Spanking and Me

When it comes to discipline, spanking has become sort of like quicksand to me. My own particular quicksand. 

I almost never spank my children anymore. I’ll make the rare exception for things that are truly dangerous, things that they must learn right this second to never do again, like wandering out into the street or sticking a fork in the VCR. But for behavioral issues, spanking has become a place that I can’t go. 
I haven’t talked about this much on my blog because the whole spanking debate in the mommy blogosphere is wholly out of control. There are two camps who are vehement either in defense of spanking or in condemnation of it, and I have never found anyone who, like me, falls somewhere in the middle. 
I definitely don’t believe this:
And while I absolutely believe that the earth would be a more peaceful place if our families were more stable and loving, I don’t believe for a second that spanking children always causes children to grow up violent.
But I do believe that it can. 
I have trouble remaining emotionally detached while spanking my children. Actually, I am prone to anger and angry outbursts generally, and have found that if I give myself license to spank my children, I almost always revert to spanking every time I’m angry. Before I put the moratorium on spanking as far as I’m concerned, I pretty much had no standard of discipline. The children got punished more or less severely not depending on the severity of what they had done, but depending on how angry it made me. 
The Ogre is much better with his emotions. He spanks the children in direct response to the malicious intent of their actions. Let’s say that Sienna took a toy from Charlotte and Charlotte responded by hitting. In that case, the kids would probably both get time-outs. But if Sienna was playing quietly and Charlotte walked up to her and started hitting her over the head for no reason, Charlotte might get a spanking. 
The thing that will definitely earn the kids a spanking from the Ogre is disrespect. Sticking at tongue out, rolling eyes, playing one of us against the other…those are pretty much the worst things a kid can do in our house. If the Ogre’s in charge, spanking is usually the punishment. If I’m in charge, the kids usually lose dessert, a movie, or, in rare and serious cases, will be sent to bed without dinner at all. 
The reason I bring all this up is that the other day, my mother asked me what time-outs actually accomplish. My parents aren’t big on time-outs; they raised us according to Dr. Dobson’s The Strong-Willed Child, a book I took many good things from but which I disagree with on some serious fundamental levels. 
I wasn’t really sure what to tell her, but I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that a time-out does exactly what it promises to do. It removes the child from the situation. The child goes from a time of play to a time of quiet. The intent, of course, is for the child to consider why they’re in time-out and make restitution for it, but usually the child spends the time feeling victimized and whining. 
But it occurred to me that I actually use time-outs for a different purpose. As I said before, I tend to react angrily. Time-outs give me a chance to remove the child not only from the situation, but also from me. It gives me a chance to catch my breath, consider what they’ve done, think of the right words to convey to them the gravity (or just plain stupidity) of their actions, and come up with an appropriate punishment if one is needed. It’s rare that the time-out itself is a punishment. Usually the punishment comes after, and sometimes the punishment depends on what the child has to say for him or herself after the time-out. 
However, I don’t always use the time-outs that wisely. Sometimes I put them in time-out because they’re all yelling and I don’t want to sort out what happened, I just want them all to be quiet. Sometimes I put them in time-out and then get distracted by the internet or another child or a phone call, and when I return to the banished child I can’t remember why I put them in time-out in the first place. Sometimes I put them in time-out and completely forget that I put them there at all, and then feel terrible twenty minutes later when I ask them why they’re just sitting there and they respond, “because, because, because…I sowwy, Mommy.” 
So I’ve been wondering these last few days if time-outs are actually effective or not. They do always at least stop what is happening, which is an advantage. And yet some children, like Charlotte, will deliberately hit someone for no reason at all and then bounce happily into time-out, quite content to watch everyone else and sit there alone. And as soon as she gets out, she repeats the process. She doesn’t even bother to wait until I’m not looking. She knows the punishment, and as far as I can tell seems to feel that hitting someone else is worth whatever comes. If I change tactics and take away a toy or a movie, she responds by hitting everyone in sight as many times as possible. 
I know that I personally can’t return to spanking my kids. And again, it’s not because I disagree with spanking fundamentally. But I do think that if a parent spanks a child out of anger, the line between spanking and child abuse blurs. I don’t have enough control of my emotions to spank without anger, so spanking is out for me. 
So what’s a mother to do? When time-out seems ineffective, taking away privileges and toys seems to exacerbate the problem instead of correcting it, and the child is too young to be capable of punishments like extended quiet times, being sent to bed without dinner, or copying lines, what do you do?

  • Dwija {House Unseen}

    A time out is only effective if the child has lost the ability to control his or her behavior/emotions. It is exactly what you described…an opportunity to remove him or her or you from the situation and regain control.It is NOT a punishment. If a child does something intentionally and with control, a time-out is completely useless.If one of my kids is disrespectful to another child, the route I usually go is service. The offending child has to serve the child who was offended. Because the GOAL isn't punishment, per se. The goal is to get them to not perform the action anymore. Service a) encourages them to see the other sibling as someone worthy of respect and b) might be annoying enough that they stop being disrespectful to them.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for posting this. I have been struggling with this for the past couple of months myself and wondering if I was alone. I look forward to the responses. Thanks for always being so honest!

  • Melanie B

    I'm like you. Not fundamentally opposed to spanking; but finding that once I allow myself an opening I find myself spanking in anger not based on the actual infractions but based on my mood. Justice goes out the window first and then mercy and compassion. I don't think I'm doing irreparable harm to my children by spanking them; but neither do I think I'm necessarily being an effective disciplinarian.To my mind time outs are effective when someone needs a break to cool down: a hysterical child needs time to cool off, two combatants need to be separated until they can calm down enough to reconcile their differences, I need to calm down until I can think of how best to manage a situation, etc. I don't think it's an effective punishment. But then I'm trying to move away from thinking so much in terms of crime and punishment and more toward training and habit formation. How do I teach them better ways of reconciling their differences, expressing their anger, frustration, or annoyance? I don't have all the answers but I'm searching and praying.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I've not had to deal with this yet, but knowing myself as I do, I will probably not spank, but only because I am a hot head and I know I would abuse it. I often need time outs myself. I don't know what I'm going to do for discipline when the time comes. God help me!

