Myth Busting 4: My story

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!

About Claire

Homeschooling mum of 3 in Tasmania, Australia. Married to Colin the Tepid Earth author.
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15 Responses to Myth Busting 4: My story

  1. TealRose says:

    It is strange, how we believe something so strongly, and accept too. And for a lot of adults, I believe that spanking is ‘inherited’ – that is how we were treated, and so that is how we treat our children.

    I have never heard in churches in the UK that I attended, any mention of how to bring up your child ie with smacking/hitting them. I am 56, and even as a small child was aware that a lot of my class were not smacked. At High school there was NO Corporal Punishment – and we were ‘model’ pupils, helpful, kind etc. Whereas the other High School just along the road with children from the same catchment area, where they DID us CP had pupils that were hooligans and always truanting. I have always thought that perhaps the CP and the bad behaviour went hand in hand. After all, teachers are human not angels and all knowing – and often hit the ‘wrong’ child, or have had a bad day and lash out, or are racist and hit, or just don’t like certain children and hit them all the time. Also, if that High School hit children for the completely lame, idiotic reasons that I have read about in the schools in the States [ 5 minutes late, wrong buttons on blouse, wrong shade of green skirt etc – isn’t the parent the one to blame for clothing ??? ] I think I may well have run off too ! Until a few months ago, I honestly thought that world wide hitting children just wasn’t done .. or at least by the uneducated and unkind few. While my children grew up [unspanked] I honestly didn’t know of any children that were hit. It was totally alien to me. And as for ‘spanking’ children with the veritable arsenal of implements that is used in the USA … well .. I am a tough lady, but it really makes my stomach heave….and my blood boil.

    Smacking never made a point to me. Except that my parents had lied to me [“We don’t hit in this house……”] and that they didn’t love me – after all they had just hit me and telling me they loved me meant nothing after that! It just made me SEETHE with anger inside, with ‘how dare you!!!!’ seared into my brain. [And I believe in the Bible it says ‘Father’s don’t anger your children’ or words to that effect …!] Even as a tiny child, I had a strong believe and sense that one shouldn’t hit ANYONE or animals …

    In my memory, smacking didn’t make me ‘think twice’. Just the fact that Mum or Dad said something was wrong did that. The fact that granny would explain about right and wrong. Hitting me just made me fearful and angry, and … unloved, not wanted.

    I am glad you have come to understand that hitting a child is wrong and potentially can do SO much harm, physically and emotionally. I am glad that you feel that God is more gentle than perhaps you believed once upon a time. I have never ever felt Jesus would have hit children, he asked us to turn the other cheek and to have compassion. Children are here to be loved and directed not to be punished and hit ….

    Good post!!!!

    • Claire says:

      That’s a fascinating observation comparing nearby high schools, TealRose.

      I’m glad that God has changed my heart on this, too. It was such a relief to read the Gentle Christian Mothers statement of beliefs and find there was FINALLY something I could agree with – neither trying to talk as if children were the same as adults nor saying they are lesser in value than adults. I hadn’t realised until I found grace based discipline, just how much effort I was subconsciously putting into living a double standard. Even though actually living it out is hard work, it’s still a heavy load off my back compared with the cognitive dissonance of believing God wants us to be people of gentleness and peace – but not towards our kids.

  2. greenegem says:

    ‘intercept and redirect’ !!!! Yes! If Interceptions and interventions are good for adults, why don’t we assume they are also beneficial for kids!!


    • Claire says:

      I don’t think I’ve heard of those words used wrt adults, gg. Would you mind unpacking a bit? Is it used in a therapy of some sort?

      • greenegem says:

        LOL!! I was thinking out loud.. let me see if I can explain!

        I was thinking of friends helping each other avoid things we have said we will avoid. EG- my knitting friends will declare they are on a yarn diet- no buying more yarn- and then they’ll all go to Mannings’ and help each other not buy yarn! LOL!

        Or when my friend reminded me I had said I was going to have ONE brownie… when I went back for another one. I was thinking that sometimes a reminder serves quite well, and if it does for adults to hold each other accountable that it would work for kids too.

        Mostly I just like the way she said it! But even as adults we need outside incentive sometimes to do what we should- so no surprise kids would too. 🙂


      • Claire says:

        Oh, I see. Your friends sound very cool…

        For clarity, is Mannings a place that sells yarn, or one that doesn’t?

