Spanking Children and Voluntaryism: A Peaceful Parenting Primer
The intent of this article is to deconstruct and discuss common rationalizations people make for spanking children and how to move to a more ethical outlook in child rearing interactions. As Voluntaryism is about maximizing consent and minimizing the initiation of violence as among humans, the treatment of children is a critical discourse in promoting a more peaceful future.
Spanking, defined as the hitting or a slapping of a child on the buttocks, is a commonly used approach to discipline and punishment as among American children, with more than 70% of Americans considering a hard spanking “necessary,” according to a 2012 poll.
While many find this form of lesson-teaching to be acceptable, longitudinal research shows that spanking increases risk for mental health problems and increases the chances of anti-social, violent behavior later in life.
The reason for this, most likely given the body of research, is that spanking is not itself an opportunity for a child to understand their environment and internalize ethics in response to conflicts.
Spanking activates the fight-or-flight limbic system in the brain, which pushes children to react to uncomfortable situations with their primitive brain (Amygdala) instead of reason and/or empathy. The stress from spanking, especially if chronic, wires a child to explore conflicts from an extreme, either through violent response or anxiety and fright, instead of through calm rationality. This can lead to decreased intellectual performance and social misanthropy over time.
When one understands the core effect of spanking, it becomes easier to deconstruct the mantras people often say in response to the peaceful parenting initiative.
I WAS SPANKED/I SPANKED MY KIDS AND I/THEY TURNED OUT JUST FINE!
This common exclamation fundamentally misses the nature of spanking because it uses generalizations of “fine” and/or “worked” without looking at what is taking place with spanking in a “compared-to-what.”
A child who has a healthy attachment with their parents otherwise with love, support, and affirmation, will still seem relatively happy and engaged with the world even if occasionally spanked. This is because the healthy attachment overall supersedes the deleterious effects of spanking.
It does not mean that the spanking did not have an effect in causing a young person to become more primitive in their response to conflict. Rather, it means that a child’s growth potential was possibly stunted due to the spanking. Their current expression, even if relatively happy and peaceful to others, is still not the most intellectual and emotional advancement that could have been achieved if raised peacefully.
The greatest indication that the person did not turn out “just fine” is if they continue to rationalize hitting small, helpless human beings, and look to solve their uneasy emotional states with physical aggression.
IF KIDS DON’T GET SPANKED THEY WILL GROW UP TO BE ENTITLED BRATS!
This is a mentality that comes from a lack of understanding childhood psychology and behaviors. The fear of children being “brats” (a generalization) is often a projection of one’s own childhood shame, which may have come from a parent or other adult calling one names as a child.
The reality is that children do not become entitled or spiteful due to having their needs met with love and empathy. The entitlement complex comes specifically from parents who have not set healthy boundaries with their child and parents who have not been able to help a child process their emotions in a non-violent way. The entitlement complex is more often a product of parents who are neglectful, shaming, and non-communicative with their children.
BUT I DON’T SPANK IN ANGER!
Anger is not the crux of ethical interaction. Ethical interaction is whether someone is initiating violence against the body of another. When a child is hit, it is causing pain to a small, helpless body. So the question then is whether such is being done to actually stop impending physical harm against another. This description does not accurately describe spanking, as spanking is not often used as a tool to stop an impending, immediate harm of physical violence against another, especially where restraint can be used instead of hitting.
So, keeping this in mind, hitting someone as a tool for teaching would be more readily considered odd and unethical in a variety of other contexts, such as hitting one’s wife or husband because they won’t “learn” or hitting a co-worker because you don’t like something about them or their actions. This easily discernible ethical harm gets muddied because of the excuses surrounding young people.
While it is important to avoid providing guidance to a child in anger, a lack of anger is not itself a substitute for vulnerable communication, empathy, and reasoned passing of virtue.
BUT SPANKING HELPS THEM BE PREPARED FOR THE FUTURE WHERE THEY MAY GET HURT!
