It was bedtime, and our four-year-old son, Master M., was imploding. This was a seriously exhausted kid who was serious about not going to bed. Every move was ratcheting up the level of chaos—curtains were coming down, toys were sailing through the air, Cookie Monster at his most annoying was channeled. My husband, Dan, and I were losing it. We had tried firm statements like, “We know you’re having fun and it’s hard to go to bed. But now it’s bedtime.” In a moment of sheer desperation, Dan had taken the Master outside to run around the house with the hope that it might exhaust him. We had tried bribes (an extra book), and then threatened no books (which, by the way, we have never—not even once—actually managed to rise to the challenge of implementing as a tool of punishment, books being too sacrosanct in our house to use effectively). We had shouted—loudly. Finally, Dan picked the Master up and proclaimed that they were going for a ride in the car (where M. could be strapped in). “But I want Mommy,” he wailed. I stood to the side, rendered impotent by my son’s upset, my husband’s furious resolve, and my own desire for the mayhem to just cease. When they finally got to the car door, Master M. grabbed the sides and held on, screaming as if we were about to shut him in a dark dungeon. Lest the neighbors think we were total monsters, Dan relented. Finally, a tearful child snuggled up in my arms to listen to his customary three books and three songs and then, exhausted, he fell asleep. Silence came over the house. But I found myself wondering, “What just happened? And did it have to get so crazy?”
When Dan and I were growing up, the likely result of M.’s behavior would have been a spanking. Physical pain and the scary shame of it would silence us and make us cry—and crying, always, like a summer storm that comes on a brutally hot day, is a game changer. But Dan and I just intuitively—we never even had to talk about it—knew that we’d never hit our child. That was for sure.
And we’re not alone in having made this decision: In fact, the growing trend among parents—who themselves likely were spanked as children (and probably are still in therapy talking about it)—is to eschew any kind of corporal punishment. Although the larger data shows that at least 86 percent of Americans were spanked as children, of the youngest, the so-called echo boomers, only 77 percent report having been spanked. This downward trend seems to be in effect despite corporal punishment still being legal in forty-nine of our United States (Delaware outlawed it in 2012). Studies suggest that physical punishment—in the form of shoving, hitting, slapping, or grabbing—actually creates more aggressive children and, ultimately, can lead to depression, mental illness, and problems in relationships. And if that weren’t enough, a 2008 study by the American Psychological Association found that kids who were spanked or otherwise punished physically were more likely to suffer from sexual problems later in life. Some clinicians have surmised that this is because when a child is physically punished by someone who is meant to nurture and protect him, the child might begin to associate love with violence and pain with pleasure. Furthermore, experts say, spanking may accidentally teach a child that her body is not her own and that adults have the right to touch her even if it makes her uncomfortable or hurts.
These myriad reasons are presumably why the country of Sweden outlawed any kind of corporal punishment in 1979. Sweden also, interestingly, has one of the most generous parental-leave policies in the world. As Sandy Banks wrote in an Op-Ed last summer in the Los Angeles Times, “You would have to be blind to not see the link.” In other words, parents who are given time to bond with their children, free of financial worry, end up not only more connected to their children but also less frustrated and volatile. (In the years since Sweden’s landmark decision, most of Europe has followed suit. Israel and some South American and African countries also now boast policies of no corporal punishment.)
Somehow, however, when Dan and I tacitly agreed we’d never hit our child, we never stopped to contemplate what we’d do instead. In our defense, we didn’t have to spend much time on this subject until our child was almost four—he was so mild mannered and easy for the first few years of his life that we were shocked when he became a force to be reckoned with. Lately, the question for us has been this: What kind of discipline actually feels okay to us? (If we’re being honest, we’ll tell you we feel squeamish about all of it. Can’t we just reason with our child? Turns out the answer is “not always.”)
I mentioned this conundrum to my friend Susan the other day, and she laughed and said, “Ah, yes, parenting for the new millennium: threats, lies, and bribes.” Her theory, she said, is that threats, lies, and bribes are the reigning mode of parenting in a parental populace that’s set against corporal punishment but doesn’t know what else to do. She’s right: gone are the days of switches and spankings; time-outs have been rendered (by some) as basically ineffective and sometimes even traumatic; larger punishments can be cruel or shaming. Instead, many of us have found that our strongest weapons are sentences that begin something like, “If you catapult butternut squash at me one more time during this meal, dinner will be over and you will go straight to bed,” (knowing full well this is an outright lie, because very few parents want to send their kids to bed hungry); or we’ve devised complicated rewards systems (tracked with sticker charts affixed to our fridges), which are meant to reward good behavior from our truculent charges with bribes. For me, speaking as a person who has done all of the above, this system feels only slightly satisfactory, perhaps only momentarily effective, and sometimes, frankly, a little shameful when the threats start unfolding (and then make that subtle morph into little lies).
