How Not to Spank

I understand that this is a controversial issue. I understand that my parenting circumstances, like my Knucklehead, are mine and mine alone. As in all parenting issues, take from this what you can. Discard what you can’t. This is how one dad handled discipline.

The short answer to why I never spanked: I just didn’t like the idea of it. It’s not me. My personal reasons, which I’m sure won’t be new to you no matter which side of this hot-button issue you fall on, are as follows:

  • Punishment should teach. And all spanking really teaches a child is that the bigger person gets to make the rules. Nothing about why those rules are there.
  • It doesn’t really match any crime. Maybe if your kid hit someone else, but then we’re back to the biggest person getting the final say.
  • It feels less like justice than it does revenge.
  • If it’s done in a timely manner, you run the risk of letting your anger guide your hand. If you’re spanking, you’re probably pissed at your kid. If you wait until you’re not pissed, you’ve missed a timely response to the deed. And if you don’t want to spank your kid when you’re not pissed, I don’t think you should be doing it in the first place.
  • I don’t think it works. I think reason, in the long term, is more effective than fear.
  • I think it means you’ve lost control as a parent. You let a situation outwit you.
  • I don’t like to hit.

If you’re still reading at this point, you’re probably either nodding along in agreement, or shaking your head at how liberals are wrecking this country. It doesn’t matter to me; either way you’re entitled to know how I disciplined my child, seeing as how I brought up the topic. After all, I have removed a rather hefty tool from the box. What’s left in there?

Well, nothing, really. Because discipline is a little more complicated an idea than a simple toolbox analogy can help us with.

We tend to think of discipline as a range of punishments for bad behavior. We threaten, we yell, we ground, we take away toys or privileges. We spank. We wait until the bad behavior surfaces, and then we pounce. Whack-A-Mole.

Sometimes, it’s really that simple. Your knucklehead breaks a rule, the punishment, communicated in advance, is meted out. Promise made, promise kept.

But punishment for bad behavior isn’t the entirety of discipline; I don’t think it’s even the biggest part. To me, discipline is communication. It’s feedback. It’s continuously making your child aware of how his behavior is affecting those around him. How her actions are being received by those around her. It’s the positive, the negative, and the neutral. It’s a constant process of letting your child know which behaviors will advance their standing in this world, and which will not.

* * *

But before we get into that, it’s worth examining why we want our children to behave well in public, or to follow our rules in general. To us it’s self-evident, but to a kid, things may not be that clear. These rules we throw at them can seem like pretty arbitrary things to a young mind. “Daddy just wants me to do this because he’s the boss.” “Mommy just wants to show off how well-behaved I am.” That might be what your knucklehead is thinking of your rules whether it’s true or not, and you’ll never know it because they’re not able to articulate it to themselves, much less to you. It doesn’t hurt to let your kid know why this is such a big deal to you.

I would tell Knucks that rules generally fell into two categories. One was safety rules; the rules that were designed to keep him and people around him from getting hurt. Hold hands while crossing the street, don’t pet strange dogs without asking the owner, no football in the house. That kind of thing. Other rules were social rules; the rules that would make him less rude/mean/obnoxious in public. “These rules are important,” I would tell my kid, “because I love being out and around with you, and these rules help make those trips possible. If a kid throws tantrums in public, that is not a kid that people want to be around. That kid is not going to be invited places. Especially not cool or unusual places. The kid who shows people he knows how to handle a situation outside the house is a kid other people don’t mind being around. Knowing how to behave means you get to do more things and go more places than kids who can’t keep it together. It’s really that simple.”

It helps to get your kid a little invested in good behavior. If your child thinks you just like to watch him jump through hoops, he’s not going to personally care about keeping it together. If he knows there’s a decent reason behind the rules, even if he doesn’t understand what the reason is, he’ll be more willing to take you on faith. Let your knucklehead know from time to time why decent behavior is something it’s to his advantage to pursue. And you don’t have to follow the toddler down the rabbit hole of “Why? Why? Why?” Give them an honest reason in the simplest terms you know, and if they’re not satisfied with that, just tell them, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to explain it any better than that. That’s all I can tell you right now.”

