Mom.me asks, “Is there a right way to spank your child?”
Ericka Souter, Editor of a well-known online magazine Mom.Me just published an article titled, “Is there a right way to spank your child?” Just the title of this article makes me cringe. Can you imagine the uproar on Mom.me if there was an article titled, “Is there a right way to slap your wife?” The double standard is mind bending!
Ms. Souter does not hit her own child, thankfully. And yet, she sees no problem with other parents hitting their own children. In her view, its a personal choice. She even admonishes herself as going into “judgmental mommy mode,” when she witnesses a mother strike her son five times on the subway. Ms. Souter looks away.
I can understand that intervening with a stranger is a very difficult situation, and I am not suggesting that the stressed out mother deserved an eye-roll from Ms. Souter. I am suggesting that if Ms. Souter was less muddled in her own mind about violence against children, her response may have been very different. She may have found a way to intervene, to say something on behalf of the child, to recognize the mother’s distress and also voice a boundary. “I can see you are really upset. It isn’t OK to hit children.” Or “I’m here to help” as she intervenes and stops the hitting. Maybe she could have given the mother a note with resources for getting help.
It gets sticky here, doesn’t it? It takes practice, and it is really uncomfortable. What if the mother gets angry with me or lashes out? This is a topic for a whole other article, but we didn’t even get that far, because, for Ms. Souter and many others – hitting children is a personal choice.
“Personally, I still feel spanking is not right for my child, but it’s ultimately up to each parent to decide what’s best for their family,” Ms. Souter concludes. Isn’t that like saying, “Personally, my husband has decided hitting me is not right, but it’s ultimately up to each couple to decide?” Since when is hitting a personal choice?
This article attempts to be journalistic, by seeking multiple perspectives. But the question itself is disingenuous. If she had asked, “Is there a right way to hit a child,” it would have been a very different article. I doubt Dr. Zelinger or Dr. Elkind would have been so willing to represent the pro-hitting view. The question itself euphemistically diminishes and in some sense condones violence against children.
It’s about asking the right questions. Ms. Souter didn’t – at least not in this article. How about…
How does the belief in hitting children contribute to cultural violence?
How do you intervene on behalf of a child who is being hit in public?
How do I stand up for the child while maintaining a connection to the parent?
There are so many questions we need to be asking. Ms. Souter did ask some intriguing questions for her article that she did not include. I thought I would share them here with my responses. What questions do you think we should be asking?
What are the biggest dangers of spanking?
In my opinion, the greatest risk associated with spanking is creating an ambivalent attachment between yourself and your child especially when the child is the most vulnerable in the first five years of life. The quality of our connection to our children during this time has a profound effect on long-term brain development. Spanking activates the stress response in the child’s brain and thereby short circuits their ability to learn, think clearly, and feel for others. Instead of encouraging learning, spanking heightens a child’s hyper-vigilance and interferes with his ability to self-regulate or cognitively understand consequences. It is no surprise that most children can recall a spanking, even years later, but have difficulty remembering exactly what they did wrong at the time. The brain stores a memory of the threat, but the brain does not record any meaningful learning. Often the memory associated with the spanking is a feeling that “I was bad,” or “I was a bad kid.”
We’ve learned through research that maternal warmth does not lessen the negative risks associated with spanking. A recent study showed an increase in anxiety in children whose parents spank and then express physical warmth toward them. This may be surprising to some parents, but when you understand that the child experiences the parent as a threat, it makes sense that the child would have an ambivalent response toward affectionate physical touch following physical pain. An ambivalent attachment is a very serious problem, because it negatively impacts ongoing development of the brain and can change brain chemistry and architecture in ways that show up much later on. Early toxic stress, including harsh punishment, can alter brain development and lead to problems in adolescence and adulthood such as anxiety, depression, anger problems, increased risk for smoking, and alcohol and substance abuse. These problems stem from damage to the attachment the child feels toward the parent and the development of the self-regulatory system in the first four years of life.
Another serious risk of spanking is the increased risk of criminal child abuse. Spanking activates the stress arousal response in the parent’s brain as well as the child’s. That heightened level of arousal diminishes the parent’s ability to access feelings of empathy. When we strike our child, our brain experiences our child as a threat and we are essentially disconnected emotionally from him. The part of our brain that can feel how our child feels is turned off line. It is no surprise that parents who believe in spanking are 4X more likely to meet the criteria for criminal child abuse and parents who believe in spanking with an implement (such as a belt, paddle or spoon) are 9X more likely to meet the criteria for criminal child abuse. 85% of all substantiated child abuse cases begin with the parent attempting to use physical discipline. Child abuse is an epidemic in this country. 5 children die every day in the US due to child abuse and neglect, usually at the hands of their own parents. When we condone spanking, we are giving stressed out parents permission to abuse their children. The more stressed the parent, the greater the risk for serious harm.
