New scientific study on spanking… are we asking the right questions?

A few years ago I would have immediately lept onto my high horse after reading
this article about the new ground-breaking scientific study on spanking, which states that five decades of research on children that were spanked shows spanking in fact doesn’t improve behavior or have positive long-term impact on a child’s life.   A while back I would have told myself, “See, look, I already knew it was ‘bad’ and now there is proof that I am doing it better!”  However, after reading this article, now I notice that I want to pause, as I see that I feel shame… as I witness the stories in my mind of all of my own “bad” parenting moments.  And I see that my impulse, upon being told yet again how parents are screwing up their children, is to want to fight the shame and throw it right back as blame — judging someone else so I don’t have to feel.  Holding onto my “good” parenting moments and looking down my nose.

However, I can no longer ignore the part of me that can understand the spanking.  I do understand how a parent can get to their wits’ end and feel that physical harm is the ony remaining option.  I have been out on that ledge with my child, feeling scared and alone, feeling that it’s me versus them, that I have no option but to “put my foot down” and get things under control before the whole ship goes under. It’s a very lonely place. I remember my mother telling me a story about a time she spanked me when I was two years old. Apparently she sent me into “time-out” like a compassionate mother is supposed to do, and I refused to stay there. So she spanked me every time I came out, until she had spanked me more than ten times. She said she finally sat down and cried and let me out of my room, because she felt concerned that she was abusing me. She had no idea what recourse to take and felt horrible for the pain she had caused.  I get it.  My own son refused to comply with “time-out” and baffled me by responding only if I yelled.

No parent feels good about causing their child pain, whether it is physical or emotional pain, and no parent has any doubt that they are causing their child pain.  We just find ways to justify the “bad parenting” moments, because otherwise how else could we live with ourselves?  When I got to the line at the end of the article that says, “We hope that our study can help educate parents about the potential harms of spanking and prompt them to try positive and non-punitive forms of discipline,” I felt so mad. What I hear is that yet again parents are “doing it wrong” and just need to be “educated.” Are we really under some illusion that if only we were all educated about being perfect parents that then everything would change? Oh, if only someone had told me that there is a better way! As someone who set out to be that perfect parent and was immediately “educated” by my children, who taught me that there is no such thing, I can atest to the fact that the numerous parenting books and articles I’ve read have not changed the reality that sometimes I feel enraged at my children’s behavior. Sometimes I just want to tap out.  Sometimes I want to scream.

Instead of asking how we can get parents to stop spanking, what if we asked WHY parents are spanking their children? What if we asked parents what they needed? What if we created systems of support for families rather than more research that blames parents? What if every person that “liked” the “no spanking” article on facebook instead reached out to a parent and offered them some support? What if every parent that feels horrible inside about the time they stood on that ledge with their child and reached out in terror for help and found only lonliess and rage or fear could offer that part of themselves some grace?  What if we stopped telling parents what to do and started listening?

Yes, lets help stop spanking AND yes, let’s look for science to support positive parenting styles, and also — let’s offer forgiveness and support rather than judgement.