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Dear Jenny: If We Can't Spank, What Will Get My Kid To Behave?

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Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email advice@romper.com.

Dear Jenny,

Question of the century: how do I get my toddler/child to fear me as I feared my mother when about to get spanked without actually introducing spanking?

While I understand why we don't spank anymore, I definitely can see why my mom spanked us, and it was always a production. It wasn't like I would get spanked in the middle of Disneyland or in a public place. It was def a last-resort thing (which I now understand as a parent of a strong-willed person). We had to go in her room, talk to her, or rather listen while she yelled/explained something to us. Eighty percent of the time she didn't end up spanking us, but if it was a multiple offense or we were being sh*ts, we got spanked. There were always so many tears shed (both my brother and I and her!) I am now really just realizing how hard that must've been for her.

So: How do I scare my kid so that they listen, without then feeling like, Oh, crap, now I have to follow through!!!

Don't Wanna Spank … But Might

Dear Don't Wanna Spank,

You say "we don't spank anymore." But the most recent data available, from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, showed in 2016 that about 68 percent of Americans agreed "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking." Only a few years earlier, a Harris poll found that two-thirds of parents said they had spanked their kids. At this current moment, spanking is not illegal in the U.S., though there are laws against it in other countries.

So, au contraire, Don't Wanna Spank. We are a nation of spankers.

The question that has dogged parents since the beginning of time is how to get our kids to do what we want them to do, for a variety of reasons — to stay safe, to stay healthy, to not embarrass us in Target, and to conform to our values.

Any expert who tells you she has the answer is trying to sell you a book. The jury is out, and it will stay out, on how to discipline kids.

GREAT. THANKS. SO WTF DO I DO.

Well, as I said, most people in this country turn to spanking. And since most of us do it — and your name indicates you're considering doing it — I want to look at it closely before moving on to the issue of disciplining with fear.

There's a lot of research on spanking out there. Most, though not all, draws the conclusion that spanking leads to negative outcomes in children (mental health problems, decreased cognitive ability, increased aggression). However, most of the research is flawed, for two reasons. One is that, as anti-spanking researchers regularly admit, causal relationships cannot be established with certainty.

Nothing annoys me more than a lack of nuance. And you will find a lack of nuance everywhere you go when it comes to parenting advice, especially when it comes to moms. DO NOT DRINK ONE DROP OF ALCOHOL FROM THE DAY YOU START TRYING TO GET PREGNANT TO THE DAY AFTER YOU FINISH BREASTFEEDING OR YOU WILL KILL YOUR BABY. BREAST IS BEST AND IF YOU DON'T BREASTFEED YOU ARE DEPRIVING YOUR BABY OF A STRONG IMMUNE SYSTEM AND BRAIN HEALTH ALSO YOU ARE A BAD PERSON. DO NOT USE THE CRY-IT-OUT SLEEP-TRAINING METHOD BECAUSE IT'S BARBARIC AND IN FACT YOUR BABY MUST NEVER CRY. IF YOU'RE OVER 40 AND TRYING TO GET PREGNANT YOU'RE PUTTING YOUR BABY AT RISK OF GENETIC DEFECTS DO YOU WANT THAT ON YOUR CONSCIENCE DO YOU DO YOU DO YOU.

OH MY GOD SHUT UP.

So. This inability to prove that spanking is the cause of certain negative outcomes led the Brookings Institution in 2014 to suggest that "the immediate focus of U.S. policy-makers who want to improve our nation's parenting should be on promoting positive behavior such as reading [books to young children, which, they said, has "well-documented 'spillover' effects"], rather than on large-scale efforts to prevent spanking."

Mild spanking is a risk for more severe spanking, according to research. Photo credit: Stocksy

The second problem with the research on spanking is that most studies don't differentiate among forms of, and the intensity and severity of, corporal punishment. For example, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2006 defined "corporal or physical punishment" as spanking, smacking, or slapping with the hand or with an implement (a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, or similar); kicking, shaking, or throwing children; scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair, or boxing ears; forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions; or burning, scalding, or forced ingestion (washing a child's mouth out with soap or forcing them to swallow hot spices).

If I had to choose a physical punishment from that list, I would choose spanking with a hand, thank you very much, and I'm willing to bet most kids would, too.

Maybe you can spank without screwing up your kid. But it's really easy to mess up.

There has been some pushback against the research. In 2001, a researcher made waves when she publicly derided most of the existing studies for their lack of nuance, and she presented her own research, saying that when "confounding influences" — for example, more frequent and/or more intense physical punishment — were separated out, "few harmful effects linked with spanking were left." She said she did not advocate spanking but rather claimed there was no proof that "an occasional swat," when delivered in the context of "good child-rearing," did any harm. An anti-spanking researcher praised her work as perhaps "the best single study available"... but said it didn't change his mind.

He further admitted in the New York Times that researchers have looked at the same data and, depending on their biases — pro-spanking or anti-spanking — drawn different conclusions.

