Questions and Answers About Corporal Punishment and The Strong-Willed Child.

Q: I have to fight with my nine-year-old daughter to get her to do anything she doesn't want to do. It's so unpleasant that I've about decided not to take her on. Why should I try to force her to work and help around thehouse? What's the downside of my just going with the flow and letting her off the hook?

A: It is typical for nine-year-olds to not want to work, of course, but they stillneed to. If you permit a pattern of irresponsibility to prevail in your child's formative years, she may fall behind in her developmental timetable leading toward the full responsibilities of adult living. As a ten-year-old, she won't be able to do anything unpleasant since she has never been required to stay with a task until it is completed. She won't know how to give to anyone else because she's thought only of herself. She'll find it hard to make decisions or control her own impulses. A few years from now, she will steamroll into adolescence and then adulthood completely unprepared for the freedom and obligations she will find there. Your daughter will have had precious little training for those pressing responsibilities of maturity.

Obviously, I've painted a worst-case scenario with regard to your daughter. You still have plenty of opportunity to help her avoid such an outcome. I just hope your desire for harmony doesn't lead you to do what will be harmful to her in later years.

Q: We have an adopted girl who came to us when she was four years old. She is very difficult to handle and does pretty much what she pleases. For us to make her obey would be very unpleasant for her, and frankly we don't feel we have the right to do that. She has been through a lot in her short life. Besides, we're not her real parents. Do you think she'll be okay if we just give her a lot of love and attention?

A: I'm afraid what you have is a formula for serious problems with this girl later on. The danger is in seeing yourselves as substitute or stand-in parents who don't have the right to lead her. That is a mistake. Since you have legally adopted this child, you are her "real" parents, and your failure to see yourselves that way may be setting up the defiant behavior you mentioned. It is a common error made by parents of older adopted children. They pity their youngsters too much to confront them. They feel that life has already been too hard on them, and they must not make things worse by discipline and occasional punishment. As a result, they are tentative and permissive with a child who is crying out for leadership.

Transplanted children have the same need for guidance and discipline as those remaining with their biological parents. One of the surest ways to make them feel insecure is to treat them like they are different, unusual, or brittle. If the parents view such a child as an unfortunate waif to be shielded, he will tend to see himself that way too.

Parents of sick and disabled children often make this same mistake. They find discipline harder to implement because of the tenderness they feel for the child. Thus, a boy or girl with a heart condition or a terminal illness can become a little terror, simply because the usual behavioral boundaries are notestablishedand defended. It must be remembered that the need to be led and governed is almost universal in childhood, and it isn't lessened by other problems and difficulties in life. In some cases, the desire for boundaries is actually increased by other troubles, for it is through loving control that parents buildsecurity and a sense of personal worth in a child.

Returning to the question, I advise you to love that little girl like crazy—and hold her to the same standards of behavior that you would your own flesh and blood. Remember, you are her parents!

Q: There is a child living near us who is not being harmed physically, but her parents are destroying her emotionally. You can't believe the screams and accusations that come from their house. So far, Child Protective Services has not intervened to rescue the little girl. Isn't it illegal to beratea childlike this?

A: It is illegal in most states to abuse a child emotionally, but bad parenting canbedifficult to define. Unfortunately, it is not illegal to raise a boy or girl without love unless neglect can be documented. It is usually not illegal tohumiliate a child either. These forms of rejection may be even more harmful thansome forms of physical abuse, but they are tougher to prove and are often not prosecutable. When emotional abuse occurs, as with the girl who lives near you, there may be no way to rescue her from this tragic situation. Nevertheless, I would report the incident to Child Protective Services and hopefor intervention.

Q: What advice would you give parents who recognize a tendency within themselves to abuse their kids? Maybe they're afraid they'll get carried away when spanking a disobedient child. Do you think they should avoid corporal punishment as a form of discipline?

A: That's exactly what I think. Anyone who has ever abused a child—or has ever felt herself losing control during a spanking—should not put herself in such a situation. Anyone who has a violent temper that at times becomes unmanageable should not use that approach. Anyone who secretly enjoys the administration of corporal punishment should not be the one to implement it. And grandparents ("Grandpop" from the poem in chapter 8 included) probably should not spank their grandkids, unless the parents have given them permission to do so.

Q: Do you think you should spank a child for every act of disobedience or defiance?

A: Certainly not. Corporal punishment should be a rather infrequent occurrence. There is an appropriate time for a child to sit in a chair to think about his misbehavior, or he might be deprived of a privilege, sent to his room for a time-out, or made to work when he had planned to play. In other words, you should vary your response to misbehavior, always trying to stay one step ahead of the child. Your goal is to continually react in a way that benefits the child and is in accordance with his "crime." In this regard, there is no substitute forwisdom and tact in the parenting role.

Q: On what part of the body would you administer a spanking?

A: It should be confined to the buttocks area, where permanent damage is very unlikely. I don't believe you should slap a child on the face or jerk him aroundby
the arm. If you spank a child only on the behind, you will be less likelytoinflict any physical injury on him.

Q: How long do you think a child should be allowed to cry after being punished or spanked? Is there a limit?

