I have often looked back on my parenting days and pondered the issue of physically punishing children. I used physical punishment on my children when they were small but now I have very mixed feelings about it.
As a psychologist I frown on physical punishment for the same reason my peers do. It teaches children that violence and force are acceptable ways to handle conflict. It is a poor role model to give children for coping with problems and it makes it too easy for people to justify hurting their kids.
As a Christian, however, I am very much aware of the biblical “spare the rod and spoil the child” warning.
As a parent, and this is the heart of the matter for me, I don’t know how I would have been able to establish the “FREEZE!” reaction in my children without physical punishment.
The “FREEZE!” reaction is the instant, unquestioning, blind obedience a parent needs from their children when they are about to do something dangerous and they are not within reach. At times like that a parent needs to be able to stop a child cold with one word.
The Freeze reaction has prevented my children from running in front of traffic, touching things like flames or boiling water, and many other things that could have harmed or killed them.
Even today, when they are 29 and 25, one word spoken in the right tone of voice will cause them to stop what they are doing immediately and take me seriously though, sadly, not necessarily to obey me hehehe.
I instilled this reaction into them as soon as they were able to crawl. I didn’t plan to nor did I have any understanding of what I was doing.
In spite of the impression I may have given in previous entries I never hit my children without warning them I was going to. I always yelled at them first. As I gained control over my temper I took to giving them three warnings before hitting them instead of just one.
Looking back I can see the first warnings were usually ignored. It was the final warning, the one I said in my “ignore this and you are going to get hit” voice, that they would respond to most times. When they did not respond to that they got hit. Always. I never used that tone if I would not, or could not, follow through with a smack.
My children were, and still are, two very different personalities.
My son was always very self-contained and fearless. He was never cowed by danger. As a child, nothing got through to him, he would not stop until he got a smack. How much of that was his nature and how much was due to my abusive parenting of him in the beginning I will never know.
My daughter, on the other hand, also received abusive parenting to begin with but not as much.
From birth she responded to tone of voice and would burst into tears at the slightest hint of anger or harshness in anyone’s voice. It simply was not necessary to hit her. She would do as she was told if I just yelled at her.
For the first 10 years of my son’s life, and the first six years of my daughter’s, they knew physical punishment was the end result of continuing to ignore warnings. My “ignore this and you are going to get hit” voice always produced instant obedience or, if they did not know what I wanted them to do, the “FREEZE” reaction. They would stop moving or talking or doing whatever it was they were doing and look at me to see what they had to do to avoid being hit.
Over the years I modified my disciplinary practises. I accepted advice to never use my hands to hurt my children. Hands were for loving and comforting. Using them to hurt would cause my children to fear ME and it was much better for them to fear a “rod”. I accepted this advice based on the fact that my mother used her hands to punish me and I developed an instinctive reaction that remains with me to some degree even today. If someone suddenly raises a hand too close to me I will still cringe and duck.
I also accepted advice to never use anything that was capable of injuring my children in any way. The best switch was a thin branch from a tree that was no thicker, at its thickest point, than my little finger and pliable not rigid. The aim was to cause surface stinging not real or lasting pain.
There were other rules I put into place. Never punish my children if I was too angry to be certain I would not exceed the three strike limit, never strike more than three times and never hit them anywhere but on the bottom – a clothed bottom!
As I put these things into practise my children ceased cringing if I lifted my hand near them and appeared to find the stinging of the switch a lot more painful than anything else I had used over the years. Physical punishment occurred whenever they crossed the line but, as they got older, they crossed it less and less often.
Then we took in a 13 year old foster daughter. We were told we were not allowed to use any kind of physical punishment on her and they taught us about “time out” and other forms of discipline. We used those on her and began using them on our own children too. Once we had other forms of punishment we rarely needed to use the switch on our own children but it did still came into play now and then.
One day our foster daughter told us she felt it was unfair for us to hit our children and not her. She asked us to treat her exactly the same. She then pushed us to the point where we felt a smack was required.
She was happy to submit to the switch. Despite her eagerness to be disciplined and her full co-operation with me, however, it just did not feel right to be hitting a child of her age.
It FELT like I was assaulting a young woman, not disciplining a child.
I gave her the standard three strokes of the switch. She stopped laughing after the first, began to protest after the second, and changed her mind about the whole thing completely after the third.
She decided she was more than happy to be treated differently from our own children after that but it made me think twice about hitting my own children any more. One day they would be 13 too. Hitting my foster daughter made me feel like I was assaulting her and I simply did not think that was acceptable.
