A complete change in paradigm doesn’t happen in a moment. Having been punitively parented myself, I grew up assuming it was God’s best for every family. I believed that the punishments I had experienced were appropriate and I was grateful to my parents for raising me in the discipline of the Lord. I have never felt that I was abused. Not only did I believe that my parents had done right by me, but we had several Christian books on parenting, and they all agreed that (considered, consistent) punishment was necessary, although they disagreed on how much and when.
I had also read one or two secular parenting/discipline books, and while they recommended against spanking, they replaced it with other punishments, especially time-outs. Since a large part of the argument was that spanking (we call it ‘smacking’ in Australia) would cause the child to hide their bad behaviour (rather than cease altogether), I couldn’t understand the logic – why wouldn’t a time-out or other punishment have the same effect?
God had to pull down my wall of resistance one brick at a time, until he had gradually changed my point of view to see my relationship with my children through the lens of grace. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my personal myths that needed ‘busting’ (there are probably others that I’ve forgotten ):
- ‘Punish’ and ‘discipline’ are synonyms. I don’t remember now the first time I heard that ‘discipline’ means ‘guide’ or ‘teach’, but it laid the foundation for all that follows.
- All Christians smack. I was surprised the day my ABA leader mentioned, in passing, that she doesn’t smack her 5 children. It was during an ABA meeting, so she quickly picked herself up and followed the comment up with a caveat that this is her personal way of doing things (ABA has no policy on discipline styles and we make an effort to be inclusive). I admire this woman and she has great kids. This little tidbit stuck and niggled at the back of my mind, letting me know there are other views that might be worth considering.
- Smacking is the best way to make a point to a young child. It made sense to me that if I wanted my child to realise that I was really serious about something, hurting them should get their attention. However, my experience didn’t entirely bear this out – I found that he would cry, I would comfort, and then, what he DIDN’T say was,, “I’m sorry I ……..” or “I won’t ………. again.” No, he said, “Don’t hit me, Mummy.” Or, he would experiment with the undesired behaviour to see if he would get the same reaction again. I would explain why I had punished him, but he just didn’t get the connection. This did not feel like teaching to me. At the same time, I was on a ‘natural parenting’ email list where discipline issues would occasionally come up. Reading through the creative, proactive discipline (teaching) ideas the other mamas on the list came up with, I felt lazy. I began to realise there might be far more effective tools with which to fill my toolkit.
- Smacking works. In my own memory, the threat of smacks and other punishment had been an effective disincentive. But I kept hearing about research which disagreed. Also research that suggested children who are smacked are more likely to be violent with others. Again, this didn’t match with my remembered experience, but the trend still exists according to the research. My experience with my child was mixed. Sometimes, as described above, my attempts to teach through punishments was a failure, but it did appear to work just often enough to make me keep trying*. I thought, “maybe the researchers are not differentiating between occasional, reasonable punishment vs abuse” – and that may be a problem with some of this research. I thought, “There must be something wrong with this research (and with the way I was punishing) – how could God be wrong?” Which leads me to the next myth:
- God mandates – or at least strongly recommends – corporal punishment. Barefoot Betsy has gone into the Biblical justifications modern spanking proponents use, in her Proverbs and Spanking posts. The first I heard that there might be different interpretations for those passages was an aside in Pinky McKay’s book Toddler Tactics: “…actually, the shepherd used the rod to guide the sheep, he didn’t hit them with it…” (p64)I also became interested around this time in Mennonitism, the pacifist/ peace making movement and the phenomenon of non-violent resistance. (This was purely a matter of curiosity/personal study). Reading about these things made me more aware of the emphasis in Jesus’ teachings and the New Testament on peace, gentleness, kindness etc. I was attracted to the teachings of these movements, but I began to see a fundamental difference between God’s ideal for relationships and the way I was living in my own family.
- Children are lesser citizens than adults. This is one that I would never have acknowledged/ put into words but when I look back, I can see that my treatment of my children amounted to this. Another quote from Pinky McKay helped to bring this to light for me: “…most of us would label a child who hits another child a bully … and an adult who slaps a workmate or (heaven forbid!) their partner would … probably receive a criminal conviction. So why is is acceptable for adults to hit small children? At what age does hitting a person become assault – when they are eighteen and an adult, for instance?” I’m a numbers person, so that question really got to me.
- People have to feel bad to act better. The final chink in my armour was to realise that punishments of any sort are not necessary. No, that doesn’t mean my children will always enjoy my discipline/teaching. What it does mean is that my fundamental goal need not be to make them feel bad. My goal is to teach correct behaviour and attitudes. This means that I won’t necessarily even wait for the bad behaviour to happen – I’ll intercept and redirect, thus avoiding all possibility of punishment, and providing my child with the experience of success. Or, if I miss that moment, then I need to ask myself, what can I do now to help them succeed in dealing with the fact that they’ve made a mistake? And how can I help my child succeed in the future?This story of how God is leading me to gentle discipline is a great example of what I’m trying to describe. It was not ‘pleasant at the time’ (Heb 12). It wasn’t pleasant to admit I had been wrong in my dealings with my children and my understanding of his word. It was/is hard work to change my habits of thought and action. But God has never shamed or punished me, even now that I ‘know better’. The Holy Spirit is gently leading me, through each of the myths I mentioned above and many more, patiently reminding me when I mess up, and graciously giving me a fresh start when I fail.
God still has a lot of work to do in me. Paradigms are hard to shift, but habits are even harder. Much of my ‘non-punitive’ parenting is still theoretical and gradually being translated to our lives. But I trust him to complete the good work he has begun in me, and to make up by his grace for the deficits in my children’s parenting.
*In the language of behaviourism, what I was experiencing was ‘intermittent positive reinforcement’ – where you sometimes get the reward – if you can do it right as a trainer, it is the most effective kind of training. Unfortunately, in this case, I was being intermittently rewarded for punishment. I’m so glad God can overcome conditioning!