There's been an awful lot of talk lately about spanking kids. There has been one voice that has been suspiciously absent despite (what I know to be) a significant percentage of the population: progressive/liberal parents who spank their kids. Of course, you'll say, liberal/progressive minded people don't spank their kids! Bullshit. I know quite a few people who are incredibly modern in their parenting philosophy but still administer corporal punishment on occasion. Let me begin my story by sharing, at least historically, in your disbelief. Before I was a parent, even as I began my journey as a foster parent I was firmly in the "spankings are child abuse" camp. We had a foster parent class we attended and one of the fathers was absolutely in disbelief that you couldn't spank a foster kid. I was mortified - what was wrong with this psycho? "Just wait till you learn the proper parenting techniques," I thought to myself, " and thank goodness you're required to take this class!" As we continued our journey through the foster care system we had a lot of children come into our care. Some for very short periods of time (days) and others for many years. As a parent of more than 20 children I came to realize one thing that I think is too often ignored when talking about parenting; every kid needs their own unique kind of discipline. What works for one kid, and by works I mean helps that child become a happy, healthy, well-adjusted member of society, almost certainly does not work for another. Children have different life experiences, different personalities, different strengths, and different weaknesses. What I found during my time as a foster parent was that some of our modern, progressive ideas about parenting just don't work on some kids. As a foster parent, even with a long term placement, there were times we had to just come to the understanding that some kids were not going to respond to any of the techniques we had available to us. Writing sentences, extra homework, sitting in timeout, redirecting, standing in the corner, praise for good behavior, loss of privilege: you name it and we tried it. Well, we tried everything other than a spanking.
What really bothers me about what I'm seeing in media lately (what we always see in the media lately) is that we're presented with caricatures of parents that present this issue as some great divide separating two very different styles. One one side, you see the hippy-dippy parenting-magazine helicopter-parent that wants to have a heartfelt conversation with their child about why they shouldn't walk into a fire pit and then negotiate an experience that allows the child to learn right behavior based on their own feelings and personal experience. On the other side there's the 1950s-era alcoholic father who flies off the handle in a fit of rage as he channels Bill Cosby, "The beatings will now begin!" As usual this is a gross mischaracterization, in my opinion, that leaves normal people wondering which archetype they fall into. I'm here to tell you there is no archetype. We, parents, are just trying to do the best we can with the time, talents, and resources we have available to us.
I questioned a friend recently about the difference between assigning a child sentences to write, knowing that their hand would cramp and their butt would ache as they sat in a hard wooden chair struggling to complete them, and having a child bend over for a spanking. "Writing sentences isn't an act of violence," he responded. It makes me wonder how he imagines a spanking in my house goes down. I can only guess that he thinks I'm at my wits end (which I usually am, admittedly) and I rage-beat my kids because I can't think of anything else to do. Poor kids. That's not what happens at all. If you will indulge me, let me explain how discipline happens in my house. There are 5 children ranging from 3 to 12. When someone breaks a rule (and someone is always breaking a rule) they are forced to stand in front of me and look me in the eye and tell me what they did wrong. If they hit/touched/kicked/pulled hair/smacked/bumped into/tripped (You have no idea how long this list goes on unless you are a parent) another kid then they both have to come stand in front of me and they both get to share their side of the story. Most of the time they have to apologize and hug each other and we move on with our day. Sometimes they won't apologize. Sometimes they aren't sorry. Sometimes they won't come tell me what happened. Sometimes they do it over and over and over again. Sometimes I get a call from their teacher. The law of the land is telling the truth. You can do anything you want in our house as long as you're willing to fess up to it and suffer the consequences.
