Reactions to Adrian Peterson being charged with child abuse by Texas authorities sparked a much-needed conversation on spanking, beating, paddling, whooping, smacking, hitting, slapping and “tearing-up.”
More people are aware that their discipline methods may get them arrested. However, are people more aware of why these practices are harmful? More importantly, what alternatives can we give parents who truly don’t know positive methods to change behavior?
To get at these questions, I interviewed psychiatrist and public health advocate Denese Shervington. Dr. Shervington is the President and CEO of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies based in New Orleans.
Q: Many who defend their use of corporal punishment make distinctions between spanking out of love from beating out of indifference or malice. Research has found that hitting for whatever reason simply instills fear. Why is instilling fear through spanking harmful?
A: A healthy sense of self as well as basic trust in the world comes from the basic positive experiences from his/her caretaker including:
- Her/his primal need to be held, fed and be cleaned are lovingly met on time without much frustration.
- Her/his anxiety is bound and contained in the firm, but loving hold of his caretaker.
- Her/his evolving sense of his/her value is adoringly mirrored in the eyes of his/her caretakers.
- His/her desire to explore the world is gently facilitated with non-shaming encouragement .
Acts of violence, such as spanking, when used as a disciplinary tool is a violation of such trust. In addition to physical pain, spanking leaves mental scars in the form of shame, fear and doubt, which can later on lead to psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
While a child is being spanked, he or she does not project into the future and create positive thoughts that when he/she grows up the pain endured will have been worthwhile. She or he is filled with pain, fear and rage. Shaming is particularly worrisome. It is only in later years that the adult may intellectually reframe the experience as being positive. Noted child psychologist Erik Erikson described visual shaming as a sense of badness to be had by oneself when nobody watches and when everything is quiet; and which can lead to a sense of being small and powerless, or a secret determination to try to get away with things.
Q: Most parents/caretakers instinctively know that spanking is not an ideal choice. So what might lead to him/her to feel that spanking is the only option?
A: I posit that it starts with fear that the child’s behavior could lead to dangerous outcomes; next, followed by anger when the child does not respond to the auditory or visual cues to refrain from such behaviors.
This is particularly true for African diaspora parenting, wherein a child’s misstep, real or perceived by a hostile and oppressive society, could lead to death.
Q: How do we create alternatives, knowing that violence, as a source of disciplining and conflict resolution does not lead to positive psychic outcomes?
A: Of course, prevention is key – lovingly setting firm boundaries and consistent communications about what behaviors are acceptable. If that fails, then avoiding the default to spanking starts with taking a 15 second timeout – taking a deep breath and becoming mindful of the present circumstance – what exactly are you trying to communicate to the child about the precarious nature of his/her action? If there are no answers, then spanking should not be a choice, because in that moment spanking does not even have a pseudo-disciplinary potential – it’s just an act of anger.
Q: But what can a parent do to redirect behaviors?
A: Here are some alternatives to assist in communicating to the child that the behavior has to be modified/stopped:
- Clearly showing /explaining consequences and setting limits – ‘countdown.’
- Quiet time with minimal and/or soothing stimuli – ‘timeout.’
- Removal of the stimulus that could be contributing to bad behavior.
- Offering to create positive rewards for positive choices – avoiding using punitive approaches for negative behaviors.
- Doing a one hundred and eighty degree turn – Shifting anger into love- give hugs and kisses.
Do not worry about being manipulated – you are an adult! Remember that children oftentimes default to negative behaviors when their world feels unsafe – when they do not feel they are being loved unconditionally, when they feel that they do not have a voice, they are not being listened to.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).