Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Parenting: Working without the Manual

If you are a parent, or even if you’ve been subjected to the ranting or misbehaving of a child in close proximity to you, I suspect that you’ve had the urge to spank. I know I have. Fortunately, because I never felt that physical punishment was a solution to misbehaving, I never gave into the urge to give my kids a swift whack to the bottom. Lord knows, sometimes it was hard. But now there is evidence to support the feeling held by many parents that spanking is not the solution.

Researchers at Tulane University have studied 2,500 children and the effect of spanking on their behavior. Their findings? Children who were spanked frequently at age 3 became more aggressive by age 5. This, as well as other findings of the study, support a recent Duke University study that said that infants that were spanked at twelve months—and let’s face it: twelve-month-olds are infants—scored lower on cognitive tests than those children who hadn’t been spanked. In addition, the children in the Tulane study were more likely to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction, get easily frustrated, have temper tantrums, and exhibit aggressive behavior toward others.

For me, it was always a decision fueled by my rational, intellectual mind: hitting a child would get their attention, but ultimately, not their continued compliance. I always assumed that spanking the offending child might make me feel better and get the child’s attention, but would eventually end up with both of us crying—me for losing control and them for being physically and emotionally hurt. I instead favored the “time-out,” which has come under some criticism for not being a strict enough punishment. Personally, I like the time out very much, so much so, that I sometimes put myself in time out, if only to get a hold of my emotions or think something through. Research has found that the time out has the same effect for a child, but only if you stick to your guns, something that is very difficult to do with a wailing child sitting in the “naughty chair” or whatever location you choose.

My pediatrician told me when my daughter was an infant that the best piece of advice he had received as a new parent was “once you say no, the answer is no even if you’ve made a mistake and the answer could be yes.” Because, like animals, kids can smell fear. They can also smell dithering. Once you have said no and then change the answer to yes after repeated queries, the child knows that they can have their way with you. And then it’s all downhill from there. You’ll never have the upper hand again because you’ve been outed as a “mind changer.”

My friends and I often lament that parenting is hard and the manual for what do in most situations is nonexistent. We have only each other to rely on to get a sense of whether what we’re doing is correct, sane, and will guarantee that our children will reach adulthood. We spend an inordinate amount of time as parents making sure our children are safe, and any remaining time that they are good citizens capable of making good decisions. You have to parent when you are sick, tired, stressed, and at your wit’s end and you have to do all of it while making snap decisions on the fly. When you think about it, it’s amazing that anyone does it well. Or at all.

I am not trying to paint a picture of myself as the sanest, most patient mother in the world. Au contraire. For instance, I am thisclose to giving a stern talking to the little girl who sits in front of us at church (and who I don’t know) who scratches her bare hiney during the priest’s sermon when she’s not beating her brother over the head while her mother blissfully ignores her. And the little boy who threw a fork at me during dinner at a local restaurant? Well, I’d put him in time-out before the fork had even left his hand; I can sense bad stuff before it happens, especially if my kids are thinking about it. I’m gifted that way. For that kid, time-out would take on a whole new meaning. When my kids were smaller and would beat the stuffing out each other night after night, I would calmly pick both of them up and place them in their beds for the night, despite the fact that the sun hadn’t set. Fearful of another sixteen hours in their beds, the nightly fisticuffs soon stopped. If nothing else, my kids are pretty astute, getting the whole “if-then” relationship.

Basically, my parenting style reflects the credo of the Mafia: find out what they love—from free time to television to their handheld electronics—and make it go away. Works like a charm. Who needs spanking?


  1. Just the threat of being spanked was enough to keep me and my siblings in, most of the time. I do remember getting spanked once by my father--I went upstairs to my bedroom to wait after first stuffing the butt of my pants with toilet paper. Can't remember what I did to "deserve" such punishment, but I'm sure I never did it again! Being a parent has to be the toughest (and most important) gig in the world! I applaud those who do it well and with great love (like the fab moms right here on Stiletto!).

  2. I am a big fan of the Mafia credo too - my 5-year old just got TV privileges back after 2 months. It was so long, I was even missing some of her TV shows!