Parents: I don’t know how you do it. Like, literally. I’m trying to train my dog to be less of an asshole right now, and the current method involves throwing treats at him whenever he chills out for a fraction of a second to try and get him to remember what being calm feels like. But he’s a dog, not a toddler. How do you go about disciplining a child, to make them less of an asshole without becoming an asshole yourself? All I know is: don’t spank them. Spanking is for consenting adults only.
[Reminder: send us your questions at [email protected] and we’ll put the entire Pajiba braintrust to work, answering you! Some of us are actually parents. And others of us can even train dogs. Just not me. But uh, I can make soup? Mmm. Soup.]
This week’s question is from a parent, but she’s not the spanker! She’s just worried about another parent, who is a spanker, and doesn’t know what to do about it…
Dear Pajiba overlords,
Greetings from a dedicated lurker and occasional commenter. I am in desperate need of some advice (also apologies for any spelling and grammar mistakes, English is my second language). I had my first baby 4 months ago, one of my coworkers had her second baby about 2 months later. A week ago she came by work (I work in a shop, we have a small team of 8 including the owners) to show of her son. I took mine and we had a nice half hour to catch up on things. As we walked back to her car I asked how her daughter was doing with the adjustment and she said that she didn’t alway liked to share the spotlight and didn’t listen the way she should be. And that sometimes she, my coworker, got so frustrated that she would spank her child.
That really took me aback, I am firmly against any form of corporal punishment and I said to her that it doesn’t work and that she should try to remain calm in those situations. She agreed with me that it didn’t work and that her daughter doesn’t understand what she’s doing wrong, but the way she said it made me feel like that wasn’t enough to stop doing it.
I had to go to the child nurse today so I mentioned this and asked for advice and she referred me to a hotline and I called today. I am not comfortable with making an official complaint because I don’t know what she means by spanking and how often it happens. Their advice was to try and start a conversation about it once she gets back from maternity leave and try to find out more and indicate that it really is not ok to hit a child.
I hate confrontations of any kind and I have no idea how to talk to her about this, I also don’t want to cause trouble for her but I am really worried about the whole situation. A little background information, my coworker is young, 24 and so is her husband. Her daughter turns 2 in november and her baby is about 9 weeks now. She is a very strict Christian, what you would call an evangelical. I get the sense that this is the way that she was raised and that it is normal in her environment to spank or hit a child. What would you do? I can’t pretend that I didn’t hear it and if I were to call it in she would know it was me and will create an unworkable situation at my job.
This… is a tough one. And I totally get why you’re concerned. Studies have shown that spanking isn’t an effective means of discipline at best, since it doesn’t teach the child anything other than to be afraid, and at worst it is actively harming children and possibly leads to things like anxiety, mood disorders, or behavioral problems as they get older. Then again, those studies themselves aren’t clear-cut: many focus on the effects of physical punishment, which could involve actions above and beyond an open-hand swat or two on the tush, or perhaps they indicate a correlation between spanking and negative effects, but not a causal relationship. Add to that the fact that people have been getting spanked for generations, and plenty will admit in surveys that they still spank their kids now — though they likely wouldn’t say that in public, for fear of shaming or getting a house call from Child Protective Services. Hell — courts have even ordered parents to spank their kids before! It’s such a messy topic that I had a hard time finding sources to link to, because nothing I read seemed to agree. Do half of Americans spank, or it is more? Are there cultural differences in who is more likely to discipline through spanking? Are there actually some positive benefits to spanking, to go alongside the negative? We’re at the point where scientists are actually performing a meta-analysis of the existing research rather than performing new research, because there’s just so much.
And I’ll be honest: I know my parents spanked me. Not often, not hard, and not in any way that damaged me at the time or left a lasting impact now. I’m sure their parents spanked them more. And I’m also fairly certain that I won’t spank my children, should I have any — if for no other reason than I don’t remember it working. Or rather, I remember other forms of punishment that were much more impactful, like losing my toys for a week or being put in time-out. But it’s a tricky thing, talking about spanking in a world where many people were raised that way, and not everyone understands why what their parents did might not be right. After all, they turned out fine, right? So where is that line, as a bystander, between not agreeing with how someone is raising their child and believing they are actively causing their child harm? And how can you make them believe that another method is best?
