The Danger Dilemma

 One grey area in the Gentle Parenting debate seems to be what to do about dangerous situations. Many spankers argue that they only find spanking necessary when their children attempt something dangerous, and they feel no compunction against using physical punishment in those cases. I feel qualified to dissect and hopefully expose this argument, because I was one of those parents. I thought it better to smack my child’s hand then to let him experience a cut or burn.

 One of the moments when a child MUST know absolutely that his parents love him- no matter what- is the moment he has found himself in danger. Children need a refuge- a safe place to run.  Think Prodigal Son. So what happens when, after obeying Mom’s order to come back off the street or to drop the sharp knife, a child is punished? Don’t they need something ‘for shock value’ just to communicate how terrible that thing was they almost experienced? Shouldn’t a parent ‘do something’ to inform the child of her fear for him? Pain is a deterrent, right? If my child learns to associate pain with a certain thing- say the oven for example, or the word ‘hot’- isn’t that a good thing?

 Life threatening situations are the one thing that parents think gives them the right to at least punish, and usually spank or confine or both, a child.  It is our fear speaking in that moment…a fear that often turns to anger at being afraid. We direct that anger towards the child who, ‘should have known better’. When a child who has never attempted anything dangerous attempts something dangerous (and he/she will) punishment still doesn’t work. Either the consequences of the act will be enough, or they won’t be- and then a parent’s job becomes to modify the environment or provide supervision until the fascination with the forbidden thing ends.

Maximus learned very early what HOT meant. I’d pour coffee while he was balanced on my hip and he’d reach for it. Over and over every day he’d hear, ‘Hot! No touch! Hurt baby!’ He stopped reaching for my coffee. A year later we started cooking together. He complied with my instructions regarding the stove and oven. I NEVER expected him at the ripe old age of 3.5 to lay his hand on the burner. Angels must have been working overtime that night, because he barely got burned. A while later, he snuck cheese off of a pizza right out of the oven and burned his fingertips, mouth and his forearm where he laid it against the rim of the pizza pan. That burn has healed- but a red scar remains… Now when I’m cooking and he gets too close, I remind him, ‘remember what happened to your arm?’ and he steps away. I watch him as closely now as the 2 year old.

 My warnings were not enough. No matter that I had taught him that ‘Stove’ was ‘hot’ and ‘hot’ meant ‘hurt’ he STILL didn’t understand that a burn equals pain. That is something he would never have understood without the experience. Of course I wish he could have learned that lesson without the pain, but I think we all know life really doesn’t work that way. So many people would suggest I smack his fingers so he ‘learns’ that if he touches the stove he’ll be hurt. But children do not learn well by conditioned response. This is one area where Dr. Dobson’s reasoning and my experience conflict wildly. When you repeated smack a child’s fingers for touching things, two things happen. The first lesson that the child learns is that it’s bad to touch things, period. That leads to problems later when you wish your child would be interested in trying new things, but you have inadvertently taught her to avoid anything interesting. The second is that the child becomes desensitized to pain in this regard. If you’re a spanker, you’ve probably seen this phenomenon. The shock of the smacking wears off.

Another thing- in regard to ‘shock value’; Not every child perceives a spanking in the same way. I have realized that Maximus may not feel pain very sharply. Spankings never seemed to have any shock value to them, ever. When I think of the things I tried to get his attention…..I feel sick. That time he burned his forearm? He never told me! He never complained about it…until the blister popped when he scraped it on something. I never knew it was that bad! It took a month or more in healing and the spot is still visible.

In regard to running away- into the street, etc. – Maximus responded quite predictably when I spanked him for running away. He started to run away whenever he thought I was angry with him. When he saw me coming, he ran farther away. 😦  The first time I got to him and did not spank him…he didn’t know what to think. After a bit, I could call to him, ‘Maximus stop and wait for me.’ and he would- because he knew I wouldn’t hurt him. A while after that, I could call to him to come back and he would meet me halfway, take my hand and walk calmly back to the house with me, often telling me he was glad I was there.