* * *

Half the battle in disciplining The Knucklehead was heading off problems before they could turn into catastrophes. Part of why I didn’t have to spank was because there were few times that behavior reached a level that might call for that. Whenever possible, it helps to try to look at the world from a child’s point of view. Let’s say you have to run errands and you’re bringing your young knucklehead along with you. The adult world can be fertile ground for tantrums and meltdowns. Before you go out, consider the following:

What behavior is expected while we’re out? Seems obvious, but I never went anywhere with the young Knucklehead without reviewing the behavioral expectations. Indoor voices. Use words to express yourself. Practice manners. No wandering off. I wouldn’t lecture, I wouldn’t threaten or cajole. Just a quick rundown of the rules we already knew, in a manner that assumed Knucks was on board as well.

What are we doing? Let your child know what the itinerary is, and stick to it. Checking off your stops as you go is a better way for the young child to mark time than by the clock. “We’re going to the Post Office for stamps and to mail a package, then to the bank to deposit some checks, then to the supermarket.” I would never include more than three stops (four, if one was fun, like lunch or an ice cream out), and never more than three hours out, total. If you’re going to ask your kid to be on his best behavior, he needs to know that he won’t have to keep it up indefinitely. Incidentally, when going to the supermarket, always have a list. That way, when your kid sees the candy, you can say, “I’m sorry, it’s not on the list.”* Also, as you cross items off the list, it helps your kid get a visual on how many more items to go until you’re out of there.

When/how can I blow off steam? Indoor voices can be taxing on some kids. Can we belt out some songs in the car between stops? Can we race down the sidewalk hand-in-hand to blow off some energy on the way to the bank? Where are the spots in our outing where a kid can act like a kid?

What’s in it for me? Where do I get to have some input? How can I get involved? Maybe it’s letting your kid pick out the stamps at the post office. Maybe you write “frozen vegetables” on the shopping list and let your child pick which one, or even write “apples OR grapes” for the child to choose between. Simple choices between two alternatives can make a child feel like she has some control. “Should we go to the bank first or the post office?” “You’re in charge of lunch: the diner or the Chinese buffet place?” Maybe your kid can be in charge of the radio station or CDs in the car as you’re out and about.

Model the behavior you want to see from your kid. Chat with your child, who’s your companion for the day. Be attentive to him. Be courteous to cashiers, waitresses, and tellers. Smile. Smile at strangers. Greet people. I still tell total strangers, “Nice hat,” when I see someone in a Red Sox cap. Hold the door. Help an elderly person with their cart. Let someone with a couple items in front of you. Throw a quarter in a random parking meter as you walk by. Demonstrate to your child the contributions an ordinary citizen can make to the world around them. Let them note the reactions friendly behavior elicits from people.

Help your child deal with frustration they can’t see coming. Kids are still learning how to monitor their own feelings and emotions. They don’t know how to spot the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown. This is where you can help. At the supermarket one day, I noticed The Knucklehead becoming increasingly antsy and oppositional. I tried engaging him, asking for his input on the shopping, and though no rules were being broken yet, I saw the storm clouds on the horizon. So we pulled the cart to the side, sat down under the lobster tanks, and had a man-to-man conversation:

“What’s going on?” I asked him, “This isn’t like you. You seem grumpy. What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know.” The standard kid response. And honest – he doesn’t know.

“You seem like you’re done with shopping. You look like you’d rather be at home.”

“I guess.”

“If you were home right now, what would you want to do?”

“Play with my dinosaurs.”

Bingo. The dinosaurs were a new toy, something he clearly had his mind on. And we had been out for quite a while, pushing the 3-hour mark I tried to stick to.

