Yesterday, I wrote about an article in Time Magazine’s online parenting section written by Focus on the Family’s Jared Pingleton. In that article Pingleton addressed the Adrian Peterson child abuse controversy. My main argument in my own post was that by misunderstanding the dynamics of abuse, Pingleton both erased abusers and reinforced abusers’ justifications for their actions.
Today I want to address the rest of Pingleton’s article—namely, his advice on how to properly apply corporal punishment. In this post, I will speak from my past experience as a child and my present experience as a parent.
For example, there’s this from Pingleton:
Properly understood and administered, spanking is most effective as a deterrent to undesirable behavior for younger preschoolers (but never for infants). That’s because reasoning and taking away privileges often simply don’t work with kids in that age range.
I have two children. My oldest is now five, and my younger one is two. I gave up spanking entirely when my older child was a baby, and haven’t spanked either of them since. I have never—and I do mean never—had an occasion where spanking was called for. I have always—and I do mean always—been able to find gentler and more effective means of teaching and guiding children of this age. Yes, I realize I am just one person, but there are others who share my experience. Pingleton is wrong in arguing that younger preschoolers must be hit in order to learn proper behavior. Hitting is not in fact the only thing that gets through to younger preschoolers.
Pingleton goes on to give some guidelines for appropriate corporal punishment. As I noted yesterday, he says that it should only be used in “cases of willful disobedience or defiance of authority,” and that “a child should always receive a clear warning” first and understand why they are being punished. The “spanking” should take place in a private area and should be “lovingly administered.” It should never be administered “harshly, impulsively, or with the potential to cause physical harm.” Afterwards, the child should be told once again why they were punished. All of this my parents practiced, and yet, as I will explain, my experience with corporal punishment was still profoundly negative.
Next Pingleton attempts to play around with words and their meanings:
[A]s with all forms of correction, the concepts of punishment and discipline are absolute opposites. Punishment is motivated by anger, focuses on the past, and results in either compliance (due to fear) or rebellion and feelings of shame, guilt and/or hostility. On the other hand, discipline is motivated by love for the child, focuses on the future, and results in obedience and feelings of security.
This distinction is surreal. My parents never punished in anger or focused on the past (which I assume means constantly bringing up past transgressions). They were always motivated by love and focused on the future (which I assume means trying to ensure that I would learn to behave properly going forward). And yet, even though they were motivated by love and focused on the future and I knew that, the “spankings” I received still resulted in “feelings of shame, guilt and/or hostility” rather than “feelings of security.”
I was talking to a friend the other day, noting that what I remember most about these “spankings” was the feeling of absolute humiliation. I cannot find words to say how utterly humiliating being “spanked” was. I would beg my mother not to, promise her that I had learned my lesson and would not repeat the undesirable behavior, that I would do anything, write sentences, spent the afternoon on my bed, do extra chores, anything in place of being “spanked”, but to no avail. There were no “feelings of security” involved whatsoever.
And what exactly is the difference between “compliance (due to fear)” and “obedience”? I obeyed because I knew I would be “spanked” if I did not. I assume Pingleton would call this “compliance (due to fear)” rather than simple “obedience.” But if that is the case, the only way to obtain actual “obedience” is to make sure there is nothing to fear in disobedience—i.e., to not practice spanking (or, indeed, punishment at all). I mean, isn’t that is the entire point of “spanking” a child? The idea is to make sure they won’t do whatever it is you don’t want them to do by making it clear that if they do it, you will cause them physical pain. In other words, the entire premise of “spanking” is to wield that fear to get the child to do what you want them to do. Otherwise, why “spank”? This makes Pingleton’s distinction completely meaningless.
Pingleton may think his dichotomy between “punishment” and “discipline” is oh so clever, but as someone who was on the receiving end of what he advocates here as a child, I have to say, his dichotomy makes no sense. Again—my parents did it all correctly. They followed all the rules. They “spanked” in private, only for disobedience, always lovingly, never angrily, and so forth. In Pingleton’s world, this should have meant that I experienced “feelings of security” rather than “feelings of shame, guilt and/or hostility.” It didn’t. I never found corporal punishment anything but humiliating and degrading.
Pingleton goes on:
[T]he term discipline derives from the root word “disciple” which means “to teach.” Parents have an ongoing opportunity and responsibility to teach our children how to love well and live life as effectively and healthfully as possible.
Positive parenting and gentle discipline practices have enabled me to teach my children “to love well and live life” much more effectively and healthfully than anything corporal punishment ever did for me. By eliminating corporal punishment and other punitive practices, I have found myself able to focus instead on teaching my children, and on learning right alongside them. This has enabled our relationships to be cooperative and positive. My husband and I are their guides as they grow, and they understand that and respect and trust us.
In other words, I agree with Pingleton that parents have a responsibility to teach their children the skills necessary to navigate the world around them, but I disagree that corporal punishment is an effective or useful way to do this.
Pingleton adds this:
Many parents today view themselves primarily as their child’s friend and recoil at the idea of administering discipline. Children, though, desperately need their parents’ love and affirmation as well as their authoritative guidance and correction. Disciplining our sons and daughters is part of the tough work of parenting, but it will pay big dividends in the long run.
The author of the Bible’s book of Hebrews writes, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11, HCSB).
I feel like Pingleton is playing fast and loose with words here. It is true that there are some parents who don’t make an effort to teach their children and prepare them for life. But “disciplined” as defined here—as teaching children—need not involve either corporal punishment or even punitive practices in general. I am absolutely dedicated in teaching my children and helping them learn to navigate the social norms of our society, but that has so far involved very little in the way of either punishment or pain—and it doesn’t have to. Parents can teach their children these things in positive, gentle, and cooperative ways.
I am perturbed with this fascination with outlining the “right” way to use corporal punishment and then promising parents sunshine and butterflies if they correctly implement it, because my parents did it the “right” way and there were no sunshine or butterflies to be found. I don’t think there is a “right” way to do corporal punishment. Of course, the problem isn’t simply corporal punishment. The problem is also an oppositional style of parenting, which places the parents against the children in some sort of battle for control and sees children as creatures to be subdued.
As I finish this post, I’m sitting here looking at my daughter Sally, who is drinking one last cup of water before getting ready for bed. She’s curious, and happy, and compassionate. She never ceases to surprise me—in a good way. I’m so, so glad that our relationship is cooperative and natural rather than dictatorial or forced.
Parenting is hard, yes, but it doesn’t have to be a battle.