Spare That Rod!

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was in the news recently, stirring up controversy once again about corporal punishment.  A preacher and his wife in Tennessee have written a book about discipline for children which advocates the systematic use of “the rod” to teach toddlers to submit to authority.  The book has been connected to instances of extreme child abuse which is what has provoked the controversy about its recommended methods.

In the newspaper story, the preacher/author is quoted as saying that his methods are modeled on “the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules”.  He is saying we should train children as we do animals.  But while children may be stubborn at times, it would seem pretty clear that there are significant differences between children and mules.  And those differences may be expressed in the difference between training and education.

One dictionary definition of training is: “To treat or manipulate so as to bring into some desired form or direction.”  A definition of education is: “The development of the special and general abilities of the mind”.  So training implies manipulating children, such as with rewards or punishment, to get them to behave as you wish.  Education implies that children have abilities of the mind that develop and enable them to learn and be taught.

The difference in the meaning of training and education really means the difference between bringing about desired behavior through external controls, or through the development of internal controls.  This means taking responsibility for your own behavior even in the absence of external rewards or punishment.

Of course, teaching and learning take time.  And education addresses the development of the abilities of children’s minds.  Learning to control one’s own behavior requires numerous abilities, and the development of these abilities also takes time.  Parents often think that once a child understands what is required, he or she should be able to comply.  But actually, comprehension is only the first step.

Learning to control your impulses is in part a maturational process.  Acquiring  language is an important part of that process.  Children express themselves through behavior, and if you are able to tell someone what you want or how you feel, that can eventually replace hitting or screaming as a means of expression.

Developing self-control also means learning how to give up something you want because of what someone else wants.  This comes up when children are learning to share, whether sharing toys with friends or sharing mom and dad with baby sister.  Both are hard to do, and a child may express his angry feelings about having to do them by grabbing things away from the younger child or pushing away his friends. 

These feelings are understandable but the behavior is not acceptable.  So what do you do about the behavior while a child is learning?  This is when questions about discipline – meaning punishment – start to arise.  But is punishment a good teacher?  When the same situation arises again, will the memory of having been punished enable a child to control his feelings of the moment?  Very unlikely.  A more likely result is an angrier child who is punished for his behavior but unsupported in his feelings.

To teach, rather than to punish, requires that we match our expectations to children’s abilities at their developmental stage.  A two year old cannot be expected to control his impulses when angry, frustrated or upset.  That means he needs proactive supervision when with a younger sibling or playmate.  It is unrealistic to depend on verbal instructions or commands from an adult in such situations.  He needs help in being protected from and controlling his impulses.

An important aspect of teaching, is helping children learn to differentiate between behavior and feelings.  Too often children are scolded or punished for their behavior without addressing the particular situation or feelings that led to the behavior.  Their behavior is often their solution to a problem; they hit someone who took a toy away, they push the toddler who is getting all mom’s attention.  Disapproval or punishment tells them they did something wrong, but does not provide a better answer to the problem.  This leaves children with a feeling of injustice.  It seems that no one is on their side.

With young children there are often situations that are too hard for them to handle, and removing them from the situation may be the only way to help them regain control.  But here, too, the message needs to be one of helping, rather than of punishing a child for behavior he is unable to control himself.

Child-rearing is challenging in no small measure because of the primitive ways in which children express themselves.  When they are out of control it can make us feel out of control, especially if we let ourselves get drawn into confrontational situations.  We just want the behavior to stop and think there must be some magic that will do it.

 Spanking is not that magic.

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