Spare the Rod?

By CocoaMamas contributor HarlemMommy from BoobsAndBummis.

Do you spank your child? How often? Which infractions merit a spanking and which ones call for a time out? Is it your tool of last resort?

The NY Times recently ran an article on spanking on general and Black spanking in particular. Scooba is getting to an age where he is constantly. Into. Something. Got an obstacle? He’ll climb it!  Buttons? He’ll push’em! (Not figurative buttons, actual buttons that light up or make beeping sounds.) He is also interacting with his peers and I often have to remind him to use a “nice touch.” (Don’t just smack that kid on the head, Baby.) We are not going to spank a  1 year old, but we like to plan ahead.

So. Husband and I are coming back to the spanking question. Before kids, we both agreed we would be spankers. I have long been a proponent of spanking. I was spanked and I turned out GREAT! My parents did not beat me, but I got spanked for large problems. For example, I got spanked when I played with fire. Twice. (The second time cured me for real.) I got spanked when I stole. I must have gotten spanked more than this, but these are the ones I remember. For other stuff I was put, “On Restriction”. No TV, no radio, no friends. It was lame.

Husband was also spanked as a child. He turned out pretty okay, too. Today, however, spanking seems like the worst thing ever. Study after study after study seems to show that spanking will make your kid violent. How can you show a kid that hitting is wrong when you hit him? Spanked kids become bullies. Violence should not be in the home. Okay. Sure. But, I do not want my kid running around all wild and embarrassing me. When I say sit, you sit. When I have to look at you with a spanking glint in my eye, you know play time is over. This post by Gradmommy includes a study citing how bias plays into all the anti-spanking studies.  Can I just spank sometimes? Is it an all or nothing, zero sum game? This seems to show that sometimes spanking is fine.

I’m also a little torn because I remember telling those “My Mom was So Mean and Beat Me” stories with my friends. It’s a calling card of being Black that you had the story of a time you got popped so fast you didn’t even see it coming. Or of the things a parent would say as they beat you. Or the time you ran away to avoid a spanking. Do I want to deprive Scooba of his hilarious story? It’s a birthright of the Black child to have these stories. Hard-won tales of a tricky childhood. Then I wonder if that’s what I want him to remember from his childhood. There’s clearly more to Blackness than getting a whoopin’.

There are lots of parenting books. Tons of parenting strategies. But I know spanking works. It worked on me. It worked on my brother. It worked on generations of Black boys who couldn’t afford to ignore instructions, cause it could mean their lives. But is it barbaric? Is it a legacy from a bygone past? Am I actually teaching the lessons I want to teach? Listen to your parents. We love you. Use your words. Stop playing when I tell you to stop. I remember being scared of getting a spanking. It prevented some bad behavior, but do I want my son to fear me?

So here’s my thing: how many people spank their kids? Is it in conjunction with other forms of discipline? How do you decide when something is bad enough to warrant a spanking? What’s your rationale behind the decision? I am leaning towards using the spanking sparingly, but keeping it in the toolbox. Thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Spare the Rod?

  1. This very issue sparked a major debate at Cocoamamas once before. I’ll try to be more concise now than I was then! LOL. There are 4 major reasons I don’t spank:

    (1) One, I believe very firmly that I cannot teach a child to insist that the world treat them–and their body–with respect if I violate that principle at home. (I understand moms may disagree about what respect means). I am particularly concerned about this given the fact that I am raising a black child, who will receive messages suggesting that her body is, in fact, unworthy of protection, safety, and freedom from violence. And yes, I think physical punishment–however gentle–is violence. Again, reasonable minds may differ.

    (2) I think that physical discipline problematically make the locus of discipline the child’s body, rather than the child’s behavior. If I take away a toy, I say “Your actions with the toy were unacceptable.” If I use a time-out, I say “your behavior with others was unacceptable.” If I spank a child, I say “YOU are unacceptable; YOU were bad.” I think children internalize physical punishment in ways that are different from external punishment, and not in good ways.

    (3) There are lots of different studies on whether spanking does and does not work, and on how the cultural context of spanking changes its meaning. I think, however, that when we say “spanking works,” we have to be precise about what it is we’re trying to achieve. If the point is to scare the child, to make the child fear his or her caregivers, then yes–spanking works. If the point, however, is to cultivate respect (because I am the adult who loves and takes care of you, and is in charge), then I’m not sure spanking does that. I don’t want a child who is afraid of me; I want a child who respects me. I would also note that your anecdote about fire is a useful example here: the first spanking didn’t work; it didn’t help you understand that fire was dangerous, or that you were not allowed to play with it. My guess is that the second spanking didn’t do that either, but because it was more painful, it taught you to fear the consequence. But what happens when a child thinks he or she can get away with it?

    (4) We were given higher-order mental reasoning for a reason. I think spanking does not engage our ability to come up with more creative ways of disciplining; ways that engage our child based on their personality and particular currency.

    When my 2-year old started hitting in frustration, we read her a book, “Hands Are Not For Hitting.” Now, if she hits, I say to her, “hands are not for hitting; what are hands for?” She responds that hands are for “saying hello; for keeping safe; for helping; for hugging.” Every time we have that exchange, I am grateful that I never taught her that even though her hands are not for hitting, Mommy’s hands are. I understand the motivation to hit, spank, or deliver physical punishment; I got a willful one, and there are times I’ve said out loud, “K, you are lucky I don’t spank.” There are other times when I’ve had to leave to room, I was so frustrated. And yet, we have never regretted the decision not to use that frustration as motivation for spanking (no matter how well thought out and articulated to the child), and never will.