Why do you think a generation or two ago, it was the predominant form for discipline?
Hopefully we are evolving as a species! One could argue though, that spanking is still a very popular choice of discipline in some first world countries, particularly the United States, England, and France. Spanking is the most frequent form of violence against children. The support of spanking is diminishing, probably in large part due to the growing sensitivity for human rights following World War II. This growing sensitivity to the basic human rights of all people has extended to children. In 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child was enacted, which prohibits many human rights violations against children including spanking or any other form of degrading, humiliating treatment. Most UN nations have signed the treaty, with the exception of the US, and subsequently 45 nations have actually banned spanking in an effort to comply with this treaty and to prevent child abuse.
Another reason spanking is on the decline is due to neuroscience. Our understanding of what infants and children need for optimum development has been growing exponentially over the past 15 years! We have made amazing strides in understanding the profound negative effect of early childhood adversity on long-term health and have thoroughly researched the effects of harsh punishment. Based upon the neuroscience and the overwhelming negative outcomes associated with spanking, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry have all made formal policy statements against spanking.
How do you respond when a parent says they spank because they were spanked and they turned out fine?
When a parent tells me they were spanked and they turned out fine, I attempt to respond to them with sensitivity, because of course this is a parent who is habituated to violence. This parent has been hit as a child. And in most cases, there were no adults to speak up for him/her. Children who are spanked often grow up to believe that they deserved to be hit, because they were bad, and that if their children are “bad,” they deserve to be hit too. In this way, violence is passed down from one generation to the next.
We live in a very violent culture, where a third of adults report having been physically abused by their parents (not just spanked) when they were children. Spanking is a symptom of trans-generational family violence. Euphemisms such as spanking, popping, and smacking are ways to minimize the violence in the mind of the person who is striking out. One has to ask, what is the measure of “turning out fine.” Does this mean you do not struggle with anxiety, depression, or alcohol or substance abuse? Does this mean you do not have trouble with overeating (emotional eating)? Does this mean that you have healthy relationships based upon trust and mutual joy, and you don’t have anger problems? Does this mean that you don’t believe in violence or act violently? Turning out OK means you have a healthy attachment to the world and have a healthy self-regulatory capacity. Turning out OK means that you are able to solve problems through collaboration and relationship, as opposed to coercion and the abuse of power. Spanking is linked to very serious negative outcomes, and like anything else, some people weather the risk better than others. Not everyone that smokes dies of lung cancer, but that doesn’t mean one should risk smoking. Why put your child at risk?
Some parents have remarked that lack of strict or corporal punishment is the reason kids are so bad these days. They complain that their children just aren’t worried about the consequences of bad behavior. What do you say to that assertion?
Every generation seems to complain this way, “when I was young, kids didn’t act that way,” and so on. My grandmother said as much and children were treated abysmally in her generation. I think my grandmother felt anxious about normal child behavior, because she herself was not allowed freedom or treated with respect when she was a child. Beyond the anecdotal evidence presented by my grandmother and others, there really is no scientific evidence to support the belief that “children are so much worse these days!” This irritable bias we have toward the younger generation is probably the natural amnesia of aging and also an unfortunate intolerance toward children. The research actually suggests that delinquency and child abuse is down from a decade ago.
There has been an explosion in the field of neuroscience and early brain development in the past 15 years. With greater knowledge we are able to have more realistic expectations of what children are capable of at different developmental stages. We know from the study of early brain development that children learn consequences via trust in their relationship with their parent. Do you ever do something that you know you shouldn’t? Why do you do what you shouldn’t do? Usually we need to have an immediate experience of pleasure. Sadly, for many of us, the pleasure of food, alcohol, or the acquisition of things can be a substitute for the pleasurable reward of healthy relationships. We want children to enjoy relational reward above the more simple forms of pleasure. Isn’t reaching out for connection preferred to reaching out for a candy bar?
It is very hard to make good decisions when you have difficulty with self-regulation and you have ambivalence toward those you love. A candy bar might feel safer and more consistently rewarding! Children who are spanked are at greater risk of having problems self-regulating, so it is much harder to manage impulses, control anger, and cope with feelings. Sadly, this struggle often follows them into adulthood.
How should parents best discipline their children?
Positive parenting is the best model for raising children. It is neurobiologically informed and it supports the secure and healthy attachment of the child to her parents. One of many programs supported by research is Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting, by Joan Durrant, Phd. It is a parenting model that focuses on long term goals, encourages warmth and structure, is sensitive to how children think and feel, and emphasizes collaborative problem solving. Another empirically supported model is Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS).
Parenting Beyond Punishment and StopSpanking.org are sponsoring a free month-long event this April to support parents in learning positive parenting which will help them avoid spanking or yelling. It is called the NoSpankChallenge. We have a webinar series dedicated to teaching the principles of positive parenting and welcome parents to join!