I’ve been participating in an interesting discussion in a gentle parenting group that I’m a part of, about spanking. Or rather, hitting, as it shouldn’t be downgraded by our terminology; just as hitting your spouse or neighbor shouldn’t be called “spanking”, even if your intent was to discipline them.
Anyway, the idea was brought up of whether a parent knows what they are doing is wrong, or feels guilt in any way over the abuse they are inflicting upon their children. Here is my response:
I think that most parents who spank feel guilt. Maybe they just shove it down inside after awhile and choose to ignore it, but it’s there. Same with parents who use CIO [cry it out]. Because those things go against natural instincts to love, protect, and nurture your children. Unless they are truly narcissists…or sociopaths or something, they do feel regret, in my opinion. But our society isn’t very accepting of adults admitting that what has been done for generations is wrong. That would force us to not only admit our own actions are wrong, but those of our parents, as well. And abuse is such that it does instill great fear in the recipient; fear of standing up to their abuser. That is the only reason abuse works to mold behavior, through fear. As adult children, it’s fear of our parents disapproval. This fear is so great that it conflicts us internally, and makes us far less likely to address the manifestations of that fear and abuse in our own lives (i.e. hitting our children because we were hit, or emotionally detaching from our children because we are emotionally detached from our parents). Breaking the cycle is extraordinarily hard! Especially when you have not one supportive family member, and even more so if your circle of friends is comprised of people just like you. It’s uncomfortable to be different, especially if you were abused by your parents for simply going against their idea of “normal”. Also, we live in a world of instant gratification, more and more so with each passing year. I’ve heard it said that it takes two generations to break the cycle of abuse; one to recognize it and try a better way, and the next to actually be completely non-abusive parents to their children. It’s likely because of the rampant abuse in our world that we have trouble delaying gratification! But the only way to fully break the cycle is to be patient enough to see not your children, but your grandchildren be the ones who are fully free of the repurcussions. That’s a very long-term goal. Somehow, we have to encourage people along the way not to give up!
I think it’s important to note that confronting a victim of abuse is almost always met with hostility. They have been conditioned to believe that everything is their fault. Therefore, pointing out any actual flaws must be done in an extremely non-confrontational way. If there is any threat of confrontation whatsoever, the victim of abuse will go into survival mode, mentally, much the same as they did every time they were physically or emotionally abused as children. Their brains will revert to “fight or flight” mode; and either way, they will shut out your words and simply plan their defense or escape.
It’s also important to recognize that physically and emotionally abusing one’s children is actually a symptom of abuse. Victims of abuse are highly more likely to inflict abuse on others. That’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason. That said, I believe the best way to encourage a parent to stop spanking (or never start, if they aren’t yet a parent) is to help them to recognize the abuse they suffered, and then empower them to change. They have most likely been conditioned to believe that the abuse they suffered was “normal”. Even if it was “just spanking”, that is not normal human behavior. We need to start recognizing that as humans before change on a large scale can happen. Here’s what I think needs to happen when you encounter someone who thinks spanking is ok:
1) Listen wholly to their childhood stories, without downplaying, minimizing, rationalizing, making excuses for their parents, etc. Those are all the things their parents did to justify the abuse.
2) Empathize with how the person must have felt as a child: scared, confused, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.
3) Point out the fact that they don’t want their children to feel the way they did.
4) Acknowledge that their parents were likely not bad people, but were just doing the best they knew how to do with the information they had. Likewise, we do the best we know how with the information we have.
5) Remind them that we cannot change the past, but we can use it to help us decide what to do right now, today, in each moment. Each moment is a new chance for change.
6) Direct them toward resources that can help them to discipline their children without physical violence. (My favorite is Aha Parenting.)
7) If they seem interested, or have any doubts about the harm of “just spanking”, direct them towards research that states otherwise. (here and here)
8) Encourage them along the way and invite them to join a support group or follow a Facebook page or blog for peaceful parents. (Some great ones: The Peaceful Papa, peaceful parenting, Free Your Kids, Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond, and Aha Parenting are my favorites!)
Please share any other tips you have in the comments!