Monday, July 14, 2014

Spanking Would Be Easier

Photo by Believer9 (Flickr)

After the post about Duchess's epic fit in the daycare parking lot, someone commented to me that a quick, firm smack on the butt probably would have calmed her down. It might have. It definitely would have been easier than the chaos of strapping a flailing four year old into her car seat. And trust me, when my sweet little girl lowered her fist like a hammer onto the bridge of my nose, there was more than a small percentage of me that wanted to make it incredibly clear to her that hitting hurts. I think that is a pretty normal reaction to anger and pain, but it is not one I am comfortable with.

When Stevie and I became parents, we mutually agreed that we weren't going to spank our kids. It was a remarkably easy decision for us to make at the time. We had this tiny, soft, defenseless human cradled in our arms. We looked into her eyes, and then into each other’s eyes and said “Let us never spank this tiny perfect person we just made.”

And now sometimes I feel as if I have nothing. Time out rarely works. The taking away of toys doesn't work very well. The calm explanation of feelings only seems to be effective after the hurricane. But in the ramp up, in the moments before the fit, I have nothing. I look my daughter in the face and say, “Don’t you dare eat that chip I just told you that you couldn't have, that you then put in your mouth and are currently chewing, and which you just swallowed while I was finishing this run-on-sentence, which was only a run-on-sentence because I know once I reach the end of it and you have swallowed the chip I just explicitly said no to I am going to have to come up with some form of discipline to counteract your direct and obvious defiance of me, of which I have none, because you don’t care about time out, or toys, or anything else, and I can’t spank you because I promised tiny cute baby you that I wouldn't, and now you are toddler sized asshole and DID YOU JUST PUT ANOTHER CHIP IN YOUR MOUTH!”


(Don’t worry. That part was just in my head. Also, I put two asterisks in the middle, so it isn't a real swear word. Right?)

We did this to ourselves. For our daughter’s entire life we have been lying to her. We've been lying to ourselves. We've been building an invisible fence that only exists as long as she believed in it.

“Listen to us, or else...” 

“You had better do this before I count to 3!

“If you don’t get in bed right now you are going to be in trouble!

And she would run straight to bed! She never wanted to see what was on the other side of the curtain. The “or else” was enough. But, in our new parent haze, the problem "past" John and Stevie left for "future" John and Stevie to figure out was what would happen when we got to 3. So all it took was once... 

“Duchess, you had better do [random thing] before I count to three. I'm going to start counting. One… Two… (Oh no. She’s going to let me get to three. The jig is up. She’s figured me out. I have to stall. How do you stall counting to three???) Twwooooooooooo…. (Really, John. You just said two again, but longer. You’re a writer, and that is what you came up with? Do you realize you are still saying two while you are thinking this?) oooooooooooooooo (She’s called your bluff. Start crying. Pray for the phone to ring. Fake a heart attack. Just whatever you do, don’t say...) THREE!”

And the battle was over. She had won. We stared at each other silently blinking. I watched as she slowly realized that the control I pretended to have over her was an illusion. There was no spoon. There was no fence. Her world opened up. Mine collapsed. I tried again, because I am dumb

“One… two… three.”

Nothing. I had nothing. We've tried positive reinforcement, she laughs and eats another chip. We've tried time out. Sure, she sits in her room but she doesn't seem to mind.  I have calmly explained why she needs to listen, but my “why” doesn't seem to matter to her.

And so, in the rougher moments, I fleetingly wish I could spank her. It would be easier to make a spanking be the post-three punishment. A "firm smack to the butt" would make an excellent boogie man. 

But I won’t.

One time, about a year ago, I grabbed my daughter's arm as she wildly flung her tiny fist towards my face, and for one second I squeezed it. I watched as the look in her eyes went from anger to suddenly knowing that I am much, much stronger than her. Dad isn't just a soft cuddly guy. If he were to choose to, he could inflict pain. It wasn't a remarkably tight squeeze, but it was rougher than I had ever been with her, and as I watched the her eyes widen I quickly knew what I was looking at. Fear. My daughter was afraid of me.  

She started sobbing. I pulled her in close, buried my face in her hair, apologizing over and over again. She said sorry too, and that destroyed me. She wasn't sorry. She was too young to even grasp the concept of sorry. She was trying to avoid my anger. That’s not what I want. That’s not a road I want to start down. She shouldn't have to manage my emotions to avoid the possibility of getting hurt. 

I have friends that spank. They tell me, “just don’t spank angry.” That doesn't work for me. The only times I want to spank my kids is when I am furious with them. I can’t uncouple hitting from anger. Maybe some people can, but to me, all forms of violence, even the smallest ones, are emotion given physical form. It's not the father my dad was for me. And that is not the father I want to be for my kids.

So where does that leave Stevie and I? Do we continue to cycle through whatever the non-corporal punishment de jour is? I mean, on the scale of 1 to “Spawn of the Devil” I would say my kids, at their worst, are below a 5. So we’re not doing that bad. And it’s not as if they are in a constant mode of defiance. Even the fit from a few weeks ago ended up OK in the end. 