  2. Yeah, I’m not getting into the merits of spanking or not. I feel like we all end up wasting our breath because no one is going to change their mind; it’s just that charged of an issue.

    I’ll answer your question – I do spank, occasionally. I use a wooden spoon on my children’s hands for behavior that did not respond to other forms of discipline. I generally correct behavior once verbally, next is taking things away/time out, and finally “the spoon.” Not very much behavior is directly dealt with by the spoon at this point. When they were younger, I actually used the spoon more because I thought it directly corrected behavior that was unacceptable for a two or three year old who isn’t thinking like an adult. They weren’t thinking about a particular toy or a particular thing they could do. It quickly stops certain behaviors that are dangerous or should not ever be repeated.

    I am very clear with my kids about why they are receiving the spoon, and it’s never because they themselves are bad. It’s always about their behavior. I think if you asked either of my kids whether they are afraid of me, I’m 100% certain the answer would be no.

    I think by setting the expectations when my kids were younger – that there are certain things that are not acceptable and that we have certain rules that cannot be broken, we have less and less reasons to use the spoon now. I talked to a psychologist that I trust about this, and was heartened to know that occasional spanking of the type I engage in has never been shown to be detrimental to a child. I haven’t used it in over a month, and the last time was because my son simply refused to listen to me at all and was being very disrespectful. That had to be nipped in the bud immediately.

    I don’t think every child needs to be spanked. I do think discipline needs to be consistent. I think we all have to make the choices that we think are best as parents for our kids and our families. I think we do need to be clear in having this discussion about what exact spanking behavior we are doing. I only use a wooden spoon, and I only spank hands. I did make a decision to never hit any other part of my children, and not to ever use a belt or other object. I did this because I was spanked with a belt, which leaves all kinds of welts and bruises. I also remember feeling so out of control. My brother, on the other hand, thinks every spanking he got was well deserved and didn’t have a problem with the belt. It’s just personally a place that I don’t want to go to.


  3. I’m not opposed to spanking and I don’t judge others by whether they do or don’t spank. I think it can be effective to have a range of progressively more serious disciplinary tools, with spanking as a last result. I grew up in a large, Southern family where every aunt, uncle, and grandparent had blanket spanking authority for any child in the clan. That worked well, I think, for me and my cousins. What it has meant for me, though, is that I had to retrain my brain early on with my first child that spanking should not be reflexive.


  4. I saw the earlier debate about spanking and thought people had excellent points. I didn’t necessarily want to rehash it, but I wanted to know how many people actually spank and why. LaToya, your response was helpful. I know some people spank and I want to know the conversations that happen around it. Just saying it’s bad or it’s great isn’t really doing it for me. The theories I get, but how does it play out on the ground, in people’s homes?

    ORJ- Thanks for telling me what you do with your child. I agree that it’s easier to say, “hands are not for hitting,” when you haven’t used your hands for hitting. Have you seen her behavior change with the time-outs?


    1. After wondering how parents actually got their children to stay in a time-out, I actually just went ahead and tried it, and found–to my surprise–that my daughter stayed where I put her. At this point, I’ve only had to use time-out 2 or 3 times, and only when her behavior became out of control–when she needed to calm down. At that point, it was less about discipline, and more about giving her (and me) an opportunity to get a grip. To be honest, I don’t always expect her to stay there, but it was clear to me that she understood the seriousness of the situation, and as such it is a tool for me to use when she starts to spin out of control.

      I should also mention that I might have different opinions than most moms about when, and to what extent, children should be able to “behave themselves.” At 18 months, my daughter was into everything, too, but for the most part, I considered it “developmentally appropriate,” and rarely punished her for touching something I didn’t want her to. Now, at 2, I do expect her to be able to listen, but I also know that she won’t always, and plan accordingly. She is not supposed to drag her chair over to the cut-out in the kitchen and reach over to the kitchen equipment there, but I’ve moved the toaster to somewhere else all the same. And on the rare occasion that she does do it, I firmly tell her that she is not allowed to, I place her on the floor, and I move the chair. I don’t necessarily discipline her for that.

      The rest of the day is really a lot of negotiation; sometimes I complain to my husband that we’re constantly negotiating with a crazy person! A lot of “if you do that one more time, mommy will take it away from you,” or “if you don’t make a choice, mommy will make one for you.” A last resort is also counting–“you have 10 seconds to do X, and after that, Mommy will do it for you.” She’s usually scrambling by 7. I’ll be honest–it’s exhausting, and often very frustrating. But it’s all worth it to me…


  5. Yeah – I don’t fully expect my children to behave at 4 and 5.5! I expect them to follow the real established rules, and at this point, they don’t really break them. The biggest rule is to do what I say; while I generally explain what we are about to do, or it’s self-explanatory for why they need to do what I say (like “clean your room”), I have made it clear that I will not explain everything and sometimes they just need to do as I say because I said so. And I don’t mind saying just that, “Because I said so.” If they push me on that, there is a consequence. The spoon will come out when they explicitly disregard me.

    I also have made my house, for the most part, really kid friendly, basically trying to save them from themselves. I’m just starting now to introduce things that we never had around before – potted plants, art work, framed photographs.

    I also count – but only to three. I guess we could call that negotiation; I’m giving them the opportunity to change their behavior. By two they are doing what I want. Age 2 is early to have any real discipline outside of setting some limits. We put up baby gates so they could not get into the kitchen. We didn’t tolerate hitting, either, although I would use the spoon if it got out of hand.

    One thing I really do not tolerate at their age is lying. They know the difference between the truth and a lie, and now they are at the age when they lie because they are afraid to get in trouble. It’s usually when they’ve made a mistake, or caused an accident, which they won’t get in trouble for. But we now have really explicit conversations about that.


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