Most of the time the consequence is sitting in timeout. Sometimes it's cleaning up a mess, sometimes it's losing a favorite toy or a privilege like watching TV. Sometimes, very rarely, it's bad enough that they have to write sentences (à la Bart Simpson) or get grounded to their room. We run a tight ship in our household, you have to with 5 kids. Discipline is handled fairly (in my opinion) and quickly. Different kids react differently to different consequences. One of the twins melts down like it's the end of the world if they have to stand in the corner, the other could care less and would stand there for hours. Take her iPad time away, however, and she falls apart. The 12 year old breaks down in tears anytime she does anything wrong and oftentimes just having to admit she did something that was against the rules is enough to set her straight. Sometimes she loses her iPod for a few days. The 3 year old (my only boy) gets sent to bed because, honestly, he usually only does something wrong when he's too tired. He hates going to bed more than anything in the world. The 9 year old, however, is a soldier with few weaknesses. She can sit in timeout for 5 hours a day for weeks on end and she won't cave - no apologies or admission of guilt. She once sat in timeout for hours scratching HER OWN NAME into the banister of the staircase and her only response was to scratch up the side of the piano. Over the years we've tried rewarding her, praising her, shaming her (yes, I'm not proud), taking away privileges, assigning her task - I can't even remember all of the techniques we tried on this kid. But the fact of the matter is she is a very difficult child.
Some kids are easy, for the most part, and some kids are difficult. My 9 year old has an excuse - she was abandoned to the foster care system at a very early age and has deep scars from the experience. I don't blame her for being difficult - my job isn't to judge her. My job is to do everything I can to help her grow into a successful member of society and to help her become the bright and shining star that I know she has the potential to be. You know what we found worked wonders for this kid? Getting spanked. After we adopted her we decided to try spanking her when she lied to us (her biggest problem was lying and that's the only thing that warrants a spanking in our house). Can I tell you something? Spanking this kid changed her life. You wouldn't recognize her if you had known her before. That's just what it took to get through to her. Well, that's what it took for us to get through to her - there may have been other techniques; something may have eventually worked. Unfortunately she has to share our parenting time with 4 other kids. It sucks to say that but at the end of the day you play with the cards you're dealt.
So here's how you get spanked in my house. You lie. Repeatedly. You get caught and you're given a chance to fess up. You're confronted with the evidence but you still lie. Sometimes it's even as blunt as, "I know you did XYZ. I'm going to have to spank you if you don't admit to doing it." Still they lie. so we sit down and I explain that in our house we don't lie to each other. I ask them if they know what happens when they lie. They know. It's inexplicable that they can see a spanking coming and they still hang on to the lie. I can't tell you how often I second guess myself, "are they really lying? Who would hang onto it this long?" But I can't back down; the rules are the rules. They're asked to lay down over my knees and I ask them one last time if they're sure they don't want to tell the truth. They're usually already crying at this point and most of the time I start to cry a little too. Three or four swats on their bottom and its over. I once worried about how hard I smacked them but then I realized that it had nothing to do with how it felt physically. The discipline was emotional. It was embarrassing for them, most of the time, and they often felt like they disappointed me. Its no different, in my opinion, than writing sentences or sitting alone in a quiet bedroom. There's a sharp sting instead of a cramped hand but they both get filed away as a "very bad thing" and for the most part it pretty well serves to stop things dead in their tracks. My 9 year old got to the point where she would ask if she could just get a spanking instead of writing sentences; sometimes I even agreed because, frankly, it is exhausting watching someone write sentences for hours at a time. I should add that most of my children have never been spanked and I haven't spanked anyone in years.
This is terribly long and I'm sure no one is still reading but let me just address one last point. My friend, the one that described my spankings as an act of violence, posted a quote from a recent CNN article, "The only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child." It's a great attention grabbing line and, sort of, accurate. My response is, "so what." The only person who you can legally strip naked and throw in a bathtub is a child too. You're pretty much only allowed to wipe shit off of one person's butt in this country too. There's also only one person you're legally responsible for in this country - your child. You're responsible for keeping them from getting run over by a car, for avoiding a fire pit, for getting fed, for taking a bath, for not having shit on their ass, and for not robbing, assaulting, or violating another person. Kids are different than everyone else because you're legally and morally responsible for everything that happens to them and everything they do. So yeah, you're legally allowed to "hit" your own kid (hyperbole aside) in order to help raise them the best way you see fit. There are rules about how hard you can hit and what happens to you if you hurt them. Adrian Peterson? He's probably a child abuser. Because he took a switch to his kid? No; because he wounded him and left marks of violence. That's illegal no matter what your opinion is of spanking. Calling anyone who spanks their child an abuser is no different than calling a woman who has an abortion a murderer. It's unnecessary and not fitting for the level of discourse we should expect in this country.
The link to the CNN article: