In Defense of (Not) Spanking

Understanding the implications of physical discipline and the power of compassionate and creative parenting.

In my very first column I outlined some of my beliefs about parenting. I also stated that what’s right for me and my family may not be right for yours.

One of my hopes for my column was that I would have an opportunity to learn and grow from others’ opinions and perspectives because, clearly, we do not all share the same worldview. While I may surround myself with like-minded friends who support my idiosyncrasies, and perhaps even share them, in reality there is a wide variety of people in the world who approach parenting in different ways. While I may not change my own opinion in every case, I believe an open mind and conversation help me to understand where others come from, to consider new perspectives and, if nothing else, to solidify my original beliefs after careful consideration of others’.

And so it is with spanking.

Oh, I have tried. I have listened and I have read. And the topic has come to my attention again recently in an article from a listserve I subscribe to — In Defense of Spanking. I took some time to read and consider the author’s argument with the hope that, at last, a parent was going to explain to me in a way I could understand why they think it’s OK to hit a child. Apparently my wait is not over.

The Principle of Non-Violence and the reasons for it

Let me first explain the context in which I come to parenting discipline. I was raised in a family that didn’t hit, ground, or time out. As children, fighting and hitting amongst ourselves was not tolerated, so I simply cannot accept the premise, “that’s what children do”. Are those children who are physically violent guided by engaged adults who know how to support them otherwise?

I have worked in a number of professional settings which uphold, support and reject the notion of violence being inherently necessary or a part of childhood. My first job as a working professional was at Iris Kirby House, a shelter for women and children fleeing violence. One of the rules of the house is ‘no violence’. No Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, no horror movies, and certainly no Grand Theft Auto. When parenting support is needed we assist women in supporting their children in ways that will not make them feel physically threatened.

I have never seen a hand raised and never, when asking for advice, have I been instructed to hit my child.

My child currently attends a local not-for-profit pre-school. I am a board member there and have become intricately involved with the operations of a childcare centre and the training and qualification requirements of its staff. The workers have been a wonderful support and resource for me in dealing with my own challenges with my daughter and it is a joy to watch some of them ‘on the floor’ as they help resolve issues among the children. I have never seen a hand raised and never, when asking for advice, have I been instructed to hit my child. Moreover, in no part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Child Care Services Act is physical punishment cited as an appropriate way to discipline a child or attempt to modify their behaviour.

I also worked with Eastern Health as a Developmental and Behavioural Practitioner (DBP). Our team assisted parents, public health nurses, and anyone else caring for a child—from birth until the time they enter school—with their questions and concerns regarding their child’s development, including behavioural issues. This includes assessments, planning and coordination of services. DBPs also support children, adolescents and adults placed in care with developmental and behavioural concerns. Though not in every case, children with developmental struggles often have related behavioural issues.

There are other, more effective ways

DBPs employ a number of techniques that are taught to parents and caregivers to assist with behavioural concerns. They are grouped into three levels, beginning with things that cause the least amount of intrusion on the child. When the options from level one are exhausted, and after colleagues, mentors and supervisors are consulted, there may be a move to level two interventions. Similarly, with written permission, there may be a move to level three — but only in rare cases. Can you guess where hitting the child fits into this framework? If you guessed nowhere, you’re correct. If fact, a DBP needs written permission and documented proof that no techniques in level one and two have been effective before using the ‘time out’ method in level three. Sorry ‘Super Nanny’, nowhere in the provincial framework is a parent or support worker encouraged to hit a child. In fact, behavioural problems are usually resolved at level one. Hitting will never be advocated.

I’ve also worked as an instructor in the Child and Youth Care Worker (CYCW) community. Child and youth care workers work with youth and adolescents in a number of settings, including youth centres and group homes. The youth in group homes are the children and young adults who have been removed from their homes for any number of reasons.

We now know better, so it’s time to be Creative with our Children

Workers in these homes often deal with extreme behaviour and violence on a day-to-day basis, so innovation becomes an important resource in helping young people find alternative ways to express themselves. Creative thinking also helps workers find appropriate, non-violent consequences for the actions of those in their care. Again, I have yet to find spanking or hitting as a suggestion in any CYCW curriculum material, and yet to see it approved at any facility.

With the knowledge that, at every level of support and intervention, spanking, hitting or any other form of restrictive or physical discipline is completely absent and condemned, I remain baffled how a parent could argue in favour of such behaviour. If there is no harm done to the child or young person through any of these tried and tested CYCW and DBP methods, what good reason do parents have not to try them?

I am truly sorry if a parent who struggles with their child’s behaviour feels it is necessary to resort to spanking or other methods of physical discipline. I spend quite some time with women leaving abusive situations and try to help them understand that abuse is not as simple as a fist coming into contact with their body, but also includes pulling hair, slapping, throwing objects at them, intentionally or otherwise. It is an abuse of power.

With Power come Responsibility and Accountability

As parents we have unimaginable power over our children. The power imbalance is implicit. It is therefore incumbent upon us to respond and react only with compassion and kindness. As Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte writes in a poem, “children learn what they live.” If a parent is at a loss and doesn’t know what to do, I have a deep sympathy. Indeed, I have never parented your child and do not know what you confront on a day-to-day basis. Parenting is undoubtedly the hardest job on this planet, hands down, and parents can often feel completely unsupported and misunderstood. I place no blame on a parent who has run out of personal resources or ideas on how to deal or manage behaviours. But I have worked with many levels of intervention that are available as direct supports for the parent or caregiver, including advice on how to support the child. There are more ideas and methods out there too. I know for a fact that spanking is unnecessary, whatever level of behaviour is being dealt with. Reach out for support, not only for a child but for yourself.

You both deserve it.

If you are a woman in need of support for relationship violence, please contact Iris Kirby House, 24 hours a day, at (709) 753-1492.

If you are in need of behavioural support, contact Intervention Services through your Regional Health Authority at (709) 729-3193, or Janeway Family Services at (709) 777-2200.

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