Saturday, August 08, 2009


Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

I would never spank a child, not as a teacher or parent. This is a vow I made long before having a child of my own, and it’s one I’ve never even been tempted to break.

And while I could link to dozens of studies that show that spanking doesn’t improve a child’s behavior, and in fact may lead to everything from poor peer relationships to hyperactivity to anti-social behavior, I’m not going to. I won’t because there are other scientific studies (fewer, but they exist) that show that spanking is an effective and acceptable parenting tool.

My objection to spanking is a moral one, anyway, and any research I site would simply be backfill to support a position from which I will not budge. As I’ve written here before, I believe that once a moral argument is raised, the debate is over. No one is going to back down from an honestly held moral position: once that point is reached, further discussion is a waste of breath.

There are a few things about spanking, however, about which I hope every reasonable person agrees:

• Spanking must never be done in anger – that’s called beating.

• Spanking is the exclusive domain of parents; it’s never okay to spank someone else’s child.

• Spanking must be accompanied by a clear explanation to the child about why she is being punished and followed-up with clear demonstrations of love.

• If the child is too young to understand why he is being spanked, he is too young to be spanked.

As much as it goes against every fiber of my being, if these conditions are met, I guess a big, strong adult has the right to hit a smaller, weaker child. The whole idea makes me soul sick, but we live in a society in which the choice of parental corporal punishment is permitted.

That said spanking done in public becomes everybody’s business. We’ve all seen a frustrated parent whack a whining child. From where I stand, that’s hitting done in anger and I can’t help but wonder that if a parent does this in public, heaven only knows what she’ll do behind closed doors. That parent may have the right to spank her child, but I’ve just witnessed a child getting hit. As a teacher in Washington State, I’m required by law to report suspected child abusers. That parent's actions have caused a spark of suspicion, so I can’t just look the other way on both moral and legal grounds.

It’s hard to know what to do. I don’t want to make things worse by humiliating or further angering a person who has already demonstrated a willingness to hit a child. Sometimes I find a way to say something. I try to do it in a compassionate and reasonable tone. My primary goal is to stop the violence by distracting the parent. Other times, I simply make sure that the adult knows that I’ve been a witness by forcing eye contact. Either way, I’m always left angry, sad, and wondering what else I could have done.

I’ve had people shrug at my moral stance and insist that spanking “works,” and I’m sure it does. There are lots of things that work that I will never try. If I disagree with you, shouting you down works, but wouldn’t it be better if I engaged you in reasonable debate? If I need money, stealing works, but wouldn’t it be better if I worked to earn a higher income? If you’re standing in my way, pushing you works, but wouldn’t it be better to politely ask you to allow me to pass? Indeed, spanking may work, but there are better ways. They just take more effort.

As a boy, I was on the receiving end of a handful of spankings, always administered by my father, who is by every measure a loving, peaceful, compassionate man. I don’t believe that I am the worse for the experience.

Still, I have never spanked a child and I never will because I know in my heart that violence is wrong. And I will not teach violence.

Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. --MLK

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Anonymous said...

My mom told me this story: She witnessed a woman screaming at her child and manhandling the child. While most people stared in shock (including herself) a creative lady found a mirror in the store and held it up in front of the mother. It was an assertive yet non verbal disapprobation of the behavior. It would stop me in my tracks. The hardest part is stopping yourself in your tracks. Children are frustrating and non-cooperative at times. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject, Tom.

Jenni said...

Interesting commentary. I, too, know that I would never spank a child (mine or anyone else's child). More so not because I think of violence, but because I was raised with no spanking and, as a child development professional, I know so many other ways to discipline.

I take the work discipline as my lead in children's behavior (meaning "to teach").

However, my real point in starting this comment was on witnessing a parent spank a child in public. I too am a mandated reporter in California. I too have witnessed this behavior on very few occasions. I too struggle with it being a "reportable" offense or not.

When it's a parent in my center or classroom, I typically take the opportunity to educate them on better ways to discipline. Out in public, I'm somewhat ashamed to say, I haven't taken any initiative to educate that person; nor have I ever reported it from a public venue (although, that's probably because I have never really witnessed a "beating" so much as more of a "swat" and never more than one "strike" in an incident. If it was more than that I KNOW I would report it-public or in the center).

