Updated: Jul 21, 2019
Our environment plays a pivotal role in how we experience our circumstances, people around us, as well as our own well-being. If you grew up in a household that was supportive, communicative and loving, this is the foundation on which you will build your adult life. In contrast, if you experienced violence either directly or indirectly as a child, your adult life will likely still show signs of that trauma.
According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, corporal punishment is defined as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however slight.” Sweden was the first country to ban spanking in 1979. This ban was a longtime coming as children’s human rights were first recognized in the 1920s. Then, in 1958, spanking became prohibited in schools and in 1966, parental rights to give out physical punishments were revoked. Currently, 43 countries around the world have banned physical punishment and it remains a contentious topic and often used as a political platform.
Growing up in a country where physical punishment was enforced in schools, churches and homes as a means of discipline, I decided not to raise my children with that tradition. Now that they are grown, I can attest that consistently applying alternative methods are far better for them and me.
From speaking to other parents in different cultures and countries, there are a few common beliefs when it comes to spanking children:
I was spanked as a child and I turned out just fine.
This reasoning assumes that just because it seemingly worked for you, it will also work for your children. Children are exposed to various cultures, beliefs and information that you weren’t growing up. Comedian Bill Burr once said that as a new parent, we all just want to do better than our parents. When it came to punishment, he thought "wow, my dad must have had it really, really bad if this is the 'better' discipline my brother and I received." With that same sentiment, just because it’s been done in the past, doesn’t mean it is the best way.
Some kids just need it.
Have you explored all other options including therapy or a behavioural councillor? There could be an underlying condition that hasn’t been diagnosed, or the parents need more tools on how to handle “stubborn" or "difficult” children.
A brilliant Play Therapist, Dr. Olivier once said that if we want to see what the message of any action is, we should apply it in hyperbole.
Some of the examples below have taken that strategy to emphasise the five messages that physical punishment sends to children.
Communication through physical violence
One of the first rules when communicating with children is to come down to their eye level. This creates equality and makes the conversation much more comforting and less intimidating. When we come down to the child’s level, it is physically impossible to hurt them as much as if we tower over them. By hitting children as a form of discipline, we enforce the idea that we communicate with physical force intending to “teach a lesson.” With copious amounts of information available today on parent-child communication, there is no reason to resort to physical methods to get the lesson across.
Imagine that you started a new job and you have no idea where anything is. You’ve asked a few times and by the third time, instead of the manager writing an email to you explaining where things are, they take a stick and hit you with it, because you didn’t listen the first two times. Even though you are new and have so much on your plate that you simply just forgot.
Ownership vs responsibility
We don’t own our children, they are not possessions or things. We are, however, responsible for them. Once we make that distinction in our minds, punishment for “bad behaviour” flips to guidance. We have a responsibility to make big emotions manageable enough for little minds and hearts.
They can use these stepping stones to understand their own emotions and later in life respond versus react to circumstances. If we simply beat those lessons into them, the emotions are never understood and feelings of fear, shame and pain will become the foundation.
As parents, if we take a mindfulness moment to understand why we are so angry, we also gain control of our reactions. Are we acting out of frustration or intending to change behaviours? Thinking back on my own life, the worst part of being spanked as a child was waiting. All I could focus on was when it was going to happen when my father came home or when the teacher would ask about homework not done. It created anxiety far superseding the pain inflicted by the school ruler or the back of a shoe.
Pain and suffering as a consequence
There has been a lot of talks lately on how children are being raised as "snowflakes" without consequences and that their emotions are too fragile. Consequences are a part of life, so let your child experience their own, real, age-appropriate consequences. As parents, when we are firm and consistent in our actions, it creates safety boundaries, trusts and sets realistic expectations.
A technique that works well in our home is a time-out with a consequence and a follow-up on how we can do better next time. It’s a conversation and an action plan involving all parties. Sure, this takes much more effort and energy than simply just hitting a child, but the insights gained and the life lessons learned are well worth the input.
The message is to be aware of our actions and own up to our consequences. In contrast, if we hit our children as a consequence, what is the life lesson they learn? That pain and suffering are okay and mistakes end up in physical discomfort. Do they truly understand why they are being hit? Are the consequences for mistakes pain and emotional distress? As an adult, if someone continuously hits you when you made a mistake, would you trust that person to help you when needed?
The message: It’s okay for someone who is in a position of power, who is stronger and bigger to cause physical harm to someone smaller and weaker.
When we teach our kids to be proud of their bodies, to take care of them and not to allow anyone to cause harm to them, especially when they get older, it instils a sense of pride and confidence. Privacy matters, no means no, nobody has a right over your body are all popular mainstream phrases, however, when it comes to hitting your child there seems to be a distinction.
Your child’s body belongs to them and it is a parent’s responsibility to keep it from harm.
Our current climate is full of examples where authority figures take advantage of their power. If we wish to change a culture where physical and emotional trauma is normalized, we should take a look at how we as a society view the rights children have over their bodies.
I am not worthy
When children experience trauma they start hating themselves, not their caregivers.
Children tend to blame themselves for “bad behaviour” or “being a bad kid”. As adults, they may continue to have this rationalization by allowing others in their lives to treat them poorly because from early on, the message they internalized was that they deserve to be treated this way. When happiness or good relationships come along, these adults push it away or feel that they are not worthy of such abundance or positive events happening in their lives.
Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is going through. Take our strategy to exaggerate the action to understand the message: think of hitting a child for discipline and multiply the intensity by ten. Now put yourself in the child’s place.
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” perfectly captured what it is like to grow up getting hit. At one point young Jack asks his father, “You wish I were dead, don’t you?” That is how hitting translates to a child. Hitting doesn’t teach, it burdens. It doesn’t communicate love, it communicates worthlessness. Sarah Newman, MA, MFA
If you were disciplined as a child by spanking or hitting know that you are worthy. As children, we have limited resources to our disposal and what was done to us is not our fault. When we grow up and we realize that we have so much potential, reignite that shining light that perhaps was dimmed by fear, insecurity and neglect. Regain that childlike wonder for the world and let go of the past triggers that no longer serve you.
As a parents we have the opportunity to change the cycle and empower ourselves and our children to be strong, confident, kind and loving by setting that example. It’s much easier to be a role model when circumstances are easy. Practice mindfulness and journaling every day so that when the challenging times come, you are prepared and your mindset and attitude is in alignment with the greater good for all.
Keep Journaling, Keep Growing.