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September 22, 2014

SpankFree Parenting Part 1: Can We Have a ScreamFree Conversation?

Hal photo outside Feb2012[Before you start reading this, please note: this article is a bit longer than what you may be used to. I’m inviting us all into a thoughtful conversation about an emotion-filled topic, and I find that hard to do in our modern brief blog format.]

Years ago, when we at ScreamFree were just starting out, we would tour the countryside with our then self-published book, ScreamFree Parenting. This meant selling books out of the backs of our cars, doing book signings with maybe 2 people showing up, and even setting up booths at local fairs. Anything and everything to get the word out about this “revolutionary” way of parenting (according to us).

One time, at the Duluth Fall Festival here in Georgia, I was approached by an obviously agitated father. He came at me with indignation, demanding an answer to his one question. Looking up at our sign emblazoned with the title of our program, he pointed his finger at me and asked, “Have you ever spanked your kids?!?!” I could tell he was looking to put me on the witness stand as soon as he walked up, but I was still a bit surprised by the challenge.

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Thank you!” was all he said, as he hurriedly stormed away.  His reply told me that he felt vindicated somehow. My reply told me that I had wasted an opportunity. By reluctantly acquiescing to his confrontation, with only a one-word confession, I missed the chance to invite this man into a new way of thinking. After all, that’s my job as a therapist, author, and educator.

I can do better.

I could have answered him differently. All I gave him were the facts, when I could have told him the truth:  “Unfortunately, yes. On two occasions I swatted my son.” All I gave him was an answer, when I could have led him into a hidden question: “Why do you ask? What answer are you hoping for?” This could have, perhaps, led us to a calmer, deeper conversation about parenting in general. Perhaps we could have even had a ScreamFree conversation about spank-free parenting.

And that’s what I’m hoping to initiate here in this series. What I believe the world needs, if we are to continually elevate our parenting to higher and higher standards, are calm and thoughtful conversations. Nothing stirs up the emotions like talking about our kids, and that’s why cooler heads are needed if we hope to lead them well. This is especially true when it comes to the practice of spanking.

As you have no doubt noticed, spanking is quite the hot-button issue. The anxiety-filled divide between those for and against can sometimes make the aisle between House Republicans and Democrats look small. This is largely why we at ScreamFree have avoided taking the issue head on. See, up to this point we’ve always wanted to gain as wide an audience as possible. Knowing how emotionally charged the spanking issue could be, we did not want to introduce an easy way for many well-intentioned parents to easily dismiss us. As much as we would love to promote a spanking-free world, we have, up to this point, chosen not to die on that hill. Until last week, that is.

Two Sundays ago, I chose to wade into the waters of the corporal punishment controversy. I posted some of my initial thoughts about the Adrian Peterson child abuse/spanking case. Five thoughts, to be exact. This represented the first time I had ever specifically spoken out, in print, against spanking.

What sparked it for me was watching several ex-players like Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis talk about how “whoopings with switches” was the way they were raised, how most kids were and are still raised in the culture/region they grew up in, and how this kind of discipline is what made them the successful men they are today.

I have to admit, I found myself feeling triggered. Do you know what I mean by “triggered”? It’s like what happens when the doctor taps your knee with that rubber triangle hammer. But instead of your leg jerking up, your emotions act out. Something hammers a tender spot deep in your psyche, and you react. And very often, you jerk in reaction. And if you’re not careful, you can become a jerk yourself. Hold that thought. Back to the TV.

At that point in the broadcast, I was sensing a growing sense of rage within me. I started thinking about all the abused kids, and the adults-abused-as-kids, I’ve counseled, all emotionally or physically injured in the name of parents exercising their state-sanctioned and biblically-informed discipline.

I started thinking about all the current parents I know who, like Johnson, carry around a confusing conflict within them. He admitted he was whooped as a child, and he needed such spankings to become successful. But he also admitted that he would never lay his hands on his own children. This can leave parents with a profound challenge to their own integrity—not knowing how to honor their parents’ decisions while choosing not to continue their same actions.

Finally, I started thinking about my own family, and the numerous stories (and memories) of spankings with belts, switches, shoes, kitchen utensils, open palms and closed fists, going back multiple generations.

I was feeling and thinking all of this, and then Cris Carter, ex-wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, spoke up. He agreed with everyone about being raised that way by his courageous single mother. But then Carter floored the room.

