choosing not to hit

My friend Hilary Flower is working on her second book for La Leche League. Her new book is about gentle discipline, and she asked me to write the foreword. You should definitely buy Hilary's new book (as well as her wonderful first book).

This is the foreword I wrote for her:

The Discipline of Gentle Discipline

by Katie Allison Granju

Sometimes, I really, really feel like hitting my kids.

There, I’ve said it out loud.

It’s not something I felt comfortable telling people in my earliest years as a mother. I was afraid that my occasional urges to grab, scream at, shake or whack my children meant that there was something wrong with me. I was afraid these urges meant that I could never be the kind of gentle, attached mother I wanted to be. And mostly, I was afraid I might lose control and actually do the things I sometimes felt like doing.

Now that I’ve got some parenting experience under my belt --my children are 13, 9 and 6 years old – I am less afraid of the powerful and angry feelings each of them can sometimes evoke in me. I am also less afraid to admit those feelings. I have come to discover that virtually all mothers, including the ones whose mothering I most admire, sometimes feel the urge to smack one of their kids upside the head, or at least turn them over their knee.

The problem is that far too many people give in to those urges, and that as a culture, we continue to believe that “spanking” -- our benign-sounding euphemism for hitting children – continues to enjoy widespread acceptance as an effective and humane way of guiding children.

But spanking isn’t effective or humane. Study after study has demonstrated that parents who spank do not raise healthier, more productive, or more mentally sound adults than those who do not. In fact, the opposite is more often true. Yet many otherwise thoughtful and loving parents continue to buy into the myth that spanking offers important benefits, and that it’s an inevitable part of parenting.

I knew before I gave birth for the first time that I didn’t want to use corporal punishment to guide my kids, but when I would tell people this, they would respond with, “Oh, you say that now….,” with a knowing grin, assuming that I would eventually give up on this ridiculous idea of gentle discipline. But I didn’t give up on it.

I readily admit that I have not been perfect in my goal of gentle discipline. I have screamed at, threatened, and come very close to hitting my children on more than one occasion, but these behaviors have never found a permanent place in my parenting toolbox.

I will never forget the one time I did totally lose it and hit one of my children. It happened when my daughter was about three years old and had decided she would no longer wear clothing. At all. Ever.

We were late for some event and I had gotten her completely dressed, but when I went to scoop her up and dash out the door, she was stripped back down to her underwear. At this point, I snapped and smacked her on her rear end. Except I missed her very small bottom and my hand instead landed on her lower back, where it left a red, hand-shaped mark.

She stared at me in horror, having never been struck in her life. I stared back in equal horror. Then she said to me in a small, quavering voice I will never forget, “Mama, why did you hit me?” I burst into tears and held her and rocked her and assured her that I was very, very sorry and that she could trust me to never hit her again. I told her that it was never okay for anyone to strike her.

That night, as I tried to fall asleep, I couldn’t get the incident out of my mind. I realized that I certainly did not want my daughter to grow up believing that sometimes, under the “right” circumstances, she deserved to be hit by the people she loves. I reaffirmed my vow to myself that I would raise my children without violence.

Despite several near-misses over the years – times when I have had to leave the room, scream into a pillow, or take deep breaths and count to ten to avoid lashing out at my children – it’s a vow I have managed to keep. And wonder of wonder, it’s working.

My children are polite, well-behaved (most of the time), thoughtful people. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and when people compliment me on the kids’ behavior, I always make a point to say that I don’t spank them. And on the days when one of them is making me feel like sticking my head in the oven, I find that it helps for me to vent to friends who have children even older than mine – parents who also avoid physical punishment - so these mothers and fathers can remind me how well their kids have turned out …without spankings or other harsh disciplinary methods.

This is why I recommend that parents of very young children who want to avoid punitive and physical discipline methods spend time around parents of older children who hold the same views. On the days when your toddler is making you insane and you feel ready to pull out the wooden spoon for a few swats on a diapered bottom, it helps to see the end product of gentle discipline: kids who behave well because they trust and believe in their parents’ guidance, not because they are afraid they will be slapped, spanked or worse.

As for whether spanking is a humane method of discipline, it is not. The fact that so many parents continue to employ corporal punishment doesn’t make it any more humane. After all, it wasn’t so many decades ago that many people believed that, should a husband feel it necessary, he had the right to strike his wife.

One of these days, our attitudes about hitting kids – the most vulnerable members of our families – will similarly evolve so that we will look back on the practice of “spanking” as another form of domestic violence. These are strong words, but I believe them.

Getting through the days, the weeks and eventually, the years of parenting without using physical discipline is, in itself a discipline. I find that having made the promise to myself that I will not resort to hitting provides me with the parenting “North Star” I can use to re-orient myself when I feel angriest. And I have also found that when I am feeling most out-of-control in my parenting, it’s a signal to me that something else is going on in my life, something that needs some of my attention and reflection.

In picking up this important book by Hilary Flower, you have taken a first step in finding your own parenting “true north.” In it, you will find many specific ideas and strategies for raising healthy, happy, well-behaved children using gentle discipline that really works.

And remember, on the really hard days, there’s always the tried and true method of finding a place in your home where no one can hear you, closing the door, and screaming at the top of your lungs until the urge to throttle your child passes, at least for the moment.

Copyright Katie Allison Granju -- 2004 -- All Rights Reserved