Monday, September 1, 2014

What's Worse? Yelling or Spanking?

A friend and fan asked me to write about this a while back, and I've been meaning to get around to it. I'm crazy busy right now, and almost entirely distracted at the moment, so I apologize for taking a bit to do it.

She asked me this question without giving much indication of which way she would answer it herself, so I'm just going to bite the bullet here and tell you what I think. (not that you guys would honestly be expecting anything different anyway...)

First, let me just say this. Parenting is hard. REALLY hard. It's not at all what you think it is going to be like in the days before you had kids. Your vision of what the future would be like probably included the high points, like the breezy afternoons pushing entirely contented toddlers on the swings at the park and Rockwellian family photos and perfect birthday parties.

Then you got here, with the kids you have and realized that those moments, though they happen, are few and far between.

It's not to say that parenting isn't amazing and awesome and rewarding and fulfilling. It is absolutely all of those things, but it is absolutely not all of those things all of the time.

Unless you're slightly delusional, that is.

I wonder and worry sometimes about the people who always say that being a parent is bliss.

It can be bliss, but it's also the polar opposite of bliss too.

It is episodic. It has crazy highs and lows. It is filled with struggles and triumphs. It's not always rainbows and glitter.

Hell to the no.

If you have a particularly difficult child, for one reason or another, you likely already know this truth. I was lucky, soooo lucky with my oldest. He really is the mellowest human on the face of the Earth, given to me first to break me in gently. He does his fair share of driving me nuts at times, but is nothing compared to what came after him.

I have kids with high anxiety levels and attention problems. I have kids who internalize every single thing that happens in the universe, where it sits and festers (usually not for very long), then gets projected back out into the world. I have yellers with anger issues who lash out at others. I've quite literally sat on my own kids to keep them from hurting one another at times.

And I know people who deal with far more than I do.

Parenting any child is hard, parenting one with more struggles, harder still.

Which brings me to the question I was asked. Which is worse, yelling or spanking?

I think that ultimately, this is one of the most fundamental issues with parenting that we have to be conscious about from the time our children are very young. We should make conscious choices about what kind of parent we want to be. I think there are three basic types of parenting.

1. Do we want to rule from the mountaintops, declaring what is right or wrong?

2. Do we want to guide our children, equip them with the tools to make their own choices, correct when necessary?

3. Do we want to let them figure it all out on their own and in their own way?

If I made a guess, most of us strive to be type 2 parents. I know that has always been our goal. The type 3 parents tend to be the ones who place more value on their friendships with their kids than parenting them necessarily. This conversation might not even hit their radar because they don't engage in a whole lot of discipline. (Like the kids who looked at me like I was insane one day for placing my daughter in a time out for throwing sand at five years old. They'd never heard of such a thing. Don't ask how that's worked out so far...)

Many of us were probably raised in type 1 homes, though. I know that I was. Though there were certainly times that I was given a little more leeway as a young child, for the most part things were pretty structured. Within those homes, whether in our generation or the one we are raising, there is probably more spanking and yelling going on than in the other types, because spanking and yelling are ways to force compliance, to demand attention, to communicate authority.

They are also ways to punish kids for doing things we don't like.

They are also, probably too often, ways for parents to vent their frustrations.

Spanking is one of the great debates in the realm of parenting and has been for decades. I don't for one second think that there is any way that debate will end anytime soon. It is something that has become publicly unacceptable even though I'd venture a guess that more parents still spank their kids than will ever admit to it.

Personally, I don't see a problem with it in a very narrow set of circumstances. When a young child puts themselves or someone else in serious danger because of their actions, when there is an immediate need to get their attention, when it is absolutely imperative to communicate the wrongness of the action and the danger involved, a light swat on the behind might be just the thing that is needed (not more than once, and not hard enough to leave a mark...it's more about getting their attention). In my personal opinion, it should only be used when absolutely necessary in that narrow set of circumstances, and really only for a child too young to reason with in any other way (think toddlers as really the only time this would even come in).

