As many as there are of frustrations with Facebook, I have to admit that postings by other people is one of the reasons I find myself going there. Yesterday, someone posted an article on parenting by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, “What if Everything You Knew about Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?”, (Mother Jones Magazine, July/August, 2015). Being a parent educator I was drawn to reading it, expecting some radical crazy thing, but I found it far from radical. I suppose you might say that is because I am radical myself, but I am also a parent educator and what Ms. Lewis wrote about is what I have been teaching in parenting classes for years.
One of my favorite classes to teach was on the difference between punishment and discipline. Old methods of child-rearing was to teach children by doing something negative to them when they misbehaved. The basic belief was that children are born basically evil and will naturally do bad or rebellious things. A parent’s job was to make sure that when children misbehaved they only needed to follow the misbehavior with something painful, Whether a spanking or sending them into time-out, it didn’t matter so much as that it was unpleasant to the child. They were like little Pavlov dogs and if parents did this painful thing often enough they would change their nature from bad to good. What the children learned instead is that hitting is okay and that if you do something you know is breaking the rules, don’t get caught. A third thing they learned is to fear people in power and that it is best to follow what people in power tell you to do.
The gift to parents today is the research that has been done on child development. We know now, for example, that children don’t automatically come into the world with any a sense of right and wrong. I have heard parents say about children as young as 1 or 2, “Oh, he knows that what he did was wrong!” My role as a parent-educator is to let them know that that is not correct. A child is a born explorer and learns from trial and error what is okay and what is not okay. This is why we put little caps on the plug-ins around the house. It is why we put them in strollers in the mall. It is why we put them in playpens (people of my generation know what that is).
In a way, punishment is a way of teaching them that something is harmful without them having to experiencing it firsthand. Moving cars are dangerous. We would not want them to learn that fact from experience. I had to concede to parents that there may be experiences that serve as exceptions to the rule. A woman in one of my classes told me that she remembered the one time she ever got a spanking from her mother. “I was about 5 years old and lived on a farm. One day I went into the corn field. It looked like a big forest to me. I got lost. People came from all over to help in the search. They finally found me and when they brought me to my mother she first hugged me, then she spanked me and said, ‘Don’t you ever go into the cornfield again.’ I never did. I knew she spanked me because she loved me.”
I asked the woman, “Is that the only time you were ever spanked?”
She said, “Yes.”
“And that is why it worked. If your mother spanked you for failing to clean your room and for breaking a dish or for throwing something at your brother, it is very likely that your memory of that event would be different. All of these other behaviors would have been put on an equal plane in terms of seriousness as walking in to a cornfield at 5.” I wasn’t trying to tell my parents that spanking is okay but, rather, the use of spanking by the mother in this scenerio was perfectly understandable.
I think, though, that there was another way the mother could have handled the situation without spanking. I am guessing that the child was pretty frightened when alone among the stalks not knowing if she would ever be found. The lesson of the dangers of wandering into a cornfield alone had already been impressed upon her by her experience. The mother could have followed it with a serious talk as well as lots of hugs and “I love you and would never want anything bad to happen to you.” There could also be some restrictions set that might feel like punishment to a child, but would be a precaution until the parent was able to trust that she had indeed learned the lesson.
I have more thoughts to share in the following blogs. I would love for you to share your experiences and ideas.