Toxic Parenting: Spanking, Shaming, Threatening, Manipulating
[Excerpt from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood, Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages, and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
I stood, frozen in shock, outside of the upscale bookstore where I would soon be signing my gentle parenting books and chatting with parents about alternatives to punishment-based parenting. A well-dressed young couple I’d spoken with just minutes before in a nearby pizzeria was getting into an expensive SUV several yards away from where I was standing, but the screams were crystal clear.
The young man was leaning over his wife who sat shrinking into her seat as he screamed in her face, “Get in the car! Get in the car!” over and over again. The woman was clearly confused, as was I. She was in the car, though not yet buckled up, so why in the world was the man screaming at his wife to get in? It suddenly dawned on me that what he wanted her to do was put her seatbelt on, but the man was too enraged to even realize that wasn’t what he was actually saying.
I glanced down at my little one who was shrinking back in fear and tried to organize my thoughts so I could cross the few yards separating me from the SUV and engage the man in conversation. If nothing else, I thought, reminding him that people were watching might help him to take a moment and compose himself.
But in the next second, the man suddenly yanked his wife out of her seat and landed several stinging blows on her bare skin before flinging her back into her seat, this time screaming at the sobbing woman, “You are not in charge! You are not in charge!” He then slammed her door shut, stomped around to his own seat, slammed his door, and pealed out of his parking space.
I quickly snapped a picture of the license plate with my iPhone and called the police to report the domestic violence I’d just witnessed. They immediately sent out an officer to track down the endangered woman and take the man into custody.
Now here’s the real story…
On a recent book tour I stood, frozen in shock, outside of the upscale bookstore where I would soon be signing my gentle parenting books and chatting with parents about alternatives to punishment-based parenting. A well-dressed woman and her two small children whom I’d chatted with just moments before in a nearby pizzeria were getting into an expensive SUV, but the screams were crystal clear.
The woman was leaning over her toddler and four-year-old who sat shrinking into their carseats as she screamed in their faces, “Get in the car! Get in the car!” at them over and over again. The children were clearly confused, as was I. They were in their carseats, though not yet buckled up, so why in the world was the woman screaming at her children to get in? It suddenly dawned on me that what she wanted was for the toddler to put her own arms in the straps, but the mother was too enraged to even realize that wasn’t what she was actually saying.
I glanced down at my little one who was shrinking back in fear and tried to organize my thoughts so I could cross the few yards separating me from the SUV and engage the woman in conversation. If nothing else, I thought, reminding the mother that people were watching might help her to take a moment and compose herself.
But in the next second, the woman suddenly yanked her toddler out of her carseat and landed several stinging blows to her chubby little legs before flinging her back into her carseat, this time screaming at the sobbing child, “You are not in charge! You are not in charge!” She then roughly buckled the little one in, stomped around to her own seat, slammed her door, and pealed out of her parking space.
As I stood there staring through tears at the tail lights speeding away, I realized that if I’d just witnessed a man doing that to his wife I could call the police who would intervene immediately because there are laws to protect adults from domestic violence, but there are no such laws protecting children in the US.
My opportunity was lost to touch those small children’s lives, and my heart aches for them. Was the mother just having a bad day? Was she angry at the snarky pizzeria cashier? Was she frustrated that dinner was pizza again because she’d been delayed at work? I don’t know, and, honestly, I don’t care. If a man was having a bad day, we wouldn’t accept that as an excuse for domestic violence.
Hitting any human being other than a child is against the law in the United States where it is legal for parents to hit their children whenever and wherever and with whatever they want to as long as it doesn’t leave lasting marks and, in nineteen states, for school officials to hit children with anything from rulers to two foot long boards. That is not acceptable. In fact, it is outrageous.
Though I know I can’t change the world for every child, I am determined to change the world for as many children as humanly possible. We don’t need new laws. We just need the domestic violence laws already in place to protect adults to be extended to protect our most vulnerable, voiceless, voteless citizens, our children.
Did you know that there is less evidence linking lead exposure to developmental delays in children and asbestos to cancer than there is of the short and long-term detrimental effects of spanking? Study after study has confirmed that spanking (not just physical abuse, but any physical act of correction – smacking, hitting, swatting, slapping, paddling, switching, etc.) is directly linked to greater aggression and other behavioral issues, impaired cognitive development, and increased risk of depression and anxiety in childhood as well as long-term mental issues in adulthood. And yet the American public is still reluctant to dismiss the physical punishment of children as an option for parents and school systems.