An example of this...a two year old running out into the street.

There is certainly an argument to be made that a two year old running into the street is the far more the fault of the parents, not the child anyway, though.

Outside of those kind of circumstances, I don't generally support spanking...which means that I choose not to do it. This isn't to say that I haven't had to restrain my children. I have, a great many times. I have had to grab arms and physically contain children, I've had to hold arms and legs down, I've even had to sit on them at times.

I can't get behind spanking being used as a punishment, or any other type of physical harm. Essentially, this means that even in the times I'm personally okay with a spank (like the kid running into the street), it happens right at that moment or it doesn't happen at all. The idea of threatening a kid with violence later on in the day, or when the other parent gets home, or any of that....not something that sits well with me.

Then again, I was raised in the generation that routinely heard, "wait until your father gets home...."

My father didn't often actually hurt us when he got home, but we lived with that threat all the time. As in almost every single day. Forcing compliance purely out of fear doesn't generate a secure home environment for a kid.

The reality is that spanking, as it occurs in most homes, is really more about the frustration of the parents than about the lesson the child is supposed to be learning. If you can't control your anger and lash out at them, how are you supposed to believe that you are teaching them to control themselves? Walk away, count to ten, put yourself in a timeout until you can calm down. Do whatever you need to do in order to get back to a point of balance before you confront your kid with what happened.

Trust me, you don't want to regret how you behaved fifteen minutes from now...and that's just the immediate effect of physical punishment. Think about how they are feeling. Think about how your reaction to this one episode of anger and frustration might be something they remember for the rest of their lives.

And trust me, they'll remember it.

If you were a kid in those homes, you remember.

Yelling, in my opinion, is actually worse than spanking. Spanking has gotten the attention because of the physical nature of the harm, but yelling is just as bad if not more damaging.


I work really really really hard not to yell at the kids, but it happens sometimes. What I've found is that it doesn't make things better. Ever. Then I feel worse.

If I yell, they just tune me out. Or they yell back. It doesn't ever do anything to resolve the underlying conflict or issue, it doesn't make anyone feel better, it just makes it all worse.

As a society, we are conditioned to try and calm ourselves down so we won't physically harm our kids, but how many of us use those same techniques to avoid yelling?

I'd guess not too many.

I've locked myself in the bathroom more than once just to breathe for ten seconds. I've refused to engage them when they scream at me, because I know that if I yell back, it could spiral out of control. I know that if I yell back, I'm not being a good example for them. I'm not being consistent. I'm not being mature. I'm letting my frustration get the best of me. I'm not being the adult in the situation.

There are times that I have videotaped the kids to show them how they treat me.

If they did the same to me, would I be ashamed of how I acted?

If I would, then I'm doing something wrong.

I force myself to be as consistent as I can, which is a struggle at times. They all have different personalities, they all push different buttons. Staying consistent, though, it helps them to understand that my boundaries are firm and my limits aren't negotiable.

What I have found that works light years better than yelling is just talking to them after I calm down. Getting down to their level (okay, so this works when they are little, but now that one of them is taller than I am, I make him sit down with me...) and talking in a calm, controlled voice.

Whispering tends to get their attention more than anything else, honestly.

Done right, it also freaks them out a little bit.

I kid, I kid. Sort of.

They know I mean business when I start whispering. For real.

The main reason I try not to yell, aside from the fact that it just doesn't work, is that it can do some serious damage to my relationship with my kids and harm their self esteem, among other dangers. I've been a victim of emotional abuse and words stick with you a whole lot longer than bruises do. It's not just about the tone of voice you are using, but about the words you speak.

Focus on the actions, not the person.

In other words, say this was a bad choice, not you are a bad kid. That kind of thing. It seems simple enough, until you're caught up in the moment. Those are the times that stepping away and calming down is best for everyone involved, and I'd encourage all of us to do it. Including me.

What do you think? Is yelling worse or is spanking worse? What alternatives do you use in your homes? How do you calm yourself down?

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