There are many theoretical harms that can lead to physical pain. The fact that there are many possibilities does not rationalize delivering pain and harm to small helpless human beings. Just because a child may get a cut one day does not validate a parent cutting a child. Just because a child may be ridiculed one day does not make it ethical for parents to ridicule their child. Just because a child may be burned one day does not make it ethical for a parent to burn a child’s hand with a hot stove.
Rather, a peaceful parent looks to ways to describe dangers and risks to a child without causing trauma.
BUT SOME KIDS ARE JUST BORN AGGRESSIVE AND PUSHY!
While there are some children who are born with rare brain anomalies that lead to violent behavior, children by-and-large are a product of their environment and are responding to stimuli.
When someone tries to place blame on a small child instead of looking to understand their perceptions, they begin to shut down vulnerable communication and understanding. This leads to children who are not getting their needs met and who are then unable to effectively communicate what they are feeling and thinking because they have been shut down before they have a chance to fully express themselves.
Some parents find this difficult to manage because having a child cry makes them uncomfortable. However, allowing a child to cry out and feel their emotions is essential to a child’s emotional management. This does not require giving in to a child’s wanton demands. Rather, it is a point of recognition that silencing a child with hitting/spanking because they are expressing their emotions does more long-term damage than having patience and compassion to build trust, empathy, and reasoning with them.
BUT LOOK AT MY KIDS! THEY ARE SO WELL-BEHAVED!
This criteria of “well-behaved” should be especially concerning without context. Superficially obedient behavior is both dangerous to a child’s ability to resist violent oppression from abusers (public or private), and is not indicative of what a young person does behind closed doors to hide their deviant behavior.
Often, when a child is spanked instead of reasoned with, they eventually turn their behavior into sneaking around and hiding what they are doing. They disconnect because they are afraid of what a parent/adult will physically do to them if they find out.
When a parent pushes seemingly “deviant” behavior underground through threats, they have not instilled a long-term ethical compass. Instead, their child’s ideology is one based on fear of threats and operant conditioning, that is, external punishment and rewards.
BUT I CANNOT REASON WITH MY TWO-YEAR-OLD!
If your child is too young to understand reason effectively, they are also too young to connect pain delivered with action. A peaceful parent uses reason and empathy as much as possible to encourage ethical growth from a child. This process is short-circuited when parents lose patience and choose to hit for the sake of expedient results rather than long-term ethical development.
BUT HOW IS A CHILD GOING TO LEARN HOW TO BEHAVE WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES?
This is a mischaracterization of peaceful parenting. In peaceful parenting, parents still dole out consequences for behavior, they just do so without relying on physical violence. One example: Peaceful parents often will use denial of fun events or activities as a means of consequence. This does not mean that peaceful parents have to spend exorbitant amounts of money. Rather, peaceful parents are actively engaged with their kids, so much so, that a child does not want to risk losing activities and fun memories with friends and family.
BUT HOW CAN I BE A PEACEFUL PARENT, ESPECIALLY IF I’VE ALREADY HIT MY KIDS?
Many parents struggle with peaceful parenting, especially if they grew up in an environment with spanking and felt the need to rationalize their physical punishment because it was the only tool they knew of.
No matter where you are in your journey though, you can begin the path of peaceful parenting. It does take hard work, especially self-knowledge work (understanding one’s own past and abuse), but it can make a real change for peace in your home today.
To start this journey, we highly recommend you read the following to start your thinking process:
12 Tips to Transition to Peaceful Parenting
and the following books:
Healing The Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Charles L. Whitfield M.D. AMAZON: https://amzn.to/2vIuehA
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Edition: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships by Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD AMAZON: https://amzn.to/2Oxbp85
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham AMAZON: https://amzn.to/2vHJ2NB
Hitting kids: American parenting and physical punishment
Four in Five Americans Believe Parents Spanking Their Children is Sometimes Appropriate
The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime 1st Edition
Why Spanking Impairs Cognition in Children and Adolescents
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life
The Risks of Rewards
If you’d like to learn more about Voluntaryist philosophy, pick up the book: