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.

We have choices!

I had dinner with a friend the other night in this delectable Argentinian restaurant in downtown Denver and she tells me she is writing a book about YOU.  She explains that it must be about YOU, because that word needs to be redefined since most people don’t understand it.  As I sit listening to her enthusiasm, I feel both excited and scared — excited about her book and scared about the beet salad that was on it’s way.  As she talks about helping people learn to find acceptance, I’m reminded of this recent article: The Two Phrases You Should Stop Using To Become More Successful.  The article talks about how words like “must” or “should” or “but” hinder us from seeking acceptance, and thus keep us from finding success.  I think about the other day how my eleven-year-old son ran in and told me that he “had no choice but to eat gross bread off the floor that would make him sick,” since his younger brother spilled the bread on the floor.  He says things like this frequently: “I had to stay home from school,” or “I needed to push your bike over because it was in my way.”  I am reminded of my mother who would sometimes say, “it’s not a choice!  You should have finished your chores by now.”  And then I hear myself thinking, “I can’t tell my friend I feel scared, she won’t understand that I really don’t really like beets!”  But. Can’t. Had to. Should. Must.  These words imply that we don’t have choices.  However, I remember from learning about Existentialism in the AP English class that I HAD TO take that I know we do have choices and free will.  Even if I turn into a cockroach, I get to choose what to think and how I want to be.  As for some more modern references, I CHOSE to read, I enjoyed both Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” and Byron Katie’s “The Work.”  I think my favorite, though, is “Time-out for Parents,” which is specifically about how to be yourself, even as you’re trying to be the perfect parent.  Another book I love to think about in relation to this topic is “Ishmael,” which really delves into the question of why do we humans have such trouble remembering that we have choices?  Why do we buy into the stories of “should?”  Why don’t we want to accept what is right in front of us?  Maybe it’s because we all grow up living within this story of society – the story that this is the way the world “should” work.  Some of the books call these stories, some call them voices, others just thoughts.  Regardless of the language, though, many people are clearly trying to get at the same thing.  Living in the stories/voices/shoulds is causing us suffering!  We are constantly comparing ourselves to imaginary standards, berating ourselves for supposed mistakes, and denying we have choices because they are hard to accept.  But what if we could remember that we have choices?  Rather than saying when dropping my children off at school, “I’m sorry I have to leave you, I have to go to work,” what if I say, “I am choosing to drop you off here because I have put a lot of effort into CHOOSING a place I trust to care for you well.  I will miss you while I’m at work AND I’m CHOOSING to go so we’ll have money for food, our house and other nice things, as well as offering myself intellectual stimulation with other adults so I can feel more present with you later.”  What if I could say to my friend, “I really dislike beets,” and just accept that she might be disappointed?  I work with a student who loves to yell, “We have choices!!” and I frequently want to join her and shout that from the rooftops.  WE HAVE CHOICES!!

Who is attached to whom?

I always imagined that staying at home with my sweet baby boy would be a dream come true.  However, as I look back and think about it, I can see that I was at a complete loss much of the time.  I was grasping at straws, trying to control everything by making spreadsheets of breastfeeding and diapering times, and even going to the extreme of charting his naps.  I’m totally serious… I have graphs to show the times he fell asleep, when he woke up and notes about the outliers.  I approached parenting much as I had done anything else in my life.  I had learned in school that if I studied, read all of the books, and went to all of the right classes, I could ace anything.  So that’s precisely what I did.  I read “What to Expect when you’re expecting” and about ten other birthing and parenting classes, I went to Lamaze class, Infant First-Aid and Breastfeeding class, I made the Babies R Us Registry and bought all of the right materials.  So why was I awake at 3 in the morning with a cracked nipple and a baby that wouldn’t eat??!!  Who designed this “Stay-At-Home-Mom” job anyway?  One of the books that I did get something out of was called, “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer,” by Tracy Hogg.  She has this EASY acronym – Eat, Activity, Sleep, You.  So you’re supposed to do each day in that order – feed the baby, provide activities for the baby, put the baby down for a nap, and then do a little something for yourself.  Not so bad, really, except that you are supposed to do this EVERY TWO HOURS!  The tedium nearly killed me.  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love babies and couldn’t wait to have one of my very own.  But all day long?  With no other adults to talk to?  This is insane!  I had to get out of the house.  At last I found a “playgroup” I could join, thanks to my local “Gymboree,” – a place where moms pay money to go play with their babies in groups!

I have since read a very different book, called the “Continuum Concept” by Jean Liedloff, which has helped me to have a glimpse into what parenting could have been like in a more tribal setting.  She took me on a journey to the South American jungle, where I started to think I’d happily take the risk of small pox for a chance at a truly human experience.  She tells of naked babies carried on backs, mothers mentoring one another through motherhood, and the camaraderie of a village of parents.  In fact in these communities, the children don’t “belong” to their parents, but to the tribe.   Unlike parents in our society, who are often isolated and alone, fumbling around in the dark with useless parenting manuals and no support.  Other countries at least have home health nurses that check on parents of newborns and months of paternity care.  However, here in the U.S. we have taken the usual, “do-it-yourself” approach, except that children are not home improvement projects.

Also, in her book, the parents in the jungle don’t “watch” the children.  The children naturally learn to come to the parents when they need assistance.  Oddly enough, it turns out the this book was the beginning of the “attachment” parenting movement and thus contributed to the recent helicopter parenting paradigm.  However, Liedloff has since published an addendum explaining that we got that wrong, too.  The idea was not that we should be attached to our babies, but that they are supposed to be attached to us!   Argh!

We have created this short circuit.  Babies are evolutionarily designed to watch adults and older children to learn about the world around them, but here we are in Gymboree class watching them!  By spending every waking hour watching (and charting!) my son’s eating, sleeping and playing habits, I didn’t do anything of interest for him to watch.  So he learned that his world consisted of me watching him and attending to his every need.  Now at eleven years old, he seems confused when life doesn’t come to him ready-made.  He sits down at the dinner table and yells, “why don’t I have a fork!?” rather than just getting one.

So, of course, after reading this book, I cried and beat myself up for doing it all wrong.  I blamed myself for not having a more natural birth, for not carrying him as much as I should have, and for spending too much time hovering.  I definitely felt ashamed.  How could I, a Stanford graduate, have failed this class so miserably?

I have come to discover, though, that I can spend the rest of my parenting days wishing I could go back in time and do it differently, living in this jungle fantasy, or I could just be in the here and now, present with this particular moment.  I can feel mad when my child doesn’t show independence, and I get to feel sad when I think of the opportunities for more natural connection that I might have missed.  And I get to re-attach to myself now.  To my own inner child, to that young parent in me that was truly doing the best she could, to my almost-40-year-old self who sometimes still feels like a child.  When I attach to me, I find that my children have space to attach to themselves.