To spare or not to spare the rod

To spare or not to spare the rod
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First Published: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 09 29 PM IST

Beat it: The jury is still out on the question of spanking a child. Thinkstock
Beat it: The jury is still out on the question of spanking a child. Thinkstock
Updated: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 09 29 PM IST
I used to smack my child till he was 6—a light smack on the bottom or on the shoulder at times. Some of my friends found this really shocking and I had to find other ways of getting him to note my displeasure about something that he had said or done. I tried the time out, the explanations, and even taking away some privileges—like two days of no computer access, or no outing, among other things. Frankly, I find these other ways much more stressful for me as well as my son. A smack registers then and there and that’s it. These other things end in so much whining, it’s exhausting. What are your thoughts?
Beat it: The jury is still out on the question of spanking a child. Thinkstock
Ah, the world is sharply divided on this smacking thing! I know just what you mean about the smack being swifter and more effective. The degree of hurt (physical and emotional) that comes with the smack/slap can be debated—most children deal well enough with a little smack, which causes no bodily harm, but it should definitely never be in front of other people. Why smacking is becoming increasingly a no-no, starting with the Western world, is because there is a thin line between the kind of smack you are talking about, and “beatings”, accompanied by verbal abuse, shouting, among other things. A frustrated and angry parent can cross the line easily, which is what many parents found about themselves, and perhaps that is why there is such a growing informal ban on smacking children. Equally, the taking away of privileges or the time out, go-to-your-room stuff also can be pretty traumatic for any child (and the parent) as the child will keep fuming, crying, sulking and trying to negotiate or argue, sometimes for days on end, if the punishment involves three days of no computer games, or other such embargos.
The mother of a five-year-old says she prefers to take the longer route of explaining and communicating to her daughter why certain behaviour is upsetting to the mother or socially or emotionally wrong. She feels she has got some success this way, rather than getting things done out of the child’s fear of the slap/smack.
Many parents say that reaching out and smacking a child or shouting loudly at him/her occurs when they feel there is some immediate danger to the child or to someone else around the child because of his behaviour—when something needs to be done right then to stop the behaviour. Others feel the urge to smack when something has been explained many times to a child—why he or she shouldn’t do something—but the child keeps doing it.
The generation before yours was quite comfortable with a spank/smack, and there are some who will come right out and say it can be used to great effect without any major trauma to the child. However, it is equally true that it does teach children to “talk with their hands” when they come up against something that they can’t deal with. Here too, opinion is sharply divided—there are some who believe that it fosters aggression and some who believe that it shows the child that there are sometimes physical consequences of terrible behaviour, and this helps the child put a lid on its own aggression.
It’s a tough call. I do know parents who never smack but who traumatize their children in many other ways. I would say that while smacking a child is looked at with such outrage by some, not enough attention is paid to how verbally abusive a parent or teacher can be, and that too without using any “bad words”, but by saying extremely harsh, dismissive and demeaning things to the child.
I think the thumb rule or measure about any punishment should be about the residual trauma to both child and parent. So when it comes to the smack, if both of you can move on—you not covered in guilt and the child not in a cloud of resentment and hurt—then perhaps it is okay.
My wife is an extremely meticulous person and is famous in our circle for the spic-and-span home she maintains. We have a three-year-old son, and another child on the way. I notice that because my son has to keep tidying up, and washing his hands often, among other things, he plays less than other children with his things. Already he has started crying to go to the elderly neighbour’s house all the time, because there he is allowed to mess things a little. With the fear of swine flu in my city, my wife has become even more strict about cleanliness, and I want to know how to find a balance between this and letting a child mess around to some degree. What would you advise?
Perhaps it’s all summed up in what a four-year-old had to say. He asked me one day, conversationally, “Where’s your mama?” I said, “…she got really old and then died.”
The child exclaimed: “Oh—you don’t have a mama—so you can eat and spill your food even?”
Obviously, he didn’t have a more laidback dad or aunt or grandma, who had told him it was sort of okay to get a little food on the floor sometimes.
Being house-proud is one thing, and having unrealistic notions of what is cleanliness and orderliness in the house is quite another. In a house with children, the whole issue of keeping a pretty, fragrant, tidy and clean home takes on a different dimension altogether.
Growing children need to be taught some level of hygiene and tidiness for obvious reasons, but if it comes in the way of them discovering the world around them, it’s a problem. On top of it, if a child does not even feel “at home” in his own home, and is happier at the neighbour’s place, only because the clean-tidy rules are so rigid in his own house, there is definitely a big problem here.
Frankly, I would like to say that there are many householders around with borderline OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which passes off as being “house-proud”. I am making a guess here, but I’m pretty sure your wife also owns an array of cleaners and cleaning equipment, and some areas/furniture of the house are “off limits” for everyone? Meaning it has to be always kept pristine clean for when people visit.
None of this is conducive to a child’s growth. Yes, you can insist on the child having two baths a day, and see that the daily help or you yourself swipe the place clean, but to put the onus on keeping it clean and pristine on the child is really straightjacketing him at this age. You can also have some areas off-limits for some activities—no eating on the sofas perhaps, no shoes in the house, a once-a-day tidying up of toys and stuff. Anything more than that is not a good idea, and your wife needs to work on this aspect of herself for the children to be able to have a more natural and happy access to their own home.
Let me put it this way: I’ve never met grown people with happy memories of how clean their home was; it’s usually memories about how much love and fun they had. People who grew up with draconian rules about cleanliness and tidiness don’t quite see it as having had a great childhood. I understand that for your wife and people like her, part of caring is to provide an extremely sanitized home, but she would need to relook at her priorities now.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at learningcurve@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 09 29 PM IST