punishing children

when my wife was home alone with two kids, she had to do something with the older child or she could not take care of the new-born. She finally conceded the necessity of punishment (spanking was not something she liked either). Mostly she just stuck the two-year old in the backyard (fenced) until the child agreed to behave. Even with a shaded patio deck, Houston, TX can be quite uncomfortable without air-conditioning. Watching that stubborn, wilful little girl cry hurt my lady more than it did my eldest. Still, it worked. (Citizen Tom)

I often get a heavy pain in my heart when I read and see how some parents deal with young children. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well acquainted with the pressures of caring for more than one young child at the same time and have made some terrible decisions myself when facing challenging behaviour. The difference is, I know not to celebrate this kind of ‘discipline’, I know it’s not the only way to deal with children, and I’m certain it’s not the best way.

There are two main approaches to raising children. You can view them as wild animals that need taming, innately prone to bad behaviour, and in need of discipline featuring punishments to ensure they stay in line. Or you view them as astoundingly intelligent little human beings who learn quickly, who aim to please, who push boundaries as a necessary feature of development, and who are more than capable of learning, and learning well, by observation, gentle direction and open discussion.

The other thing to know about young children is that they have very basic needs – they get tired, hungry, scared, in need of stimulation, interaction, love – and don’t know how to express their discomfort. All too often people are quicker to jump to the ‘need for discipline’ before jumping to diagnose and treat the discomfort.

I can’t bear seeing parents take the hard line with kids – they are so often silly battles for control with escalating threats of punishment. We need to come off our high horse, abandon the power game need for control, ignore the shame at loss of face in public, and ask: why is the child acting up?

You see a tired, bored and hungry three year old at lunchtime being trailed round fluorescent-lit shops being shouted at to behave. We so often lose touch with children’s needs. We want the perks of parenthood, but to live our ‘normal’ life in an urban environment and force the kids to fit in. Kids should be out in the woods digging holes in the mud. Fresh air, exercise, decent food, stimulation, love. It’s not about pandering to their every whim, or restructuring our entire existence, but about recognising where they are most comfortable, what they need, and what their limitations are.

I don’t blame or judge Tom’s wife, above. She was doing what she had to do in the midst of baby-plus-toddler mayhem. As parents we sometimes don’t have time to think about why a child is doing something, but need to make sure everyone is safe first.

But if part of placing her in a safe area where she couldn’t do harm was to punish a two-year old (a two-year old!) adjusting to the changed environment of a new sibling, with insufferable heat and further separation from the main caregiver, I do start to be disgusted. Be ashamed of that kind of treatment, think about how it could have been dealt with differently, and never attempt to sell that kind of cruelty to the next generation as something that ‘worked in the long-run’, something that was unavoidable or something that is acceptable.

Your daughter turned out to be well-adjusted with a lovely disposition? Imagine how much more amazing she would have been without that kind of stress and trauma in such an early phase of her development!