My mom did the best job she could do, raising seven kids by herself. But there are thousands of things I have learned since then, that my mom was wrong [about]! This is the 21st century! My mom was wrong—she did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me! And I promised my kids I won’t teach that mess to them! You can’t beat a kid to make ‘em do what you want them to do. Thousand of things we have learned since then.

I don’t think I’m out of line to assert that in many circles, is sacrosanct to criticize your mother in the African-American community. Especially the single mothers that have so wonderfully helped hold that community together for decades.

Well, seeing Carter be that bold and that brave, I started to craft my thoughts. I figured it was time to employ my platform as a parenting expert and enter the conversation. Here were my five points:

  1. Adrian Peterson is not accused of spanking. He is accused of inflicting visible harm upon a child, in the name of spanking. To use this case as an argument that parents today are not allowed to parent is a defense of abuse, not spanking.
  2. At the same time, there is no longer any parental justification for spanking of any kind. Spanking has now been scientifically linked to decreasing student performance, self-esteem, conflict negotiation skills, and even IQ and brain mass.
  3. The biblical argument for spanking is ridiculous. I have been trained in the ancient languages and “spare the rod, spoil the child” was never meant literally. The “rod” was a reference to one of the tools of a shepherd, who used his rod to steer the sheep in the right direction when they went astray. He would not ever put a sheep across his lap and use his rod to punish it. For us, the rod is the rod of discipline. Thus, the meaning of “spare the rod, spoil the child” is that whenever we neglect to apply the natural, logical consequences of our child’s choices, we spoil them with a delusional view of the world and their place in it.
  4. Just because you were spanked as a child, and you believe you turned out fine, does not just justify spanking. That reasoning could justify anything that happened to view as a child. “I got hit by a car as a kid, but I turned out fine.” Ludicrous.
  5. And, just because you were spanked as a child and turned out fine does not mean that one led to the other. Like Adrian Peterson, I, too was raised in a spanking household in East Texas. In fact, I am a fifth generation East Texan. And everyone in my family was spanked with weapons throughout our childhoods. That any of us have turned out well means we survived that experience not thrived because of it.

Initially, I thought my biggest problem with the whole conversation was the departure of logic. That’s the gist behind all the points above, right? It just doesn’t make sense to defend spanking by citing an abuse case. It doesn’t make sense to continue spanking when there is so much scientific evidence against it. It doesn’t make sense to use a religion of peace and love to justify physical punishment. It doesn’t make sense to attribute your current adult success to just one aspect of your childhood. It doesn’t make sense to locate your past geographical culture as a reason to reflexively continue its practices. These are logical arguments, and I thought I was presenting them logically.

But who are we kidding. It’s obvious by my rhetoric that my biggest problem was not intellectual, it was emotional. As I mentioned above, I allowed myself to get triggered, at a deep level, by the irrational defenses I was hearing, by the photos of Peterson’s wounded son, and by the growing cacophony of defensive voices across social media. And I got emotionally reactive to my own levels of pain and shame, stemming from my childhood experiences and the experiences of my family members going back multiple generations.

In other words, I screamed. I used words in my argumentation like “ludicrous” and “ridiculous,” which were not meant to inclusively persuade people’s minds, but exclusively shame people’s positions. I used phrases like “all my family members” and “throughout our childhoods,” which were not meant to accurately represent, but exaggerate for effect. These were reactively chosen, I admit. As a writer, speaker, and therapist, my words are my currency, and I work hard to spend them wisely. If what I’m truly going for is to create generational change, then reactively choosing words to exclude, shame, and exaggerate is committing a cardinal sin: neglecting what I want most (lasting family transformation), for what I want right now (immediate personal vindication).

Finally, I chose a word, “weapons,” to label the instruments used for spanking in multiple generations of my family. I thought a lot about this word before I chose it, and even felt uncomfortable putting it out there. But then I saw the wounds on Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son. Then I recalled stories handed down in my family about various instruments being used for punishment. Then I recalled my own memories of stuffing my pants with Charmin to soften the blows I knew were coming, and then being stripped bare so as to better get the point across.

