Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crime and Punishment

Lately we've started thinking about discipline. J is testing the boundaries more and more each day, and saying "no" very seriously and emphatically just sends him into fits of giggles - not an effective way of getting the message across, clearly. Lots of friends use the time out/naughty corner technique and it seems very effective but J is still too young for that to have any impact yet. We do however, feel like we need to set the stage now and pre-empt any bad behaviour by making it clear what is and isn't acceptable early on (let's face it, we're in for a challenging time; he takes after both his parents, and we were both very naughty toddlers...).

We are not fans of smacking/spanking and don't want to go down that route. This isn't intended to be a rant arguing against the psychological effects of hitting your children, but I do know a little bit about Behavioural Psychology from my teaching days. Studies do show that physical punishment just doesn't work, for a lot of reasons. When I was at school corporal punishment, like the cane, was still an acceptable method of disciplining children. The nuns were the most likely to use it and seemed to take particular pleasure in inflicting pain on my unruly classmates, and this was when I was in primary school! My parents would threaten us with the wooden spoon sometimes and my Nanna kept a leather strap in the kitchen cupboard. Neither of these objects were ever used on us, it was utterly terrifying just thinking about it, and that was enough to keep us in line. Back in those days it was more common and certainly more acceptable to smack your children. These days I think child protective services would be knocking on your door if they heard you had threatened to hit your child with a spoon, whether you actually intended to or not. Times have changed and I think there are many very good reasons why.

Personally, I hate the thought of smacking a child; I can't even discipline the dog! I remember being smacked as a child, not often, but occasionally. The threat of it was always there and that was enough for me. My brother tended to push the boundaries more often and wore a red bum fairly frequently. I very clearly remember my mum slapping me on the leg once for shouting at my brother. It didn't hurt much but I'll never forget how it made me feel. I strongly believed that, on that occasion, the punishment did not fit the crime, and the emotional scar was much deeper than the physical one. I don't ever want my children to feel that way, no matter how naughty they may be. I can't say I won't ever smack them, but right now I'd like to think that I won't. I just have to look at my son's cherubic little face and I can't imagine ever laying a hand on him. At the same time I can't imagine him ever being naughty enough to make me that cross, but we've still got a long way to go, and I'm not that naive.

Before you stop reading because I'm starting to sound holier than thou, I have to tell you a story. Several months ago I smacked my nine-year-old nephew, B. He has had a less than ideal upbringing and has a lot of issues. He can be a very sweet boy a lot of the time but he can also push the best of us to our limits. We had all gone to the local sweet shop one morning, where he was given all sorts of treats without showing any gratitude. I let this go because I'm not his mother. He complained a lot about other things he wanted and things he wanted to do. I let this go too. Then when we were getting in the car my mum, B's grandmother, asked him to do something for her and he replied with something along the lines of "do it yourself...". Without thinking about it I slapped him across the arm (much like I would do if my husband said something inappropriate or offensive) and said "don't you dare speak to your Nanna that way!" He instantly burst into tears and said "don't you hit me that way!" I felt absolutely awful. Partly because of his reaction but also because I did it without thinking, it was just an instinct. Some of you out there will say it was warranted, others who know the child in question might say it was a long time coming, but in my heart I knew it was wrong. I took him aside when we got home and apologised. I explained that what I did was wrong, but that he was also at fault. I think the apology negated any impact the punishment may have had but even then, it took me a long time to regain B's trust.

I've seen parents smack children, both in their own homes and in public, and I always sympathise with the child. I don't believe humiliating them in front of others is ever a good way to teach them right from wrong. I also feel that smacking a child, especially when their crime is a violent one, is outright hypocrisy. I find it hard to understand why parents would knowingly send their children the message that it's ok to hit someone smaller than you if you believe they've done the wrong thing. I'm aware that I'm at risk of offending a few people with this particular diatribe, so let me just say that I believe every parent has the right to discipline their children the way they see fit. It is a very personal decision, albeit a potentially controversial one. As I said, I'm not perfect; I'm only human, and we're all liable to outbursts every now and then. Sometimes instinct leads the way over reason and we lose our tempers and smack our kids. This isn't by any means justification for corporal punishment; regardless of instinct, we should all be held responsible for our actions if we're to have any hope of our children taking responsibility for theirs. I think the best way to teach them self-control, respect for others, and non-violent conflict resolution is to lead by example.

After all that I think it's clear what we're NOT going to do when J starts acting up. We still have to solve the dilemma of what we will do. Stay tuned.


  1. I remember so clearly my mum chasing me up the stairs of our family home with the wooden spoon! I can't actually remember if it ever connected with my bum but the threat of it was enough to keep me running! It's a tough issue and I'm not a mum so have zero experience. Hopefully some hints come through for you!

  2. Recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson

    by Lesli Taylor MD and Adah Maurer PhD

    Most current research:

    Spanking Kids Increases Risk of Sexual Problems

    Use of Spanking for 3-Year-Old Children and Associated Intimate Partner Aggression or Violence

    Spanking Can Make Children More Aggressive Later

    Children Who Are Spanked Have Lower IQs