It Shouldn't Hurt to be a
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
- 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
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
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
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 I Corinthians
xiii.4. 1 I
2 Adapted from Solter, Aletha,
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.