By Dr. Roger McIntire
Caught on tape hitting and punching her 4-year-old daughter, Mom X was charged with battery to a child, the local paper reported. Mom X’s lawyer said they would plead guilty and hope for mercy from the court. She could serve three years in prison.
Thank heavens the little girl is under age. If she were over 18, the sentence could be worse. And if she were under 2, the sentence for hurting a defenseless baby might be worse also. But between 2 and 18 there is a gray area, at least at first, before they get big enough to hit back.
Certainly the courts would not punish a parent for spanking a child unless the spanking left marks or bruises. Cuts and bleeding are out, and anything sexual is out. I guess the message is you can hurt them, but you can’t damage them.
Staying within the law, a parent hitting a child may satisfy his or her own frustration and may feel that justice has been served, but have we made any headway with the child? He or she would certainly learn how to mimic hitting and slapping. You could count on that coming back to haunt you.
We all face life’s daily stress. Mom X was shopping with an out of control 4-year-old who had run off twice. Before Mom “lost it,” what alternatives could we have suggested?
She could have called an early halt to a shopping trip that was getting worse by the minute: “I guess this was a mistake, we are going home.” I’m sure Mom wishes now she had done that. She would have to drag her balking child back to the car, possibly through a crowded mall, but at least the child wouldn’t be learning the bad habit that she could act up at will on shopping trips.
Some “Get Tough” advocates would defend Mom X’s hitting, but they are on the wrong track for several reasons. First, a child faced with physical punishment becomes afraid. Learning slows and creativity stops because it’s too risky to stick your creative neck out if you might get hit for your mistakes.
Second, the hard-line approach will be, must be, inconsistent. A parent cannot, and should not, be consistent with punishment. Without the inconsistencies of warnings, threats and postponements, the rules are too inhuman. Yet with the “verbal decorations” the inconsistencies change the focus from “What’s the problem?” to “Who will win?” The game and the power struggle begin.
Third, slapping, spanking or hitting a child is, of course, insulting. They belittle the child and lower his value of himself. That’s why adults are so insulted if you try these punishments on them. The child defends himself, attempts to escape, or tries to “win” the game. Parents can “win” the power struggle, but for every winner a loser is made. And losers eventually call in absent.
But even when they lose, children imitate. Mom and Dad set the example that physical abuse is a good (used by Mom and Dad) way to deal with people.
The adult alternatives are much better. For example, if you come to my house for dinner tonight and spill your drink at the table, you don’t expect me to say: “Hey! What do you think you’re doing? You’re so clumsy! Now pay attention to what you’re doing or I’ll send you home!”
What nerve! Treating a guest like a child! What happened to “making amends?” “The benefit of the doubt?” You expect me to belittle the problem.
“I’m sorry, do you have a towel?”
“No problem, I’ll take care of it…”
We deal with our mistakes together as a third thing, not you, not me.
Ignoring is also a better alternative, but with children, it has to be used carefully because the bad behavior has been part of a habit to get entertainment or attention from Mom and Dad. The plan can backfire when the inconsistencies creep in. If the usual amount of acting up will no longer get attention, the child may increase the volume. Parents may revert to punishment for this higher level and then return to the ignoring rule later only to go back to punishment when the volume again reaches pain threshold.
To make the ignoring plan work, you need to emphasize the positive things the child does to get legitimate attention.
When bad behavior can’t be ignored and opportunities for encouragement are not enough, time-out is a good alternative. A little cooling off on a chair or in his/her room as a kind of punishment can work well if the threats and arguments are kept to a minimum.
The trick here is to keep the time-out short. A dramatic long isolation will require too many threats and arguments. But short time-outs are no big deal, and parents are more likely to be quick and consistent.
Many parents have found the act of starting the time-out, putting the child in the chair or room, is the effective part. Ten or 15 seconds is enough for two-year-odds, and one minute is enough for older pre-schoolers. The message is sent when the prompt decision is made at the count of three (or ten if they need a little more chance to do right).
Some parents won’t like these alternatives because they will not produce instant change, but then physical punishment won’t produce magic either.
The best parental strategy will include praising the good, ignoring the tolerable, and reacting with logical, mild, and consistent reprimands to the intolerable. This plan will give the children a good model to follow as well as a way to learn and still risk the creativity we all want our children to show.
Dr. McIntire is the author of Teenagers and Parents: 10 Steps to a Better Relationship and Raising Good Kids in Tough Times.