Sunday, January 30, 2011

Spanking and Child Abuse - Know the Difference

I once worked for a man who was called for jury duty on a child abuse case. When appearing before the judge he was asked by one of the lawyers how he felt about child abuse and the people who abused children. His response, I was told, nearly had him locked up for contempt of court: "They should die." No, he wasn't trying to be dismissed from jury duty; that was genuinely how he felt. Since that time 10 years ago, I've seen countless images of battered and beaten children, heard tragic stories of those that didn't survive, and now have 2 small children of my own, all of which have brought me to the point just short of agreeing with him. I cannot bring myself to agree because I think death is too kind a punishment for them.
At the same time, I am bothered by the social momentum the child abuse prevention movement imposes against the spanking of one's own child. Just as in our legal system there are punishments to fit each crime culminating in consecutive life sentences or the death penalty for the most serious of offenses, there should be a scale of discipline tactics available to parents culminating in corporal punishment, aka spanking. Ultimately, it is up to the each parent to decide if their children would benefit from physical disciplining, but when is spanking acceptable? I'd say only when each and every one of the following conditions are met:
  • The child is old enough to understand rudimentary causality. There is no age for this; the parents must know their child. Some kids may understand that there are consequences at 18 months, while others may need until 30 months or older to grasp how one thing can cause another.
  • The child has been told what action of his or hers will result in a spanking. Just as you wouldn't expect justice to come in the form of being pulled over, your car impounded, and you held overnight  because of a local ordinance about which you were unfamiliar, neither should a child's first instruction that some action he or she took is bad be accompanied by a spanking. This also requires that you as the parents have given some thought as to what earns a paddle on the bottom. Some say lying and defiance are the top two reasons to spank; I prefer only when there is an act of aggression. Whatever it is you decide, communicate it to the child and stick with it.
  • You can remove the child from the situation and explain what is happening. Try not to let his or her siblings see the spanking whenever possible. Designating an area in the home is not a bad idea. Resist the urge to swat a bottom at the moment of transgression. 
  • Explain the situation once you've removed the child from any peers. "You hit your friend/You lied to me/You did not do as you were told. What happens when you do that?" It seems silly to go through all this and maybe even unnecessary; however, if you can accept that a spanking is a means of justice rather than simply a punishment, the person to whom justice is being served must understand the causality and the best way to teach causality to a young child is to say it as explicitly as possible. Leave no ambiguity at all and remain calm. Emotion from the parent is counterproductive. 
  • The spanking is appropriate for the age of the child. Younger children need only mild pats, while older kids will scoff at the same paddling. Under no circumstances should a spanking be given with closed fists, external implements such as belts, or be so hard to leave welts, bruises, or break the skin. Doing so crosses the line between discipline and abuse. 
  • Take the opportunity to express love for your child after the spanking is finished. This is the most important part of a spanking because it shows the child that he now has a clean slate and is still one of your favorite people. It establishes you as more of an authority figure more so than the actual spanking. 
I recognize that each item in this list may seem necessary and to watch it all play out exactly like this truly does seem tragic, but adhering to this advice as closely as possible ensures that the child understands and matures from the experience of being spanked without his or her life being placed in danger through abusive parenting.

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