Is It Ever Okay to Spank Your Kids?

This article and other hot button topics including infidelity, teaching morality in schools, sex, lying to your kids and how TV and video games are actually good for your kids are all in the April 2010 issue on newsstands March 15th.

By Catherine Connors

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Once you’ve finished Catherine’s piece, share your own thoughts on spanking on this article’s Family Jewels blog post!

It was only once, but I still feel guilty about it. We — she and I and her little brother — were leaving a grocery store. She’d been throwing a fit and making a scene and I was doing the best I could to manage her under extremely trying circumstances. As we neared the sidewalk, she pulled away and grabbed the stroller with her brother in it and yanked it toward the street, shrieking in that manic way that is the hallmark of fit-throwing three-year-olds everywhere. There was no time for reasoning or arguing or cajoling. There was no time for shouting or bargaining or threatening. I had to stop her, and I had to do it immediately. So I grabbed her and I pulled her, struggling and shrieking, back to me and I spanked her.

It was the kind of spank that well-meaning parents refer to as a “swat on the bottom.” It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t repeated and it was only meant to startle her out of her fit. It worked. I didn’t like it, but it worked. She
stopped and blinked and her lower lip quivered and I said, “Honey, I need you to stop,” and I explained why I’d done what I had. To this day I don’t know what I could have done differently. But I don’t know that that matters. What matters is, I found myself in a challenging parenting situation in which I had to act quickly and the action that I took was one that I had sworn I’d never take and I just have to make my peace with that because chances are that I’ll find myself in such a situation again.

When I wrote on my blog about the incident, I expressed regret that it happened, but I also said I felt that I’d had little choice and that I firmly believed that I needed to forgive myself for it. I added I would be
making my best effort, in the future, to resist passing judgment on any other parents who found themselves in similar circumstances. I hoped, I said, that other parents would do me the same courtesy and not judge me.

I hoped in vain.

Many commenters were supportive and sympathetic and said that they, too, sometimes made decisions about discipline, about expressing their frustration, about a lot of things, that they weren’t thrilled about. But
many also said that, no matter how finely I discursively sliced my own experience, it was still spanking, and spanking is hitting, and hitting is wrong. “If I had seen you spank your daughter,” one commenter said, “I’d
have called the police.” “Really?” I replied in a comment. “You wouldn’t have considered the situation? You wouldn’t have just come over and seen if I needed help?” “No,” she stated. “Calling the police would have been how I helped. How I helped your kids.”

At that moment, I decided that I’d never write about spanking or any other controversial parenting decision again. What if the next time I wrote about making such a decision, someone really did call the police? I wasn’t sure what kind of decision might prompt another such reaction — feeding my kids fast food or letting them play alone in the yard might be controversial, but they’re not grounds for accusations of neglect or harm (are they?). But then, I wouldn’t have thought that a light swat on my daughter’s bottom when she was in the midst of an uncontrollable tantrum would provoke such a reaction either. What would I do the next time I was confronted by a parenting conundrum in which I was forced to decide between doing the best
or most effective thing (however defined) and doing the thing most likely to be approved of by a jury of my most critical peers?

I had occasion recently to put that question to the test. My daughter (now in kindergarten) was home sick from school — well enough to boss me around but nonetheless snotty and miserable — and when my husband called, late in the afternoon, to say that he couldn’t pick up her brother from daycare, I was faced with a dilemma. Leave the girl for less than 10 minutes to walk a few paces up the street to get the boy, or bundle her up in her snowsuit and drag her through the wind and snow beside me?

“Leave her,” my husband said when I worried aloud about taking her along. “She’s four, but she’s mature and independent. You know that she’ll be fine. You leave her by herself for longer stretches when you take a shower or disappear into the basement to do laundry, right? She’ll be fine.” I hesitated. I called a girlfriend who has a four-year-old of her own. “Leave her,” she said. “But don’t tell anybody. Don’t tweet it, don’t blog it, don’t say a word about it. You’ll get skewered.” “But I should still do it?” I asked. “You would do it?” “Oh, totally,” she replied.

