Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Effective discipline…

I don’t recall why I was being disciplined, the last time my parents ever spanked me. But I remember my response. I was old enough to have learned sarcasm, and I didn’t like that I was in trouble, though I’m certain discipline was called for. I’d probably mouthed off to Mom, or hurt my sister, or done something inappropriate that growing boys do. My father said, “Son, bend over,” and took out his belt. I did as I was told.

The spanking was swift, and light; just two or three two raps. Though not enough time lapsed for my stubbornness to have waned. In fact, in an act of ill-considered defiance, I laughed, then declared, “That didn’t hurt!” In my memory, I see my father’s head shaking, thinking, “Is he serious?” He’d obviously not meant to deliver much physical pain, but instead encourage feelings of remorse for my misdeed. In an instant, however, he reconsidered. “Then we’re not through here,” he informed me. I stiffened. I knew I’d crossed the line, and the second go-around wouldn’t be so soft. I bent over again. The belt came out again. This spanking was also swift. And it hurt, though not as much as it could have. Dad knew the message had finally sunk in.

Honestly, that’s one of the few memories I have of childhood corporal punishment. My parents used it rarely, and pain was never really their goal. It was the idea that mattered. The sound of my dad’s belt being removed had symbolic value. Its leathery swish communicated that I’d gone too far, that I knew better, that disobedience was at an end. Usually, the punishment included time in my room, or further grounding. In other words, it seemed part of a larger strategy. Not an end in itself, nor an outlet for their anger. For that last fact, I’m grateful.

But I suspect some children couldn’t say the same about their parents’ spankings. And it’s in my mind because of recent news that local football star Adrian Peterson was arrested for disciplining his son. My dad used a hand or a belt. Peterson used a tree branch, a “switch.” I don’t remember ever receiving bruises. Photos of Peterson’s son show broken skin, and swelling. No one but them can, of course, say exactly what happened. But apparently, Peterson struck his child repeatedly, and with greater force than my parents applied.

That’s what the grand jury, who indicted him, suggests in any case. Perhaps, as a professional athlete, he’s simply stronger than my father. But I wonder if that’s all. It shouldn’t take much self-control to deliver your parental message, while refraining from injuring a four-year old boy. That said, I suspect the public will listen to his explanation with some sympathy, and not just because he’s famous. Attitudes toward corporal punishment are changing in our country, but surveys show it’s still quite popular. Over two-thirds of Americans approve of it. That’s 15% fewer than 1980, and there are variances by region, race, religious and political identity. Nevertheless, it has majority support from all groups asked. Much more than, say, domestic violence. Obviously.

But I don’t plan to spank or strike my children. Count me among those whose views on this have changed. I didn’t grow up thinking corporal punishment was abuse, and I still don’t. Not in every situation, at least. What I wonder now, though, is whether it’s effective long-term. Studies reveal that it solves immediate behavior problems; kids who fear pain typically stop their actions. But it can also encourage future aggression among children, while changing the parent-child relationship dynamic. Plus, there are effective discipline techniques that cease bad behaviors without hurt, like talking through natural consequences of dropping a toothbrush in the toilet. And ultimately, I worry that if physical punishment is in my parenting arsenal, I might take it too far someday.

I’m guessing that’s Peterson’s issue. He wanted to parent his son, but couldn’t manage his frustration when it mattered most. Now he has to rebuild for his boy that sense of safety every child should expect as their God-given right. May that rebuilding come swift.

Grace and Peace,
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