Having made the necessary reports on other occasions, it's interesting how teachers in our field feel about reporting spankings.

You gave me great food for thought; thank you!

Teacher Tom said...

You sound like an awesome educator Jenni.

I was inspired to write this when I found myself in the midst of a forum in which most of the participants were pro-spanking. Many of them were taking the "moral" stance that no one had the right to tell them how to be a parent. It made me realize that no amount of scientific proof would sway them.

You're so right that there are better ways to "teach" kids. It seems to me that people who stick with spanking because, "I was spanked and turned out okay," are using the same argument that a writer might use for sticking with a ballpoint pen in this age of computers. =)

Like you, I'm really flummoxed by what to do when I see borderline spanking in public. I can imagine that the idea of holding up a mirror might work in some cases, but I can also see it setting some people off. And that's the last thing I want to do. On the other hand, when I don't do or say anything am I teaching my own child that violence is sometimes OK?

I'm going to do some more research about this. I'd love any other insight you have.

Floor Pie said...

An older relative spanked my child in public when he was two. He'd just pushed a smaller girl down some steps at the zoo, and it was shocking and scary. She responded without even thinking about it.

He was so confused. I don't think it hurt him at all, since he was wearing a big diaper and she didn't spank very hard. But he was just SO baffled.

I was horrified, but I managed to stay calm. I picked him up, put him in the stroller and explained that pushing someone down the stairs is NOT okay. I explained that because he pushed the girl down the stairs, we were now leaving the zoo. That got a lot more remorse than the spanking did!

I didn't say a word for the walk back to the parking lot. In the car, I calmly explained to the relative that my husband and I don't spank. We don't believe it's effective and we believe it sends a conflicting message, punishing violence with more violence.

She took my point and apologized. Nothing like that has happened again. Whenever possible, I think setting a good example and showing people how effective other methods of discipline can be is a good idea.

Jason, as himself said...

When I was a younger parent, (21)I spanked my daughters once in a while, because I didn't really know any better. It's what my parents did and most of the people I knew when I was growing up.

Now that I am older (40) and have a little boy, I never spank him. I've learned that there are better ways!

Very worthwhile post, Teacher Tom.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

This is a very interesting post. My parents used spanking as a consequence a few times when I was growing up. Part of me wants to get defensive about this because I love my parents, they were good parents, and now as an adult and I look back on spankings in no way do I feel my parents were abusive or violent. The spankings were used to make it clear that my actions were unacceptable.

Now, being a teacher, I see so many levels of parent discipline. Some severe and some totally nonexistant. We know so much more about child development and what makes them "tick" than we did back in the day. There certainly are better ways to discipline.

Eternal Lizdom said...

Prior to having kids, when I worked with a lot of children (most of whom had a wide range of emotional problems), I swore and swore that I would never spank. I chastised my mother the one time I witnessed her spank my younger brother (I was 15 when he was born).

I freely admit that we went through a period with my daughter that I didn't know what else to do. And I spanked her. A total of 3 times. And then swore I would never do it again. Because it was ineffective. Because it was bullying. Because it lacked intelligence as a response. Because it taught nothing aside from "I'm bigger and stronger and angrier than you."

I apologized to my daughter. In a calm time. And promised her that I wouldn't hit her again. And that I never should have hit her in the first place. Period.

I had a lot of guilt at first but have learned to forigve myself. And am a kick ass, educated, intelligent, creative parent. It was a hard time in our parenting relationship. But I came out of it better and more focused on my goals and purpose as a parent.

I really like what you had to say about the futility of presenting study-based research in those arguments. And that it really comes down to a moral argument and that once someone has made a moral decision, there is no turning back.

Genevieve @The Way of the Peaceful Parent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Genevieve @The Way of the Peaceful Parent said...

Hi Tom, I think this is such an important topic to open up. Most people just don't know what to do in these situations, most people find it distressing, some because they judge the child, some because they judge the parent, but it needs to be discussed.

Here's a post that I wrote a couple of months back on the subject;

It also brought some interesting comments from other parents.

Thanks for sharing this and I want to acknowledge the empathy and understanding for children that you carry, that your moral stance speaks to. Like you, I've always known that I could, would never hit a child.

I grew up in an environment of violence, so I'm very aware of the damaging effects and am committed to helping others who also want to break the cycle, but need support and skills to create a healthier model.