Recently I was a member of a black moms Facebook group where the topic of discipline came up frequently. It’s one of those hardline subjects in black culture that folks debate heavily but rarely change their minds on. The main argument in defense of spanking seemed to be that children who are whooped grow up to be respectful and well-behaved and children who are not whooped become hooligans. I believe that conclusion to be fundamentally flawed. For one, prisons are full of black men and women who were beaten heartily by their parents. But it’s also flawed based on my own experience.
I was raised by two ‘beat first, ask questions later’ parents. My parents worked in ministry, so it was essential that my siblings and I know how to behave because we were the resident ‘model family’. My dad regularly took us with him when he preached at various churches, and he had to know that we would not act up or complain. After all, as Christian kids part of our duty to God and our parents was to be well behaved.
By the time I was 15 years old I knew deep down that I would never hit my child. It’s 15 years later, I’ve had two children — one now a toddler and one an infant — and I still feel that way. But this does not mean that my children are not well-behaved. My son, who just got out of the terrible two’s and is knee-deep in the terrible three’s, is a well-adjusted child who rarely acts out. Let me explain why.
1. My goal is not to control his behavior. My goal is to help him manage his emotions.
Control and “good” behavior are not my end goal. I only use the term “well behaved” in the title of this piece because it is a main concern of those who criticize a non-spanking approach. But, to me, good behavior is beside the point.
My son is experiencing how big and exciting the world is and I want him to embrace it without fear. So I encourage him to run, jump, leap, and climb, to touch things and ask endless questions (even though, yes, it does get annoying). How he acts in a grocery store is the least of my concerns.
Being emotional is part of being human. And toddlers feel their emotions very deeply. My goal is to teach my son that his emotions are acceptable, but he must learn how to express them appropriately. So you can cry and be sad that the episode of Sesame Street is over, but you can’t throw a toy in your distress.
2. I take responsibility for his behavior.
And I do this because I feel that, at this age, he is mirroring me. If I’m not treating others respectfully and managing my emotions well, how can I expect him to? I make sure that I am constantly processing my own feelings and communicating clearly and respectfully with my husband. My kids are watching.
3. I understand that tantrums are not isolated incidents
The vast majority of my son’s tantrums boil down to hunger, tiredness/sleepiness or frustration that his sister is getting more attention than him. If most tantrums have a ‘root cause’ it means that I, as a parent, have the ability to stop them before they even begin. Keeping my son well fed, on a good sleep schedule, and making sure he knows that he is loved and included goes a long way towards alleviating poor behavior.
4. I get to the bottom of things before deciding on a course of discipline.
I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, so I don’t always know how things between my children go down. I might be working in one room when I hear my one-year-old daughter cry out. I don’t start by snatching up my son and whooping him. I start by cradling and comforting my daughter and then asking my son what happened. Did he push her because she stepped on one of his Lego creations? Did she take a toy he was playing with? Or was he just being aggressive? Knowing what happened helps me to know what my reaction should be. Also, I want my son to know he can tell me the truth without fear of violent retribution.
Growing up I had two friends whose parents beat them for acting out. What their parents did not know is that they were acting out because they had been sexually abused. I hope I never punish my child for acting in a way that is indicative of a deeper hurt.
5. I explain to my son why people around him act the way they do.
If my aim is to help my son manage his reactions, part of that is helping him make sense of other people’s actions. For example, he hates that his sister is always in his space. I explain to him that she crowds him because she admires and loves him. When he hears this, it makes him smile and he softens towards her. If he can make sense of his world then he can choose appropriate responses to the things that happen to him.
6. I keep him out of situations that are not toddler friendly.
I’m not going to ask my 3 year old to sit quietly and be still for 45 minutes while I do an errand. It’s uncomfortable and stretches the limits of what he’s capable of. He loves to move, touch and be curious, so I keep his daily life centered on those things.
7. I reinforce and consistently vocalize my expectations.
My son knows what my expectations are because I consistently vocalize them and keep him in environments that reinforce what I teach at home. Twice a week he does a full day at a preschool that teaches students in a gentle environment how to play cooperatively and respond to appropriate authority.
The result of all this is that my 3-year-old, who according to cultural norms should be having knock-down, drag-out tantrums multiple times a week/day, is a generally peaceful boy who tantrums very little. More importantly he is learning that his feelings matter, and is developing tools to navigate the world around him.
A lot of people think the no-spank, no-yell approach is yuppie or new-agey or something white people exclusively do. It’s actually none of the above. Native Americans were known for not using corporal punishment on their children.
Native American children prior to European contact seem to have enjoyed an indulged childhood followed by initiation rites, which occurred at the onset of PUBERTY. Born on an average at four-year intervals, they received protracted breast-feeding and the attention of their mothers, who carried them on their backs in cradleboards. Allowed to crawl when they were ready and to run about freely by the age of three, children were not disciplined with corporal punishment. Instead, instructed by their parents and members of the community in tasks designated by gender, they were chastised by shaming. At the onset of menstruation, girls were separated from the group and told to fast. Boys of the same age were isolated, confined, and given substances that induced visions as guides to life. Such practices marked a clear line between childhood and adulthood, as young men and women assumed the tasks designated by their cultures.
In seventeenth-century England, infants were shaped by midwives and then swaddled in the belief that the human body could not support itself. Children were breast-fed for about a year by their mothers or a wet nurse whose care could sometimes be negligent. Because crawling was thought to indicate animal behavior, children were encouraged to remain upright by the use of tight corsets under their long robes, leading strings attached to their shoulders, and standing or walking stools in which they could be left for long periods of time. Both boys and girls were corrected with corporal punishment as they grew.
All parents want their children to grow up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted. But there are many paths to get there and many disciplinary options outside of spanking. I hope that as a culture we can begin to explore some of them.