“If you don’t stop picking on your brother, I’m going to… Uh…. You’re going to lose… something.”

A few months ago, I would not have fumbled that line. I would have threatened the child with a spanking. The words flew from my mouth like a reflex:“If you don’t stop that, I’ll spank you.” “Do what I said or you’ll get a spanking.”

"you've got to be cruel to be kind"

The Problem with Short Cuts

It had become my parenting short-cut to desired behavior. Rather than work with my children to understand how their disrespect or treatment of others damaged relationships, rather than walk through the ways defying me can endanger their lives, rather than show them the real-life fruit of selfishness and revenge in the loss of privileges and broken trust, I too often opted for a short cut. I used my kids’ desire to avoid discomfort to short-circuit their bad behavior instead of doing the time-consuming, complicated, but constructive work of training and teaching.

In the last year or so, I started hearing the words I was saying, and I began to sense the cognitive dissonance in spanking as the foundation of raising children. When one of the kids struck another, I would send the offender to my room. But how could I spank a child for striking their sibling? That doesn’t make any sense. I couldn’t do it. I began choosing other approaches to these choices, and I began to reconsider when and how I used spanking.

Fear This

I have always tried to teach my kids new skills instead of just demanding them. I expect childishness from children, at least on good days. I work hard to differentiate ignorance and immaturity from rebellion and defiance. We talk about how to treat people and about being considerate of others, about how everyone has bosses and teachers who will expect certain things from you. We talk about the amazing truth that God forgives us, and how God expects us also to forgive those who offend or hurt us. I hug my children close and repeat often, “I will always love you. You can’t do anything to change that.”

But here’s the problem. I thought that in order to respect authority and understand right and wrong, my children needed to experience the smart of a spank. And on days when I was worn down or short-fused, I defaulted to spanking to keep control. I used negative motivation and the threat of physical pain to bolster a position of power. I was trying to impose external conformity from above and from fear, the very thing I hate about controlling churches and the very thing Jesus spoke against throughout the gospels.

When I defaulted to authoritarian control, enforced via spanking, I couldn’t come alongside my children as their partner and equal before God. I couldn’t help them examine their hearts, face their fears, and identify their desires. They were afraid of me! They would hide, and they would say what they thought I wanted to hear instead of what was really true. I began to see how using the fear of a spanking to change my children’s behavior failed to actually change their hearts or teach how and why to make better choices. Their fear of spankings became fear of me and was destroying the honesty and trust in our relationship.

Positive Parenting Takes Time

That changed a month ago when I told my children that I would not spank them any more. I explained that when they defy me, hurt a sibling, or lie, we will deal with it differently. We will take all the time we need to identify what’s going on, talk out the conflict, and restore the broken relationships. Sometimes, we will need consequences that reflect the damage caused by their actions, words, or inaction. If I can’t trust a child to tell the truth, that changes what I’m willing to allow them to do unsupervised, for example.

We have discussed natural consequences for childishness such as wasting time, missing the bus, turning in homework late, and failing to clean up after themselves. The goal is for all of us to see and appreciate the real harm of mistreating people, cultivating bad habits, and breaking trust, and to work hard at repairing that harm, building relationships, and cultivating good habits.

It takes effort and it takes a willingness to give up what I want to do to really understand my children, address the issues in their hearts, and teach and train them to address those issues themselves. It’s messy and complicated, and often feels like we’ve just plunged down a rabbit hole, especially when everyone is angry and hurt, everyone is at fault, and everyone has misunderstood and been misunderstood. But that’s life, isn’t it? Part of raising children is equipping them to handle these situations themselves as adults.

It isn’t lost on me how my parenting short-cuts have mistreated the people I love, cultivated bad habits, and broken trust. I have bad habits to break, new habits to make, and relationships to repair. Instead of barking “If you don’t obey me right now, you’re going to get a spanking” when my children argue with me or contradict me, I’m trying to get into the habit of quietly asking, “Are you showing your mother respect right now?”

How do you help your children learn to respect authority, use time well, and treat people with dignity and respect? When do you dole out consequences and how do you decide what those consequences are? 

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