“Weapons” is indeed a provocative word. But its basic definition, “any instrument used to inflict bodily harm” means it could be the perfect word to describe what was allegedly in Adrian Peterson’s grasp. It could be the perfect word to describe the 3-foot-long paddle hanging in our middle school Vice Principal’s office, with holes drilled out of the middle to make it more aerodynamic. It could be the perfect word to describe a leather belt folded in half, or a wooden yardstick broken from the blows, or a shoe hurtled through the air, like Eddie Murphy described so flawlessly in his stand-up routine.

But if I’m honest, I chose that word not to be accurate, but to be inflammatory. If I’m honest, I wanted it to sting, perhaps as badly as switches and belts themselves. If I’m honest, I chose “weapons” because I’m not fully healed on the inside, regardless of how healthy I appear to the outside world as a relationship expert. And in so doing, I know that I hurt some family members that I care about. While I disagree that I have somehow dishonored our family’s reputation, I can understand that seeing any revealing or disparaging words in print could hurt.

I apologize; I can do better.

And I will in this series. Over the next couple of weeks, we at ScreamFree are going to publish a number of podcasts and articles that promote a calm conversation about spanking. This series will try to cover all the five points I listed in my first Facebook post, but do so in a much fuller, and much less shaming, way. We will look at the various arguments pro- and con-, paying special attention to the Judeo-Christian positions that so many parents invoke, as well as the scientific findings of the last 20 years. Finally, we will strive to show how ScreamFree Parenting offers a clear path for parents who wish to uphold their clear authority in home, and employ the power of clear consequences to guide their children.

And, in an effort to be inviting and inclusive, and to invoke in all of a spirit of non-judgmental transparency, here’s how I will choose to begin:

Hi, my name is Hal, and I’m a spanker. (Now, you’re supposed to say, “Hi, Hal” in unison, in 12-step group protocol.) Yes I, Hal Runkel, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and the creator of ScreamFree Parenting, have spanked my kids.

How about you?

9 thoughts on “SpankFree Parenting Part 1: Can We Have a ScreamFree Conversation?

  1. @Brad: What does the fact that children HAVE/DO die at the end of a beating rod do to your hermeneutic of the passage? Add to that, beating does not deliver a soul from hell; that is the work of the saving blood of Christ.

  2. Well, maybe Solomon was wrong, Brad Solomon was wrong about a lot of things. Like turning his back on God, according to the bible. Loads of things in the bible are wrong and there is no point denying that. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 states that virgin rape victims should be forced to marry their rapists. We can get into the debate of inerrancy of the bible all day but that’s not what this is about. Why do you want to hit your children? This article was intended to let us know that Hal is taking a higher road and going about his position in a ScreamFree way, instead of the screaming way he felt he started in. Good for him! I’m on board.

  3. You know, it occurs to me that the arrival of Christ resolved many things “Old Testament.” While Proverbs 23:13-14 leaves me unswayed… I would be dishonest without admitting that it bothers me. Not so much 29:17… for correction does not imply “hitting” at all. But the words of 23:13-14 are bothersome, until one considers the myriad other things that the arrival of Christ on earth RESOLVED favorably. Again, with the arrival of Christ, and the insufferable death that was meted out to Him so that each and every one of us would have salvation, and life everlasting available to us, it seems to me as though much of Old Testament “law” was rendered somewhat meaningless, but still worthy of contextual digestion. Again, the notion that a parent could save his child from hell by hitting him or her could only lose whatever credence it may have held (considering the vagaries of translations) post-Jesus. Post-Jesus, it became perfectly clear that the way to eternal life with The Father could only come through The Son. Eternal life with the Father equaling “hell avoidance.”

    I would ask any proponent of corporal punishment that ignores the myriad negative ramifications to it that have been uncovered over the centuries, and point to God’s Word as justification for it whether he or she REALLY BELIEVES that hitting their children is a legitimate means of “hell avoidance” for those children. I mean, hypothetically, if a child eats a shrimp, and a mom or dad fails to hit their child for breaking that Old Testament law, is there a special, MUCH HOTTER place in hell for that child? It strains credulity, especially with what we know about our Saviour, and Prince of Peace Jesus Christ. I ask again, can ANYBODY imagine Christ striking a child for any reason whatsoever?

  4. The reason that the aforementioned football players, and many other people say that they will not discipline their children using corporal punishment (when in fact they do), is because people such as yourself have created a culture where parents can face civil and criminal charges for disciplining their children in a manner that doesn’t meet with societal standards – standards heavily influenced by therapists and researchers.