 My point is that when I stopped trying to enforce the wrongness and danger of what he was doing, I started to get the results I was aiming at- Safety!  He started to pay attention to me, and take my instructions seriously when I. Calmed. Down.  That was (not so) coincidentally the same time I actually started enforcing the boundaries for him that I had previously set. I began going out and getting him immediately as soon as he left the house without me (instead of yelling several times). I put a second lock on the screen door that he could not open. I started going outside with him more often- I realized he needed the sunshine and the free space to roam. We took more walks. (I got off my lazy duff) Every time he tried to get out without me, I re-stated the boundary- ‘You may not go outside without Mommy or Daddy.’ 

Gradually, he began to stop trying to get out by himself. He started asking to go out more often. One day he asked to go outside when I was cooking and Minimus was napping. I told him I couldn’t go out, but that if he could stay on the porch, he could go out without me. He did! We worked our way up from there, each small success granting him more freedom as my trust in him grew. He had to stay where I could see him from the porch, and he HAD to answer me when I called his name- or he had to come right back in. The amazing thing is that when I needed to go out and bring him in because he had violated those boundaries, he would often come in without a contest! Sometimes I just had to ask, other times I had to go get him, but he didn’t run from me anymore. I had earned HIS trust back once again.

 The surest way to help a child deal with danger is to first keep them safe; second, allow room in the boundaries for small developments in safety skills; and third, set a clear boundary and enforce it.



About greenegem

Wielder of the Pen of Deep Wit.
This entry was posted in Figuring it out, Grace-Based Discipline, Refuting Dobson's questionable logic., Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Danger Dilemma

  1. Lisa says:

    I concur wholeheartedly! I do not run after toddlers and am teaching my girls not to run after Justin either…what fun to have someone run after you!! One day I was watching him on a safe street to see how far he would go in relation to the boundaries we have been working on (no street…street is dangerous). He is 18mo, btw. He walked up to the street (again, this was a safe one…not like the one I live on!) — he got down on his hands and knees and reached into the street to see whatever it was that caught his eye…it was hilarious! Even at 18mo, he has a sense of boundaries and understands.

    Fast forward to the other day….I left my 6yo and 18mo playing on the driveway for a moment while I went to get something from behind the house to put into the garage. They were playing together and my 6yo is a protective, social big sister so I was not too worried. Well, then I heard my 6yo scream that her brother was going into the street. I ran – he was in the MIDDLE of the street. It could have been a life-changing day for all of us…we do NOT live on a slow, safe street.

    Even in that moment, I could not imagine spanking him or my 6yo. I have always believed it is the parents’ responsibility ONLY to keep a child safe…and I was solely to blame…I NEVER want my kids to feel like they would be to blame if something horrible happened to them or to one of their siblings.

    We talked about it – that it was scary, but everyone is safe now. I re-established with my 6yo where the boundary line on the driveway is and if her brother ever got to that line how to help him turn around and walk the other way (he just wants to walk in a straight line…the street holds no great allure because I have not made it so by creating a big stir about it….just that the boundary is back here and the street is dangerous).

    We hugged and I vowed never to turn my back again!!

  2. Lisa says:

    Another interesting side note – my 6yo holds to the “no street” boundary so strongly that she wouldn’t even go into the street to help him! And yet, I have never over-reacted over that boundary – just set it matter of factly and consistently…and I say “little girls get smooshed” when they were old enough to understand. They have a healthy fear of cars – not of mom! Even when I am not around – even if their favorite ball goes into the road – they do not go after it. They are afraid of the right things.