A: Yes, I believe there should be a limit. As long as the tears represent a genuine release of emotion, they should be permitted to fall. But crying can quickly change from inner sobbing to an expression of protest aimed at punishing the enemy. Real crying usually lasts two minutes or less but may continue for five. After that point, the child is merely complaining, and the change can be recognized in the tone and intensity of his voice. I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears. In younger children, crying can easily be stopped by getting theminterested in something else.

Q: There is some controversy over whether a parent should spank with his or her hand or with some other object, such as a belt or a paddle. What do you recommend?

A: I recommend a neutral object of some type. For those who disagree on this point, I'd encourage them to do what seems right. It is not a critical issue tome. The reason I suggest a switch (a small, flexible twig from a tree) or paddle isbecause the hand should be seen as an object of love—to hold, hug, pat, and caress. If you're used to suddenly disciplining with the hand, your child may not know when she's about to be swatted and can develop a pattern of flinching when you make an unexpected move. This is not a problem if you take the time to use a neutral object.

My mother always used a small switch, which could not do any permanent damage. But it stung enough to send a very clear message. One day when I had pushed her to the limit, she actually sent me to the backyard to cut my own instrument of punishment. I brought back a tiny little twig about seven inches long. She could not have generated anything more than a tickle with it. Mom never sent me on that fool's errand again.

Q: Is there an age when spankings can begin?

A: There is no excuse for spanking babies or children younger than fifteen to eighteen months of age. Shaking an infant can cause brain damage and even death! But midway through the second year (eighteen months), boys and girls become capable of understanding what you're telling them to do or not do. They can then very gently be held responsible for how they behave. Suppose a strong-willed child is reaching for an electric socket or something that will hurt him. You say, "No!" but he just looks at you and continues reaching toward it. You can see the mischievous smile on his face as he thinks, I'm going to do it anyway! I'd encourage you to speak firmly so that he knows he is pushing the limit. If he persists, slap his fingers just enough to sting. A small amount of pain goes a long way at that age and begins to introduce to the child the reality of the physical world and the importance of listening to what you say.

Through the next eighteen months, gradually establish yourself as a benevolent boss: mean what you say and say what you mean. Contrary to what you may have read in popular literature, this firm but loving approach to child rearing will not harm a toddler or make him violent. On the contrary, it is most likely to produce a healthy, confident child.

Q: I have spanked my children for their disobedience, and it didn't seem to help. Does this approach fail with some children?

A: Children are so tremendously variable that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all members of the same human family. Some kids can be crushed with nothing more than a stern look; others seem to require strong and even painful disciplinary measures to make a vivid impression. This difference usuallyresults from the degree to which a child needs adult approval and acceptance. The primary parental task is to see things as the child perceives them, thereby tailoring the discipline to the child's unique needs. Accordingly, it isappropriate to punish a boy or girl when he or she knows it is deserved.

In a direct answer to your question, disciplinary measures usually failbecause of fundamental errors in their application. It is possible for twice the amount of punishment to yield half the results. I have made a study of situations in which parents have told me that their children disregard punishment and continue to misbehave. There are four basic reasons for this lack of success:

1. The most common error is whimsical discipline. When the rules change every day and when punishment for misbehavior is capricious and inconsistent, the effort to change behavior is undermined. There is no inevitable consequence to be anticipated. This entices children to see if they can beat the system. In society at large, it also encourages criminal behavior among those who believe they will not face the bar of justice.

2. Sometimes a child is more strong-willed than his parent—and they both know it. He just might be tough enough to realize that a confrontation with his mom or dad is really a struggle of wills. If he can withstand the pressure and not buckle during a major battle, he can eliminate that form of punishment as a tool in the parent's repertoire. Does he think through this process on a conscious level? Usually not, but he understands it intuitively. He realizes that a spanking must not be allowed to succeed. Thus, he stiffens his little neck and guts it out. He may even refuse to cry and may say, "That didn't hurt." The parent concludes in exasperation, "Spanking doesn't work for my child."

3. The spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't motivate a child to avoid the consequence next time. A slap with the hand on the bottom of a diapered two-year-old is not a deterrent to anything. Be sure the child gets the message—while being careful not to go too far.

4. For a few children, spankings are simply not effective. A child who has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, may be even more wild and unmanageable after corporal punishment. Also, a child who has been abused may identify loving discipline with past abuse. Finally, the very sensitive child might need a different approach. Let me emphasize once more that children are unique. The only way to raise them correctly is to understand each boy or girl as an individual and design parenting techniques to fit the needs and characteristics of that particular child.

Q: Do you think corporal punishment eventually will be outlawed?

A: I don't doubt that an effort will be made to end it. In fact, an attempt to outlaw corporal punishment was made in California in 1982, until the politicians were told by parents to back off.17 The tragedy of child abuse has made it difficult for people to understand the difference between viciousness to kids and constructive, positive forms of punishment. Also, there are many "children's-rights advocates" in the Western world who will not rest until they have obtained the legal right to tell parents how to raise their children. In Sweden, corporal punishment and other forms of discipline are already prohibited by law.18 Canadian courts have flirted with the same decision but ruled otherwise.19 The American media has worked to convince the public that all spanking is tantamount to child abuseand therefore should be outlawed. If corporal punishment is banned, it will bea sad day for families, and especially for children!

By Dr. James Dobson

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