A whole generation of Christian parenting gurus advocated the use of physical discipline. In this extract from her new book Sarah Johnson argues that contemporary parents should ignore their harmful advice here cannot be more confusion about any aspect of what constitutes Christian parenting than there is about the issue of discipline. The first puzzle of all is: why is it, when Christ was so specifically non-violent, that so many so-called Christians believe in hitting children? Using violence of any kind against children, even the “loving chastisement” beloved of some Christian parenting manuals, is by definition anti-Christian. It is teaching children to be violent. “Love is always patient and kind,” begins the most famous passage of St Paul, quoted at a thousand wedding ceremonies every weekend. Patience and kindness do not admit of hitting children.
The “downfall” spoken of Matthew 18:5-6, Mark 9:42 and Luke 17:1-2 is a roundabout translation of the Greek word skandalise, which means “offend”. Jesus is here talking of actions which cause “these little ones” – the next generation, the children whom he has gathered around him – to lose their faith, to fall down. And what has been a more certain cause of turning away from the faith than harsh punishments meted out by self-righteous Christian teachers and parents over the centuries?
We all know perfectly well that children need firm moral boundaries – a clear idea of what is right and wrong and a firm purpose in wanting to do right. But there are boundaries – and there are boundaries, as any landscape gardener will tell you.
Suppose you surround your garden with brick walls, which are absolutely immoveable, but against which you can bounce a tennis ball satisfyingly. Brick walls make good boundaries, but the problem with them is that once you have climbed over on to the other side, it is difficult to get back into the garden. They also require continual maintenance.
Or you can grow hedges, which take a lot of time and care to develop. These are more beautiful, more friendly at least to look at. Children and hedges live happily together, except when the children try to bounce balls off them, at which point the ball simply disappears into the hedge – a deeply frustrating experience for the child, who might then long for the comforting solidity of the brick wall.
Lastly, there are barbed wire fences, which are ugly, cruel and which everybody, adults and children alike, stays well away from – because everyone is afraid of getting hurt.
Any harsh punishmentbased type of discipline, especially any kind of physical punishment, is the equivalent of the barbed wire fence. It is not the choice of gardeners who want to create something lasting and loveable; it is more the choice of factory farmers keeping cattle in, and raiders out.
You would have thought this kind of disciplinary style had gone completely out of fashion; unfortunately, perhaps as a kind of misguided reaction to the relaxed parenting style which has been popular since the 1970s, punishment-based disciplinary styles enjoyed a vogue among Christian parents in the United States in the 1990s, in the form of books and courses promoted by “gurus” such as Gary and Anne Ezzo.
Their strict “biblical” disciplining of babies, enforcing routines for sleeping and feeding from very early on, endorses physical retribution at various levels. They urge parents of newborn babies not to let their children “manipulate” them – “manipulation” being their view of natural demand feeding or attachment parenting.
The cornerstone of their babycare advice is “Parentdirected feeding”. This involves scheduled feeds and mothers are advised to leave their babies to cry until the time for the next feed arrives. The system has no basis in the scientifically known nutritional or emotional needs of babies, or the underlying physical and hormonal processes on which successful breastfeeding depends. One of the Ezzos’ books cited biblical verses to support their theories of baby feeding: even Jesus’s words on the Cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, being dragged in to support their belief that a baby who is crying, but who has been fed and changed recently, should be left alone to cry.
It is only a short step from leaving babies to cry in order to stop them from “manipulating” parents to treating older children like hardened criminals. The Ezzos endorsed physical punishments such as the following for a 10-month-old baby who smears baby food in his hair: “Squeeze the baby’s hand until it hurts enough to make him stop ...” At this point in the Ezzo child-rearing programme, where the system starts advocating discipline in the highchair, parents who were initially seduced by the system’s promises of “training” a baby to sleep through the night, or by the idea that it would be fine to dump the baby in a playpen and ignore them for 30 minutes twice a day, because that was “playpen time”, probably quietly put the book down and never picked it up again, or tiptoed out of the classroom door, never to return. The Californian church where the Ezzos first developed their system broke off connection with the couple in 2000. However, enough parents seem to have been seduced into buying the system to continue to make it profitable, because it is promoted now by a new company, Parentwise Solutions.
