Q: I recently spent four days with an old friend and discovered they smack their child.
I have really never spent much time with people smacking their children, and it was distressing to me: it seemed so punitive, cruel and, perhaps most important, ineffective.
Her nearly 3-year-old received daily spankings while I was there, mostly for "not following directions". I just felt as though this child was set up to fail as he had meltdowns at bedtime each night (resulting in multiple spankings), which didn't stop the meltdowns. It was so counter to everything I have seen with children, and yet I know it is a choice parents make, and I just couldn't think how to even broach the subject with my friend.
Is there ever a way to gently question parenting choices with love?
A: "Is there ever a way to gently question parenting choices with love?" Well ... errr, ummmm, maybe?
This question is about as loaded as they come.
It wasn't too long ago, in Western culture, that you would have been the odd man out in this scenario. Smacking was (and is, in many places) the predominant form of discipline. Spanking was seen as the way to help a child "learn his lessons"; it also clearly demonstrated who was in charge. The order of power was clear, and when the child challenged this order, discipline (spanking) was applied. When the child stepped out of line or tried something dangerous, he was smacked. If he mouthed off to his parents, he was smacked. If he didn't eat what was served for dinner: smacked.
In most cases, it was meant to be a swat on the bottom, and mostly given to younger children. This swat was meant less to hurt the child than to drive home a lesson or shock them. It was also meant to bring the child to the point of tears, and the tears would signify to the parents that change had occurred.
In the best-case scenario, a smacking would usually involve a parent who was in control of their emotions. There wouldn't be an overwhelming sense of shame, vengeance or anger in the act. It would feel cursory, quick and slightly impersonal.
While this may sound somewhat acceptable to reasonable people, spankings can easily slip into beatings. Being hit with objects, being hit in the face, being smacked long after any lesson is learned or felt: these acts are another issue altogether. This is abuse. Beatings are a sign that the parent has lost the control they so dearly want to keep (though never had to begin with). This is pure anger and violence, and there is nothing to be gained for the child or the parent.
From paediatricians to developmentalists to therapists to children's specialists, smackings and beatings are now understood to be a counterproductive way to help children grow into mature adults. And beyond their counterproductive nature, smacking and physical punishments have been shown to cause anxiety and depression. Not only does physical punishment not help children mature, it also serves to hinder emotional growth and strength.
Back to your friends: they see smacking as a form of discipline that clearly makes sense. (They were probably smacked as children, and it probably works just enough for them to think it is a good idea with their own child, all evidence to the contrary.)
Here's the real sticking point with physical punishment: It works amazingly well when you want short-term results. Nothing beats, for lack of a better term, a beating to make a child "respect" authority. Fear is a powerful tool and easily wielded by adults, who are both bigger and stronger.
But all of the neuroscience studies and longitudinal psychological studies have clearly shown us the long-term results of a fear-dominated house.
We know the physical punishment is the cheap way out. Deep down, most parents know that striking a child is a sign of lack of control, not authority. It's a sign of weakness, not strength.
And when you combine fear-based punishment with the immaturity of a 2- or 3-year-old (he's a baby, really), you get a whole lot of misery. If a child this young could control himself, he would. If he could prevent his own meltdowns, he would. These are not willpower issues. Theses are developmentally normal behaviours. We can manage them, divert them, ignore them, understand them, and love a child through these behaviours, but you simply can't smack the meltdown out of a child.
When a child is smacked for a meltdown, the brain will eventually learn it is not okay to express big, ugly feelings. The funny thing with these feelings is that they have to go somewhere. The body and brain will literally hold on to them - for days, months, years or decades, if necessary. You don't spank a child out of behaviours; you spank a child into fear. Fear of you, the parent - or, worse, not trusting their own deep emotions and feelings (which is the essence of being a fully mature human).
As for your friend, it's most important to do more listening and less talking in these situations. Anything that begins to sound like judgment or a lecture will probably create defensiveness in your friend, and that will shut down communication. You can help her if she asks for help or it comes about naturally. If she says, "Man, little Jack is SO HARD", offer an empathic ear and say something like: "Do you wonder if smacking makes things better or worse?" If your friend expresses guilt or worry, you can say, "Yes, it doesn't seem to be helping, but there are other ways to try to help". You can mention some great parenting classes nearby or a peaceful parenting book. As much as you can, keep the lines of communication open.
I believe all parents want the best for their children; the smacking parents, even the parents who beat their children, all of them. So remain supportive and loving, and do your best to keep your judgment from getting in the way of your compassion.