So I did it. I left my iPhone with her, with my husband’s cell-phone number cued on the main screen, and I told her to call him if she was scared or needed anything, and to not answer the door, which I locked. I was gone just under 10 minutes, and when I returned with her brother, I asked her how it had been, being on her own. “Fine. I’m a big girl, you know.” “I know.” “I did call Daddy, though. Because I couldn’t find the cookies.” I laughed, and my heart, which was still a little clenched from anxiety over the decision I’d made, eased. “And I can’t wait to tell all my friends at school that you let me stay home alone!”

And with that, my heart re-clenched. If she told her friends, her friends would tell their parents. And proud as she was, she would probably also tell her teachers and her daycare workers and our next-door neighbours and her soccer coach and the lady who runs the bakery. It was one thing for me to make the decision to leave her home alone for a few minutes. It was quite another for that decision to be made publicly known. I wouldn’t expect anyone to report me to police, like my anonymous commenter, but still: what would people think? Did I really leave my child in the house alone? What had I been thinking?

I took a deep breath. I had to remind myself that the reactions of people who know me and my children would not be the same as those of anonymous critics on the Internet. Anyone who knows my daughter knows that she is well taken care of. They know how independent and mature she is. They know that we live only a few steps away from the daycare. They would — they should — understand why I would make such a decision, if I were called upon to explain that decision. And I would explain it. I could explain it.

“You just make sure that if you tell your story, sweetie,” I said, “you explain why you stayed home. Because you were sick, and it was snowing, and I had to get your brother.”

“Or I could say that it was because you had to fly to Candyland to buy me a marshmallow house!” “Or that.”

At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to live with my parenting choices. I’m the one who has to decide if I’m able to celebrate or accept those choices. I should be able to explain and defend those choices, of course, and this is the primary reason why I think that it is important that we, that I, resist the temptation to conceal those choices. After all, if we make a parenting choice that we don’t want anybody to know about, isn’t that a sign that maybe that choice isn’t ideal?

Maybe. Maybe not. A reluctance to be open about our parenting decisions doesn’t always signify guilt or shame. Sometimes, we’re just afraid: afraid that someone is going to judge us or chastise us, or worse. And we’re afraid of that because it happens. Whether it’s the nosy woman at the park nagging us for not having put mittens on our toddler or the well-meaning lactivist lecturing us on giving our baby a bottle of formula or the playgroup peer telling us that sleep-training is abusive or the judgmental observer deciding that spanking an out-of-control preschooler constitutes abuse and warrants calling the police. We’ve all encountered some version of this kind of well-intended but nonetheless intrusive parenting intervention and we’ve all been stung by it.

And having been stung by it, many of us become reluctant to do anything or say anything that might put us in its path again. Or we make certain parenting choices more covertly or stop talking about them altogether. This, obviously, is a shame. Parents are best equipped to make the best choices when they’ve been exposed to the broadest spectrum of possibilities: when they are, in other words, exposed to a wide variety of parenting practices and to open, friendly, public dialogue on parenting issues. If all we ever talk about are (and if we limit our range of parenting choices to) those choices that everyone has decided are indisputably acceptable under all circumstances, then we’re not left with very much from which to choose. This is not to say that we should treat all parenting choices as equally reasonable — some parents do abuse and neglect their children, and we ignore this at our communities’ peril — only that, within the limits of what’s
generally reasonable, we cut each other some slack. We do best for ourselves as a parenting community, I think, when we recognize that we are a community, and that being in that community doesn’t mean policing each other, but talking to each other and learning from each other and understanding that this parenting thing is challenging for all of us.

If you’d asked me a year ago whether I would ever spank my child, I’d have said no way. If you’d asked me five years ago whether I’d ever let any of my future children out of my sight, ever, I — a worrywart by nature — would have laughed at you. If you ask me tomorrow whether I’d let my kids ride the subway alone when they’re in middle school or take up extreme skateboarding or ride a dirt-bike or what have you, I’d tell you that I just don’t know. Because I don’t. None of us do. We all have good guesses and great intentions and well-laid plans, but the truth of the matter is that the work of raising children, by its very nature, defies all those things.

And so we must be patient with each other, understanding of each other, ready with words of encouragement and support rather than words of condemnation and censure. Because you never know: the next time you have to fly to Candyland to buy a marshmallow house, you might choose to leave your kids behind, too. Who’ll be the critic then?

Catherine Connors is a mother and writer living in Bowmanville, Ont. She’s the author of HerBadMother.com and founding editor of TheBadMomsClub.com and tries to make time for trips to Candyland whenever she can.

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