The idea that babies manipulate adults is absurd. When they feel hunger and fear, babies naturally respond by crying, the only alarm system they possess. It is equally obscene to regard a little child who is unconsciously experimenting with the new texture of a foodstuff as “naughty”.
No home-grown Christian parenting expert has advocated physical punishment in Britain for many years. In the 1980s the Catholic writer Lynette Burrows tried to make a stand for it, with little success. Back in 1976 another American, Dr James Dobson, won some notoriety and became well known in Britain because he advocated spanking as part of discipline, suggesting that parents rationalise it to a child like this: “When I tell you to stay in the front yard, it’s because I don’t want you to run in the street and get hit by a car. I love you and I don’t want anything to happen to you. If you don’t mind me, I’ll have to spank you to help you remember how important it is. Do you understand?” Dobson advocates spank ing children from babyhood up to the age of eight. “It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely,” he wrote. He warns that the crying should be allowed to continue as long as there are “genuine tears”. Dobson is not a bad man: he is genuinely concerned about parental smackings that “get out of hand” resulting in injury or death.
But he also believes that a spanking actually increases closeness between parent and child, writing: “After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms. At that moment you can talk heart to heart. You can tell him how much you love him, and how important he is to you. You can explain why he was punished and how he can avoid the difficulty next time. This kind of communication is not made possible by other disciplinary measures, including standing the child in the corner or taking away his firetruck.” Now, there are many loving and normal parents who have stooped to using violence occasionally, and it is wrong to stigmatise them. I know I used to use violence. I felt it was necessary to get a quick message across and like many other parents I saw “nothing wrong with the occasional slap”. I used to agree with Lynette Burrows when she stated that smacking a child is “quick, educative and doesn’t waste anyone’s time”. I could see that a quick slap may be less trouble all round than a laborious session of putting a furious, hysterical toddler on the naughty step, since it can be followed with a hug and a smile. I was briefly seduced by Dobson’s idea that a slap “helps a child remember” what he is supposed to have done wrong.
But you know what? The whole idea of corporal punishment simply does not work. I tried it, and I can report that the smacking never did any good. I cannot think of a single occasion when I felt anything but soiled and degraded by doing it. It never improved my children’s behaviour at all, whereas consistent nonviolent sanctions and the setting of a good example have done.
The hug and the smile following the smacking simply made me feel seedy, ashamed, ingratiating. The emotional closeness that Dr Dobson promised would be the aftermath of “the parent’s demonstration of his authority” certainly never took place for me as a result of smacking any of my children.
A story of one of Dr Dobson’s clients, who told how her 15-month-old child, after being spanked on the legs with a switch in the Dobson-approved manner, approached her mother for a hug saying “Love, mommy” is cited by Dr Dobson as evidence of how “the child will often reveal his affection when the emotion (of being punished) has passed”. The same episode might equally be read as proof of how upsetting and confusing for a tiny child such treatment is. This was not an improvement in emotional closeness: it was a small child trying desperately to regain a closeness which the smacking had destroyed.
Whenever I used violence against a child of mine, I felt a distance opening up between us. The clear effect on my children was to harden their hearts, embittering them with resentment. The point of James Dobson’s system seemed to be to shatter the child’s confidence in his parent’s feelings for him so badly that he is driven to begging for reassurance that he is still loved. Dobson complains that small children “play games” with parents, running them ragged: yet at the same time, he seems to be advocating that parents play mind games with children which are vastly more unpleasant, since they come from a position of power. The kind of “emotional closeness” Dr Dobson describes as the aftermath of a smacking is creepy, slightly sexual and has a whiff of sadism that one hopes is entirely unwitting.
Smacking my children did not increase their “respect” for me: on the contrary, it diminished it. Whatever the Ezzos and Dobsons of this world imagine, smacking a child does not make that child respect the parent more: this is a clear case of confusing fear with respect. Any respect my beloved children have for me, I have had to work hard to win back, after the loss of respect which physical violence inevitably brings in its wake.
In short, hitting little children is a mug’s game: it has no part in a Christian upbringing.
If you set yourself up as a police officer, you soon become more interested in your arrest record than in your rehabilitation record, always ready to catch children doing wrong, less interested in catching them doing right. If you start off treating your children like criminals, they will behave like criminals. Constant threats of punishment and fear of consequences including physical pain soon erect a high razor-wire fence around the garden of your child’s life; and once your child has worked out how to get hold of a pair of wire clippers, you will never see them again.