For the most part they are perfectly pleasant toddlers. I just wasn't ready for them to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge and suddenly realize that there isn't anything past me counting to 3. Without arbitrary consequences for their defiance I guess we’re going to have to teach them the actual reasons why they should listen to our instructions. This presents two challenges. We’re going to need a good reason, and somehow we have to get them to believe us. 

Maybe I’ll just start counting to 30. 

- John

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  1. Ah yes, this is an issue. I count to 5 (not quite sure why), but the first time I did it I said: "I will count to 5, and if you are not at the top of the stairs, I will carry you up there." He ran - and timed it so he got to the top exactly when I reached 5. Generally, when I reach 5 I take over and do whatever it is I wanted him to do for him, which he doesn't like. I guess the sanction at the end of the counting needs to be something Duchess doesn't like. Other consequences that work for us are: if you abuse a toy/item you cannot play with it for the rest of the day/week (depending on the severity of the violation or how mad I am).

    1. You know what we've been doing lately? (This post was written a few weeks ago and just published today.) Instead of doing an "Angry 123" we have been doing a "Happy 3." The idea is that we are giving her the chance to impress us with her listening. I count to three and then she jumps up and does what I've asked. Not because she is going to be in trouble, but because we celebrate that she is listening when she does. Kind of a positive reinforcement thing. I imagine this is going to work for at least two more days. Then it will be back to the drawing board,

    2. I really like that John. I am going to try that. I think we'll make it silly "Let's see if you can get done before I count to monkey: Ready! Go! Chicken, Pigeon, MONKEY!"

      That really is great.

    3. I love the idea of "Happy 3"! A variant that works for us is, I close my eyes as I start counting to 5 and ask my daughter to "surprise me" by finishing whatever she's supposed to do before I finish counting. And when she does, I make a big deal about being surprised about something she doesn't expect (E.g.,"I knew you could finish your milk before I counted to 5, but I never thought you could also put the empty cup in the sink by then too! Whao! Awesome!" *high fives* or *hugs*). It's been working well for a while now (when I'm calm enough to do this instead of screaming and threatening consequences). Keeping fingers crossed and hoping to get some more mileage out of it ;)

  2. Sorry, I am still thinking about this. I forgot to say that I totally and utterly agree: the only time I would want to hit or hurt is when I'm angry - I could never "spank but not in anger", and so we also do not spank our children. Could any of the following work: no dessert, take dinner away, having to help with chores, time out in a different location where there are no toys (stairs, corner of the kitchen,strapped into stroller maybe?), no songs at bedtime (though I suppose you wouldn't want to mess with bedtime...

  3. Your 3 year old sounds exactly like my 3 year old. We were not nearly as consistent with her as we were with our now 5 yr old son. It's been too many warnings and not enough action. Timeouts also didn't seem to work for us, which was frustrating because my son hated nothing more than a timeout.

    So we were stuck in this "don't know what to do with her" thing as well. What ended up working for us was WHERE she went to timeout.

    The bedroom, she played. The chair in the hallway, she would sing. The corner in the living room, she'd pretend to be drawing with her finger. Then finally...finally we discovered the stairs that go from our kitchen to our basement (its a finished basement with carpetted stairs, so its not scary) for some reason did the trick. She now have something we can do when we reach 3.

    Lately we've gotten back to basics. We are not getting emotional when she is acting up. We calmly walk her to timeout. We get down on her level and have her explain why she was in timeout. We've noticed things starting to get better. We still have a way to go to eliminate the whining and the not listening, but we are getting there.

    Good luck! I applaud your not spanking. It seems the easy way out to me.

  4. When our daughter was about 3 she LOVED to wear pretty dresses, the more lace the better. When she would start to act up we would tell her if she wasn't going to act pretty she couldn't wear the fancy dress. It worked for about 3 weeks.

  5. Great post! I've struggled with many of the same feelings as well. Have you read Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson? I've found the most answers there.

  6. Man, this post and the "Day Care Fit" one hit close to home (srsly, no pun intended.) We have only recently waded in to the waters of tantrums and punishment/correcting behavior. The main behavior issue with have with our daughter is hitting. It's been incredibly frustrating. We've been trying everything to curb that behavior and it has been SO hard to find something that seems to be effective. Our approach/philosophy to punishment and discipline is pretty closely aligned with how you have described yours. Since my child is just 20 months old time out isn't all that effective yet, and at this age, there's only so much that can be accomplished by talking/reasoning with her (not to say that we don't, but I have realistic expectations about the level at which she is capable of processing it.) This post was great; it offered some insight to long road ahead of us as her toddlerness continues to unfold, and its always nice to be reminded that lots of parents struggle with how to handle these issues and constantly worry about screwing up.

  7. John: Our daughter is almost 5, and for a long time we tried the consequences route. It seemed to work at first and then eventually she would just say, "I guess I don't get dessert tonight" or "I guess I don't get books tonight." It didn't seem to bother her too much.

    So we decided to try a "Good behavior" chart-- with prizes to give every so often. For every day she behaves well at school, eats or tries her food, does what she's told, etc., she gets a sticker. When she gets 10 stickers on a row, she gets a small prize (a toy, a new book, new watercolor paints, etc.) When she fills up the entire chart (100 stickers), she gets a trip to Chuck-E-Cheese.

