When you're raised in the South, you can expect a few things with certainty: plenty of fried chicken, church on Sunday, and a spanking if you ever sassed your mama. Spanking was a regular part of my childhood, although I certainly don't think I was emotionally or physically scarred by that form of discipline. My parents were loving, and they didn't overuse corporal punishment or administer it too harshly.
When I became a parent—and at the risk of using the "Adrian Peterson" argument—I followed the examples from my childhood and became a parent who spanked. I was sure that it hadn't harmed me as a person, and I had a great relationship with my parents. In my mind, it seemed like a safe parenting choice. To be sure, I followed all the "rules." I never did it in anger; I only used it for a select few wrongs; and I was sure to offer plenty of affection afterwards.
Spanking was the status quo in our home for a time, but as the years and children began to pile up, a subtle shift in parenting happened. A few more years under my belt gave me confidence in my parenting choices, and four kids with very distinct personalities stretched my creativity in the discipline department. There was never a crisis moment where I felt a weight of shame about spanking in the past, but I noticed that it was a tool that I rarely, if ever, pulled out of my parenting arsenal. As I honed my skills as a parent, my instincts pointed me in a new direction. I knew that spanking was effective, but my experience as a parent told me that it wasn't the most effective discipline choice. I could no longer ignore the nagging voice deep down that warned me that spanking was a short term gain with a hidden long term consequence.
It turned out that my instinct was completely backed up by the most current findings on spanking. While research has consistently shown that spanking causes more aggression, the newest studies show that an otherwise loving parent can't "undo" the anxiety and behavioral problems caused by corporal punishment. In fact, the study shows that children who are treated warmly along with spanking actually have more anxiety. Researchers agree that it's much less risky to use non-physical discipline.
While research is great to have in your back pocket, I wanted some concrete reasons of my own to cling to in the trying moments. When my kids were going 50 shades of crazy, I needed a convincing argument for why I should choose something other than a discipline method that had been getting results for centuries.
I didn't have to search too long for reasons. One of them was literally looking me in the eye in the form of my preteen son who was this close to outgrowing me. Physical punishment depends upon the parent being bigger than the child to be effective. When I let that sink in, I not only felt like a big bully, but I also realized that I wanted to have a relationship with my kids where I could be the authority without needing to have the upper hand physically. If my discipline methods were based solely on size and strength, the differential between myself and my teenage boys would force me to tap out when I needed to be on the top of my game. Now was the time to begin building a discipline rapport that didn't rely on force.
I also realized that spanking didn't have the power to do the hard work of molding my kids into decent human beings. While it was effective at stopping behavior in the moment, it lacked the thoughtfulness to look at the whole picture. Spanking is a punishment, but it misses the mark on discipline. Discipline allows me to come up alongside my kids and guide them into making better choices. I didn't want to just punish bad behavior after it happened. I wanted to teach life skills that would prevent the bad choices in the first place.
Perhaps the worst realization for me was that spanking had allowed me to be a lazy parent. A paddling is quick and easy and doesn't take much forethought or afterthought. Other forms of discipline are hard. They take creativity, patience and time. Many days I don't feel like I have any of those things, which is why it's important to me to resolve to step up my game and not take the easy way. There is no such thing is a short cut in parenting. In choosing the path of least resistance, I was missing so many opportunities to really dig into the most effective ways to teach my kids.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am still in the thick of parenting without resorting to getting physical, and I still have one little guy who daily tests my resolve to choose a more thoughtful parenting approach. He is what some people call a "handful" or "strong-willed." Around our house, we just call him "The Force."
When he is testing the limits, which is hourly, I often think about how much quicker and easier it would to paddle his behind. It would certainly be less effort, and it would probably yield an obedient result, at least temporarily. In those moments, I take a deep breath and think about what I really want to accomplish. I think about the future and about how the adult I want to help mold will be best served by a parent who is thinking about the long haul. It's not an easier choice. It's not a quicker choice, but it's a better choice.