My journey toward a peaceful parenting approach began before I ever had any kids. In fact, it probably began before I could even talk, with the first time my Mother smacked my fingers as a baby. As a BABY- You ask? Yes, I was just able to propel myself around our home in my wheelie-walker…y’know, the kind that aren’t made anymore. In fact, my mother tells me that I went down the stairs in that walker… but I digress. Mom tells me that I would roll myself over to the plug socket (aka an electrical outlet) behind the stereo system, and pull the cords. She would say, ‘No baby, smack-fingers!’…and of course, being all of 8 or 9 months old, I reached out and touched the cords anyway. She was always careful to elaborate on the scenario, saying that I would ‘inch’ over to the cords with my hand outstretched, eyeing her the whole time, just to ‘test’ her. I of course got the promised smack on the back of the hand. Apparently, I would go right back to the cords…and try to touch them again right away. My mother insists it was defiance. My mother got most of her child rearing information from Dr. James Dobson’s books- he’s written several. I remember Dare to Discipline and The Strong-Willed Child on our bookshelves, and my parents delighted in telling us how difficult we were.
I have now been through that baby stage twice with my own boys. I used Dobson’s stuff at first, and a lot of it fit the assumptions my parents had unknowingly taught. I have found however, a way to parent, disciple, and discipline that does not need to involve punishment or shame. As I have learned about God’s marvelous Grace, I have come to understand just how damaging the type of punishment Dobson advocates really is. This is my journey.
I started out my parenting in a very gentle way. I went with my instincts, and got to know my baby very well. My older son- I call him Maximus- was not an ‘easy’ baby. From the very start, I had older women telling me that I shouldn’t pick him up when he cried, or he’d ‘always cry’…or ‘he’ll expect you to answer him every time’. The more of this type of advice I got, the less of it I listened to. You see, for various reasons I was committed to exclusively breastfeeding my baby until at least 6 months old (we made it to 19 months…but that’s another story) and all of that advice flatly contradicted the biological information on a successful breastfeeding relationship. I felt quite free to chuck all of that ridiculous ‘advice’ and find my own way. By the time Maximus was 19 months old, we were very close. He was close to other people in his life, his Daddy (my hubby), and both sets of grandparents…as well as a few of the older adults at church. He went where I went, and lived life with me. I consequently had a tiny person who loved the library, Star trek TNG, the grocery store, walks, plants, and many other things. (His little brother, whom I call Minimus, shares these interests but this first post is really Maximus’ story)
I don’t remember the first time I slapped his tiny hand. It makes me shrink up inside now, to think about it. I didn’t want to spank…I never set out to, and until this time, I had been as gentle a parent as possible. I believe God gave me insight into the needs and learning processes of the tiny soul with whose care he entrusted me. Maximus would do something and a little light bulb would go off inside my head, ‘Oh, That’s why he did that!’ When you know why someone did something, it’s much easier to give them Grace and modify your response appropriately. So why did I switch to spanking? I got tired. I got pregnant. I ran out of tools. Maximus got big enough that everyone thought he was a year, or more, older than he was and I started to feel their judgment of my ‘out-of-control’ boy. He was really only 18 months old, but people assumed he was as old as 4! Obviously, expectations for a 4 year old are much, much different than expectations for a 1.5 year old. None of these are good reasons, they are just my reasons. One of the most significant problems I have with spanking is that it leaves room for nothing else. Once you resort to pain as a punishment- not much else makes an impact. Trust has been violated. There are so many other ways to enforce a parental request, or to define a boundary, and a parent who spanks loses sight of these in favor of a more ‘consistent’ or ‘effective’ method. Spanking…or hand slapping, worked for about 2 months. Well, it worked once Maximus realized I was going to hurt him if he didn’t do what I said. Then, mysteriously, it stopped working. I found myself spanking harder, more strikes, bare bottom…and despite my escalating violence against my son- he refused to comply. There is a very good reason for this- which I will explore in later posts. I became a very angry mommy. I knew I was hurting him, so I was spanking ‘properly’ (Dobson says if the child doesn’t cry- it’s not enough) yet it produced ONLY an increasingly defiant boy. I began to feel guilty about wanting to hold or touch my son, because he was ‘defiant’ and I had to ‘enforce my authority’. I felt that to be soft and loving with him was to undo the spankings. I started to see my son flinch when I moved suddenly. Each day began with a greater distance between this boy, who had been my precious baby, and me- an out of control, abusive momma. I began to hate myself for violating what I felt was most important, my relationship with my son.
God began to speak to me. First, he sent me Believing Mommas who practiced Gentle Discipline. I didn’t get it at all. I wrote them off at first, thinking, ‘that’s fine- they don’t have to deal with this boy’. And anytime someone complained about their kids’ behavior, saying they didn’t know what to do about it, I thought smugly, ‘yeah, that’s what you get for being permissive’. But as I met my incredibly tenacious and intelligent boy head-on, my friends’ words began to replay themselves in my head. It stopped me in my tracks after a while. I was, during that time, crying out to God because I knew something was wrong. I knew I was destroying my relationship with my son, and the baby was watching these scenarios play out. The guilt over what my tiny Minimus was witnessing was crippling. I was also missing out on church services and Bible study, and I found myself so starved for spiritual meat that I eagerly listened to Chapel services online, and to the two CD’s I have of Dr. Stephen Manley’s sermons. In one of Dr. Manley’s sermons he says, “Nothing will matter in 100 years, except…relationship.” I realized one day that Minimus was about the same age as Maximus had been when I started smacking his fingers, and the thought of spanking and smacking this tiny precious person- the thought of breaching this relationship- made me physically ill. Not too long after that, I was spanking Maximus (again) for hitting his brother. Now, I had always maintained that hitting someone to teach them not to hit people was…stupid- quite frankly. So, why was I doing it? *shrug* I heard myself say, “Max- you cannot hit people just because they do something you don’t like!” I heard a quiet voice whisper, ‘But that’s what YOU do.’ I froze. They talk about the Holy Spirit speaking in a ‘still, small voice’. Well that was it. I would hear that still voice precisely pointing out my sin each time I used pain as discipline on Maximus. At one point I hit the wall. My children could do much better than having me as a parent; I thought. I finally understood that I would have to break Maximus if I ever wanted the kind of rule-follower Dobson’s books said every Christian parent should have. I would literally have had to beat him into submission.
That day I stopped spanking, cold turkey. It’s actually much easier than it sounds. Some of you are thinking ‘oh my goodness, I’ll bet all of Hades broke loose!’ What happened was completely unexpected, and it changed my perspective forever.
The first time I did not spank Maximus for his error, he looked at me in amazement, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. By the end of that first no-spanking day he had become very snuggly, and I loved it. He became very careful to do everything I asked, when he could. He was…ginger with me- if you know what I mean. SO careful, as if he really liked this ‘new’ mommy but wasn’t sure he could trust her. I held him a lot in the week that followed, and I cried a lot. He gave me what I had not been able or willing to give him. He gave me Grace. He forgave me, without my ever having to ask it. I did not make a ‘no spanking’ announcement. I was terrified that I would not be able to stick with my plan. I had no tools, but God had already provided for me. continued…