    • greenegem says:

      Claire- I made the name a link. Its a huge place, with all sorts of handspun yarns- hence the need for interventions on behalf of those on a yarn diet. 🙂
      ❤ gg

      • Claire says:

        Thanks! It could have made sense either way (eg Mannings might have been a cafe where you sat around together knitting… :))

        I have to say for the sake of my own overflowing stash, I’m glad there’s no Mannings near me 😉

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  4. Rosie says:

    Thanks Claire. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things lately, too. A moment of synchronicity – I read this post the same day you sent me yours. – not sure if you ever read it, but Alison (at least used to – I haven’t looked for a while) write a column for Zadok. I have been following her blog for a while now – I’ll be following your posts on here, too!

  5. Alison says:

    I really appreciate this post – I’ve certainly found smacking doesn’t work the few times I was driven to a frenzy and tried it! and I certainly can’t feel that saying I love my kids and hitting them are consistent – and no matter what the word, a smack by any other name is still a way of hitting someone. The keys certainly are constant love and interception and redirection; thanks for naming them. I’ve been thinking a lot about violence lately; Rosie reads my blog and directed me to you. alison.

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  7. George says:

    Very sad to read this site…!
    How people, who should know better, who where raised in serious christian families, try to construct their life into being a victim of their ‘bad’ or ‘afouled’ parents and their ‘bad’ view on the bible.

    Be happy, ’cause your families wanted to raise you in the best way- against a wrong spirit of time!

    • Claire says:

      Hi George! I’m glad you felt safe to express your sadness here. I hope I can correct your misunderstandings and allay your concerns.

      Firstly, I can’t speak for the others (hopefully they’ll chime in) but speaking for myself: I *am* happy, and I *do* honour my parents’ desire to raise me in the best way. Nor do I think they had a ‘bad’ view of the Bible – at least, no more ‘bad’ than my own. We all see in a mirror dimly, and the Holy Spirit brings new things to each person’s attention in his own time. To say that my parents ‘should’ have done, or viewed, things differently, is to imply that God’s agenda for their lives was wrong, or that his grace is not sufficient to cover our weakness. In which case, my own very imperfect parenting would be in dire trouble!
      However, by his grace, I have been blessed with different exegesis of these passages, which I see as more consistent with the rest of the Bible, especially the words of Christ. On what grounds do you suggest I reject that blessing?
      To put this into perspective, I had my Dad living with me during the time of the paradigm shift I describe above. As I learned these things, I mentioned them to him at neutral times as we went about our lives. I didn’t necessarily expect him to be convinced. I certainly wasn’t looking for an apology (nor did I get one). But what I did expect, and get, was that my father would recognise that I was not making up my ideas out of thin air, that I had good reasons for what I chose to do, and that I was not rejecting either him or God. greenegem has described a similarly respectful (written) conversation with her father in previous posts. If our own parents, who have the greatest right to feel defensive and disapproving, are able to assign us positive intent – do you think you can try to, too?
      Finally. FYI, there are adults out there who have been raised in ‘serious christian’ gentle parenting families. There are even 3rd and 4th generation gentle Christian parents. This site is specifically aimed at people coming out of the punitive parenting paradigm, but I’m wondering how, for example, you would address your above comments to the adult children of our regular commenter, gentle mother TealRose?

      Thanks for your comment.

    • barefootbetsy says:

      Hello! Thank you for your honesty.

      I also cannot speak for anyone but myself, however I have never considered myself to be a “victim” nor do I consider my parents to have been “bad” or “afouled.” I have great respect for my parents’ view of the Bible which has, in recent years, become more aligned with my views than when they were raising me.

      My father has been a pastor and an adult Sunday school teacher for well over two decades and he agrees with me that the Bible does not command spanking. He still considers spanking to be a prudent parental tool and doesn’t really understand why we have chosen not to use it, but he respects that my children are *my* children and not his. My mother, likewise, agrees that spanking is not a Biblical command and fully supports me in my parenting style.

      I’m am very happy that my parents were good parents and that they taught me well (the teaching had nothing, however, to do with spanking). I’m extremely blessed that they utilized other parenting tools in addition to spanking and utilized spanking less frequently than many other Christian parents do. I know that they did the best they possibly could for me with their understanding of what they knew at the time.

      I hope that helps to clear up some of your apparent confusion. I appreciate that you commented so honestly and hope that you will be able to see our parents through our eyes more accurately after hearing our explanations.


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