The woman in the grocery store paused in the midst of repeatedly slapping her small child to turn and stare at me after I said it, as did the other dozen people in the aisle. I'm not sure which of us was more embarrassed, but I stuck to my guns.
"Look," I said more quietly, "there is just no good reason to hit a child like that."
The woman glared at me angrily, offering no invitation for me to continue. Sensing a standoff, I turned to leave and almost fell over my own daughter, who was 4 at the time. My daughter was standing directly behind me, hands on her hips, with a look of both anger and alarm on her face.
When we got back to the car, I decided to ask my daughter her feelings about our encounter.
"That was probably pretty scary for you," I suggested.
"Yeah," she replied. "Big people shouldn't hit us kids!"
My daughter -- a parent herself now, but she still remembers this incident in great detail -- was right. We shouldn't hit kids.
Let me be upfront about a strong prejudice I have -- there is no valid psychological or ethical reason ever to use hitting, spanking, slapping, jerking, pushing or any other form of corporal (read: violent) punishment.
Before you decide that I'm totally out of touch with the realities of parenting, let me explain. If you give me a fair hearing, I think you'll understand the strength of my convictions.
There are five sound reasons why a vast majority of family psychologists advise against corporal punishment:
• Parents lose control. I was a caseworker for a child welfare agency for a number of years. Part of my job was working with families in which one or more children had been physically abused by their parents. One of the most consistent patterns I saw in these families was spanking that got out of hand. A frazzled, frustrated parent started out punishing a misbehaving child, but the spanking turned into a beating as the angry parent lost control. In a few short minutes punishment became abuse -- emotional and physical.
• Corporal punishment (violence) teaches violence. Look at it through a child's eyes: "When I don't do what Mommy and Daddy want me to do, they hit me to get their way." Kids don't understand underlying motives and long-term goals of punishment. They do, however, understand simple relational equations about how people act toward each other. Some well-done research in the field of child behavior now points to a direct link between corporal punishment and children's violence in other relationships. The 4-year-old who hits the playmate who doesn't give him a coveted toy is often simply acting out a relational equation learned at home: "When you don't do what I want, I'll hit you to get my way." Of course, the older the child gets, the more violent this equation can become.
• Corporal punishment can lead to parent abuse. Kids grow up. The 60-pound 6-year-old can wind up being the 160-pound 16-year-old. And though 16-year-olds often will require as much punishment as 6-year-olds, they probably will not be all that amenable to a spanking or slap on the hand. In fact, they may just get angry enough to hit back.
As a caseworker, I was called in more than once to calm things down after children had finally taken all they could take and gave Mom or Dad a "dose of their own medicine." We teach our children to respond to one particular style of punishment. If our punishment is corporal, then we either have to try to stay with such an approach until our children grow up, or we have to change our style once they get so big that we feel it is no longer appropriate (or fear they might respond violently themselves). Often, we wind up trying to make such a change at that time in our children's lives -- early adolescence -- when they are hardest to discipline anyway.
It just makes a lot more sense to pick one style of punishment early on and stick with it. It's easier on everybody.
• Corporal punishment doesn't work. Again, we can rely on some recent research and just plain common sense. Studies of children and their responses to spanking, slapping and other forms of violent punishment strongly suggest that the physical and emotional trauma involved temporarily short-circuits the child's learning mechanisms. Our children are so upset (even though they may hide it behind a stubborn, angry glare) by us violating their physical self that they do not understand the lesson we want them to learn. Instead they learn only to avoid getting hit.
Slapping toddler's hands when they reach for the candy in the checkout lane so frightens and disturbs them that they miss the whole point -- that they can't just take things they want. If we think about it, it does make sense. Even adults react that way. Think of the last time you were physically threatened or harmed. We don't think so much as we react. And it's no different for kids.
• It doesn't "feel" right. I'm not big on "if it feels good, do it." But I do believe we can sometimes intuitively sense what is best in a situation. I have never met parents who actually feel good after they use corporal punishment. Oh, we may temporarily experience a release of frustration or even a bit of secret enjoyment in getting revenge (let's be honest, we're only human). But how many of us could really look back later and say "I'm proud of how I dealt with my child." It just doesn't feel right.
Well then, if we give up corporal punishment, what's the alternative? Fortunately, there are a number of different, effective approaches to punishment. Let me suggest just a few basic readings you might explore to get you started: "The Parents' Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting" by Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay; "Positive Discipline" by Jane Nelsen; "Understanding Children" by Richard A. Gardner; and "Without Spanking or Spoiling: A Practical Approach to Toddler and Preschool Guidance" by Elizabeth Crary.
For a long time, corporal punishment has been the norm in many families. Often, that was simply because it was the only way we knew. In recent years, though, we have started to know better. All of us as responsible parents need to put this knowledge to use.
• The Rev. Ken Potts' book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available through retailers.