Parents who spank are so lucky.
I say that knowing that the question of whether to spank children is a controversial one, and there is very little overlap between the two camps; parents either use spanking as a discipline tool, or they don’t. I am comfortable with my status as a non-spanker, but sometimes I feel my pacifistic approach to parenting puts me at a clear disadvantage in the discipline department. I know parents who spank and I sometimes think, I want what you have : if only I could get it without the hitting part.
As it is, I do have a few very effective means of discipline that work most of the time: I use positive reinforcement; I work with my children to help them develop better decision-making skills and come up with alternative choices; I use time-outs; and when bad things happen, we discuss how to make them better.
But these are practices spankers and non-spankers have in common. The additional tool that parents who spank have, the one that I envy, is not the hitting itself but the threat of hitting. If a child has ever been whupped by her parents before, all a mother has to do is raise her hand or mention the word “spanking” or, if she works it really well, just raise her eyebrow a certain way, and the kid knows exactly what she’s getting at.
I have nothing in my parenting arsenal that comes even close to getting my kids in line that quickly. When my kid is pushing her limits and my buttons, when we’ve been through multiple “quiet times” and there’s nothing positive left to reinforce, when she’s staring smugly at me with her pointed finger just millimeters away from her innocent brother’s eyeball, in these situations, a spanking – or at least the threat of one -seems like it would do the trick very nicely. Wouldn’t that be better than what I do instead: go completely bonkers? My eyes bulge maniacally, angry screams gush from my mouth, and smoke all but pours out of my ears. It doesn’t feel good and it’s not effective. When I lose my cool like this, my daughter either winds up starting her own insane scream-fest, or she laughs at me.
I hate violence; I don’t hit people, ever, and I cover my eyes when there’s violence in movies. But when one of my kids’ misbehaviors has escalated beyond an acceptable limit, I feel my blood pressure and my temperature rise and I see stars. The sensation of forcefully driving my hand at the child whose actions incited me feels like it would relieve me. A smack seems like it would stop my child’s inappropriate behavior and assuage the ire that burns within me. Honestly, it seems like it might feel almost : good.
I don’t do it. Not ever. But I sometimes wonder what happens to all that anger I felt in the moment I wanted to spank. Does it just get stored until it eventually reveals itself in the form of gray hairs on my head and wrinkles on my face? Is it slowly eating away years from my life? I know how satisfying it can be to slam a door or throw a shoe when I’m angry. I can’t help but think spanking a child who has done something wrong would bring a similar level of satisfaction.
I don’t mean to suggest that people who spank their kids do it to blow off steam. Lots of parents consider spanking an effective, humane discipline tool that simply requires responsible use: You don’t spank while you’re angry with your child. Instead, you wait a few minutes and administer the punishment when you’re calm. So parents who spank theoretically have to pull themselves together more quickly than I do.
But I know I’m not the only parent who feels an overwhelming, emotionally driven urge to spank. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I, like so many parents today, was spanked as a kid. I’ve heard peers of mine proclaim, “My parents hit me, and I turned out all right.” I certainly can’t dispute the latter part of that statement, though I wonder what they mean by all right. I like to think that I, too, turned out all right. But with some research concluding that spanking makes children more aggressive, I’m left wondering if that is where my urge to spank comes from. Is spanking an innate human behavior that those of us who don’t spank have to reprogram ourselves against? Or is my inherent urge to spank a result of having been on the receiving end of that disciplinary tactic in my formative years?
Fortunately I don’t suffer the urge very often. But when I do, it’s especially trying. I once worked so hard at resisting the urge to spank that I curled up my mouth in a scary way and said to my four year-old little girl in a Vincent Price voice, “You know, some parents hit their kids when they misbehave.” My words were unhealthy and unkind, and after I said them I felt like a terrible parent. But luckily, instead of terrifying my little girl, my comment prompted her to reply, “I don’t want you to hurt me. I just want you to love me.”
It’s no coincidence that she and I have the same desire. And I realize there could be serious fall-out from spanking that I’m not considering. But, every once in a while, I can’t help but think that it might keep me from getting as crazy as I sometimes do. And maybe if she knew the threat was real, I could just lift my hand in an ominous gesture – and not have to do anything at all.