“I get it. This has been a long afternoon. I’m ready to crash a little, too. Look, here’s the grocery list. I think I can knock this, this and this off the list – I can always get those later. That leaves us with the milk, eggs, cheese, and frozen corn. If we can cut it down to those four things, I think we can hit the checkout pretty quick. How about we take a breath? Refocus? Grab those last things then get home? You can hit the dinosaurs, and I can pop in that new CD I like?”

A sigh, a smile. “OK.”

And he relaxed, and the crabbiness melted away. He didn’t know he was getting grouchy, so I helped him identify his feelings. I let him know those feelings were OK. We negotiated. I gave him a little say in the matter. I helped him off the track that led to the meltdown, something he might not have known how to prevent on his own. I showed him how to stop and do a self-diagnostic. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

But if not…

Be ready to bail, at a moment’s notice. Do not let the errand take precedence over your child’s behavior. If your child isn’t living up to his end of the bargain, the outing ends immediately. Once, when The Knucklehead was still in the testing phase of toddlerhood, he had a full-blown meltdown at the supermarket (odd how much that place can be a crucible of parenting). Maybe I didn’t catch the signs in time, maybe it was just one of those episodes that are going to come up no matter what you do. In any case, I picked him up, we left a shopping cart half-filled with food right in the middle of the aisle, and went straight to the car. I felt bad for the employees at Giant that were going to have to re-shelve the items, but I figured society at large would thank me later. Knucks was stunned. “We’re going home,” I told him, “we’ll try again tomorrow.” “I’ll be good, we can go back,” Knucks said. “Nope. We tried, we’re done for today.” Since part of our dinner that night was left behind in the shopping cart, we had peanut butter and jelly instead of the stir-fry I was planning on making. None of this works if your kid isn’t convinced you’ll follow through on your word, just as you would with a reward.

Anger is not a crime. Crabbiness is not a crime. These are normal, healthy emotions we all experience. Don’t punish your kid for being in a bad mood; instead help him to recognize his mood and give him appropriate options for dealing with it. As an adult, the worst thing you can tell me when I’m angry or frustrated is that I shouldn’t be angry or frustrated. That just pisses me off even more. Punching a pillow, doing jumping jacks, whatever; get the energy of the emotion out of the way and then you can more rationally deal with it. I was driving The Knucklehead home from elementary school one day, and he was in a foul mood. I’d ask him what was bothering him, he said, “Nothing,” and this exchange ensued.

“You look mad. Maybe you should yell.”

“I’m NOT mad!”



“WELL, YOU SOUND MAD, BECAUSE YOU’RE YELLING LIKE YOU’RE REALLY MAD!” (This accentuated with pokes to the tummy.)

“I’m not… STOP IT!”

And laughter. And then the energy was released, and he talked about his day, which, it turned out, sucked. He just needed my help. To recognize his feelings and release them before they turned into something unhealthy. And he needed my help to recognize that his anger wasn’t the problem, it was the by-product. You don’t yell at your kid for sneezing, you treat the cold.

* * *

Spanking, like all punishments, is reactive. There is room for reactive punishment in parenting; there are times when you must take away a toy or privilege, or raise your voice, or otherwise show your displeasure. But if reactive punishments are the only tools you have, you will have no choice but to escalate, and you will inevitably end up spanking, and spanking increasingly often. But if you’re also proactive in guiding your child through tense situations, or recognizing the potential for tension, you’ll find the need to punish drops precipitously.

It’s harder to parent this way, I won’t lie. It can be exhausting to always stay on the alert. Punishing alone is easier. But I promise you, the work you do, especially in the “terrible” years pays off. An ounce of prevention and whatnot. And if I sound overinvolved, or helicoptering, there’s freedom in this method later, for both you and your child. Being proactive is teaching, and I saw The Knucklehead internalize these lessons. Over time, he didn’t need me to recognize tension rising within him. What I was doing for him in his toddler years, he became able to do for himself later. I don’t even want to think about the battles that didn’t happen in his teenage years because of the work we did when he was two.