That hysterical night when Dan and I got so furious that it seemed appropriate to threaten M. with the straitjacket of the car seat was not our proudest moment as a family (or an example of stellar parenting). Later, when we sat down to talk, Dan and I tried to enumerate the various things at play: the end of the school year, an impending move, and just a global exhaustion that made it hard for any of us to be our best. But why, we wondered, did we need to succumb to such pettiness in order to regain some form of control? Why such emotional chaos right before bedtime? There must be a better way to do this, we said to each other. And yet, what was it?
I decided to pose my questions to the legendary pediatrician Dr. Sears (author of The Baby Book, The Parenting Book, and The Discipline Book, among others). I told him Susan’s theory, and he agreed that the cultural trend is moving in the direction she described—though he does not believe that spanking works in most cases because “it causes a distance between the parent and the child and plants a seed of violence.” His feeling about parenting these days, he said, is that many “parents are wimps.” (See sentence three paragraphs up where I say Dan and I are squeamish about discipline. Busted.)
In general, Dr. Sears said, parents “give their children too much stuff in lieu of themselves. And they don’t know how to say no. It takes a lot of work to say no, and most parents don’t feel like it.” Furthermore, he said, “Discipline is giving your child the tools to succeed in life.” And what parent doesn’t want that?
On the phone with Dr. Sears, I confessed to him that in my short tenure as a parent, I could recount only one time that I really felt like throttling my kid. And that was after he ran across the road in front of a car, while I stood helpless on the other side, and watched the whole thing unfold like a scene from a terrible movie. When I realized he was miraculously unscathed and we were both safely standing in front of our house, I screamed, “What were you thinking???”
With a shocking combination of incredible hubris, magical superhero thinking, and macho pride, my four-year-old informed me that he was faster than the car. I wanted to shake him. I wanted to hurt him into knowing on a physical level that he must never, ever do that again. But instead, I held him by his sapling arms and stared at him while I tried to breathe. Then I hugged him to me. I felt sick. So sick, I almost couldn’t respond to his innocent and now (from the distance of time) touching conviction that he was invincible. Then, I took him gently by the shoulders and told him how incredibly dangerous running in front of a car is and what would happen if a car hit him. In short, I scared him. Did it work? I hope so. Was he scared enough never to do it again? The thing is, I don’t know. I can only say I hope so.
At the end of this story, Dr. Sears said, “You know, that’s a classic example of one of the only times a spanking might be justified—sometimes you may want to make an impression between the mind and the body that your child must never do that again. When it comes to safety, Caitlin, you throw psychology out the window.”
“Oh, gosh,” I murmured. “Would I have done better if I had given him a spanking?”
These days, I’ve been reading the Little House on the Prairie series to Master M. And above and beyond the conversations we’re having about hunting, guns, prairie fires, how few pictures there are, and the way Ma talks about the “Indians,” we’re also discussing Ma and Pa’s parenting methods. The other night, after I had chuckled about how Laura and Mary understood that “children should be seen and not heard” (which my child did not find particularly amusing), I read a part about Pa spanking Laura. M. turned to me and said, “What is spanking?” As I explained, his eyes grew wide and a tiny bit teary.
The next morning, spanking must have been in the air. As we were getting ready for school, M. was wiggling and whining and generally making the morning feel impossible. As I was putting on his pants, I tapped his butt gently with the palm of my hand and said, “Come on, bud! Let’s get these on!”
“Mommy, you just hit me!” he said, full of outrage.
I tried to wheedle my way out of it. “That wasn’t a hit, “ I said, “That was more of a love tap.” He was silent. Then he said, “That was not a love tap. A love tap feels like this.” And he glided the feather of his hand across my arm. “You’re right,” I said. “That was a frustration tap. I’m sorry. I just wanted you to get dressed. But no one should ever hit you or touch you in a way you don’t like. And you know what I’m really glad about?”
“I’m really glad that you were able to speak up and tell me. You must always tell anyone who touches you in a way that you don’t like that they may not do that—no matter who they are. Even me. Okay?”
And the truth is, at the end of the day, I agree with myself. Thank God this stuff is crystal clear for my kid, even if I’m still muddling through.