To Spank or Not to Spank

spankNow I know what people mean when they say that if you don’t have any children, you shouldn’t be giving parents advice.  I had plenty of solid opinions about child-rearing back when I was single, childless, and consequently had loads of time in which to ponder these sorts of things.  I was certain that if and when I ever had offspring, I would raise them so differently than the ways I had observed while growing up: I would never use food or television to pacify them, or be a harsh disciplinarian who raised her voice or stifled their individuality, or refuse to take them to restaurants when they obviously need to become socialized… My fuzzy visions of future parenthood were not based on actual experience, of course, but on idealized fantasies and sitcoms, where conflict is simple and always resolved with obvious solutions and touching hugs that reaffirm the parent/child bond.

Yet now, while struggling with a newborn and a two-year-old daughter, I have suddenly become THE MAN. After a childhood of testing my parents’ boundaries and throwing tantrums against seemingly endless repression, an adolescence of pulling fast ones on the totalitarian wardens they call “teachers,” and a young adulthood of railing against The System and mocking perceived sell-outs, I find myself now on the other side of the equation–a member of the taskmaster force, setting rules and enforcing boundaries in the continuing fight against chaos.

I consider myself a rather crunchy parent. I breastfeed my daughters, co-sleep with my babies (moving the older one into her own room after a year), made my own organic baby food, took mommy-and-me exercise classes, and showered an inordinate amount of snuggling and attention on my babies.  I read a massive amount of books about kindler, gentler parenting methods–including Miyam Bialik’s tome on attachment parenting.  All of them seem to advocate that bonding properly with your offspring will keep them naturally good-natured, and that they are rational little beings who can be talked into proper behavior with convincing arguments. It all sounded pretty good to me.

The problem?  Small children are rational to a degree, and certainly lovable, but they are also extraordinarily tempermental beings with a weak conceptual grasp of consequences, the needs of other people, and really, limits of any kind, be they gravity or social disapproval.  While my two-year-old daughter is very loving and adorable, she is also a 25-pound Juggernaut of destruction whose havoc-wreaking tendencies are beginning to overwhelm me in ways for which nothing in the literature prepared me.  I find myself in grocery stores struggling to quiet  a screeching newborn with one hand, while in the other, my two-year-old strains against my grasp.  She breaks free, runs circles around the cart, dodges around the other customers to cause a traffic jam of frustrated shoppers while grabbing random items on the shelves.  She will try to break eggs.  She will make-noodle-legs and refuse to walk.  She will stop suddenly, throw her mouth open, and make me cringe as she prepares to unleash a screeching wail, mid-aisle that brings about an onslaught of disapproving glares. She will of course wait to do these horrible things until our shopping cart is piled high and escape is nigh impossible.

Her public antics are nothing compared to her behavior at home.   There, she has decided that she no longer wishes to wear clothes or diapers. She will tear them off the second my back is turned and hide them, or throw them angrily in protest. Once, I returned to kitchen after completing some task to find her sitting in her highchair with her diaper in the tray and a pool of urine beneath her on the kitchen floor. She will crap indiscriminately, wherever she happens to be standing, then walk through it, squeeze it through her fingers, and paint the surrounding areas with it. Delighted to find a new artistic medium, she will sometimes reach straight into her diaper to grab her poo and begin finger-painting with wild abandon.

Today she decided to paint the cat, who then bolted through the house, flinging poop everywhere. I could hardly blame him… There must be few situations more horrifying to a cat. They don’t even like their own poop. When crapping, they will arch their backs to get their butts as far away from them as possible before relieving themselves with an obvious look of disdain on their cat faces, then quickly cover up the offending substance to obliterate it from view. Now, smeared in toddler-poo, our kitty was reaching a new feline rock-bottom in cross-species living.

This was the final straw. I quickly scooped up my poop-lathered daughter for an impromptu shower and timeout session as she wailed against the repression of her creative vision. The World obviously did not appreciate the genius of Fecal-Cat and she was outraged.

I, on the other hand, was pulling my hair out.  My daughter usually laughs at me when i tell her “No!” and does whatever she’s doing HARDER.  Is this just a passing phase, or am I raising an out-of-control social deviant who would become harder and harder to rein in with each passing day?  What bothered me most, however, was the fear that each moment of escalating stress, every plate of lovingly-prepared food angrily thrown on the floor, every chocolate-filled diaper stuffed into the white couch, every errant expensive toy chucked at the helpless cat, was the countdown to the moment where I would inevitably snap and give her a hard spanking.

