To Spank or Not to Spank, That Is the Question!

In the middle of a popular New York City toy store stood a very tearful little boy. He looked no more than 5 years old as he increased his tearful pleas. The young dad bent down and unsuccessfully tried to reason with his increasingly disgruntled son, who at this point turned up his already loud screams as he threatened his father to buy this very expensive toy for him.

The young son (let’s call him Sam) screamed, “If you don’t get me this toy, then I’m not going to talk to you, and I’m not going to sleep in your bed anymore!”

While the bed issue is a topic for another article, Sam’s father trying, in an unnaturally calm, saccharine and weak state, to reason theoretically with his impulsive, temper-infused son was clearly not working.

“Sam,” said the dad, “this is a very expensive store, and your birthday is right around the corner, so now is just not the right time to get you this kind of gift.”

Sam, for his part, wasn’t having any of it, so his threats against his father continued — relentlessly. He stood his ground and wasn’t having any of his father’s logic. He simply continued with his own verbal diatribe.

“Then I’m not going to love you or talk to you anymore!”

I really had to remove myself from this scene or I would have been in serious danger of putting in my two cents, which would have been an unwise move, because I give psychological analyses on national TV.

My impulse, however, was to talk on behalf of this dad and say, “Is this a promise? You won’t talk to me anymore?” (How about starting now?!) I found the father equally infuriating. This child didn’t need to be given reason; he needed parameters. One could even argue that he needed a firm hand in this instance. Sometimes, children push so hard because they need to know their limits and, on some level, want those limits to be enforced.

My thoughts wandered back to a moment in my psychoanalytical training when a fellow student, a father, spoke with much sadness and regret over spanking his daughter when she was a child. His child had recently told him how emotionally damaging this was for her. I was quite shocked by his daughter’s extreme upset, because I was a child who was spanked all the time! My fellow classmate, this remorseful father, was very surprised as I talked fondly and humorously about my childhood memories of getting spanked. He was very surprised that I didn’t feel particularly scarred by these physical punishments — not at all! I explained to him that I felt very loved by my parents, even as they were intermittently exasperated by me and felt the need show this feeling by a spanking. Who knows? Maybe I even deserved it back then.

Now, as the parent of two children ages 9 and 12, I don’t choose to embrace my parents’ physical style of punishment. Each of my children may have been spanked once in their lives, once when my son slapped me across the face, and once when my daughter was very young, completely out of control and in real need of some major limit-setting. Since then, time-outs, strong verbal limit-setting and a sense of humor seem to do the trick for them and their blessed temperaments, which is not from my side of the family, to be sure!

Do I believe in spanking? No, not really, but when carried out in a thoughtful way and not out of parental angst, spanking can work as an effective disciplining tool with certain types of children. However, I don’t think reasoning with an unreasonable 5-year-old who is threatening not to love you or talk to you unless you buy him the whim of the moment is the right way to go, either.

This child needed some firm comments from his father, such as, “Stop your begging, you’re not getting this toy, and you’re not to threaten me, either. You are not going to get this toy at this time, and we are leaving this store — now!

The entire point of setting limits is to prepare our children for the world they will live in. If they do not get discipline from their parents who love and care for them the most, then they will get it from far harsher people in the world that they will have to learn to navigate, and that could prove to be a very unpleasant experience.

Setting limits in a strong and effective way is loving your children, and on a certain level, your kids know that, too. They realize that parents who care enough about them to stand up to them and set limits are mature adults doing their parental job: providing love, care and preparation for the adult world that their children will one day enter. Parents who do give love along with limits are preparing their kids for life and the real world, which, at times, is not always so loving or easy. As parents, our job is to prepare our kids to live successfully in their personal world as well as in the outside world, which comes complete with rules, regulations and imperfections. And this training begins with us as parents.