Does that mean spanking *doesn't* lead to negative outcomes? Not at all. In fact, the Brookings Institute also found that children who were spanked frequently and/or severely were at higher risk for all the issues mentioned above (mental health problems, decreased cognitive ability, increased aggression). And importantly (I think), a writer for Psychology Today claimed that "research has identified mild spanking as a risk factor for more severe spanking." This claim seems to be backed up by Stacey Patton, the author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, who said in the New York Times that "[b]lack children are … more at risk of being assaulted, seriously injured or killed by a parent than by a police officer, a neighborhood watchman or an irritated racist who hates rap music." Patton said it's not "malicious parents" who end up with convictions for child abuse or even homicide; rather, "it is those who started spanking and escalated as the child got bigger."

As one parent I interviewed said, "Maybe you can spank without screwing up your kid. But it's really easy to mess up."

Before we move on, is spanking at least effective? Although some parents I interviewed said spanking had been effective for them, research does not support this, for short-term or long-term behavior changes. The reason (providing the research is right) may have to do with children's developmental stages. Certainly it's crucial to understand that the prefrontal cortex, which controls (among other things) emotional regulation, reasoning, social skills, and, importantly, impulse control does not finish developing in the human brain until age 25. This may explain why, in 2014, a researcher published a small study in the Journal of Family Psychology that found that, within 10 minutes of a spanking, 73 percent of children had resumed the same behavior they'd just been punished for.

So in some cases, kids won't change their behavior no matter which discipline method you choose because they can't.

Also, when spanking appears to be effective, it may be a bit of a trick. The Psychology Today writer suggested that "children are most often spanked for extreme 'out of line' behaviors, from which they would regress back to normal even without the spanking." Also, he writes, spanking teaches the spankee to avoid the spanker (definitely the most fun sentence I've written so far), so the child learns only to hide the behavior, not to stop doing it.

OK FOR GOD'S SAKE I GET IT JENNY HOW DO I DISCIPLINE MY F*CKING KID.

Negative reinforcement — the use of fear, shame, and, yes, spanking — can create problems.

Well, Don't Wanna Spank, you mentioned using fear, and while we're at it I'm just going to throw in the use of shame.

Here's what I think: The picture you painted of your mother, your brother, and you crying as your mother yelled sounds like an out-of-control situation. It also sounds like it had more to do with your mother's frustration than discipline.

Negative reinforcement — the use of fear, shame, and, yes, spanking — can create problems. Why? Because people are going to do what they want to do, and making children feel afraid or ashamed — or physically hurting them — for behavior that may be out of their capacity to control teaches lessons you may not intend. For example, fear and shame break down trust, and if your kid doesn't trust you, you're going to end up with a host of problems you didn't anticipate, the least of which is honest communication.

I snapped at my baby twice — TWICE — and the look on his face KILLED ME. He cries all the f*cking time, and he has never cried like that before or since. He had no idea why Mommy suddenly turned into a monster — and more importantly, my reaction was all about my frustration and had no effect on whatever he'd done (if anything!). Also, as far as simply raising my voice in front of him (say, at my husband! Just for example!), what stopped me cold was a study that said infants as young as 6 got a stress reaction when hearing angry voices.

There's just no need for that.

Children learn by modeling, so we're always teaching them, whether we're conscious of having a teaching moment or not. Photo credit: Stocksy

Positive reinforcement uses a different set of tools. It engages children with compassion, respect, and, many times, games to teach alternatives to the behavior you don't want. It takes a sh*tload of patience and consistency. Does it work? Sometimes! But at the least, you don't end up with the potential for negative outcomes. There's advice out there on teaching everything from sharing and acting respectfully (whatever that means to you) to not biting or running into the street.

For any of this to work, it's important to understand which developmental stage your child is going through — and, Don't Wanna Spank, a toddler simply does not have the brain function or life experience you do and should not be expected to behave beyond what she's capable of. Also, without compassion for and understanding about her experience, you are definitely going to lose your shit — especially since your mother did with you.

Whatever you decide, Don't Wanna Spank, I would try everything available to you instead of using spanking, fear, or shame and definitely not use them in combination. Why?

Because one thing we do know — and LOTS of good research backs this up — is that children learn by modeling, so we're always teaching them, whether we're conscious of having a teaching moment or not. So when it comes to teaching your kids how to be in the world, think about what you want them to do — and do that. And the things you don't want them to do? Don't do them.

THE BEST ADVICE I HEARD RECENTLY WAS NOT TO GIVE KIDS A TIME-OUT BUT TO TAKE A TIME-OUT YOURSELF. LOCK MYSELF IN THE BATHROOM WITH A GLASS OF WINE? YES, PLEASE. WE'RE ALL GOING TO FAIL OUR KIDS SOMEHOW SO BE EASY ON YOURSELF AND ON THEM, TOO. NEITHER OF YOU HAS DONE THIS BEFORE. WHATEVER YOU CHOOSE BE CONSISTENT, GIVE YOUR KIDS A SENSE OF SECURITY, AND VALIDATE THEIR LIVED EXPERIENCE. YOU'RE A GOOD PERSON AND YOU'RE TRYING YOUR BEST. SO ARE THEY. YOU GOT THIS.

<3 Jenny

Dying to ask Jenny a question? Email advice@romper.com.