    You and your ilk use inflammatory words like, “weapons”, “wounds”, “abuse”, “hit”, and subjective studies that “link” spanking to all manner of detrimental side effects. You present your case in this way because it evokes feelings, not facts. What you call “weapons” should be called instruments. What you call “wounds” should be called scratches or bruises. What you call “abuse”…Well in my childhood home it was called a spanking and it was followed with a conversation about my behavior, my parents’ expectations, where I went wrong, and how to get it right next time. Using spanking in conjunction with dialogue works, where dialogue alone does not always change behavior.

    Regarding the studies that “link” spanking to decreased IQ, depression, reduced brain mass, etc., how do you account for all of the individuals who exist today in direct opposition of those findings? How does a study find a control group so similar that childhood spanking is the only variable? It is far more likely that other uncontrolled variables are responsible for the results of these studies.

    There is a line between spanking and abuse, and spanking should not be done in anger, nor by itself as a form of behavior correction. However, it has historically been and continues to be, a very viable tool in the toolkit of raising children. Especially when you consider that different children require different methods of parenting and guidance.

    Finally, I will clarify on your five points:

    1. “Adrian Peterson is not accused of spanking. He is accused of inflicting visible harm upon a child, in the name of spanking. To use this case as an argument that parents today are not allowed to parent is a defense of abuse, not spanking.” – Wrong. Spanking a child can leave marks, and if a child has bruises, or switch marks, that does not mean the child was abused. Abuse of the child occurs if spankings like that are rendered without cause, without explanation, and leaves the child with no understanding.

    2. “At the same time, there is no longer any parental justification for spanking of any kind. Spanking has now been scientifically linked to decreasing student performance, self-esteem, conflict negotiation skills, and even IQ and brain mass.” – Wrong. This has been debunked in my previous statements. In fact, I sit here in direct opposition to these studies. My GPA was never lower than 3.5 from elementary through graduate school, self-esteem is fine, I negotiate conflicts frequently as part of my job, and my IQ was 142 during my last professional evaluation.

    3. “The biblical argument for spanking is ridiculous.” – There is biblical evidence to support spanking. However, see my point above about only using spanking by itself as a corrective measure.

    4. “Just because you were spanked as a child, and you believe you turned out fine, does not just justify spanking. That reasoning could justify anything that happened to view as a child. “I got hit by a car as a kid, but I turned out fine.” Ludicrous.” – While there is no fault in the logical structure of your argument here, being spanked as a child and still turning out fine does reduce the validity of the findings present in said studies.

    5. “And, just because you were spanked as a child and turned out fine does not mean that one led to the other. In fact, I am a fifth generation East Texan. And everyone in my family was spanked with weapons throughout our childhoods. That any of us have turned out well means we survived that experience not thrived because of it.” – Perhaps you only survived. Perhaps you were the kind of child that didn’t need to be spanked? Perhaps the disciplinarians in your home went too far? However, perhaps you are unfairly evaluating the impact that spanking had on your upbringing? If you are thriving now then spanking absolutely had a role to play – as we are the sum of all our parts. To say that spanking only had a negative effect in your life, as opposed to being a partial contributor to your current thriving state, is biased and inaccurate.

    What bothers me the most about people with your agenda (and clearly it is an agenda), is that you feel like you need to be in the households of others. You seem to feel like you are on a benevolent mission to right the wrongs of parents across the world by saying things like, “It’s never OK to hit a child”. See how that works? You remove all context from the statement while simultaneously the word “hit” conjures up the vision of an adult punching a helpless child. You know what I think? I think the people such as yourself quite possibly were abused as children. I think that you carry that baggage with you. It shapes you and steers you into your chosen profession, and probably defines the cause that you choose to champion. Well, that’s all well and good, but just because you experienced it that way doesn’t mean that everyone else did. Furthermore, it is certainly no reason to vilify and demonize the behavior of loving parents across the globe.

  5. Ken,
    You are misusing the context of discipline.
    When Jesus spoke of the going and teaching the nations (Mt. 28:19) he was talking to adults and speaking about sharing intellectual information. This is very different than the context of Proverbs 23:13-14 which is directed to parents and the chastisement of children. “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” I think it is telling that you choose “spare the rod, spoil the child” and not the more explanatory and clear passage.
    Or lets look at Proverbs 29:17 “Correct thy son,” The word for “correct there is “h3256. יָסַר yâsar; a primitive root; to chastise, literally (with blows).” So your argument is with Strongs Concordance not my meager mind.

