Like most aspects of parenting, there's an endless debate about spanking. While there are plenty of "how to avoid spanking your kids" explainers online and elsewhere, and studies that show how ineffectual corporal punishment is, plenty of people believe that spanking is an acceptable and beneficial way to discipline a child. What’s often missing from the debate, however, are alternatives parents can and should consider when they have the urge to spank their child, as well as honest explanations about the overwhelming feelings and emotions caregivers feel before they succumb to that urge.
Romper spoke with Sarah Conway, a psychologist and founder of Mindful Little Minds, Niani Jones, a researcher and co-facilitator of community healing sessions for survivors of trauma, and N’Jyia Shelton, an Early Childhood Development and Education researcher and voluntary prekindergarten teacher, about the behaviors that often lead to spanking, as well as action steps that parents can take to prevent them from using physical violence as a form of conflict resolution.
Conway urges people to “offer [parents who spank] support, give them a shoulder to cry on, and be someone they can talk to" before you judge them. "Let them know they’re not alone and that you understand how hard parenting is sometimes," she tells Romper. "A parent who has support and access to resources is able to make informed, conscious and intentional choices.”
Conway says if you are a parent who has spanked their child before, but don't want to, it's vital that you find support and build a network of people who can help you. "Most of us react in anger to our children and lash out because we feel overwhelmed and unsure what else to do," she says. "When we feel [angry and overwhelmed], we enter fight or flight mode, are unable to think clearly, and generally resort to reactions and responses that are familiar and quite automatic." To get out of the habit of responding to these moments with anger or violence, parents need support and "we need to take time out to manage our emotions and our feelings of stress so that we can change our reactions," Conway says.
If your first impulse is to hit your child, Conway encourages you to stop and take a deep breath. And then another breath. And then another, and another. “Deep, slow breathing helps to regulate our nervous system and switch off our stress response," she says. "It’s a very effective way of calming both the body and mind so we can think clearly before we respond to our child.”
Jones tells Romper that while it might sound simple, breathing exercises are beneficial. "Personally, I use the 4-7-8 method," she says. "Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, breathe out for eight seconds, and repeat as needed."
Shelton recommends that parents try something as simple as counting. "I know counting seems like this cliché step to calming down," she says, "but you realize that by allotting yourself time to think clearly, it makes it easier to assess the situation, communicate with your child where your frustrations are coming from, and pick a suitable route of (nonviolent) discipline, if discipline is even necessary."
It’s also important to keep in mind that when our kids have tantrums they’re often responding to stress. “A tantrum is a sign of an overwhelmed nervous system,” Conway says. "It usually means a child is lacking the ability to cope with the demands of a situation. They may feel overwhelmed by big feelings like frustration, anger or disappointment, they may lack the skills to complete a task, or they may be tired, hungry, or even scared.”
Since children lack certain communication skills, they do what tends to get their parents attention the most whether it’s falling out, crying, whining, or fighting, according to Shelton. These are the moments when it’s best to give ourselves, as parents, a moment to breathe and try to calm down so we can respond to our child’s stress in a healthy way.
For critics of spanking, it's not enough to tell parents to stop hitting their children, or to shame parents who spank, without offering action steps for them to take to avoid it.
This is when mindful parenting, the act of bringing mindfulness principles into your interactions with your children, comes into play. “It’s about being fully present in the moment with your child," Conway says. "When you are fully present in a moment, you are able to respond to your child and their needs, rather than reacting from a place of fear or frustration within yourself. When we react to our own emotions and allow them to affect our behavior, we are in the past. We are generally responding to our on triggers and past experiences, often from our own childhoods.”
In conferences with parents navigating overwhelming stressful situations, Shelton says that she asks them the following questions:
- What happens when you’re sad or angry and it shows in your body language and in the tone of your voice or in your facial expressions?
- How do you feel people should treat you when you are having a "bad" moment?
- Is it okay for them to assault you?
- If it isn’t okay for us as adults to be assaulted or hit for displaying how we feel about certain things, why should we not grant children the space to do the same without fear of being beaten and hit for it?
"I usually recommend therapy," Shelton says, adding that it's important to unpack why we feel it’s OK to harm children for "experiencing normal human emotions and expressing them in the only ways they know how."
When our kids are behaving in ways that stress us out, it's important to be mindful of the reasons why they feel the need to behave in that way. "When a child is feeling anxious, their stress response has been triggered," Conway says. "Because of this, a child may lash out and become aggressive, or they may attempt to avoid whatever it is they are afraid of. Either way, they are struggling to deal with big emotions that they do not understand, and that feel overwhelming, and so you may see what looks like a tantrum or a big emotional outburst from your child when they are anxious."
If you're a parent who has turned to spanking or hitting your child in an overwhelming moment, Conway says to keep in ming that "none of us is perfect, and we are all influenced by our own early experiences and the way we were parented ourselves." While it may be difficult or painful to admit that something you are doing, and something that your parents may have done to you, may be harming your child, you can actively work to find new ways to respond to overwhelming situations with your child.
"It's the quick and easy 'tried and true' method. It's the 'well it worked for my parents' method with the 'well, I turned out fine' defense," Jones says, adding that, for many parents, the decision to spank comes down to tradition. And it can be hard to change your habits, especially if parents don't understand the long-term damage. "Parenting is already hard," Jones says. "So why would [parents] make it that much harder on themselves when spanking already 'works'?"
It also takes a long time to learn new strategies for managing emotions and responding with purpose to our children, Conway explains, and especially difficult for co-parents with opposing views about spanking. Conway advises that parents in this situation "set aside some time to talk to your spouse about your choices and why they are important to you. Explain why you feel strongly about it and how you’ll be doing things differently."
For critics of spanking, it's not enough to tell parents to stop hitting their children, or to shame parents who spank, without offering action steps for them to take to avoid it. It's just not productive. What is productive, however, is offering our support to parents who need help managing the difficult emotions that come with parenting.