Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?

I don't believe in spanking any more as a general rule, although sometimes I have to fight my inner bully to remember that.

Although it's been a gradual shift for me, a barrage of Facebook images in the last few days made me want to speak out. Just this morning there were two on my news feed that praised the value of spanking at home and in school.

Sorry, I can't agree any more.

I was spanked growing up and no, I don't believe I suffered any deep psychological or physical scarring as a result. In fact, I don't actually remember any spanking, although I do remember waiting on one that was to be delivered after company left. My brother and I had gotten into a knock down, drag out and I wound up bitten. We were both awaiting punishment, but I don't remember the delivery.

When I was raising my children, they were also spanked. In general, I don't remember those spankings either. I do remember slapping my teenage son in the face when he stood and cursed me, and I expect the feelings that triggered that were behind most of the spankings as well. I felt frustrated and that nothing was getting through. I don't think smacking him helped and I really don't think most of the spankings helped either, other than to provide a vent for my frustration.

So despite the challenges of dealing with three preschoolers, I make it my goal not to spank. I'm not 100 percent successful yet, but when I do administer a swat, I feel like I've failed.

It wasn't long ago that I was part of the spanking club. A tantrum, failure to obey timeout rules, doing what I had expressly told them not to do, they could count on a spanking. Sometimes afterward I would wonder if the swat had been too hard and if I wasn't really just a bully disguised as a grandmother. After all, I was using my size and strength to make them do what I wanted, even if they didn't agree or understand.

Then I saw someone else doing the same thing at a restaurant. A tantrum from the child was provoking a tantrum from the father, and his was really more disturbing than the child's. Threats of a "busted ass," weren't quieting the little one down and a swat at the table only changed his rambunctious behavior into loud tears. It wasn't enough to be considered abuse, but it was still ugly.

While it was not something I had ever done, in public any way, it was like watching my own behavior in the mirror, and I vowed to change.

Prayerfully I began to address issues that were mine, not those of little girls who don't know a better way to manage their emotions and behavior. More and more, I'm able to catch myself before screaming back, before swatting a bottom -- before doing things I regret just minutes after doing them.

At 4, E1 is the biggest challenge. Her emotional scale is so easily tipped and on any given day I'm likely to find myself facing rage, tears, an out and out tantrum, or an assault on one of her sisters, or maybe all of the above. Sitting down to a lunch she insists she doesn't want to eat is a good example. What begins as "I don't want this" dissolves into shrieks and tears. More recently, instead of smacking her tiny bottom, which truthfully fixed nothing, I took her away from the table and we took time to breathe and calm down. We negotiated how much she had to eat and went back to the table. She ate without a further blowup.

I know, that sounds so ideal, but it has happened. She actually finished the food she insisted she didn't want to eat, because once she started eating, it was something she liked. Yesterday when she said she didn't want the can of pasta I opened for lunch, there was not even a blowup. I just advised her to eat a few bites and pretty soon the plate was clean.

Next time, we may be facing a replay of the removal from the table, but I think it won't be a constantly repeated exercise. I think by finding another way to deal with what is an emotional situation for her, we both learn. The emphasis is on both of us learning.

When I was a young mother, I was busy with so many things and managing so much other stress, that an uncooperative child was often the thing that pushed me over the top. Whether it was failing to pick up toys when asked to do so, or something really serious like dashing into a parking lot, a spanking was more about my inability to consider another option than it was about what they had done and their failure to mind. I cannot fault other people who face the same difficult situations and react the same way.

The additional level of maturity brought by age and experience and the degree of separation I have from my grandchildren's everyday needs is one of the reasons I'm able to negotiate my own emotional terrain a little more successfully. I don't have to worry about how I'm paying for the diapers on the baby's butt or the roof over their heads, all I have to focus on is their needs 8 hours a day. Surely I can be the mature one that long.

I think most grandparents likely go through that shift in their thinking, which may be one of the reasons people accuse their parents of loving their grandchildren more than their actual children. It's not that I let them get by with more, but that I manage how I react differently.

No, I'm not successful 100 percent of the time. Sometimes I react before taking that extra minute I need to be in control. Sometimes I catch myself just in time and turn what could have been a spanking into a "sit down and talk about what you did wrong." Sometimes I throw away the crayons, despite the fact they're screaming that they really will pick them up and not dump them out again, because I know even with their best intentions, tossing them is the only way I won't pick them up again. And sometimes their behavior is so over the top that a swat is the only way I've found to deal with it -- although I hope that will change over time as well.

So no, I don't want to be in the pro-spanking corner any more. I don't think the decline in our society is because we don't spank, it's because we don't take the time to do anything else either. We're working two or three jobs to make ends meet and buy our kids all the neat things they think they have to have when what they really need is more of us, more time to learn who they are instead of trying to be who their friends think they are, more conversation at the dinner table instead of texting or gaming, and more real learning instead of mindless homework just to pass a test.

It's easy to pass judgement and say if parents would just spank their kids like we were spanked, it would be better. But by and large, spanking was just a small part of the parenting process in which we were raised. Families and society have changed in radical ways and today's parents are still struggling to find the right balance without the easy guidelines that we had from our parents.

Instead of condemning parents who make the difficult choice not to spank, we need to be supportive and encourage them to find other ways to discipline and the time to make sure their children learn the lessons we seem to think were beat into us. We don't need to say a good spanking would fix that, because really, it won't.

Becoming a person who helps them understand life, like our parents and grandparents did in thousands of ways that are less memorable than the symbolic spanking will help change our children. Being yet another bully who forces them to do what we say through threats and violence isn't the answer.

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