Last Monday The New York Times published an article about a minister who advocates corporal discipline for children. His belief is that “sparing the rod spoils the child.” He and his wife have written a book about their theories of child management and the book has been well received by many people.
Unfortunately a few ideas from the book have been taken to extremes and two children have died as a result of their parents’ attempts to “discipline” them. The reverend states that he did not mean for parents to go to extremes in corporal punishment. I am sure he didn’t, but some questions remain unanswered. Does sparing the rod spoil the child? Is physical punishment a positive way to teach children discipline and good values? Last, but far from least, is physical punishment for children coming back into vogue after years of being considered (in most circles) unacceptable?
Let’s look at how psychology views these questions.
Hitting is negative attention but it positively reinforces behaviors. In other words, hitting reinforces the very behavior which the parent is trying to extinguish. It doesn’t work as a child management technique.
The NY Times quoted the minister as saying that parents need to impart their values to their children and corporal punishment for behaviors contrary to parental values will work to accomplish this goal. Is this true? No, it is not. Hitting doesn’t reinforce the values the parents wish to impart to children. If a child is hit they become angry at the parents and rebellious to the parent’s value system. Hitting insures that the children will metaphorically “leave” the parents.
It would be a huge step backward for our national culture and values if hitting children came back into vogue. I believe that the great majority of parents wish to do well by their children and many are confused as to how to proceed. It will be tragic if in their frustration and confusion they turn to hitting — a form of child management bound to fail if the goal is to rear adults who have good value systems and who reach their full potential.
Simply put, hitting children is abuse and abused children have two ways to integrate their experience. Some children will tell themselves that they must be “bad” or else the parent would not treat them in such a way. Other children will believe that they do not deserve the punishment and will become angry at the treatment they experience. The physically abused child grows up feeling angry and/or believing that he or she is a bad person. Neither of these scenarios works to create a happy and successful person. Our prisons are full of grown up children who experienced physical punishment in their early years.
Children struggle to make sense of the world. They intensely experience their emotions. They are philosophers—existentialists—-figuring out the world and their place in it. Children are like the sapling in a field full of large animals. The sapling needs a protective fence or it will be trampled by the animals. With protection the sapling will grow into a strong and healthy tree.
Children have slender shoulders and cannot be expected to bear the weight of a parent’s temper tantrum, which is what hitting usually amounts to. They cannot make choices for themselves but need to be guided to the correct choice. Parental guidance, not hitting, will help them to grow in values and moral judgment.
Discipline is an important aspect of rearing children. Children do experience discipline as love when it is administered in a gentle and kind manner. Yes, parents need to be in charge but being in charge never means being harsh. The parent who is in change appropriately is in control of their emotional reactions and sets boundaries without acting out themselves!
Parents who are in physiological balance and who are not experiencing undue stress find the task of parenting to be smoother than those who are out of balance and stressed. In our book Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way Sandra and I help readers to identify their state of balance or imbalance. We suggest interventions for the creation of balance.
The best thing parents can do for their children is to take care of themselves. If the parents are fully in tune with their emotions they will inevitably be aware of the futility of using the rod. In fact, the physiologically balanced parent will tune in with the child and develop awareness of how the child is affected by their words and actions. They will be able to develop effective limit setting techniques which help the child to grow in love and strong values. Hitting or other abuse should never be part of those techniques. The mature parent is aware of their emotions, processes them, and uses them as guides. Maturity means not acting out feelings and anyone who says that hitting children is not indicative of acting out anger is fooling themselves—-and trying to fool you!