  3. Christie says:

    Excellent Post! I remember when one of our boys was around 5 years old, he went out front and I couldn’t see him. He knew that matches were dangerous. (this was back in the day before lighters) He was sitting between 2 cars on the curb lighting matches.
    I could smell the sulphur.
    I sat down next to him and didn’t say anything. His head was down. I put my arm around his shoulder and he began to sob. And I mean SOB! He said, “Mommy! I’m so sorry! I know I did wrong!” We talked about it for a minute and about the real dangers that Could have happened… and then I said, I think you have really learned not to play with matches.
    You know, I never said another word about it, never told anybody else about it….. and he never EVER did it again. 🙂

  4. Tiffany says:

    I remember reading one time in regard to this exact same thing…if you spank your kid to teach them not to run out in the street, then would you let that same kid play by themselves in your front yard with traffic all around? Why not?? Your spanking should be effective, right?? You taught them what will happen if they get too close to traffic, so you can now trust them to play by themselves right?? Or play around stoves that are hot? Of course not!! Perhaps another method is called for 🙂 I read that and it made so much sense to me. I remember my daughter was about 2 and we had hot water steam radiators that get pretty hot in the winter…talked lots and lots about it to her..”hot..” “ow!”, etc. One day she touched it and that was it. She cried, I held her, and once in a while if she got too close, we would say hot and she got it. It wasn’t my yapping that had her get was life experience. How much of our lives are the same way?? I for one find I learn 99% of valuable lessons through experience too, sometimes painful. Good post!

  5. Zooey says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful, well-reasoned entry on this subject.

  6. Pingback: Resorting to Violent Correction in Dangerous Situations « No Greater Joy | Raising Children Without Damaging Them

  7. Angie says:

    This is amazingly well written. Courageous and accurate. I have reposted your entry with credits and linking on my own blog. Your words and understanding is truly so valuable.

    Thank you for your voice, your heart.

  8. Pingback: Natural Consequence, Example One « No Greater Joy | Raising Children Without Damaging Them

  9. In a similar vein to the child who has had their fingers smacked so many times that they resist appropriate exploration…I knew a woman who made sure that her baby NEVER fell asleep in-arms during the first 10 weeks or so of life–NEVER. I can’t really imagine how she did it–newborns fall asleep so easily. But she reported this about it herself. She did this on the advice of the Babywise books–which she insisted that she was following “flexibly.” But I often heard her make comments about parenting issues as if they were her own thoughts, but they were verbatim from Babywise. Hmmmm….

    The result was that that the baby would NEVER fall asleep in-arms by a few months old. Which of course led to problems when there was no where to lay the baby down to sleep. The mother also reported that she regretted this, because she’d heard so many people talk about how sweet it was to feel a baby fall asleep in your arms, and she did not get to experience that with this baby.

    I have lost touch with her, but I can only hope that she was less rigid with later children.

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  12. TealRose says:

    I am amazed … this seems to be the first time when the emphasis of keeping a child SAFE and out of harm is laid where it belongs – on the parent and not the child!

    I couldn’t and didn’t ever spank [for anything] when one of mine made a silly or dangerous move after all they just had learned a good lesson without me hitting them!

    My mother on the other hand, spanked me when I got lost and was brought home, instead of picking me up and loving me to death as I would have done to my own children! I was so upset and crying anyway, and she spanked me! I remember thinking that she didn’t care about ME … just about the fact I had got lost, and SHE had been inconvenienced. I didn’t feel that she was worried about ME and glad to see me !!

    Thank you for this very clear, KIND and sensible post!!

  13. Annie says:

    This is so so so amazingly important. I had mixed emotions reading this. I wanted to be mad and cry at the same time. 🙂 In a good way. My son is one who might be considered um borderline on the spectrum. He is extremely high functioning if he is and he certainly is quirky enough to not fit the “typical” kid mold or even to get along with most of them well. But he’s extremely loving hearted and by our own prayer and conviction we decided to avoid a label unless it is needed- he still receives services through his school and what he lacks in language and social skills he makes up as he continues to make improvements and flourish past “typical” peers academically.