I took to treating my foster daughter as an adult and explaining why it was necessary for her to obey the various rules she was breaking. I found she was amenable to reason if I was able to give her very good, persuasive, reasons for the rules. If not, she would not obey. In those cases I found it was often possible to come to an agreement with her involving both of us making a compromise.
Sometimes I was forced to realise there were no good reasons for the rule. In those cases I accepted the fact that I was being unreasonable and I stopped trying to enforce it.
I began using the same tactics with my own children. I simply did not want to be having to try and use physical force on either of my children when they were young adults. To my surprise, reasoning, explaining and negotiating worked even better with my son than all the previous ways of disciplining I had ever tried.
Today I believe physical punishment IS assault.
I also believe children NEED boundaries and they NEED to learn that actions have consequences.
If a parent does not set boundaries for their child’s behaviour, and enforce them, they run the risk of having to stand by while life, mother nature or society sets the boundaries, and enforces them, when the child grows up.
Fire, boiling water, poison, speeding cars, angry dogs, vicious criminals, addictions, and a whole lot of other things in this world do not take pity on children and give them a second chance! Children can blame a lot of things for their behaviour including their parents and how they were raised but that will not enable them to escape all the consequences of their actions in the real world. They NEED to learn that!
The law will take pity on children and give them many chances but, if they don’t stop, they will end up in “time out” from society itself!
If I had a child today I would bend over backwards to avoid assaulting him or her but, if that was the only way to make them listen, I would teach them that life can get nasty if you cross the line. If I have to assault my child to ensure some angry cell mate in a prison some time in the future does not assault them then so be it.
My children know the consequences of their actions can be extremely painful. They have always known it and they are careful about what actions they are willing to accept the consequences for. They know I will not always be able, or willing, to protect them.
They are both decent, caring, honest people and I am very proud of them both. I kept my promise to myself. A promise I made when my first child was born. I never left one bruise on either of my children through disciplining them when they were growing up.
I made a lot of mistakes. I think I used physical punishment long after it would have been possible to switch to other methods of discipline with, perhaps, even better results.
I still, however, don’t think it’s possible to teach a child to “FREEZE”, to obey instantly and without question upon command, if you don’t ever smack them. All other methods of discipline take time to administer and they have an air of patience and love about them. They do not make a child feel threatened or assaulted or fearful. I approve of that.
On the other hand, I am convinced children need to learn there is a line they must not cross, that there are limits to what they can “get away with” in life.
With very young children there are situations when you don’t have the luxury of taking the time to discipline gently. When they reach out to grap the handle of a pot of boiling water you need to be able to say one word and have them stop all movement and look at you. You will not get that if they know punishment will take time to administer.
You will only get the freeze response if they know one more word, one more movement, will result in instant pain. They also need to be certain that, if they freeze on cue, they will NOT be smacked no matter what it was they were doing or about to do!
The “FREEZE” response requires three things:
1. A cue – some kind of signal that a certain action is required. For me this was a specific tone of voice rather than the words I used.
2. A required response – my children knew they were to stop all movement the instant they heard that tone of voice and wait for further instructions.
3. A consequence – my children knew there were only two possible consequences in this situation. Immediate pain if they did not stop, NO PAIN if they did.
The one thing I cannot fit into my theories, however, is the use of physical punishment on infants. I do not believe there is ANY reason at all, ever, to smack a child who has no control over it’s body. Such a child is too young to learn anything of value from it.
I do not believe it is acceptable to use a weapon on very small children – the pain would be excessive for a small child. On the other hand I still don’t believe in using one’s hand for the reasons mentioned above either.
Infants do, however, have a startle response that can be triggered by a loud noise. Perhaps the use of a loud, scary, shouted “STOP” would do the trick for them. It may even be possible to programme them, from birth, to “FREEZE” using that cue alone making it possible to train them without ever having to hit them.
If I had a baby now that is what I would start with and I would resort to physical punishment only if that, and anything else I could think of to try, did not work.
As a psychologist I am extremely reluctant to approve the use of physical punishment because so many people will interpret that as a green light to abuse their children.
As a Christian AND a psychologist I know that hundreds of thousands of people are paying a dreadful price for their parents reluctance to set boundaries, enforce them, and teach their children wrong doing DOES have a price and they WILL have to pay it.
Life CAN be nasty, it WILL be nasty, if a child does not learn to cope with that they can suffer a lot as adults learning those lessons. Some more than others.