I haven’t done it yet, but my nervousness spurred me to start asking around for good parenting books.  A number of people recommended “The Strong-Willed Child,” but it turned out that was written by James Dobson.  Isn’t he the guy that recommends regular spankings and not sissifying your sons because that would turn them into homer-sexuals?  Umm… no thanks. 

Then came “12 Simple Secrets that Real Moms Know.”  It may be an informative book, but I was fairly turned-off by the passive-aggressive title suggesting that you aren’t a “real” mom if you don’t know the author’s secrets.

Frustrated, I moved the discussion to Facebook, where a huge number of my friends with children began a long discussion of what they thought were good reads and effective disciple methods.  The conversation became heated around the question of spanking… to spank or not to spank.

Opponents of spanking believe it is a vicious, primitive method of discipline that teaches your children that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems.  Advocates believe that spanking is a highly effective tool, if wielded responsibly, and a time-honored way to communicate disapproval to your children when they are too young to understand abstract explanations, or care.  Incidentally, my mother ended up jumping in on the conversation, becoming increasingly defensive about my reluctance to spank since she had spanked me.  She even polled her classes, reporting that all of her students at the higher levels had been spanked at some point during their childhood.

Despite my mother’s disapproval, I don’t want to spank my children.  In my opinion, spanking is a harsh method of last-resort, to be tried only when all other methods have been exhausted, if at all.  But the whole issue got me thinking about how difficult the question of discipline has become for modern parents.

In my parents’, and especially my grandparents’ day, spanking was common–even considered an essential part of effective parenting (“Spare the rod and spoil the chid”)–but nowadays it seems there is no technique that hasn’t been heavily criticized by a panel of experts.   We are tasked with teaching our children how to behave, curbing their excesses, controlling their tempers, and fashioning them into good citizens while simultaneously protecting their fragile self-esteem and allowing their individuality to blossom.  Whether your child ends up a social deviant or suffers from neurotic insecurity, whether he or she becomes a controlling sadist or a pathetic doormat, it is considered your fault.

Yet, no matter how you try to guide your little ones, there is an expert explaining why this method will be horribly traumatic for them.  Spanking is considered  a form of child abuse by many, being a type of physical assault,  but even raising your voice has been called “comparable to physical abuse” by many experts.  In a study at Yale, researchers explained that even though 90% of parents yell at their kids, it had the effect of making adolescent behavior worse.  An article on Slate detailed how discipline should be about education, not shame, and how yelling could trigger traumatic feelings of humiliation and guilt in fragile child psyches.

So, yelling if off the table.  As a mother of two, I can assure you that politely asking your children to do something will not only fail to always make them do it, but also that children will take full advantage of a perceived lack of consequences for their behavior. Last week, this resulted in my daughter bolting from the playground and continuing to run out into the street despite my screaming protests and near heart-attack before I could catch up to her.

My daughter doesn’t understand what might happen if she runs into the street, though the consequences are very real and hideous.  Is it more traumatic for her to be yelled at, spanked, or hit by a car?  If she is not allowed to play at the playground, or kept within a two-foot reach, then i would be guilt of “Helicopter Parenting.” This is the term applied to parents who always hover near the child, and according to Parents.com, can result in the child losing self-esteem, confidence and coping skills, as well as developing anxiety and a sense of entitlement.

So, hovering over the child is also off the table.  We don’t want to spank them, yell at them, or smother them, but they need consequences for their behavior.  What about the time-out method?

Sorry, no… According to some experts, time-outs are a traumatic form of banishment that send the message that the child is undesirable and unwanted.  This feeling of “being rejected by their parents” can mess up your children for life.

What then, do we have left in our discipline toolbox?  How about the old carrot/stick method of rewarding a child for good behavior while punishing bad behavior, perhaps by revoking privileges?  Many experts frown on this B.F. Skinner style of behavioral conditioning.  One psychology expert claims that rewards work, but punishments ironically bring about the bad behavior we are trying so hard to prevent.  Another suggests that we scrap rewards and punishments in favor of simply making requests.

This all sounds very positive in a world of infinite patience and eager-to-be-enlightened children, but are you really willing to make a series of calm requests to your toddler to stop running toward a screeching car?   In the real world, kids are perpetually testing boundaries, have a limitless capacity for toys and ice cream, and seek to understand in precise detail what power they wield.

We have to guide our children away from danger, teach them how to behave appropriately, help them develop patience and the willingness to sometimes do boring things while at the same time fostering their independence, empathy, and individuality.  We must show them unconditional love but create consequences for their behavior.

On top of all that, every child is unique and what works for one child may not work for another. We have ultimate responsibility for our child’s development, yet everything we do to guide them is either too lax or will screw them up for life.

It’s tough being THE MAN.