Parents who have very firm, but rather inflexible rules (but who are not necessarily violent towards their children in any way) I see as another type: the brick-wall parents. Their virtue is that they are warm and solid, and not without humour; they offer excellent security, particularly when children are young. Because they are not easily persuaded, they provide a place from which a young person may launch out in rebellion – a hard surface for children to kick a ball against. It is hard to be a rebel if you have nothing to rebel against.
There are not very many of these parents about these days; and the drawback of being a brick-wall parent is that you can become a bit wall-eyed. Being closed to negotiation over big issues can mean you are closed to negotiation over small issues as well. The brickwall parents may not know how to cope when their child grows up a bit and commits what are by most people’s standards quite minor breaches of “respect”, such as getting a wacky haircut or staying out all night with a boyfriend.
Furthermore, if you belong to a firm faith, then the faith can be the brick wall for both you and your child; your faith, in other words, is what provides the solid and unmoving set of values. You need not feel you have to be an entire moral system all by yourself: some brick-wall parents are not so much garden walls as battlements.
That leaves us with the third of our emblematic forms of boundary: that very British institution, the garden hedge: luxuriant, natural, organic and yet impenetrable, sometimes frustrating in that nothing bounces off it, but sinks into it; in constant need of attention; the most difficult kind of boundary to look after, but the most beautiful.
The health of the “garden hedge” depends on your example, your continual attempts to “model” a Christ-like way of doing things. This is what makes it such a high-maintenance piece of shrubbery.
The effectiveness of the garden hedge depends on the parent’s efforts to be consistent – especially in following through with warnings such as: “If you do that again, I am confiscating your Nintendo/PS3/bike/TV for X number of days.” The X in that sentence needs to be thought out carefully – how long can you reasonably confiscate the said item? Are you going to be able to do it effectively or are you going to back out because it is too much trouble? Warn children of consequences, by all means, but be prepared to follow up with delivery.
Hedge parents are honest when they slip up, when they fail to be consistent; they are not afraid to confront their own imperfections. They are not afraid to let their children see them saying sorry or being contrite: if the parent never shows contrition, why should the child bother? Above all, hedge parenting has lots of room for hugs, forgiveness and laughter.
Hedge parenting depends on you, the parent, establishing a deep, close relationship with your child and working hard to keep it healthy and vibrant. This is a relationship completely unlike the distant relationship based on fear which is seen in the barbed-wire style of parenting. And unlike the brick-wall style of parenting, it depends on the parent offering the child choices, guiding their choices but also giving them ample space to make decisions for themselves.
Hedge parenting allows organic growth. The child is involved in the process, drawn in as a willing participant rather than being treated as a criminal who must be corrected and punished. One excellent American Catholic parenting guru, Greg Popcak, is a classic example of a hedgeboundary parent. He stresses warmth, affection and mutual respect, and points out the difference between parents who yell “problemfocused questions” at their children, and those who instead pose “solutionfocused questions” – questions which look for answers, often from the child himself.
So, faced with, for example, a child who habitually won’t do his homework unless screamed at several times, this approach asks: “What is different about the days when he DOES do his homework without a fight (however rare these days may be), and the days when we have a huge battle? What is special about those times when the right thing happens?” Likewise, instead of “How stupid are you?” the hedge parent says to a child who has seriously stepped over the mark: “I know you are bright. Now how can you use your brain to solve the problem we have here?” And instead of “Why can’t you understand...?” the hedge parent is more likely to open the plea with: “This is what I need from you ... now, how can I help you to make this happen for us?” The drawback of hedge parenting is that it can be messy and time-consuming: it’s that problem of the lost tennis ball, you see. Once you commit yourself to answering provoking questions about why we do this and that, once you start opening discussions about right and wrong, then you will soon find yourself searching around in the bottom of the hedge for the lost ball and sometimes you will emerge rather dishevelled. If you had a brickwall upbringing yourself, or even, Lord forbid, a barbedwire upbringing, you may find you do not have the tools ready for maintaining a hedge; you will need to do some more homework, some more prayer, to search out the books and teachers of your faith to support you; and then you will begin to learn more about the questions of your own life, and you can search for answers together with your child.