1) Try to establish what this Other Mom means by “spanking.” Because while there really isn’t any reason to ever raise a hand to a two year old, there’s still a difference between a light tap on the back of a diaper to get a child’s attention versus something that is leaving welts or worse. Maybe you can arrange a get-together or play date with this mother, or get coffee with her to commiserate on your recent births. If you can witness the behavior, or look for signs of abuse on the child, that would be ideal — because she will likely downplay the action if she’s talking about it and knows you already don’t approve of spanking. But if not, I think a deeper conversation on the topic is still called for, to try and suss out the situation a bit more. What concerns me is that your coworker said she spanked her child out of frustration, meaning it was her own reaction rather than some sort of conscientious disciplinary method in the first place. And that’s where things get rocky… but it also means that your colleague needs some help.
2) Offer her alternatives to spanking. Being a new mother is hard. Emotionally, physically, with exhaustion and fluctuating hormones making everything more difficult. And if you’re right about her strict upbringing, then all she may know is how to spank — she may not have seen any other methods of discipline. She literally just might not know any better, at all. Learning why spanking isn’t an appropriate form of discipline may not be enough — she also may need help coming up with other non-physical strategies to get her child’s attention or change that behavior. Time-outs, verbal distractions, firmly saying “no” or explaining to the child calmly why something what they did was wrong, and what else they could have done instead — there are countless alternatives to spanking she could try. Take her out to talk, and offer her books or articles to give her those alternatives — you can even downplay it as “Hey, I thought you’d enjoy this, I found it fascinating and really helpful!” StopSpanking.org has a whole list of resources that may be able to help in this area.
3) Be honest. Look, mommy-shaming is no good for anyone, and people are entitled to raise their kids differently. But your concerns are valid, so maybe you can just take her out, look her in the eye, and explain that you were caught off guard when she admitted to spanking her child, but that it sounded like a cry for help. So here you are, ready to talk. And then… just talk to her, mom to mom, about the topic. Rather than giving her the reading list, you can discuss some discipline alternatives directly, or why you choose not to spank. It may mean a lot for her to know that you recognized her struggle, and that you don’t think it means she’s a bad parent, it just means she might be overwhelmed. Because here’s the sad truth: all parents make mistakes sometimes. And maybe she needs to vent or share her fears as well. If you were anyone else, I don’t think this play would work, but the fact that you also just had a baby means that there is a natural connection you can share with her that others might not be able to.
4) Recommend a support group for new mothers in your area. This doesn’t need to be entirely on you. Perhaps you can take her to a meeting with other moms, so she can hear how they are managing their toddlers. Because from the sounds of it, her frustration with her daughter wasn’t stemming from anything other than pretty typical child behavior — and maybe she needs to hear that, you know, her daughter didn’t really do anything wrong at all. Barring that, you could always arrange a get-together with other moms and invite her, to create that kind of group setting. Or go even further and recommend a therapist or counsellor that specializes in new moms, and tell her it’s because she said she was getting frustrated. Frame it as helping her, rather than just trying to condemn her, and she might go for it.
In the best case scenario, you may be able to help open her eyes as to why corporal punishment isn’t the answer and discover useful alternatives. In the worst case scenario, she may get defensive or feel attacked, and you may end up needing to call that hotline to report her. If it does come to that, don’t blame yourself. Talk to your bosses first, to let them know what’s going on if you truly think it will make things tough at work. You can always deny you were the one that called, and maybe there are other people in her life who heard about or saw her spank her child. She might not know for sure that it’s you who reported her. But you’re also trying to protect a child, so even if she does blame you — follow your conscience.
Ugh, another week and I didn’t fit fire or a bear trap into this column. I’M A FAILURE.
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