better when I take him aside and talk to him in private, one-on-one.
4. Establish responsibility for wrongdoing. Asking our children questions like “Why did you do what you did?” or “What did you do?” will allow them to identify their error, versus asking a question like, “Did you__________?” which warrants only a yes or no answer.
5. Show grief over the offense. Whenever our children disobey us, Edric and I express how it hurts us. We don’t go on and on about how sad we are. But we do let our kids know that it grieves us when they make choices that are displeasing to the Lord because that’s the real issue — we want them to make choices that please and honor God.
6. Discipline should be commensurate with the offense. Dr. Sala states that the “measure of discipline should be in relation to the severity of wrongdoing — neither too severe nor too light.” A mom told me that she put hot sauce in her four year old’s mouth for speaking unkindly to the househelp. She cried afterwards because she accidentally poured too much of it into his mouth and he was traumatized afterwards. On the one hand, he got the message loud and clear, but looking back, she realized it was a little severe.
7. Practice common-sense discipline with a purpose. A parent can use restrictions, time outs, writing assignments, and physical discipline. Restrictions would be things like reducing the amount of time on a gadget, or temporary suspension from a favorite activity. When Elijah was using his IPad to do a lot of research about apps, I gave him a time limit. He actually appreciate it because he wanted to know his “boundaries” when it came to IPad use. Time-outs work better for older children. I’ve asked my older sons to spend some time thinking about their wrong attitudes and praying about how they can change and they will come back to me with renewed spirits and an apology. Physical discipline, according to Sala, should be used only when a child is rebellious or defiant.
8. Allow a child to vent his emotions, then talk about what has happened and how to better handle the situation in the future. Edric and I have done this a number of times with our kids. We let them share their feelings or frustrations and then steer them gently in the direction of right thinking and right actions.
9. Once a matter has been dealt with, consider it forgiven. In other words, parents shouldn’t hold on to the offense of their child and use it against them in the future. We need to forgive as God has forgiven us.
10. Balance discipline with personal attention. I really like this point because children who are consistently problematic probably need a lot of attention from their parents. Dr. Sala writes, “Nothing is a greater gift to your child, nor will anything contribute more to his good behavior, than the gift of yourself.”
So, when is it appropriate to use spanking as a form of discipline?
This is where we have to carefully consider the nature of the offense and the context. Sometimes children make mistakes of the mind. They forget about a rule without intending to break it out of defiance. A mistake of the heart, on the other hand, is making a conscious choice to go against the will of a parent.
For example, one day, I called out to Catalina, asking her to come to me, and she purposefully walked away while looking back at me with a face that spelled, “I don’t have to listen to you, I can do what I want to.” I know that’s the look she was giving because I am with her everyday, therefore I am well acquainted with her personality, expressions, and tendencies. This moment was clearly a mistake of the heart and I couldn’t let her get away with disobeying and disrespecting me. It wasn’t about trying to control her for my own purposes. It was about teaching her to obey authority, for her future good.
Imagine what would happen if we were walking on the sidewalk of a street and she refused to stay beside me and hold my hand, choosing instead to run off? And what if a vehicle was headed her way and she didn’t know it, and she attempted to make her way on to the street itself. I would have to call out, “Catalina, wait for mommy!” or, “Catalina, stop!” or “Catalina, come here!” And if she chose to defy me as the vehicle zoomed past, she would most probably die! So, am I willing to inflict a measure of pain in the present to convey the importance of obedience? The answer is yes.
The point of this article is to say that spanking shouldn’t be quickly labeled as an abusive form of discipline, especially when it can save a child from future hurt and pain. Can it be abusive if done inappropriately? Yes (please refer to the clarifications stated at the beginning about what spanking is NOT). However, it can also be one of the best ways to teach life-saving obedience when a child is very young. Nevertheless, spanking isn’t the only form of discipline that a parent can and should implore to deal with the undesirable behaviors their child exhibits. There are a variety of disciplinary actions a parent can apply to train a child. Depending on the circumstance and the issue, a parent must be committed to the aim of discipline, which is to produce the fruit of righteousness in their child. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit ofrighteousness. (Hebrews 12:11) Proper discipline will be about “heart modification” (a term author Tedd Tripp uses), and not just “behavior modification.”
Let me close with a quote from Dr. Harold Sala’s book, “Discipline is an integral part of love…God instructed parents, fathers in particular, to discipline their children in order to save them from heartbreak and anguish.” (The Parent Map, pg.143,145)
So…to spank or not to spank? I’ll leave that up to you to pray about and decide. May the Lord give us the wisdom and the resolve to never give up and never surrender to the challenge of training our children! “Discipline your son, for there is hope, do not set your heart on putting him to death.” (Proverbs 19:18)