    We've combined that with a daily behavior chart where she starts at "Good" and goes down from there based on her behavior and decisions. The worst that happens is she doesn't get a sticker and she goes straight to bed after dinner (if she's been awful).

    While not perfect, this is rewarding good decisions and good behavior. It seems to be sticking, which is what we want anyway.

    Not saying it'll work for the Duchess but you may want to do a pilot run or something of the sort.

    1. That sounds awesome. Thanks Scott!

    2. To add, the daily behavior chart is big as well. Goes Good Behavior > Warning > Time Out > Consequence > Time Out > Straight to Bed. She has opportunities to make the right decisions. If she reaches Consequence, it's something like No Kindle for a week. And it reboots every morning starting at Good Behavior.

  8. I have nannied my whole life. I know this is no where near the complications of being a parent but it does often present me with children who are very defiant and whom I am obviously not comfortable striking in any sense. I was spanked (rarely) as a child and I'm okay with it but I totally understand this point of view. Some advice on consequences I have thought up is time out obviously (but sometimes they won't listen to time out) or taking some privilege away. It can be anything from phones and computer time with older kids to dessert or a toy for a week for younger kids. Sometimes its nice because it really smooths over the whole rest of the day with a reward for everyone at the end. "If you behave and listen to me I was hoping we could go out for ice cream after dinner" or it can also be a spur of the moment rage cutter "If you eat that chip it will be the last one you have for a month." you can try other things but it helps them to see there are consequences and responsibilities and that they kind of "earn" the nice things you do for them.

  9. The decision not to spank is fine, but I wouldn't say spanking a child is easy. Anyway, you and your wife stick to it and that's cool. However, I'd say you need to do something at the end of those countdowns or they will become more meaningless than they already are. She clearly recognizes the lack of follow through.

  10. My daughter is closer to Captain's age than Duchess's, so I haven't had to deal with that level of defiance yet. However, I follow Andrea Nair, Parenting Educator on Facebook and she seems to have a lot of great advice for dealing with things like this. She's helped me deal with my toddler's meltdowns. I'd recommend checking her out.

  11. I've heard of people who have a "spanking spoon" that they make sure is in a spot their children can see. One mom said she gave her daughter one spank with it one time when she was acting out and she never had to do it again, just mention she would get the spoon and the behavior would stop.

  12. I'm with you, John. I vowed to break the spanking cycle with my kids, and so far so good. Luckily, my son and daughter (4 and almost 2) are both pretty well-behaved overall. But, when my boy does or says something to push my buttons, I often catch myself literally taking a step back from him and telling myself repeatedly that he's only 4, and that he's doing (fill in blank with any one of a million sh!tty behaviors) for a specific reason...he's tired, hungry, jealous of his sister, bored, etc. Taking a few seconds to rationalize both of the kids' misbehaviors helps me, man. Otherwise, I'd have probably lost my mind, or reverted to how my parents disciplined me, a long time ago. All the best, Christian

    1. One alibi, John: I meant to type 'tradition', not 'cycle', on the first line. My wife and I have never hit our kids.

  13. Hey, something we agree on ;) We don't really spank either. We've done it a couple of times, instantly regretted it and hated ourselves, and it didn't really get us what we wanted anyway. I have a huge problem with making gigantic threats that I can't really follow through with: "If you don't put your shoes and socks on right this minute, then we won't go to Grandma and Grandpa's house this weekend!" Yeah, right. Gladly, he didn't call my bluff on that one, but he has in the past and I have missed out on trips to the beach, to the park, to get ice cream, to the farmer's market, stuff that *I* really wanted to do, but well, I did say we wouldn't, so I guess we can't. My husband is much better at making the small threats, you'll have to go to bed right now, you won't be allowed to have that cookie we talked about, etc. Whatever discipline you choose, I think the whole hitting-with-anger thing is really all that will kill a child's spirit enough for them to stop testing you. It's all part of their age, it's just what they do. Push. Push more. Test. Test. Test. Where's that boundary again? Oh, yeah. And I don't think there's many of us that really want to kill our kids' spirits. So, we just deal with it the best way we know, ignore the ones who say we're doing it wrong (because aside from abuse, is there really a "wrong" here?) and hope they turn out ok. I was spanked as a kid, and I still have memories where I wondered, and still wonder, why did you hit me? I wasn't trying to be bad or make you mad, but you *hit* me. I don't want that for my guys.

  14. If the idea here is to reassert your authority, why give the child a choice where none actually exists? Simply and quietly removing her access to the chips, including the chip in her hand, shows her what you can do, and she can't. She may throw a fit, but you already know how to handle that, and she now sees that some things are not up for negotiation. No spanking or slow counting necessary.

  15. As a child I was whipped with a belt with my clothes off, and it really damaged my relationship with my parents. Being seen naked by them and my siblings was almost as bad as the punishment itself. I will never do that to my kids. I was very well behaved, but scared of my parents. That's not what I want for my child.