Thursday, April 15, 2010

Smug Parenting

Smug parenting, we've all been guilty of it. You know what I'm talking about. It's when all of the decisions and idiosyncracies of our parenting style seem to play out in our favor. And so many choices to pick from:

I was hands-off, I was hands-on, I spanked, I didn't, I was consistent, I couldn't control my kids in public, I got babysitters, I took my kids everywhere, I kept them sheltered, I put mine on a schedule, I pretty much let them stay up as long as they like, I public-schooled, I private-schooled, I home-schooled, I breastfed, I used soy milk, I relied on hand-me-downs, I think it hurts a child's self-esteem to get used things. Etc.

Once in a while, every once in a strange long while, something happens that gives us some sense of vindication. Because little is as cutthroat or rude as competitive parenting in modern America. Regardless of whatever parenting decisions we made (or simply allowed to happen), there was always someone at the table, at the store, in school or wherever else competitive parents gather who challenged the way we did things.

When you take your parenting out into the world, you always feel a little off balance. You get that comment that begins "You mean you don't.....? You hear the mother talking to her own child while she's really criticizing you: "We like to go to bed at the same time every night, don't we, Will? It helps us wake up in a good mood." You pick your child up from a grandparent who thinks that he has fixed everything wrong with your parenting in one structured afternoon, especially because he got the child to eat some healthy crap that that kid wouldn't touch at your house in a heartbeat.

But, occasionally, just occasionally, you hit the ball out of the park as a parent. Or, if not that, at least there's a study which comes out and slaps you on the back like a teammate after you've driven in a run. What am I talking about? Just this:

The study, “Mothers’ Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children’s ,” will appear in the May issue of Pediatrics. 

that are spanked more frequently at age 3 are at increased risk for being more aggressive at age 5,” said Taylor, assistant professor of Community Health Sciences at Tulane and lead author of the study. “We found this to be true even after taking into account other factors that might have explained this association such as the parents’ level of stress, depression, use of drugs or alcohol, and the presence of other aggression within the family.”

Mothers with more parenting risk factors were more likely to spank frequently. However, even accounting for these potential confounding factors, frequent spanking at age 3 increased the odds of higher levels of aggression at age 5. Signs of included behaviors such as arguing or screaming; cruelty, bullying or meanness to others; destroys things; fighting and frequently threatening others.

Despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics against spanking, most parents in the United States approve of and have used corporal as a form of child discipline. The study suggests that even minor forms of corporal punishment increase the risk for child aggressive behavior.

There is little that is more barbaric than hitting a child. And spanking is hitting, make no mistake about that. If you've ever spanked or been spanked, you know the truth of that. And yet, we as a society, perhaps as all societies, have had it ingrained in us, as recently as our own upbringing, as far back as the Bible:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chastiseneth him betimes. (Proverbs 13:24)

For those of us who have taken the non-violent approach, who have worn the mantle of "permissive parents" or who have been seen as not strong enough to inflict tough love on our children or to unleash a punishment that does not fit the crime, finally there is a study that shows what anyone who has ever raised his or her hand against a child has to know in his heart: that it has negative consequences for the child.

The more we hit a child, the more likely that child is to hit someone else. C'mon, did we really need a study done to confirm that fact? Well, at this point, I don't even care. I'm just glad that there is such a study that does indeed always seem pretty obvious.

There is no real joy in this, for two reasons. First, because the study continues to confirm that most people believe that corporal punishment is the way to go with child-rearing, so we still must cringe when we walk through Target and a mother is swatting an over-tired child because he won't do what she wants him to.

And, second, because as the poem "This Be The Verse" by Philip Larkin reminds us,

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.

In short, there is little, if anything that we can do to avoid screwing up our children no matter which path we take (see paragraph #2 above), and when our sin of commission or omission is revealed through our child's flaws, we must take the smug stares of other parents. But, if we can all be smug parents who can look at each other smugly in the knowledge that we do not hit our children in order to get them to behave, hey, I'm all for it. Because we may all make parenting mistakes, but it's finally obvious that smacking your kids is one of the worst.

Paul Westerberg's Eventually is available at


cinderkeys said...

I'm curious as to how the study defines spanking.

Does a smack on the butt count, or are we only talking multiple smacks? Do they take into account how hard the parents hit?

I'm not a fan of spanking, but I'd guess these factors matter.

Oh, and I don't have kids, so I've got nothing to prove here. :)

Bob said...

Cinderkeys, believe me, if the only thing you ever did to your children is smack them even lightly one time on the butt, they remember that as much worse. I know, because that's what we did, and our child talks about it like it was the great trauma of her life.

jed said...

no joy, indeed. Paul would agree.

cinderkeys said...

Well, for a second data point, my mom did the one-smack deal. Not often. Maybe two or three times in my life, max. It felt traumatic at the time. But even a few years afterwards, it wouldn't rank in the top 1,000 bad things that had ever happened to me.

That's not to say that I would have been worse off if she'd spared the rod entirely. I just think kids are resilient enough to handle less-than-perfect parenting. They pretty much have to be. :)