Spanking is one of those controversial topics that just won’t go away. Those in favor of spanking argue that it does no harm, that it teaches respect, that spanking was allowed in previous generations and no one was permanently scarred by it. And, of course, others are encouraged by what they believe is the Biblical admonition that if we “spare the rod, we spoil the child.”
Never mind that the last justification for hitting children is not in the Bible. Regardless of which version of Proverbs 13:24 you prefer, in one form or another, the verses mention something about rods and discipline. But the word “discipline” does not necessarily mean punishment. It also means knowledge or understanding. For example, college students study the discipline of psychology, or history, or science. A discipline is a body of knowledge that is taught, handed down if you will to the next generation. Likewise, rod is just as easily translated into “staff,” the kind of thing a shepherd uses to guide the sheep and to protect them from attackers. It is doubtful that the Proverb was ever meant to sanction hitting children. It’s just hard to imagine that any God would encourage us to hit our children. Guide them, yes; teach them, yes; protect them, yes. But hit them? It’s hard to imagine any God arguing that one.
This topic came up again as I was recently reading an article in Psychology Today entitled The Culture of Spanking: Four Ways to Think it Through. The thing that I found especially compelling about this article is that it was written by Ms. Lynne Maureen Hurdle, an African-American woman. The significance of that is that in over 30 years of teaching college courses in which spanking was a topic, I found the most compelling arguments FOR spanking coming from students of color who were convinced that “a pop on the behind” was a necessary part of teaching children to know their place, to know exactly where the boundaries are, to know that no means no, and to know that you will behave in public. The long-term effects of such an approach may not be good; but I have to admit that it is impressive to watch a mother issue a warning and the nonsense stops. It is interesting to note that Ms. Hurdle’s series of articles in Psychology Today are under the broad title of “Breaking Culture,” which fits with my experiences as a professor.
So I was particularly interested in what this African-American woman was going to say after she admitted that she “felt the impulse to pop him upside his head just to stop the nonsense” (“stop the nonsense” is code for I don’t approve of your behavior and you better agree with me on this). This impulse to hit her son alarmed her, because she and her husband had decided even before her son was born that they would not resort to spanking. And yet, despite more than 15 years of not spanking, she still felt the urge to “pop him upside the head.”
This impulse to hit troubled her. Why after so many years did she still feel the urge to hit a child she loved, a child she had never struck in his life, or, to paraphrase her, a child who wouldn’t know a spanking if it came up and shook his hand. As a trained professional and consultant, she knew that the United States is a spanking culture. Americans of every cultural group and every generation support spanking as a form of discipline; more than 65% of Americans approve of spanking children, a rate that has held steady for almost 30 years.
Like so many other Americans, she had been raised in a home where spankings and “whuppings” were routinely used to teach what was acceptable and what was not acceptable. She knew it had left no permanent scars. Nevertheless, she and her husband made the conscious decision that they would not hit their children. Although it was a challenge to break the culture of spanking, she has also learned that it is “rewarding to raise healthy, respectful, smart, assertive, argumentative and widely loved young Black men without resorting to spanking.”
For Ms. Hurdle, a crucial part of the challenge of rejecting spanking is what do you put in its place, what are the alternatives to spanking? At the end of the article, she shares these alternatives with us:
Stop and Think. Why are you raising your hand to them? What are you trying to stop and why? The answer is often in your feelings. Disrespect and fear often sit together when our children behave in ways that we don’t like, but we often focus on feeling disrespected rather than being afraid.
Ask yourself if this is a learned reaction rather than the best response you can give in this situation. Are you just repeating what was done to you without any thought as to what you are actually teaching your children by hitting them?
Ask yourself “why do I want to shut down my child rather than open them up to communicating with me?” “Am I listening to them and do I understand what they are saying about why they are making the choices they are making?”
Stretch yourself. Listen underneath the words. Tune in to the feelings coming up for you and acknowledge that they may be getting in the way of you making the best choices.
You can read Ms. Hurdle’s article here.
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