    In biblical parenting we have been given many ways of disciplining our children. Chastisement, Natural consequences, Related Consequences, Encouragement, Instruction, Role Playing, Practice, Goal Incentives, etc. Chastisement is only one and should primarily be used when the child is young and allowing natural consequences would be cruel. For instance teaching a child who is about to touch a stove by natural consequences would be cruel, but using chastisement by a swat his hand would be lovingly appropriate and prevent the child much pain in the future. It would then be accompanied by instruction and reconciliation.
    Biblical parenting is a robust and rich context for raising a child. There is no need to remove one of the tools that God has given us, just because some have abused it. Instead, would we not be much more fruitful to teach parents the appropriate times and methods for all the tools of biblical parenting?

  6. Brad…

    The root word of discipline is disciple. To teach. Jesus sent His disciples out to teach, warned them that they might be persecuted for their Good News, and instructed them to wipe the dust off their sandals and lovingly move on should what they offer be rejected. You are misappropriating the word discipline. It is not hitting, lest Jesus might have instructed His disciples to smack some of the more stubborn upside the head. But that was not His way, and should not be our way regardless of whether we want to justify what’s been done to us in the past, or what we’re doing now. Hal beautifully points out what discipline is with…

    I have been trained in the ancient languages and “spare the rod, spoil the child” was never meant literally. The “rod” was a reference to one of the tools of a shepherd, who used his rod to steer the sheep in the right direction when they went astray. He would not ever put a sheep across his lap and use his rod to punish it. For us, the rod is the rod of discipline. Thus, the meaning of “spare the rod, spoil the child” is that whenever we neglect to apply the natural, logical consequences of our child’s choices, we spoil them with a delusional view of the world and their place in it.

  7. I appreciate your article/discussion and we have also spanked our kids. Our oldest, 6 in Nov., is actually pretty good now although she tests at times. Our youngest 2.5 is where we ate struggling. She has become defiant and when you do not follow her wishes she hits, pinches, and on occasion bites. You think well, how hard could it be that child can pinch like no other and it leaves bruises. I have just started reading your book, but am hoping for toddler tips. I actually had an “educator” tell me to take away her iPad. Umm, my kids maybe spoiled but the baby does not have an iPad. We take her lamb away, but then she sleeps poorly and that seems like a bad idea at her age. I know it raises a lot of issues and is hard, but if spanking does so much damage even possibly. …none of us would want that for the most precious/favorite things God has given me. Thank you for your honesty!

  8. Spanking is not or should not be an emotional response. No one should ever spank or chastise out of frustration or anger. That said there is nothing unfortunate about spanking your children, it shows you love them and wish to help them avoid greater pain. It is only unfortunate in the fact that they must be disciplined at all. It is unfortunate that we are fallen creatures in need of discipline. In this fallen state however disciplining your child is a loving thing. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” You should never be embarrassed that tell someone that you have chastised your child! There is no need to conform our parenting to the world. Parenting should be done by the loving principles God has given us.
    “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
    And calling me “ridiculous” for quoting the bible is not a good way to start a conversation between Christians.
    “The biblical argument for spanking is ridiculous.” I could and do counter with the biblical argument not to spank your child is more ridiculous. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” It is ridiculous for you to argue that this is not talking of physical discipline.
    and just to make it clear “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.”
    But my main problem with your point is that calling parents who spank their children ridiculous is not a good way to have a “conversation”. Seems to me that this is more of an accusation.

    • Thanks for contributing, Brad. You are absolutely right, my choice of the word “ridiculous” was an accusation. And thus it was a mistake. That’s why I apologized for doing so in this article. Hopefully you saw that part. In fact, that was the whole gist of this article, to communicate my apology for using reactive, exaggerated, and inflammatory terms, and to initiate a more thought-filled conversation.

      Knowing that, are you still ready to use the same word to describe me, as you did in your 4th to last sentence? I obviously understand if you are, since I did so first. But I’m hoping we can all move beyond that.

      Stay “cool,”
      Hal

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