I’m a work in progress as a parent, as I’m sure most are. There are times when my oldest son, a temperamental 2-year-old (and a Gemini by the way), will have a complete meltdown and I find myself able to speak calmly to him, encouraging him to share why he’s upset, reassuring him that everything is fine. Then there are moments where his antics, sometimes over the most simple of requests, leaves me irritated to the point where I feel the only response I can muster up is a “pow pow.” That’s physical discipline. Sometimes it’s a slap on the hand, other times, a light spank. It never brings me satisfaction, but it usually gets him to act accordingly faster.
I assumed this was still a common thing until I watched a video on Instagram where a Black mom joked about going to get a hanger to discipline her child after struggling with gentle parenting. While a number of users laughed at the clip, others complained that there was nothing funny about corporal punishment, comparing it to full-on abuse.
But an occasional “pow pow” is a far cry from the discipline I sometimes experienced as a kid. A few of my most vivid memories from growing up are being hit with a belt for doing things I shouldn’t have (like bouncing a ball in the house during bedtime hours), or being chased into the kitchen for talking back and sulking, preparing to catch a wallop on the leg. I give grace to my mom because she raised six kids, starting shortly after high school. As the youngest, I’d come at a time when she was probably burned out by the thankless job of parenting, so I now understand the frustration behind the punishment at times. I never saw myself taking it that far with my children, but I have found myself wondering if even light physical punishment is really any help to my child or if it’s simply to help me get rid of my own exasperation.
“Any form of physical discipline will always be problematic as it’s often done in the heat of the moment as a reaction,” offers Shanice Tomlinson, co-founder, alongside Brenda Kola, of London-based mother and womanhood platform Orbit. “Physical discipline doesn’t offer children an understanding or teaching about what they have done wrong and it doesn’t give parents an insight into why the child has behaved in the way that they have.”
In this day and age, the most discussed parenting style has been gentle parenting. It’s an approach characterized by the setting of healthy boundaries, not shaming your child for the feelings they display, and working with them to understand feelings and issues in the hopes that they can navigate them in a positive way. Physical punishment is not a part of this style, and that, in addition to the name, have left some wondering if it equates to being a push-over parent. Kola says no.
“It’s important that parents understand what they needed growing up as a child,” she shares. “For example, did their parents need to provide a safe space with them when talking about mental health? Did their parents need to be more involved in their school life?”
“The label ‘gentle parenting’ often has a misconceived perception where people believe that there are no boundaries being set and the child essentially leads and runs the household when in actual fact, gentle parenting is more about respecting your child as an individual and providing them with the necessary tools and space to safely explore who they are and grow,” adds Kola. “Gentle parenting is as much for the parent as it is for the child. It allows you to give yourself grace and understanding as a parent because there are no expectations for you to know everything but there is a commitment to learning and growing together with your child.”
While I’ve always thought a little bit of physical discipline doesn’t truly hurt, after speaking with multiple parenting experts only to find that no one would recommend it, I’ve decided to focus more on my aim to really connect with my son when he’s allowing his frustration to boil over. It’s not easy, but I’ve seen the look in his eye when disciplined physically, and the evident feelings of sadness mixed with betrayal hurt my own heart. So I’m open to methods that will help us both learn and grow for the better.
“A lot of people have grown up with physical punishment being the standard when it comes to discipline and so naturally, when you become a parent you revert to what was done to you as opposed to what you needed as a child,” says Tomlinson. “Now we have the resources and knowledge to better understand more effective ways to teach our children about the consequences of their actions. The reasoning of the ‘why’ behind their actions can help parents to better understand their children whilst also helping to navigate future occurrences.”
So how can parents who want to step away from corporal punishment approach moments with their child that make them want to revert to it? Author, conflict resolution expert and mom Damali Peterman shares insights for handling heated moments with your kiddos.
Give your child some space.
“Try to slow things down and put some space between you and how you address the situation to give you some time to think about the next steps,” she says. “If you think about the last time you had a conflict with your child, did you see things differently an hour later? A day? A week? Giving yourself the space or time to address issues when you’re not upset or feel external pressure is a good rule of thumb. Of course, if the situation calls for immediate action, then you have to use your best judgment.”
Make sure you’re on the same page.
“Let’s face it — kids often speak a different language and sometimes they are literally using a word that means one thing to describe a different attribute. Another way to see this is with this example: People use the word ‘respect’ all the time but many people have different definitions of what respect looks like. To a teenager, respect could look like privacy (they don’t want you to go through their things) and trust (they want you to have faith that they will make good decisions). To a parent, respect could be more focused on following the rules (both within and outside of the home) and communication (the tone and choice of words). Finding a common language and defining together terms that are important to each of you will go a long way.”
Lead with love and empathy.
Sometimes it’s the compassion and grace in the way that you handle the situation that imparts the lesson and is more memorable for your child than the discipline. Ultimately, your goal is to deter repeat undesirable behavior and ensure that your kid extracts the lesson that you are trying to impart. You have to think about all the options available to you to identify the best way to do this.
Ask yourself questions to find the appropriate response.
- Do you have all of the information or do you need to gather more?
- Are you in the right physical place to address the situation? Is your child?
- Are you in the right mental space? Is your child?
- Is it the right time?
- What other options are available to you in terms of discipline? Can you revoke privileges? Can you deny allowance? Can you send a strong message elsewhere?
- Do you need to involve another person?
- Is the discipline age appropriate?
- Is the discipline problem appropriate? In other words, does the discipline fit the problem at hand?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting and disciplining your child. However, we have more influence than we realize, as a way you choose to handle an issue in the heat of the moment can have lasting effects.
Says Peterman, “It is imperative that kids learn how to handle conflict and the way that we parents handle conflict often will be the model, whether we intend for that to be the outcome or not.”