Dogma and Child Development Part I: Spankings get a spanking
I initially said to colleagues I wouldn’t write this post. But now I feel that I must. But before I broach this controversial subject, let me tell you why I am. We need to end the pendulum swings and dogma in child development. I am sure I will get flack from colleagues for writing this, and who knows – I might cost myself some potentially beneficial relationships in “the field”. But I didn’t strike out on my own to be afraid. So here goes:
The rigid mindset that “If you don’t completely agree that approach ‘X’ is completely evil, then this means that you think that hated approach ‘X’ is the best and only approach” does not move us forward.
My example of this comes from a discussion amongst colleagues over Twitter yesterday about spanking children – gasp! Yes, I know – it was unwise for me to discuss a nuanced topic over a social media tool that restricts us to 140 character soundbites. Point taken.
Some, rather condescendingly at times, were telling others that “it is never OK to spank a child”. I saw one article that was referenced (written by a journalist and quoted by a pediatrician) that talked about the use of naughty chairs instead. There was talk of “removing the child from the trouble situation to direct his thinking toward what he/she did wrong”. Then, the point was made about spanking: “all the child learns from this is that when you do something wrong, someone will hurt you”.
My response to this comes in the form of several points:
- There is an assumption here that when parents spank, they haven’t tried anything else, and they are never combining the spanking with conversations about why things are wrong. Certainly, this is the case with some parents, but not all.
- A couple of people assumed that if you are not a staunch spanking opponent, then you must be a spanking advocate. One can be neither. And a fully realized expert needs to be aware of this. I don’t advocate spanking, except as a last resort. When I work with children, I very rarely raise my voice. But I will yell if they are about to step off of a cliff. Now take this proverbially and apply it to the question of spanking.
- They cited evidence where children were made more violent or emotionally scarred by spanking for discipline, while ignoring the results of a Johns Hopkins study that shows this to be true – for Caucasian children, but not for African-American or Latino children. In case you are asking – every single one of these professionals I was debating with is Caucasian. This is not to say that many African-American parents are not against spanking. But the staunchest opponents seem to be affluent and white. Different culture, different practices. An astute former intern of mine mentioned that the African-American and Latino kids he worked with in Michigan would always trade stories about their spankings. They knew it as normal, and they knew it was for discipline. By the way, as an African-American child myself, I can attest to that. We trade stories. In front of and with our parents. And we all laugh about it as one of the trials of childhood. Right along with our loving and supportive parents.
- They fail to differentiate by child, or stage of development, or any other factor. They just said “children”.
- Some assume that they have the answer to every child. The naughty chair works for many children. It doesn’t work for some. Some children are naturally obstinate.
- Finally, there was a failure in the debate to differentiate hitting out of anger from spanking for discipline. There is, no matter how you slice it, a difference. Hitting in anger says “I hate who you are”. Spanking for discipline sometimes, in some contexts and cultures, says “I love you, but this will not fly and I am letting you know in no uncertain terms. You will feel this in your body.” Some cultures, some children, some situations, some parents.
We could have done better by parents if we said “Spanking should be used sparingly and never in anger. Here are some useful alternatives that you should try first. Children first and foremost need consistency, not your ire” . This would have gotten my ringing endorsement. Instead, I saw fear, anger, shame and condemnation.
That’s all. I have decided to make this a series of examples of dogma in child development. I hope you enjoy it and I hope to get your thoughts – but whether you agree or disagree I hope that your thoughts are well reasoned and allow for context.