Nonviolent discipline — and spanking

(Flickr/HA! Designs – Artbyheather)

I got spanked as a kid. Not often, not hard, not in anger — but I did get whacked on the bottom. I don’t think it happened once a week, but there was a stretch there where it probably happened at least once a month. My brother and I fought all the time. We got spanked when we got caught. Spanking didn’t stop us from fighting, but it helped us get good at the whisper fight.

My dad and mom both spanked, but dad got the duty more often. He was always fair. If my brother was going to get a spanking, so was I. He always explained why we were getting the spanking, he never struck us in anger and he always assured us that “this hurts me more than it hurts you.”

One day at school, maybe in the third grade, a mom came into the classroom and spanked her son. She was yelling and whacking and chasing while he screamed and ran. She yelled “sit still and behave in class” and “come back here so I can hit you.” It was very disruptive to our learning and almost comically terrible. Even then, I could compare my whacks to his and know that I had the better deal.

But, the irony of getting spanked (a physical whack) as a consequence of fighting with my brother (many physical whacks) dawned early. The fact that my brother and I were being enjoined to be loving, peaceful, considerate young people and to break the cycle of violence between ourselves or else get whacked — by one of the country’s most prominent Catholic peace activists and pacifists — was kind of funny.

Even in disciplining of us, my father was breaking his own family’s cycle of violence. He was born before the Depression, the youngest of six boys with a domineering and mercurial father who made liberal use of the woodshed and the belt and whatever else he had on hand. He hit in anger, in rage, in despondence. Our dad did not. He talked our ears off first, and if we heeded even a third of what he said in our all-too-regular “rocking chair conferences” (reserved for when we were in trouble), we wouldn’t get spanked.

He had gone off to war, had killed and had faced death in World War II. He came back and used the flat of his hand on us in an almost ritualistic way. We cried because we knew he was disappointed in us, because crying was expected, because crying made it shorter — not because it hurt.

There is no spanking in my house now. And none in my stepdaughter’s mom’s house (where she spends half her time) either. That is a good thing, because I have definitely gotten angry enough to want to hit. It makes me appreciate the self-control of my mom and dad, who whacked without anger. Not for nothing were they clergy.

Our 6-year-old is a marvel: loving, inquisitive, generous, articulate, funny. She has a phenomenal memory (for some things), boundless energy and never misses a beat. She is also scattered, disorganized, willful, opinionated and almost attorney-like in her drive to get what she wants when she wants it. I get frustrated, offended, impatient, exasperated, hurt and just plain mad.

In response to one of my earlier columns, a dad shared: “I have found parenting a greater test of my commitment to nonviolence than anything in my activist experience. There is something about (a) my apparent need to control my nearly 4yo son, and (b) his ability to press my buttons in his challenge to my control, that leads to a lot more yelling than I’d like. I am working hard on giving up a little of (a), and sleeping more to reduce the effects of (b)!”

Yes, indeed! Sleep and other aspects of self-care are important components of nonviolent parenting. I handle everything better when I am well-rested and well-caffeinated. Another good idea is trading off. When I feel myself reacting too strongly to our 6-year-old or the 7-month-old, I can ask my husband for help. I leave the room. I pass the problem on to him and take a break. I come back when I am ready to be the grown-up again, when I am cool and collected and ready to dole out consequences that match the transgression — not my anger or frustration level. That usually means a time-out for her or a high shelf for one of her stuffed-animal friends.

Talking a problem through with other parents and care-givers is also a huge help. How do you respond to this? Does that work? What do you think about that?

But maybe the biggest help I have found is asking why? Why is she acting this way right now? What does she need from me? Why am I getting hot under the collar? Why do I care if she does or doesn’t do x? Is it really important, or is it just about control? Why am I rushing her? Because she is being pokey and distracted, or to compensate for my own earlier disorganization or poor time management? Does my rushing her help her move faster or slow her down?

I found a book at the library, Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant, from the Gesell Institute for Child Development. There is one for every age (4: Wild and Wonderful, 5: Sunny and Serene. I can’t wait for 8: Lively and Outgoing). I was struck by the observation that 6-years-olds need attention and thrive on praise. They are discovering themselves as people capable of action and want to be recognized for that and reassured that their new discoveries and independence do not mean they are now completely on their own.

If six-year-olds do not get positive attention for their triumphs (however small and mundane they may seem to grown-ups), they will seek negative attention by acting out. Correcting, snapping, “Quit that right now” attention is better than no attention to a 6-year-old. Aha! Why is she doing x that is annoying and makes me want to scream? Because I failed to appreciate her effort to help a few minutes ago.

Reading that and then seeing praise and acknowledgement do wonders for the behavior of our very own loving and defiant 6-year-old made me consider the why of my own childhood. Why did my brother and I fight? Why were we at each other’s throats? Why didn’t the threat of spanking work as a deterrent to fighting?

Looking back on it now, I think we fought because living with a bunch of peace-seeking adults was not always fun, because going to school as the peace-activist kids was only occasionally fun, because having our parents go off to jail was not ever fun, because being together all the time was not at all fun, because life in general was stressful and fighting provided a sort of release for all of that. It gave us a chance to scream and cry at each other so that we would not scream and cry at a demonstration where our mom was hauled off in handcuffs, or in a courtroom where our dad stood in a baggy jumpsuit.

As kids, we never had the words or wherewithal to say to Mom and Dad, “We won’t fight if you stop going to jail and get all these people out of our house.” I am glad of that. They would not have been able to do it (and should not have), and we would have also missed out on lots of relationships and experiences that — looking back as an adult, anyway — I really value. I know my brother and sister — who, by the way, was almost never spanked — do too. But it is good to understand the why of our pudgy pummeling and put-downs of one another and to know that asking “Why?” makes me a more nonviolent parent now.

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