  • Eve

    I totally agree about middle ground! Just a thought, but if Charlotte has an introvert personality (I mean that technically, in that she gets refreshment from being alone, not in the common use of the word, as in "shy"), she might actually be happy to be in time-out because she is alone. Kate Wicker posted a little while back about her second daughter hitting her sister b/c she was invading her alone time… if something similar is true for Charlotte, then time-outs might be good in the sense that she *gets* to be alone, and she needs that space, but not in the sense of being an effective punishment.

  • Smoochagator

    Oh, Calah, I love you so much for being so honest. I lean more towards the spanking-is-always-wrong camp, partly because I know that I, too, can lash out in anger and I need boundaries to help me control my emotions.I wish I had some other answers and encouragement for you, but my only little one is Liam's age, so like you I'll be reading the other comments looking for wisdom :-)

  • Anonymous

    I lean toward not spanking. My husband was spanked the "good" way (sent to his room first, then heard an explanation of why, then spanked not in anger), except for one time when his dad was really angry. I was not, and I've always shied away from physical punishment because of that. I remember being flinchy and afraid when my dad reached near me, if he was remotely upset at anyone or anything. Our oldest is very compliant, but our middle son — he would've been spanked every day if we chose to use it as a primary discipline tool! And our third child is adopted (as our 4th will be), so we don't spank her. We don't know what was done to her before she came into our family, so we err on the side of not spanking her.We have used timeouts, and mostly tried to use natural consequences (i.e. if you use a toy to hit your brother, the toy goes on top of the fridge for a day/week/we give it away, depending on how much they need to learn the lesson. Same for reading a book after lights out. If they put up a fight about wearing their coat, I let them go without in Nov., so they learn that they will be cold, and I don't have to fight with them in January. If they stall and delay at bedtime, they go to bed earlier the next night.)Also, if a child is enraged after discipline, we refuse the next few things that they want to do and remind them why. Favorite shirts, stuffed animals, movie time, etc. are all refused after really bad misbehavior. Or if we were going to take everyone out for hamburgers, the egregiously disobedient child brings a sandwich from home instead. (I am pretty harsh when they have a tantrum about their consequence on top of whatever they already did to earn it!)I read the Love & Logic book for preschoolers, and the one for older kids, and got a lot of good ideas. I don't always care for their particular wording because I don't talk that way normally, but I love their emphasis on having empathy and teaching your child to consider likely outcomes on their own. They are truly interested in *teaching* kids to make good decisions for a lifetime, and that is what most of us hope for!Nancy

  • gillineau

    After thinking about this post for a few days, I think I finally figured out what makes me reticent to make decisions about how I do discipline in general…and why I have always at the back of my mind some advise a friend of mine offered when I was first thinking about how to go about disciplining my children, or educating them, as it might be translated. She asked me, 'Everyone talks about consistency. Why would you want to be consistent? What if you're consistently wrong?' I felt so freed by that. Each interaction is so individual. Within reason, I don't rule anything out, but try to act right in the particular situation.I think my unease with discipline-conversations stems from my disagreement with the moral paradigm within which these conversations are always held. They are almost invariably based on a consequentialist* view morality, ie, x is right or wrong because it causes y. If you behave badly you will cause yourself to be meted out some punishment. Ergo, your bad behavior is wrong because it causes punishment. NO! Your bad behavior is bad in itself. Badness does have bad consequences, inevitably, but those consequences aren't why bad actions are bad. They are bad because they offend goodness, because they are the opposite of good.I think it was St Philip Neri who said something like, go and do whatever you want to do, just do not sin.Though I can't really say what I actually, practically, do in any general way, I do have general goals in disciplining. I want to encourage goodness for it's own sake, and individual virtues, like courage or altruism or what you will. I don't want to scandalize my children, to anger them with punishment. I don't want to make rules for behavior so much as rules for being. Of course I do fail miserably continuously, and there is nothing worse than failing in this department for guilt.This may come across as splitting hairs, but I think the stand against consequentialist ethics is very important for Catholics. I suggest reading Elizabeth Anscombe's Modern Moral Philosophy if you feel up for it.And hello to Caleh! This is my first comment on your blog. I'm an avid reader and actually pray for you, which feels strange to me–like praying for a heroine in a novel. You're actually real, aren't you?Love from Jackie, mother of Petra, 4 1/2, Josephine, nearly 3, and Sophia, 1, and wife to a budding academic.

  • Jennifer Hoitsma

    I’ve been enjoying your blog, Calah! I understand the difficulties you may have experienced with both ends of the discipline spectrum. Gentle parenting techniques can be useless at times, but the same is true for spanking and other harsh punishments. To keep this short, let me just recommend a couple of sources for excellent advice about discipline: Janet Lansbury has a website and she is also on Facebook. Also check out Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting. They both are advocates for gentle parenting, but with authority. Their articles give specific ways to handle specific situations. The parents must be in charge, but they describe ways to maintain authority while fostering connection with your child. No spanking, no time-outs, etc. But they do NOT suggest that you merely distract or do other such nonsense to get the child to behave. Another good book is Parenting for Peace by Marcy Axness. I’d be happy to share more or communicate more via email if you like. And my apologies if you already know about these sites! Best of luck!