I was wrong. You heard it here first.
That time. At the mall. You hit your kid and I told you it wouldn’t help anything and asked you to stop.
That was really dumb.
Not because I’ve changed my mind and decided we should hit kids, but because I know better. That approach I took almost never works. After all, you were quite young when we had that conversation. I remember when I was young, whenever someone told me to stop doing something, it motivated me all the more to keep doing it. And I could spout off 37 reasons why I was right and they were wrong. I’m sure you did that in your head that day.
What do I wish I had done?
Well, I’m thinking back to the day I changed my mind about spanking. I was in my early 20s, and with a friend in her 70s. I shared my pro-spanking views, and she gently responded. Not with “stop it! That doesn’t help” like I wrongly said that day at the mall to you. But instead with “Help me understand why you would choose to do that?” Then she listened as I explained to her my reasons: 1) My pastor had told me to spank and 2) My parent had spanked me. She gave me some ideas of things I could research if I wanted to learn more, and the conversation basically ended there. She left it in my court.
Which worked. Because, ironically, as much as I want to “spank you” (let’s define that as using force, pain and intimidation to control and get my way) into stopping spanking, that never works. Spankings just don’t work. Research has shown us that over and over again. Best case scenario, they get the spanker a short term result- the undesirable behavior of the child stops while the parent is watching. But who of us as parents really want that? We want long term change – that our child’s behavior will grow and improve and be honed in a way that when they are with us or away from us they will reflect Jesus and the Golden Rule and the fruits of the Spirit.
But the approach I took that day with you, my friend, probably accomplished in you the same thing a spanking does to a kid. You stopped spanking in front of me. I’ve not seen you do it since. But I have a nagging suspicion that because I never explained my reasons, and never took the time to understand you and what was driving the choices you were making, nothing really changed on your end. You kept up the undesirable behavior (spanking) and you just hid it from me – just like research shows us that spanked children tend to hide their undesirable behaviors and do them in secret. Or maybe, best case scenario, I got a short term result and you stopped for a day or two. But you had no real motivation or understanding of why to stop, so it didn’t last.
So what worked about my 70 year old friend’s approach? She took the time to understand me, and so I wanted to take the time to understand her perspective (which, let’s just take notice, is incredible that someone in their 70s was anti-spanking. Talk about counter-culture and going against political correctness. She believed she had heard from God clearly on it and wasn’t afraid to be in the minority of opinion. She knew the truth about spanking would come out more and more and someday her perspective would be vindicated – but probably not in her lifetime.) So what was her perspective?
I went home and researched it. It was:
1) That kids who are hit are most likely to hit others. This has been proven again and again. They are more prone to violence, and actually several other trends are true of them – their IQs go down, they are more likely to allow relationship violence when they are older, and they tend to blindly follow others without checking things out themselves. They are followers more than leaders, which is heartbreaking.
2) That the Bible actually doesn’t teach to spank. It teaches to discipline (which seems the most logical interpretation of “the rod” when you read it in context), and the root word of that is to disciple or teach. Spanking causes pain and fear which shuts down learning. Other ways (which don’t involve pain) to teach and disciple increase learning. We want our kids to learn right from wrong – so we need to do everything conducive to learning, not shut down the parts of the brain that prevent it.
3) That kids who are not spanked can be incredibly kind, gentle, well-behaved, well-mannered children, and most often are. The exception to this is the opposite extreme on the spectrum of discipline which is permissive parenting. Not spanking does not mean being permissive, it means teaching and actively parenting in other ways.
4) Speaking of avoiding permissive parenting, I learned that there has been a pendulum shift in our society. In our attempt to move away from abusive parenting, a huge group chose permissive parenting believing that to be the opposite of what was wrong and the best way to change. But kids need attention, they need boundaries, they need teaching. So that created some unhealthy kids, and caused a pendulum swing back to abusive parenting. Only recently are we seeing more and more come out about a middle ground of assertive parenting that is incredibly consistent and effective. We are still fighting an uphill battle to undo what the permissive parenting movement did to keep people believing “spanking is good” simply because some of the indirect effects of spanking (boundaries, consistency, etc) certainly worked better than permissive parenting. I believe I could simply consistently sing my child a song every day and it would work better than permissive parenting – anything consistent and proactive does.
5) Spanking doesn’t follow the Golden Rule and it is incredibly ironic that we can’t legally go around hitting adults, but we can hit kids. It’s a boundary violation, both because of the violence and because the most often target of the spanking is the buttocks. The research on the likelihood of kids who are spanked to tolerate sexual abuse vs the likelihood of those who are not is fascinating. Even some of the most committed spankers I’ve known have changed their views after becoming aware of this truth.
6) There is no “right way” or “biblical way” to spank. The “spanking in love” that we as a culture talked about back when I was in my early 20s is kind of ridiculous to look back on. Methodical, organized, let’s even call it “ritualistic” spanking if it follows the same pattern every time (ie spank, hug, pray) just might be worse than haphazard spanking. Isn’t premeditated crime prosecuted more seriously than accidental or even heat-of-the-moment crime? Premeditated spanking just might be worse than spanking in anger, because it leaves the child confused, thinking “My parent actually did this on purpose?!?” Telling someone you love them is not an acceptable reason to violate their boundaries and human rights. And praying or telling them, “God told me to do this” might just be the most sure-fire method for teaching a kid that God is evil and to be hated and run from than just about any method we are using.