    I think this message is incredibly relevant today as rates of autism and other neurological struggles continue to rise in our children. For some reason I was under the impression that I was literally protecting my child by spanking him. He was an AVID runner and he literally had no concept of “danger” (didn’t even know the word) until about about age 3.5. While his sensory issues make it impossible for me to be open to “letting him figure out what hot is” on his own (as you stated, children feel things different and he is in fact low registry for sensations) I think it vital that we realize that our children’s safety is in OUR HANDS. I bought a “Burglabar” for our sliding glass door but aside from that I really didn’t understand just how not his fault it was that he couldn’t understand boundaries that didn’t include tangible limitations. And the mainstream response to all my struggles seemed to be that he was a strong willed boy that would submit eventually. He even did seem to improve on his “running” for a while and I started to believe it was true- maybe this corporal punishment stuff *is* getting us some where?

    Nope. About 6 months after I thought he’d stopped running, he did it again at a public setting and took his younger brother with him. I was horrified. I was able to get to him quickly and we left but he seemed completely unphased by the experience. Nothing I’d done up until then had actually instilled ANY sort of lesson for him- at all. Frankly, ANY encouragement I’d had up until then had only worked to counteract any of his safety needs. I’d let up because I figured he was “getting it” in a way completely impossible for him. When I talked with others about the experience I was told “Well he KNOWS better than that!” SO what? I was to be upset with him? That was the solution to a very real and dangerous situation? I finally asked for advice in a special needs forum and the first response I got was from a lady who nicely asked why I had give him so much room when I knew he had a history of running. I was livid. But that subsided and I realized she was so right.

    People with what appear to be exceptionally “willful” children do NOT need to be encouraged to stay the course with something that isn’t working. The point that our job is to set a safe environment is so vital. And that if something isn’t working and you continue to have concerns, ASK FOR HELP. The best help I’ve ever gotten was early intervention services that taught me about sensory integration- weighted backpacks for instance help him regulate and dispel the urge to run. And speech therapy allowed us to get through to him words like: dirty, danger, hurt, safe, etc. Even spanking him and inflicting “hurt” didn’t resonate with him as much as eventually learning that the word associated with bad sensations could prevent their occurrence.

    He’s been doing great with our new approach. He is literally talking my ear off. I’ve made the occasional silly comment about wanting to change my name from “MOoooom” but you know it is all in jest because I couldn’t be more grateful for his success and I am also grateful for being able to appreciate it in a way not all parents can. Because children with speech delays often crave reciprocal exchange that they cannot get verbally, they literally hone in on how to get negative reactions from their parents to meet that need- especially when the parent is taking the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach.

    I think I already posted a thank you on your site but I just want to say it again. I have no idea how I ever had it in my head that the developmental level of the brain of a toddler or preschooler SHOULD be held responsible to “comply” with my demands as a parent. I also appreciate your anger post because I do struggle with that too 😛 But the more research I do the more I realize that at graceful approach is the only one I know of that is literally best for ALL children. It seems that corporal versions of parenting only work with a particular type of child and even then that depends on your definition of “work” and your actual goals. However, special needs, strong willed, temperaments of all kind, all ages and stages, this is by far the most effective parenting for us. And while it might make some squirm, the idea of placing the responsibility of the outcome of parenting on the parent and not the actual child is so very very important!

    • greenegem says:

      Annie- thank you so much for your comment and I apologise for not seeing it before today. 😦 ❤
      THis popped out at me- "Because children with speech delays often crave reciprocal exchange that they cannot get verbally, they literally hone in on how to get negative reactions from their parents to meet that need- especially when the parent is taking the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach."

      I have to respond to this particularly because it turned on a huge lightbulb for me. I had forgotten for some reason that the basis of all language development IS that reciprocity!! How could I have forgotten? This is definitely a HUGE part of what was happening with Maximus… It makes the 'attention getting' motivator that much more clear and gives it such a firm relational basis that it cannot be ignored. My Dad calls attention seeking 'psychobabble' and to him it IS, because in a punitive home, self-awareness is discouraged(squashed) rather than developed. Thank you so very much for reminding me of this! ❤

      I also hated hearing 'YOu should KNOW better' from my Mother. Obviously I did NOT know better…. so I concluded, in the standard reasoning of a child, that I must be stupid. children really DO take everything personally- and at the end of every reasoning path is the child himself. We need to recognise that.


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