It is not unusual for public opinion to evolve slowly. Until recent years, husbands hitting their spouses in the US was considered “reasonable chastisement of wives” and “a private family matter” by the courts and by law enforcement even though it has technically been against the law in all fifty states for decades. Now domestic violence in the US is viewed with outrage and abusers with disdain.
While the tide is ever-so-slowly turning regarding public opinion of the physical punishment of children, in excess of eighty-percent of Americans still believe spanking is a necessary part of raising a child according to a survey cited by a UN report. And in the nineteen US states where corporal punishment is still legal in the public school system, wooden paddles are used on children as young as preschool, and parents’ permission or notification is often not even required. By contrast, in every branch of the US military and in the US penal system, physical punishment has long been outlawed as it was deemed ‘cruel and unusual’ and a ‘use of excessive force.’
Clearly there is a disconnect when it comes to physical punishment of the most vulnerable and defenseless of our citizens, our children. Even in the face of study after study detailing the detrimental effects of physical punishment on young children, more than ninety-percent of American parents still admit to spanking their toddlers and preschoolers, even if they don’t believe that it is a good alternative. The responses to a recently released study linking a significantly increased risk of mental illness in adulthood to being spanked as a child point to some possible reasons for that dichotomy:
1.”I was spanked, and I turned out okay.”
Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, but why take the risk?
2. “I don’t want to raise a rotten brat!”
Studies link spanking to increased aggression and other behavioral issues, not decreased.
3. “I spank my kids because the Bible commands me to.”
Not only is spanking not one of the Ten Commandments, but commanding or even suggesting that parents hit young children is not found anywhere in the Bible. The handful of Old Testament ‘rod’ and ‘training’ verses used to support this theory are misinterpreted to refer to physical punishment instead of guidance, and the word translated ‘child’ in those verses is translated ‘young man’ in every other instance.
4. “They’re my kids, and nobody has the right to tell me how to raise them!”
Our laws are civil agreements as to what is and is not acceptable in our society. We once agreed that slavery was acceptable. Now we know better, and our laws reflect that. As research continues to reveal the detrimental effects of spanking, public opinion will begin to shift and our laws will naturally follow suit. It is the way of a democratic society.
5. “Nothing else works!”
Thoughtful, compassionate, proactive parenting works.
Beyond even the issue of spanking, though, the mindset of controlling children through external forces rather than helping them learn how to and desire to control themselves is where the real changes need to happen. When humans, whether they are adults or children, are pushed, the inbuilt reaction is to push back. When humans are pulled, the inbuilt reaction is to pull back. When they are threatened, intimidated, or shamed, it is only the size and strength of their opponent that results in submission and that submission is temporary. As soon as the opponent is eliminated from the equation, humans will pursue their own course, often more angrily and rebelliously and single-mindedly.
Becoming our children’s opponent is not healthy parenting and it doesn’t create a healthy parent/child relationship. It creates a destructive dynamic primed for conflict, rebellion, and escalation. Even when parents choose non-violent means to control their children such as isolation (i.e. time-outs) and behavior charts and other punishment/reward tactics, the basic truth is that they are modelling manipulation and coercion and are focused on controlling a child’s behavior externally rather than working with them to help them learn to control their own behavior through an internal guidance system.
In parenting there will always be times when your child’s behavior doesn’t meet your expectations. Recognizing that you are two distinct individuals with differing opinions and plans and wants and needs will help you to work with your child instead of clashing with them and creating an unhealthy dynamic in your relationship. Be aware that unhealed hurts and unforgiveness, even of yourself, will get in the way of a healthy relationship and take the steps you need to take in order to heal your relationship and yourself (see Chapter Fifteen of The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline).
Whenever things escalate to the point where you withhold affection and connection in order to punish or try to control behavior, and certainly if you are hitting or if you are hurting your child emotionally through threats, intimidation, and shaming, you can be sure you’ve stepped off the gentle discipline path. But there is always a way back, and that’s through reconnection, owning our mistakes, and starting again. The bottom line is that we cannot control another human being. We can force external obedience temporarily, but only by constantly escalating the threats, emotional manipulations, and punishments which accomplish nothing in the long run and do far greater damage than they are worth.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of parents not only deeply love their children, but, based on the information and experiences they have to work with, are also making the best parenting decisions they know how to make. Working with our children instead of against them is a foreign concept to most parents, but therein lies the secret to a peaceful, happy home and the healthy parent/child trust relationship that the Three C’s of gentle discipline—Connection, Communication, and Cooperation—are built upon.
Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.