Confessions of a Hypocrite: Thoughts on Spanking


(All right, so I promised in my last post that I would explore the connections between Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting and my faith. I’m still trying to organize my thoughts on the subject; in the meantime, I thought I’d offer this confession).

OK, So maybe “Confessions of a Hypocrite” is a bit of a dramatic label for what I’m about to discuss. It’s a bit more of an honest exploration of my recent feelings and experiences.

So. I’ve been talking lately about Unconditional Parenting and my commitment to nonviolence.

Several commenters have highlighted the difficulty in applying Alfie Kohn’s practice of reasoning with — rather than punishing and rewarding — very young children, especially babies and toddlers. How do you explain to a one-year-old why she needs to stay away from a hot wood stove? How to you explain to a two-year-old why he can’t have a brownie before supper, or why we have to leave the park before he feels ready? How do you explain to a toddler why she can’t play in the middle of the street?

And the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know how to get a child to comply, especially when it’s a matter of grave importance (like safety), but that child doesn’t have the capacity for reason.

Sometimes, don’t you need to spank to communicate the seriousness of a command?

baby 11 months

You see those razor-sharp little chompers?
Ready to bite into some tender mama-flesh?

This dilemma became personal for me when Lydia started biting me while nursing around 6 months. And later again when she started biting me and Ben for fun — on our arms, our legs, our toes. She thought it was hilarious.

I didn’t know what to do. I tried using words:

LYDIA,” I thundered with my sternest face and voice. “NO. BITING.”

And do you know what she did?

She laughed!

She thought my angry face and voice were funny!

This was especially problematic when she was biting our legs while hanging onto our pants to stand up — she was biting out of playfulness. She was in a silly mood. She was in no state of mind for serious moral lessons.

I confess, I was tempted, and seriously considered, smacking her on the mouth when it came to these situations, pacifistic commitments notwithstanding.

All right, “serously considered” sounds too even-tempered and deliberate. I had a sudden and powerful urge to smack her on the mouth. I mean, seriously: OUCH! Those knife-like little chompers on your exposed nipple are no joke!

I wanted to communicate to her quickly and emphatically how serious her action was. How could I do that when my words and tone of voice didn’t work?

Thankfully, she just grew out of her boob-biting habit after a few weeks, and so I never had to decisively resolve that issue. She still sometimes bites us for fun, but we can usually see the hungry look in her eyes and distract her before it gets to that point.

(Not always, though. I’m currently sporting a nice pair of crescent-shaped bruises on my left thigh.)

But the question remains: what do you do when someone’s safety (or boob) is at stake, but you can’t reason with your kid? Is hitting sometimes permissible, when there’s no other way to communicate an action’s seriousness?

Or is there always some other way? Perhaps my imagination is just limited, and I need to work harder at a  more creative solution.

I’m not sure. What do you think?

Do you have any non-violent solutions for me?

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  1. This post is intriguing and also pretty funny. As a pacifist, would you consider startling her acceptable? I’ve done that as a nanny with little ones who were into dangerous/totally not ok things, before the kiddos were old enough to be reasoned with. Just like a quick, loud clap while you say “NO!” right as the behavior is occurring. I’ve felt that this works as well as anything could be expected to with toddlers. It seems to be unpleasant enough to get the point across and act as a future deterrent without being excessive or hurting the child in any way.

  2. I’m glad you’ve admitted to this; I’ve been there – a sudden urge to swat a hand or a bottom to get a point across (usually about danger). I’m committed to not doing this is any case even though it may be effective in young children, I dont’ want to rely on it as they get older and I worry about how to explain ” you don’t hit your sister” if we using hitting of any kind to get a point across.

    I’ve found with Henry that in those moments where a part of me thinks that a swat on the hand or bottom is in order that a strong voiced “No”, stern face and removing them from said situation works best. He still laughs and swats me away some, but he’s starting to understand facial expressions more and tone of voice and it’s starting to become more effective. Work on teaching L. words like “Hot”, “Stop” and “Ouchie”(owie, hurt, etc.) so that she’ll be able to understand basic “dangers” faster -it’s going to be awhile until “That’s dangerous” registers as anything significant, but even a one year old can grasp “Hot”. One of the first words we taught Henry (to act not to say) was “Nice” we’d use it to describe how to touch a person, an animal, toys, etc. and it’s been a great resource. If he gets too excited and starts swatting at us we take him by the hand and say “Nice Mommy, Nice Mommy” (or who ever he’s swatting at) while showing/reminding him what a “Nice Touch” is (usually a gentle pat or stroke on our arm).

    I’m not going to lie, it’s going to take awhile longer to get the points across using verbal or removal methods, but I would hazard a guess that it’ll line up with your other values nicely in the long run.

    P.S. One of the most repeated phrases in this house right now is “Henry, be Nice to the kitty.” followed by “Henry don’t step on the kitty.”
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  3. I think any parent who’s honest has considered hitting their child (especially if they have a toddler): they can be so aggravating!

    I would never hit R though, both because I believe it’s wrong to cause deliberate harm to others (especially physical harm), as you do, and because it’s been repeatedly shown to be ineffective as a discipline strategy. Spanking just doesn’t work (in fact, there is evidence suggesting it makes children more aggressive and disobedient).

