Parenting in Jesus' Footsteps

It Shouldn't Hurt to be a Child

By Jan Hunt, M.Sc.

"The birch is used only out of bad temper and weakness, for the birch is a servile punishment which degrades the soul even when it corrects, if indeed it corrects, for its usual effect is to harden." 

- Saint John Baptiste de La Salle, On the Conduct of Christian Schools, 1570

This is a note to the many parents who defend spanking on the basis of their religious beliefs. I find this argument mystifying, as love is defined in the Bible as being patient and kind1. Hitting a child is neither patient nor kind, and does not accomplish the true goal intended. It only produces feelings of anger, resentment, and low self-esteem, not the genuine willing cooperation the parent seeks. Adults too would cooperate with someone who threatened or hit them, but they would do so only through fear, and only if the other person held more power. Genuine cooperation comes from the heart. The only cooperation worth having is that which is given freely by a child, not because he has been frightened into obedience, but because he feels loved, respected, and understood, and consequently wants to treat his parents with love and respect in return.

Sometimes parents justify spanking by saying they do it only when they are "calm". Although I wish no parent ever hit a child, I would prefer to hear that they spank only when they are angry; at least that would make some logical sense to the child, and be consistent with what he is learning about human nature. If a parent is indeed "calm", then he should be able to think clearly enough to discover more creative and positive ways to resolve a problem.

All punishment is emotionally dangerous and mind-warping. Associating so-called "love" with the deliberate infliction of pain is deeply confusing to a child, because children know in their hearts that love and pain are inconsistent. This kind of confusion, if experienced often enough, can lead to masochistic, sadistic, or other pathological behavior in adulthood, in which love and pain are associated - hence the strange "spankings wanted" personal ads in some newspapers.

It may be helpful to consider the most common reasons a child "misbehaves"2:

  • The child is trying to fulfill a legitimate need which has been ignored too long. She may be hungry, thirsty, overtired, or may simply need a reassuring hug, or some undistracted respectful listening. Such needs can be met easily if the child has not had to wait too long (indeed most children are surprisingly patient), but if continually postponed, can lead to a lengthy conflict, with tantrums, crying, hitting, and other kinds of misbehavior. The proverb that "a stitch in time saves nine" is most apt in parenting.

  • The child lacks information. An infant reaches for a hot object because she does not yet know about such hazards; a toddler "takes" an item in a store because he is simply too young to understand about stealing; a child runs into a street because he doesn't fully understand the dangers. If a child misbehaves due to a lack of information, it is our responsibility to provide this, not the child's responsibility to know something he does not know. It is unfair and ineffective to punish a child because she lacked information, and a punished child will be too distracted with feelings of anger, resentment, and fantasies of revenge to learn the lesson intended. In this way, punishment diverts the child's attention from the matter at hand, and thus interferes with learning - at precisely the best time for this learning to take place.

  • The child is emotionally upset or physically distressed. He may be frightened, angry, confused, jealous, disappointed, or he may have other intense feelings because of whatever happened just prior to the misbehavior. He may be misbehaving because of the discomfort of an impending illness or the high histamine levels associated with allergy. It is not really so difficult to understand the reasons for a child's (or an adult's) behavior if we simply put ourselves in their place. Children are not an alien species; just like adults, they all behave as well as they are treated.

If we try to change a child's behavior without attending to these natural, universal, and understandable feelings and needs, we do not help the child, because the underlying problem has not been dealt with. Consequently, the child learns nothing about how to handle similar problems in the future. There is no specific information in a spanking, and any verbal direction - constructive or not - that is given at the time cannot be heard by a frightened, angry, and resentful child. The most timely opportunity for the child to learn something important has been lost.

Simply forcing a child, by means of our greater size and power, to meet our needs does not resolve the real issues which led to the behavior. The unwanted behavior - or another kind of misbehavior - will recur until the child's legitimate needs are met, her feelings are understood and accepted, and she feels truly loved and secure.

It is inevitable that sometimes the child's needs will conflict with our own, but this is not the child's fault any more than when the needs of two adults conflict. The difference is that parents are in a position of superior power which they can - but should not - misuse. It is wrong and unfair for the strong to overcome the weak by force, and there are always alternatives. If we use our creativity, we can resolve conflicts in a positive and compassionate way. Indeed, any negativity or force in conflict resolution simply creates more conflict. Because of this, punishment and misbehavior can quickly escalate into a vicious cycle, with parent and child locked in a struggle for power. The parent, having more power by virtue of his size, parental role, and one-sided laws that protect adults - but not children - from physical aggression, can always win such a struggle, at least until the child reaches the teenage years and is physically strong enough to rebel.

The only message in punishment is rejection. The unbearable pain of being rejected by those who are so important to the child's very survival will require him to deny his true feelings. As it is too painful to believe that a loved parent is deliberately hurting him, the child instead begins to believe that punishment is appropriate and proper behavior for a parent, that a child misbehaves because he is "bad", and that "bad" children deserve to be hurt. It is in this way that misconceptions about children's behavior and the proper way to respond to that behavior, continue through the generations.

As children learn most clearly by example, true loving guidance consists of patience, trust, acceptance, and understanding shown to the child by the parents. A child who is punished often enough may appear "cooperative" on the surface, but the hidden anger and resentment - unless it is directly recognized and dealt with - can accumulate over the years until the child feels strong enough to express it to those who have hurt him; angry teenagers do not fall from the sky. Then the parents give up on "discipline" because it no longer "works". But kind parents who treat their children with respect, understanding, and patient explanations find that this "method" continues to work - through infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, the teenage years, and beyond into adulthood. When the parent in later years is in need of care, the child will then happily return the love and assistance he was given in childhood.

We can feel confident that the kindnesses we show to our children when they are young will return to us tenfold. Sadly, we can also be confident that punishment will convey continued anguish to future generations.

1 1 I Corinthians xiii.4. 1 I Corinthians xiii.4.
2 Adapted from Solter, Aletha, "The Disadvantages of Time-Out," Mothering 65 (Winter 1992): 38-43.

Note: The slogan "It Shouldn't Hurt to be a Child" was written by Gary and Sharon Rosenfeldt for a poster by Vincent Sinclair, Victims of Violence Society, Ottawa, Ontario.

Reprinted by permission from the author.  Jan Hunt is the author of "The Natural Child -- Parenting From the Heart" and is the Director of The Natural Child Project

Please see Jan Hunt's related articles:  "I Was Spanked and I'm Fine!"

"The Parenting Golden Rule"

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