Friday, March 17, 2006

Sparing the Rod

The cost of being an Opinionated Homeschooler is having opinions that others, often friends, will vehemently disagree with. Still, there are topics I try to avoid, and one of them is corporal punishment. Can't avoid it this time, so here we go.

This is big in the homeschooling news lately. Amid the general nausea in reading the article, I was struck by the remarks of a Texas mom who uses the Pearls' advice about striking small children with switches:

"Some people would rather spend an hour reasoning with a defiant 5-year-old instead of requiring the kid to behave and giving him a swat if he doesn't," said Hicks, who said she has used a peach-tree switch to spank her four children. "Some people are just queasy about swatting their kids."

These comments get to the very heart of the corporal punishment issue. First, the contemptuous remark that some parents "are just queasy about swatting their kids." Yes, they are. Even the parents who swat their kids. If the thought didn't make us queasy, we wouldn't be looking up Bible verses or pro-spanking books or web-sites to tell us it was okay and good and would solve our discipline problems. You know what? It's okay to be queasy about spanking your kids. I intended to put my firstborn into daycare, but I didn't, because I "felt queasy" about it; it went against my maternal instincts, I didn't want to do it, and I trusted that in the end. I felt queasy about putting my children in school. I don't claim that those who have chosen otherwise are wrong; but I do claim that following my instincts about what I would and wouldn't do with my children was right.

Second, I believe many parents resort to spanking or switching because they have believed the straw man argument that the only alternative is to "spend an hour reasoning with a defiant 5-year-old instead of requiring the kid to behave." But those aren't the only options. One of the things I most wish someone had told me with my first child was that you don't always have to make them behave. Often you can just let things go. Often you only "have to" remove them from the place they are now, for their own sake or the sake of others. You don't always have to change their behavior right now.

People tell us, "If you had my child, you'd be singing a different tune." Our firstborn was the poster child for tantrums, rage, defiance, and a broad range of self-imposed misery. We were advised, often by people who love her, to think about spanking, or therapy, or (of course) putting her in school. We didn't do any of those. And she's okay now. She's not an undisciplined brat. She's a gentle, affectionate, self-controlled kid.

I'm not interested in arguing that (a) spanking or switching is child abuse; or (b) you're a bad parent if you spank (you're probably not); or (c) spanking is biblical or not biblical. (Though it's worth mentioning that the Catholic tradition falls on the side of gentleness; St. Benedict's rule was notable in its time for limiting the occasions in which children could be struck; Maria Montessori banned all corporal punishment in her schools, as did St. John Bosco, St. Elizabeth Seton, and Father Flanagan. The modern Catholic apologetics for striking children are lifted from Evangelical sources.) I'm not even going to argue about whether you get better behavior results from spanking or not spanking. For the sake of argument, I'll concede that spanking is more effective in direct behavior modification.

All I want to say is this. You can choose not to spank, if your heart hurts when you do it or think about doing it. And your kids really will be okay.

(HT to Daryl Cobranchi)

Update: Just clearing up some confusions that seem to have arisen.

1. I don't mean to imply that Evangelical Christians are the only ones who spank their children, or that Evangelicals as a whole are responsible for the kind of horrific disciplinary advice that seems to have led to the tragedy linked to at the beginning of this post. In fact, the very best childrearing books right now are those written by Evangelical Christian husband-wife team William and Martha Sears. The Baby Book, The Fussy Baby Book, and The Discipline Book were invaluable resources. (I was, however, disappointed with their book specifically on raising Christian children, where Sears & Sears quite bizarrely do a one-eighty on their advice regarding spanking. It's a not-so-good book in other areas, and I don't recommend it.)

2. My link to Daryl Cobranchi at the end doesn't imply that I agree with everything he says on his blog--I can guess that he doesn't agree with everything I say on mine!--but as I got the original link through his blog, courtesy and honesty demand the "hat tip." Anyway, his blog is well worth reading.


Blogger sophia said...

The article IS nauseating and terrible. While the Pearls' DO have some good insights, I have always had difficulty taking anything to heart that comes from them. Mr. Pearl's articles sound angry and defiant against modern culture where children have so many "rights". He seems very eager to put or "switch" children into their rightful lowly place, without love. So, I am always surprised how much some of my friends respect what the Pearls have to say. One friend told me I don't have to agree with everything the Pearls' have to say, just lift out the good stuff. I'm afraid I don't have time for that.
My friends who like the Pearls are balanced and loving parents...maybe a little more hard-lined than me, but that's not so extraordinary.
I always conclude that the following the Pearls have collected is the result of a rebellion against the "soft-anything-goes" parenting. I think a lot of baby boomer parents had more of this "hands-off" mentality, and their kids now want something more structured and disciplined. So,IMHO, they have swung a little too far on the other side if they listen to the Pearls.
While we have used corporal punishment with our kids, I know that the longer I parent the more I agree with your sentiment here: "One of the things I most wish someone had told me with my first child was that you don't always have to make them behave. Often you can just let things go. Often you only "have to" remove them from the place they are now, for their own sake or the sake of others. You don't always have to change their behavior right now."
That is SO true!!! I was actually trying to verbalize this idea to a parent of toddler who is a good friend of mine. She had a "vapid" look in her eyes, and I could tell she was not listening or understanding. I felt a little frustrated that she could save herself and her toddler some grief if she would. However, then I thought about myself with my first children. I probably wouldn't have listened to that, either...unfortunately.

7:37 PM  
Blogger sophia said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Sailorette said...

My folks spanked my sister and brother and I. We didn't have tantrums, we almost always had relieved waiters telling mom that they were surprised how well we acted (after the meal-- before, they saw three little kids and prepared for battle).

Mom hated spanking us. She did it, because it worked, and we really did need it some times. It didn't even really hurt-- slight sting and a loud noise, then 'go to your room'.

I think the base thing is that you have to be willing to dicipline your kids-- and far, far too many people won't.

2:39 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Like I say, I've never seen the point in arguing that parents who spank are therefore bad parents, or that spanking doesn't have an effect on behavior.

Last week at the park, I was chatting with a mom at the sandbox. She absolutely didn't spank--and clearly didn't discipline, either. Her daughter, about a year older than Offspring #1, kept seizing 01's pail and running away, while Mom begged her vainly to bring it back. Her son, every time mom's back was turned, would kick sand at 01 and myself (I leveled some strong, quiet words at him, while Mom chased after pail-thief, which intimidated him into cutting it out).

And yet ... the Offspringen were at a dinner with some of dear husband's colleagues a few weeks back, and at the end a complete stranger came over to me and thanked me for having such well-behaved children who didn't make the dining experience miserable for other people. It's true, they're well-behaved, and it's because we're serious about discipline. But we don't spank.

And ... I am familiar with families that do include spanking in their repetoire of disciplinary techniques, whose kids are hellions and mean, and have clearly picked up the lesson that life is about not getting caught.

What does all of this prove? First, that the plural of anecdote is not "data." Many people who were spanked turned out fine; many people who spank are good parents. And the reverse also.

Second, that the important distinction--which you make in your comment--is not between spanking and not spanking, but between discipline and not discipline. Real discipline may include spanking, or not; families can fail to exercise genuine discipline whether they spank or not. The only point that I've ever wanted to make is that one can, contrary to the straw man so often presented, exercise loving, Christian, and effective discipline without ever spanking or otherwise striking a child; and accordingly, parents who find in their hearts that they don't want to spank may act on their heart's promptings without fear.

6:05 AM  

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