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Spanking: Why a good smack isn't

By Jocelyn Bell

Moments before Jennifer Woodhouse spanked her two daughters, the 36-year-old veterinarian and dairy farmer from Heathcote, Ont., could feel her anger boiling over. The girls had been bickering all afternoon. Hannah, 6, and Abby, 5, alternate between being best friends and worst enemies.

But on this day in March, their fighting had taken a turn for the worse. "They were pushing and shoving and it wasn't a game. They were actually assaulting each other. That's when I lost it. I said, `If you can hit, Mommy can hit too'." With a swat on the bum the girls were sent away, one upstairs, the other downstairs.

Woodhouse openly acknowledges that hitting her children wasn't the best way to teach them to stop fighting. "I felt awful that I'd done something to hurt them. Probably if I'd just stepped back and got myself settled then I wouldn't have done it," she says.

About three-quarters of parents, including Woodhouse, don't believe spanking is constructive and would prefer to use alternative methods to teach their children, resolve conflict, and deal with their own frustration. Yet according to a 2002 survey, as many as 50 percent have inflicted light physical punishment on their children.

Ottawa social worker Ron Ensom says parents generally practise the kind of parenting that they experienced as children. Corporal punishment was more common a generation ago and so many of today's parents have retained that approach to dealing with children. He adds that parents who hit quickly learn that physical punishment can put an immediate stop to a child's objectionable behaviour. But over the long term, Ensom says, physical punishment puts children at risk of injury, erodes the parent-child relationship, impedes psychological adjustment, and can increase levels of aggression throughout life. Furthermore, spanking only teaches children to fear the consequence of their actions. It doesn't help them internalize the reasons for choosing good behaviour.

Ensom has spent the last two years trying to convince Canada's lawmakers to remove Section 43 of the Criminal Code which protects parents from criminal prosecution if their use of physical force against a child is deemed "reasonable" and "by way of correction." He has co-authored a lengthy document entitled Joint Statement on the Physical Punishment of Children and Youth, which will be published this summer and has already been endorsed by 14 distinguished Canadians and 135 Canadian organizations.

In January, the Supreme Court reviewed and upheld Section 43. However, the high court offered guidelines to help judges distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable force. For example, the court said that it would not be reasonable to use corporal punishment for children under age two or over age 13. Nor would it not be reasonable to use objects such as rulers or belts, or to strike a child on the face or head.

The United Church of Canada does not have an official statement on physical punishment and has not endorsed Ensom's joint statement. But Amy Crawford, the church's national staffperson for children's ministries, says that a church that believes in grace "needs to offer that grace to our children and also to ourselves. We aren't always going to get it right, and our children aren't always going to get it right. But we've all been created in the image of God. I think if we can look at one another in that way, it can certainly make a difference in the way that we treat one another."

Later on the same day that Woodhouse spanked her daughters, the girls sat together, quietly colouring at a table. Abby drew a picture of her mother with a lightning bolt striking her head. Hannah wrote a letter that said, "Mommy please don't hit me. It makes me sad." Everyone felt sorry about what had happened, so they put their hands together and made a pact that there would be no more hitting. Woodhouse kept Hannah's letter as a reminder and so far, she has kept her promise. The key for Woodhouse is to prevent her daughters' behaviour -- and her own emotions -- from getting out of control.

So what are useful alternatives for parents? Some suggestions:

* Anticipate and redirect
There are two fundamental ways to deal with a child's bad behaviour, social worker Ron Ensom says. One is to respond after the fact; the other is to anticipate and redirect it before trouble starts. Woodhouse and her husband Randy anticipate their daughters' "meltdowns" every evening before dinner. "If I can see them starting to get tired and hungry, that's when we get into the routine of setting the table, putting the dishes out, getting school clothes ready for the next day," Jennifer says. "That structure seems to bring them around."

* Be consistent, explain, and let your feelings be known
Parents should be consistent in their explanations on limits and need to repeat their expectations often. Ensom says that in time, a child will hear the parents' words inside his or her own head. Also, by communicating in words rather than through actions, parents model the appropriate way to express negative emotions. Crawford agrees. Giving consistent explanations is one way to be proactive, rather than reactive. "Rather than just giving them orders, we can explain to children what's going to happen and why it's going to happen. For example, company's coming so we want to tidy up the house. We live in this house together and we need it to be clean, so that's why we have chores that we each are responsible for."

* Timeout -- for you and your child
Timeouts stop a situation from escalating. It's a cooling-off period for the parent and the child. "You can say to a child, `You are making me so angry by continuing to do that, that I don't want you to be around. I want you to leave and I want you to come back in a few minutes when you're ready to be a reasonable person'," Ensom says. Woodhouse finds it helpful to walk away or to send her children out of the room, even for a few seconds. "When I'm really heated up, just getting away from the situation and recomposing myself before coming back is probably the best way [to handle it]."

* Let the child experience the consequences
"We need to let children experience the natural consequences of their behaviour, or set up logical consequences that make sense to them," Crawford says. Certain behaviours have built-in, or natural consequences. "If you want them to put a hat on when it's cold outside and they say no, well then, let them experience what it's like to be cold. If they leave their toys in the driveway, let them experience what it's like when they get run over or stolen." She adds that parents can set up logical consequences to children's actions as well. "If they get mad and throw their milk on the floor, the logical consequence would be for the parent to say, `Okay, we're going to clean up the milk now.'"

* Review behaviour
When all is said and done, has anything been learned? Whatever disciplinary method the parent chooses, Ensom suggests having the child retell the event, step by step. This gives the child awareness of what he or she did to upset the parent. "Tell the child, `I want you to explain how that happened. Half an hour ago we were enjoying each other and then 15 minutes later you were in your room'."

Whatever methods a parent chooses, the overall message is that children do need discipline. In the past, Ensom says, some child-care professionals promoted a laissez-faire attitude toward raising children. Today's experts say children are better off with reasonable limits and expectations, and misbehaviour can be corrected without violence. "Children need discipline," Ensom says, "but they need discipline that works, and they need discipline that doesn't harm them."

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