I was fascinated. This made so much sense. Instead of hanging on to long held unhealthy traditions, I decided to choose wise advice and learn everything I could about parenting actively and assertively, and nonviolently.
At that point there were a limited number of books out there. If I remember correctly, Clay Clarkson and Crystal Lutton’s were the only Christian ones out. They were awesome though and the amount of time, energy and prayer they had spent on really understanding the Biblical texts that some claimed promoted spanking, but actually didn’t when looked at in context and in the original language, was out of this world. It was, frankly, divine. The Holy Spirit was working through their work and they were pioneers. Secular authors were writing about nonviolent discipline too and the importance of assertive, active, positive parenting. My favorites were Jane Nelson, Barbara Coloroso and Dr. Bill Sears. Some of them are Christian, but their material was marketed as secular, which ironically gave them more success than the explicitly Christian books since there was still so much confusion about the “rod verses” and so many pastors and authors claiming that meant to spank (despite one of the most famous biblical texts of all time, Psalm 23, saying the rod and staff comfort –shepherds weren’t beating sheep with them, they were gently guiding).
It was a season of incredible learning in my life. Because someone invited me into the process of learning, so that I could decide for myself on the issue, instead of being fed her opinion and blindly following it. If part of what nonviolent parenting proponents like myself are wanting is for parents to start thinking for themselves instead of blindly following self-proclaimed parenting experts that promote spanking, then we need to not ask them to blindly follow us either. We need to pray for them, give them resources, give them biblical and educational reasons, and then trust them that they will make the best decision. There are even more incredible resources out there now – some of the most thorough, well-studied books I have read of late include L.R. Knost’s “Jesus: the Gentle Parent,” Stephanie Cox’s “Gentle Firmness,” Samuel Martin’s “Thy Rod and Thy Staff: They Comfort Me” and new or revised books by Lutton, Sears and Clarkson.
So what would I do today, in 2014, if I saw you hit your child in the mall again? I think I would still speak up. I hope I would, actually, because I think part of what perpetuates the cycle of violence against children is others standing by and acting like it’s ok and nothing unusual. But I hope I would do it in a very different way…
1) As a servant leader… “Can I help you?” because probably what was driving your desperation to spank was that you were overwhelmed and couldn’t figure out how to get your child to cooperate in the store. It’s ok that it sometimes takes a village and we sometimes need to “tag off” with friends to teach each other’s kids with kindness and respect if we ourselves are worn out or feeling desperate.
2) As someone who loves unconditionally… I would make an active choice in my mind not to judge you and to try to reflect that with my words. After all, I have several good friends who have spanked. Most of them desire not to, but simply have had such desperate moments and have the pattern of spanking so ingrained because of past habits or how their parents raised them, that they just slipped. Or maybe they haven’t filled their toolbox yet with tools of how to parent actively without violence and they feel like doing something is better than doing nothing. Unfortunately, spanking is the only something they know yet. Maybe they have strong voices in their heads from well-meaning pastors who are telling them to spank and they (and, amazingly often, the pastors) simply haven’t taken the time yet to thoroughly research the issue and the Scripture. I may never know their exact reason why… but I do believe they will get there because I truly believe in them. So instead of judging you, I would decide to love you unconditionally, to keep showing up in your life, and to see the potential in you to be a positive, effective parent without spanking.
3) As a good listener… “Help me understand why you parent in that way.” If I want you to take the time to listen to me, it’s only fair that I take the time to listen to you. And maybe in doing so, I will be able to determine what resources could be most helpful to you as you continue to evaluate your parenting choices and grow your toolbox. But if I don’t take the time to know why you do, I am rendered pretty ineffective in telling you why it might help you and you family to move into the “don’t” category.
4) As a resource provider and truth teller… “Do you mind if I share with you some of the things I’ve learned that have helped me weigh the pros and cons?” I asked a friend that question the other day and the answer was a resounding yes. Most people love gaining knowledge, and we all love feeling supported in decisionmaking. Providing resources, with the receiver’s permission, allows others to make wise decisions without anyone trying to push (or “spank”) them into them.
5) As a prayer warrior… Now I pray in my head immediately when I see someone hit a child. I believe my words to them come out differently because of it. They come out humbly, like “I used to think that was the best way too and then a friend shared with me some alternatives and it rocked my world.” They come out gently: “I’d love for you to consider this” (as opposed to “stop it now!”). Sometimes they even come out creatively: “Oh my goodness, if I did that to you I would get kicked out of the mall” (followed by their and my laughter, though my point has come across well because of the illustration).
So, here’s to the next steps in growing together to be better parents. Here’s to treating each other with dignity. Here’s to sharing resources. Here’s to praying that more and more tools get in the hands of parents who want to discipline well, so that they know that spanking isn’t the only way (or actually an effective way at all) to discipline (teach and disciple). Here’s to asking questions. Here’s to seeking understanding before we jump in with answers. Here’s to non-spankers committing to stop “spanking” current spankers with our words. And here’s to seeing the spanking trend change in our lifetime – as we peacefully protest and seek mutual understanding as opposed to going in with guns blazing.
So, let me say it one more time, my friend. I was wrong for telling you to stop spanking. Next time I will, in that desperate moment, ask you how I can help, pray for you, and offer you the other perspective in a gentle, optional way. I will still try to ask you to stop hitting your child – both in that moment and long-term – but I think I know a different path to walk as I attempt that now, and one that you and I will both appreciate. I’m praying for you and I hope you pray for me. I have room to grow too. Let’s grow together.