Gus is now 1,825 days old and I recently did something that I said I would never, ever do — I spanked him on the fanny. Since before Gus was born and the nearly five years since, I have firmly believed that corporal punishment is inappropriate and only teaches a young one that violence is an acceptable means to resolving conflict or aggression.
I still believe that's true. The psychological studies have been pretty conclusive: According to Elizabeth Gershoff, who conducted a meta-review of studies on discipline, "(S)panking is ineffective because it is different from other forms of punishment and discipline in that it involves hitting, which is of course a form of violence. Hitting, by its nature, causes physical pain, and it can be confusing and frightening for children to be hit by someone they love and respect, and on whom they are dependent."
In addition," teaching children that it is acceptable and reasonable for the person in charge to use violence to get what he or she wants and that violence is sometimes a part of loving relationships ... perpetuates the transmission of violence in families across generations."
If that's not bad enough, notes Gershoff, "spanking was associated with increases in mental health problems in childhood and adulthood, delinquent behavior in childhood and criminal behavior in adulthood, negative parent-child relationships, and increased risk that children will be physically abused."
And, as Gershoff concluded, our culture calls it spanking, but it is hitting "and hitting is violence. ... We as a society have agreed that hitting is not an effective or acceptable way for adults to resolve their differences, so it should not be a surprise that hitting children, like hitting adults, causes more problems than it solves. It is time to stop hitting our children in the name of discipline."
Nonetheless, a week ago I had had enough and I let Gus have it right across his naked behind, one quick, sharp smack. Perhaps I should preface this a little bit to explain why I resorted to violence.
It was one of those hot, sticky weekend days when we had just returned from the town beach and all of us were a little sun-tired. When Gus gets tired, unlike his parents who need to retreat into a dark room with a pillow and a fan, he spins out of control — metaphorically and literally. In the past, I have commented on Hurricane Gus, the little boy who scatters his toys, books and food around the house, creating a home littered with ankle-twisting Matchbox cars and bananas waiting to be squashed between toes. But when Gus gets over-tired and hungry, he becomes Tornado Gus, a little dervish of destruction, inflicting pain upon anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves within his vortex and upending anything within his reach. It is a phenomenon that is unrelenting in the face of reason and cannot be diverted with bribes such as a new toy, a piece of candy or the offer of a "Go, Diego, Go" video. Sometimes the best you can do is weather the storm and wait for the tornado to tire itself out, and hopefully no blood will be spilled and nothing fragile broken.
We have been able to deal with Tornado Gus in the past with a little bit of patience and a whole lot of deflection (basically just protecting vital body parts while keeping him in the center of the room). Last weekend, however, we were at wit's end beginning with him chasing the new puppy around the house, grabbing it by the tail and screaming every time it turned around, snapping at him. Then he flung a heavy necklace at his mother, hitting her in the face. While she took a breather to recover from the shock and the pain, Gus and I went out to the porch, with him running full force into my big belly and me pushing him sprawling on to his back on a mattress we keep there. But each time I knocked him down, he would laugh and grunt and come flying at me with his pterodactyl claws, scratching and slashing with his fingernails. I told him I was fine with him running into me as hard as he could and said I would be glad to keep playing the game but he had to stop scratching. He did not heed my request, so I told him if he scratched me one more time I would spank him. Well, he did, and I had to follow through on my threat. I grabbed him up, threw him over my knee and gave him one resounding smack on his bottom.
"Ow!" he screamed, in genuine pain, but I was also surprised to see a look of satisfaction in his face. We continued our rough-housing, only now without the claws. I puzzled over his seeming satisfaction while internally chastising myself for resorting to violence to discipline my child. Apaprently that old saw — this is gonna hurt you more than it's gonna hurt me — is kind of true. It's been a couple of weeks since I resorted to thwapping him on the fanny, but I still feel bad about it, as if I have failed as a parent and I have failed in upholding my one of my core principles.
Don't get me wrong: I will not be resorting to corporal punishment again and I sure don't fall into the parenting camp that believes "Spare the rod and spoil the child" or "My parents spanked me and I turned out OK," because I don't believe either is true. (here comes the Twitter barrage; stand back).
In a moment of frustration I made an ultimatum and in a moment of realization I knew I had to follow through on the promise. If I have learned anything from my misstep, it's don't make promises or ultimatums you don't feel comfortable following through on.
And Gus is fine. I don't think I did any permanent damage to his psyche. As for me, I found determination in my belief that I don't ever want to hit my child again, even if it's for my own well-being and my own mental health. There are well-documented techniques to punish a child for bad or unwanted behavior and, in the best case, to thwart them before they begin (I should know because there are a stack of parenting books on my bedside table I haven't gotten around to cracking open), I just need to avail myself of them.
Bob Audette is the day editor of the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.