by Peggy Vaughan

One of our key responsibilities as parents is to raise our children to be responsible adults. This means most of us think in terms of what kind of "discipline" will be most effective in accomplishing this goal. There have been many theories through the years as to what "works," but the newest brain research indicates that a person's "character" is developed very early—by the age of four.

Since we don't usually try to do much "reasoning" with children under the age of four, this might lead to a false belief that we must rely on the old traditional "spanking" method. Unfortunately, spanking does not teach the qualities that build character—but I'll come back to that issue later. In the meantime, let's focus on what does build character.

Studies with young children have determined that it's their ability to delay gratification that brings about the triumph of the reasoning brain over the impulsive one. The study involved helping children learn that they would eventually receive two marshmallows—if they resisted taking one "immediately." The study later showed that this kind of learning at this early age led to remarkable differences once they reached high school. A survey of the children's parents and teachers found they had grown up to be better adjusted, more confident and dependable teenagers.

Now back to spanking... While spanking has long been considered an effective method of "discipline." It does not teach the kind of "self-discipline" that is essential to developing character. Actually, spanking does "teach" children a lesson, but it's the wrong lesson. It teaches them that you can control others through the use of physical power.

Somehow it's hard to recognize the problem with spanking—because we're so clear that we love our children and would never deliberately hurt them. However, we need to take a closer look at the potential harm that can result from spanking. As a young mother, I was conscientious about protecting my children from anything or anyone that might harm them. But one day, when my son was about two ("the terrible two's"), I suddenly realized that I wasn't protecting him from me! While he hardly felt it through his diaper when I would give him a couple of swats on his bottom, one day I simply stopped cold and never hit him again.

Since this was in the mid-60's, long before child experts said spanking should be avoided, I don't know exactly why I came to this conclusion; but I suddenly realized this was not a good thing to do. (I'm sure part of it was admitting to myself that I was hitting him out of frustration—because I didn't know what else to do.) Now, of course, there are many resources for finding far better methods of teaching children how to behave.

One of the biggest problems with spanking is the hypocrisy inherent in using this as a form of discipline. Children intuitively realize the falseness of parents saying one thing ("don't hit your playmate") while doing another (hitting you). Actually, using this term "hitting" instead of the diluted word "spanking" can help us stop kidding ourselves about what we're actually doing.

I recall the first time I heard the word "hitting" used to describe "spanking" was in a discussion of this issue on a TV special about 25 years ago. I was so impressed by the clarity of the explanation about why spanking should be avoided that I even ordered one of the bumper stickers shown on the show. I've kept it all these years—because it describes the problem with spanking so clearly and simply:
"People are Not for Hitting. Children are People Too!"

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