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On Spanking and Limit-Setting and Keeping Kids Out of Traffic Already

Posted Jun 19 2012 9:53am
A recent Facebook thread and this post " Does spanking work? " by Michael Hurd have me thinking about spanking and discipline and parenting lately.

The Facebook thread, which I won't reproduce or link to here, was a typical internet discussion about the merits of spanking and the usual arguments were offered ala "You can't reason with a two year old, so you need to get their attention in some kind of way." The usual kinds of arguments in favor of occasional spanking of very young children.

I agreed with some of what Dr. Hurd writes, such as his comment "Spanking is the easy way out." But he also agrees that occasional spanking of very young children is warranted for very dangerous situations (when it is the "only option"). He also seems to be in favor of positive reinforcements as behavior modification, which I disagree with and have discussed at length here on the blog and in our podcasts. And I most vehemently disagree that it is ever okay to hit your child as a way to show him what the pain of being hit feels like. (Note: I've generally agreed with and enjoyed much of what Dr. Hurd writes, and read his blog and newsletters occasionally. However, I do think he is off-base with this article.)

So here is what I've been thinking about when it comes to spanking, limit-setting, and discipline lately.

Many people who seek to justify hitting children as a form of discipline ask the following question
What if the kid is about to run into traffic?

We've all heard it, right? This scenario inevitably comes up. A toddler, too young to be reasoned with, is about to dart into the street, and you need to teach her not to do that. THEN (and in similarly dangerous situations), it's okay to smack.

The thing is, this doesn't make sense to me at all and it never has.

This example is thrown out there as if smacking a child, even gently, is the only (obvious) recourse a parent has when the kid dashes out into the street. Because otherwise, how will he learn not to play in traffic, right? He's too young to reason with, therefore you must "get his attention" with a smack and THAT will help him know not to run into traffic.

This traffic scenario is usually offered up as an (odd, to me) example of emergency ethics, too. Except, I think, true "lifeboat" scenarios very rarely ever happen (though they do make for interesting painful and interminable Ethics 101 discussions and become the bases of fun tv shows like The Walking Dead).

I haven't really thought this through all the way, but I think people are thinking that because walking into traffic constitutes a serious danger and emergency, then it's okay for the usual parenting rules and tools not to apply. I personally don't think the traffic scenario could really be considered such a lifeboat situation, partly because it's very common and kids will encounter traffic of all sorts in many different contexts. While playing in traffic is obviously dangerous and concerning, it's not so rare or unusual or difficult to manage such that normal rules don't/shouldn't/can't apply.

So, the traffic scenario. It's common, and people seem to use it to say, "Well, here is a time when it's okay to spank; therefore spanking is sometimes okay. It's not ideal, but it can and does (and should) be used in these emergency types of situations."

But really, is smacking the only thing you can do when a child is about to do something really dangerous? Of course not!

Here are some of the ideas I wrote on that FB thread
Things you can do when a child is doing something repeatedly dangerous: remove the item; remove the child; physically hold the child away from the situation/item; distract the child with something else; substitute the dangerous thing with something safer; hide the item until they are older. Those are a few things off the top of my head.

One of the points I've made elsewhere on the blog is that when a parent needs to use force (yes, this is part of the job description), it should be the minimum necessary to set the limit. I think there is ALWAYS something using less force than hitting that can be done that will keep the child within the limit.

But it occurred to me as I was thinking this over, maybe I never mentioned this: enforcing the limit is a short-term activity, and when I am doing that, here is what I'm thinking to myself: "I am enforcing a limit."

I am not thinking to myself "I am stopping this behavior now." OR "I am making this child learn a lesson so that he will change his behavior next time."

So my primary focus in enforcing a limit is . . . the enforcement of the limit, not changing/stopping the kid's behavior.

This sounds like the same thing: enforce a limit/stop a behavior. This is difficult for me to explain, because it involves trying to explain a paradigm shift and those are best explained after the shift has occurred, in my experience. But I'll try.

The reason my focus is primarily on limit-setting is that it helps me choose parenting tools that are not mainly behavior modification tools (positive or negative reinforcements of specific behaviors).

Yes, those parenting tools "work" in the sense that they make the behavior go away. I would never argue that spanking or time-outs or bribery don't work. They absolutely do, in that they have an effect on the child's behavior now (and also in the future). A smack gets a kid's attention and often makes him stop misbehaving. Time-outs (the punitive kind, I mean) have an effect. Rewarding a child to pee on the potty or make a good grade has an effect. They generally do "work." ***

But how we handle misbehaviors in the here and now also has long-term implications. I don't like the long-term effects of punitive discipline, which is why I do not choose parenting tools (that "work" in the short-term!) that are mere behavior-modification tools. I think the long-term effects of behavior modification/positive and negative reinforcement are not conducive to helping children learn how to grow into self-disciplined, self-motivated virtuous happy adults.

When my kids are not behaving, because my focus is on setting limits (according to rational standards) and NOT simply on modifying their behavior, none of those behavior-modification-focused kinds parenting tools are in my parenting toolbox. Spanking and other forms of negative reinforcement are strictly off the table. Bribery and other forms of positive reinforcement are strictly off the table.

But I have so many other options. Even when I must use force to set a limit--such as holding a child against his will while crossing a busy parking lot (did that just last week, what fun!)--I can do so with kindness, firmness, and using the minimum amount of force necessary to keep the child within the boundaries of the rational limit.

Yes, his behavior changes in that moment because I am keeping him within the limit. But I am focused on keeping him inside the boundaries I've set, not on making him behave.

And here's the thing that was hard for me to grasp. I didn't really quite believe it until I had direct experience with this myself as a parent.

Over time, as you enforce the limits, the child's behavior will change. The limit's the thing! Consistently enforcing rational limits in a kind and firm and non-punitive manner--you will get the behavior improvements you're looking for. In other words, this "works," too. And the best part is that the child is learning some useful long-term lessons as well.

A quick caveat, though. Sometimes, the behavior will change because you consistently enforced the limits. Go, you! You are an awesome parent! But sometimes--and this was hard for the likes of me to accept--sometimes the reason they changed their behavior has more to do with reaching the next stage of development or becoming distracted by some shinier misbehavior (sigh) or some other reason that isn't super-connected to your wonderful parenting.

And that's okay, because you kept your child safe (or your property safe) in the meantime. And that's what setting and enforcing limits does. It protects life, limb, property, and rights. As the limits are enforced, rights are protected and the behavior will change, too--either because they are learning a lesson (Hey! Mom won't let me destroy someone else's property or dash into the street!) and figuring out more rational ways to handle problems, or because they are maturing and able to manage their impulses better.

So mostly what I wanted to say here can be boiled down to eight words
Enforce the limit. The behavior changes will happen.

Okay, seven more words
And please don't hit your kids. Ever.



***NO parenting tool "works" the first time, either. I mentioned this, too, in the FB thread. There is nothing out there, NOTHING, that a parent can do that guarantees an instant and permanent behavior change. If such a parenting tool existed, its inventor would easily be the richest person in the universe. I don't think it's possible for such a tool to exist, because of the nature of human children, and so I wish people would stop looking for a magic solution to parenting challenges.
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