    R has of course bit me (and my husband). For biting during nursing, I found stopping the session immediately (either permanently or for several minutes, depending on circumstances) worked really well (I didn’t yell or do anything else). She quickly figured out that the results were not what she desired, and adjusted her behavior accordingly (since at that point it was just about exploration and curiosity).

    Biting due to naughtiness is different though. So far I have reacted (biting has only happened 2 or 3 times, but there’s plenty of equivalent situations) in one of two ways:

    1. telling her “No! No X!” very very firmly. If she laughs after that (she hasn’t for biting, but has in other similar disciplinary situations), then I stare at her, hard, with the parent eyes of death (I might tell her again it is not allowed at the same time). At that point she knows I mean business (she might even start to cry, as she’s not used to any harshness: then I let her cry for a minute or two, so as to let the lesson sink in). You really have to mean it though, sort of concentrating the full force of your will and power in your body language. Sometimes I can’t do this, because I’m tired or not 100% absolutely convinced she was in the wrong or whatever, in which case there is

    2. physical restraint or removal. Restraint is holding her still (taking one hand in each of mine, for instance, and not letting her turn/move away; or picking her up and holding her, not in a cozy way but in a being taken off in disgrace way). This lasts for maybe a minute. R hates being confined, and it’s a logical consequence (acting badly means your power to act is temporarily lost). Removal means removal from me. R goes behind a baby gate, separating the two of us. She isn’t confined, the point is that she can’t be with me (because she can’t act in a civilized way, and thus cannot enjoy company). She also hates this (because it restricts her free access to me), and will start to cry either immediately or shortly (if she’s mad). Once she starts crying, I let her cry for 30 seconds, then free her, tell her she is not allowed to do X, and comfort her. In either case it only works if you act immediately, and if you are absolutely consistent (like every time she bites, the same thing happens).

    I am not at all an expert, but so far these methods have worked really well for me.
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  4. Someone above mentioned startling the child. I’ve found yelping to be really effective when nannying–a high-pitched, I’m-in-pain, that-really-hurt noise, even if maybe it didn’t hurt that much. It sort of startles him out of it because and hes recognies a pain response as serious. Sometimes. Or else walking away and ignoring him or her for a bit, depending on the situation, like the other commentor said.

    If you observe animals playing, those are usually the three responses: loud yelp, menacing growl, and/or ignoring the offending animal. You never see an adult dog bite a puppy that bites, so surely humans can figure out how not to return violence with violence. Right?

    But man. Sometimes kids are just determined, you know? I’ve never been in the situation except with kids that weren’t mine, and so I couldn’t swat them no matter how badly I wanted to. But sometimes I really, really wanted to. :-/

  5. Just a thought but couldn’t a strong tone, or startling your child be considered violent? I agree that sometimes the seriousness of a situation is difficult to present without an extreme reaction, but I struggle with creativity in how to handle those situations. With my girls tones are so important – my tone of voice literally has the power to bring life or death to a situation. I am human, and I have failed often with violence in my tone, but I am working hard at figuring out how to reason with my children without words that seem ‘over their head’ and without spanking. Distraction and removal has worked, maybe I just need to realize it’s just a stage and with enough consistency they will grow out of it. I do wonder if that is sometimes my problem: I am not giving it enough time. We seem to want to rush our kids or am I alone in this?

    • Good question, Maria! (i.e. whether startling/strong tone can be considered violent). And I think it’s something we constantly need to be asking ourselves. I think there’s a fine line between trying to get our kids’ attention and trying to wound them in some way. And sometimes when we’re just trying to get their attention, we might inadvertently wound them. I think we need to always be alert to the possibility and pay close attention to how our kids are responding emotionally.

      As for failing to give them enough time, I think that’s a very common problem. We forget that our kids are working from a very different timeline than us. It’s so hard to be patient!

      • Yes that is so true. I think that’s why being a parent can be such a challenge simply because we ALWAYS need to be on guard. That’s what I’m learning lately – not so much how I’m teaching my children but the motivation behind it. When I use a strong tone and its not out of a love motivation (which I think we can all say will or has happened at some point) my girls sense it right away, and that’s when it is most certainly violent. However, we’ve done the strong tone thing as a shock affect and it has worked – at least in that instance. Or when I do teach them something, I can’t expect them to instantly grow out of something they are learning/discovering. It reminds me of my faith as well. Thanks for sharing Kathleen.

      • One of the things that I’ve found to be the most helpful in my parenting journey, is to read about child development. When I learn how their brain is functioning at certain ages, the processes they go through to learn, and their emotional abilities, it gives me so much more understanding on how to teach him, a greater capacity for patience, and reminders that most behaviours are just development stages.
        I’m wishing I had a good link for some of this information to add, but I can’t remember where I’ve read most of the development stuff!

  6. i have no experience and no idea how you can deal with this at this age
    my parents smacked but i think they approached it well. we were not smacked particularly often, once a month maybe. we were given several warnings about our behaviour, then if we refused told what we’d done, taken away from everyone else to another room, explained and smacked. it worked to get the message home and was never heat of the moment.

  7. For biting while nursing Dr. Sears in “The Baby Book” recommends pulling the child closer to your breast. This will cause the child to release the nipple because the breast tissue obstructs the nose and the child must open the mouth to breath. Supposedly this doesn’t have to be done often before the child figures out that biting causes the nose to be pushed into the breast.
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