When Can I Swat the Tot?


That’s the answer from the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics). ‘Course, these are the same hardliners who can’t just come out and say what they really think about circumcision. If you really managed to nail them down, I think they’d say circumcision is a medically useless. Most would say it’s somewhat barbaric and the practice is rooted in outdated cultural norms long abdicated by the rest of the developed world. Instead, they say they have “no recommendation for or against” the procedure, but that it isn’t terribly “medically necessary.” So I kinda think of them as softies who take the most expedient position on any hot topic. The Hilary Clinton of the medical world, if you will.

Thus, I’m a little dubious that their recommendations about spanking are just as expedient. Or maybe they just can’t appreciate the magnitude of what they’re actually recommending. When they say you shouldn’t spank a spoiled brat as he throws paint and smashes china, I immediately imagine just who comprises that “academy”. I see lots of gray hair. Kind faces. Serene smiles.

I see grandparents.

car.jpgIt’s hard to imagine that anyone who strongly says you shouldn’t spank your kid – they like to call it Corporeal Punishment, which sounds so much more severe and dire – has many kids. It’s easier to imagine that they had a single kid who was born with reading glasses, a 6th grade vocabulary and a keen interest in impressionist art. Then I imagine that their single kid grew up and miraculously managed to generate enough coital passion with someone of the opposite sex to birth, say, 5 kids.

Now suddenly grandparents, these ACPA’s (anti-Corporeal-Punishment-Advocates, I’ll call them) find themselves surrounded by the love and adulation of all the best that children have to offer: Grandkids are all smiles and no poop. Beautiful, creative…they like imagination and building blocks. They’re the future. Even if they disobey a little bit…hey, they’re just kids, right? Oh, look honey, time for the 4pm buffet at Shari’s, better move along just before dinner-time at the 15-ring circus (since each kid has 3 issues to deal with at all times). Oh, and don’t spank them, dear precocious daughter. That’s called Corporeal Punishment, and we never used it on you.

I grew up in fear of The Paddle. Spanking was routine in my world. Knowing I’d messed up big time, I once put on every pair of underwear I owned – and a couple pairs of my brother’s too – in anticipation of the big Swat…and it still hurt like mad when my backside met that inevitable swooshing wood. Did it keep me in line? I don’t know. All I know is that spankings were part of my life. They hurt. They ruined my day. But by the time I was in high school, I didn’t even have a curfew because I just sorta did what I was supposed to do all the time. My parents didn’t even worry about me.

The AAP held something called a “consensus conference” specifically on this issue (read their policy statement here). They concluded that the word discipline comes from the a root word that means to teach or instruct. Specifically, it refers to preparing children to achieve competence, self-control, self-direction and empathy. Sounds good, right? I think I got all that from The Paddle.

These AAP grandparents go on to say that every discipline “system” must contain 3 elements:

1.) learning environment that is positive and supportive between parents and kid,
2.) a strategy for teaching wanted behaviors – this is considered the “proactive” part, and
3.) another strategy for stopping crappy behaviors – that’s the “reactive” part.

When I think of those 3 things – again – El Paddle Grande comes to mind…hovering in my peripheral vision like a specter of Mother Mary Joseph, Stalin and Javert combined into one terrifying henchman.

Let’s be honest. Most parents have 1 and 2 figured out, or at least they usually aren’t asking their docs about those. They’re asking about #3. And here’s my personal – and I guess professional – opinion on the matter: The best way to address #3 – spank or no spank – is with consistency. While allowing for times when you actually are in error, in general, you have to follow through on what you say. Discipline should be loving, without anger, in control and cause no harm. And most of all, it should be consistent. Don’t say you’ll do something you have no intention of really doing, “Jimmie! If you swallow that slug, I’ll cram 50 more in your mouth and hold it shut ’till they’re crawling out of your eyes!”. Keep your threats small, realistic and fair. If the child merits the punishment, be extremely committed to following through on your threat.

I think AAP can’t advocate for corporeal punishment, because there are a tragic few parents out there that take the practice way beyond the bounds of normal. I also harbor the opinion that just about every parent gets some catharsis out of spanking their kid, which is why most parents regret how hard or how much they have spanked their child at some time in the past. I think the AAP theorizes that if spanking is not one of the options for parents, the potential for abuse or simple over-use is diminished or eliminated completely. Equally effective, they say, are strategies like being consistent, calm and firm and using punishments such as time-outs and removal of privileges. These approaches work just as well as the violent, corporeal approach employed, no doubt, by the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Charles Manson, had either of them ever managed to have kids and stick around to raise them.

Research says that more than 90% of parents spank their kids. And I think that easily 90% of that group have no intention or inclination to abuse their kids. But keep in mind that if a mark – other than just red skin – is left on a child after spanking, it is reportable to child protective services (read: a crime). A bruise of any kind is considered abuse. One report won’t get your kids taken away, but a few of them will.

scream1.jpgMany people in my church a few years back were influenced by a small book called “To Train Up A Child” by Michael and Debi Perle, which describes a religious-oriented approach to discipline that advocates very light spanking for any infraction. When used exactly as he prescribes, I can see how it might work. But most parents can’t stay in control of themselves all the time, and often end up spanking too hard, or too often. Better, then, say the grandparents at the AAP, to simply never spank.

Whether or not you agree with the “no-spanking” approach – which puts you in a 5% minority of parents – one thing most do agree on is that spoiled kids that don’t obey their parents are one of life’s singular annoyances. Furthermore, our nation in general is regarded by most other nations as one that won’t share, never wants to be “it” in tag, has to be first in line, wants the most toys and never wants to wait its turn. Could it be that part of our low standing in the world is a direct result of bad parenting?

Everyone can agree that a major component of good parenting is good discipline. The question is how it’s done. I think using controlled consistency – spank or no spank – is the secret.

One thought on “When Can I Swat the Tot?

  1. Anonymous

    How did doctors wind up as parenting experts, anyway? Is it because the average pediatrician has so little to do (medically) that he/she decides to dish out child-rearing advice? Pretty odd, considering how little of that is taught in medical school.


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