When my son was born, I knew I didn’t want to spank, but I knew I couldn’t say “never.” I was prepared to spank if a major safety rule was broken, like him running into traffic, or something extreme like that. As it turns out, I never had to raise a hand to him. Maybe luck had something to do with that, I won’t deny that. Maybe I simply benefitted from an even-tempered kid. But I believe that setting the goal of not spanking (or threatening spanking) made me a better parent. It forced me to work harder and smarter than I otherwise would have.

You alone need to decide whether spanking will be part of your parenting. But I hope that I helped demonstrate how you can at least minimize it, or maybe eliminate it entirely, if that’s your choice. Like I said at the beginning, take from this what you can, ignore what doesn’t make sense to you.

But go enjoy being a parent. It’s work, yes. But it’s fun.


*It’s remarkable how effective this is. It never once occurred to The Knucklehead to ask me to add something to the list while at the supermarket.

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6 Responses to How Not to Spank

  1. neighsayer says:

    Wow. We never punished, not once, and if you read through the comments on the Journal’s post where I found the link to this, then I won’t want to repeat my theories.
    All I want to say to you is I wish I had read this post before I raised my kids, I think they would have been even happier. I couldn’t find any advice that didn’t always go to some form of punishing, and you give some great tools that don’t go there.
    Really well done, thank you.
    I’m re-blogging this.

    • Thank you for your comments. I’m heartened that you found this helpful. What I did with my son worked well for us, and I know each parent has a unique relationship with each child. So if people can find something they can use here, great. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for your support. Keep on keepin’ on being a dad!

  2. neighsayer says:

    Reblogged this on Abuse with an Excuse and commented:
    Here’s something rare: good advice on child-rearing.

  3. This was fantastic. Just amazing! I am with you in all of it, and while i come from a different perspective this would work with more than just toddlers, these principles…

    I remember that the one time ( or a one time, there may have been others that my mother did not resort to the easy smack or yelling or spanking…i just remember this time with vivid clarity) my mother talked to me about something that might easily have “merited” pubishment. Although not really…what happened was that a friend and i had donned girl scout uniforms to go out and collect funds for “poor people” and when she got wind of this she put a stop to it immediately…but her reaction was not to punish but simply to explain that it was illegal, called “fraud” — whether this was factually true or not i do not know, but she made her point- and she explained in her poor way what fraud was. Well, i was such a goodie two shoes, and had actually only wanted to help out some poorer neighbors who had no money, nothing more, that i was terrified for months that the police would come for me! But she did not have to ground me or yell or punish me in any fashion, just explain that what we had done was not proper…it surely put the fear of something in me for a long time, and i never did anything remotely like “fraud” again.

    On the other hand, the many spankings and slappings that went on into my mid teens and the verbal ans emotional abuse, did nothing but harm me…and i continue to reiterate that it harms everyone at all times.

    Anyone who holds off a spanking until they can calmly administer it should look into themselves for sadistic impulses…and as i have written to Neighsayer, i believe that spanking and coporal punishment fosters a sado-masochistic relationship that is rife throughout american culture, though not a subject anyone will discuss. Ever. But you cannot have a stronger person dominating a smaller weaker person without this dynamic, it just naturally happens. The interaction is sado-masochistic, but the abuser is always at heart a sadist, and secretly enjoys inflicting pain, even if the abusee learns enough insight to escape true masochism…

    Much more could be said, but i thought this was a wonderful post. As soon as my computer is back up and running, i will reblog it on wagblog ( dont dare use ipad…too finicky).

    • Pamela, thank you for reading, and thank you for your story. The insights I get from other people make this a far better blog than I could do on my own. I think any interaction a parent has with a child is a teaching one, whether we recognize that or not. When you spank, you’re teaching. I think you bring up an excellent point about what it is children really learn about relationships from corporal punishment and shaming.

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