Thursday, 22 July 2010


On the whole, I don't get as much respect as I'd like. When I do, it's all too often in the form of telling versus showing. Now there might be some mothers out there who prefer hugs and kisses to foot rubs and a kitchen floor scrubbed clean by someone else, but I'm not one of them. I'm greedy: I'd like both, in equal measure.

Every generation is different. There has always been a gap and there always will be, but in the past few decades, it has really stretched. As a general rule, parents in western countries really don't get the same kind of respect they used to. Personally, I blame everybody. Kids and parents: we've all changed. And I blame modern Western culture. I blame Hollywood and MTV. I blame mass media and advertising and the internet.

When I grew up, parents whipping their kids was a given, not only allowed, but actively promoted and encouraged. Whenever anyone questioned the wisdom of this, the Bible was widely quoted. (If you've got one around, check out Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 23;13-4, and 29:15 and you'll get the general idea.) I only had a handful of friends whose parents didn't use corporal punishment and I was always awed by the charmed lives they led. My father, generally a very sweet person, also had a fiery temper and an Old Testament approach to discipline.

I don't beat my kids. I can count the number of times I've swatted them on the fingers of one hand. I remember too well the anger and confusion I experienced as the frequent recipient of corporal punishment, and I've found other means of correcting them: time out, grounding, counting to ten, withholding treats and privileges. Whenever I stop to think of the differences in how we were disciplined, I am awed by how lucky they are.

Years ago, I was walking through San Francisco's Chinatown with a Vietnamese friend. In front of us on the sidewalk was a typical middle-American family: Mom, Dad and three pre-teenage kids. As we watched, the oldest boy decided to impersonate an airplane. He carelessly lurched to one side, causing his mother to lose her balance and stumble into the road. My friend sucked her breath in as the boy laughed in a disrespectful manner. The mother laughed too as she stepped back onto the sidewalk. "Why she not hit him?" my friend whispered, astonished. "Why she laugh?" All I could do was shake my head: if I'd knocked one of my parents into the road while I was goofing off, I'd be running for cover, not laughing.

Over the years, my Asian and African students have expressed their dismay and surprise at the lack of discipline in Western countries. "Why don't American parents hit their kids?" is a question I've been asked dozens of times. The truth is, of course, that all too many of them do, but for some reason, my students don't see this. What they see is privileged spoiled brats getting away with murder. They can't get over the fact that the parents of these entitled kids don't haul out and whack them. They are amazed to find that Western children don't necessarily respect their parents or wholly accept them in all their imperfection.

When I was teaching Turkish and Kazakh students the difference between -ing and -ed adjectives, I used a photograph of a cringing daughter watching her tipsy father relive Saturday Night Fever on the dance floor. "The father is embarrassing," I told them. "His daughter is embarrassed." My students were stunned. "Father not embarrassing," they protested. "Father is father!" They were horrified when I confessed to having been embarrassed by my mother's awful fashion sense. When I asked if any of them had ever been embarrassed by their parents, they all shook their heads and stared at me. "Teacher, father respect! Mother love! Not embarrass!"

Although my Turkish students have shown an interesting mixture of deference and cheekiness, the Africans I've taught have been extremely respectful, sitting quietly with their hands folded in front of them, patiently waiting instruction. They are obviously flabbergasted when others are disruptive or show me less than total respect, and they are less than pleased by my namby-pamby reactions to bad behavior. "Teacher," one Nigerian student told me with exasperated patience, "you should strike them. If they do not listen to you, you must hit them and then they will begin to listen to you." Which I can't do, of course, and not just because I've had little practice. I've only taught a handful of Africans over the years, but every single one of them has fondly related tales of beatings at the hands of parents, teachers, and neighbors. "That's what that expression means," a Ghanaian man once told me, "it takes a village to raise a child. If the child does something wrong and the mother is not there to correct him, the neighbors must beat him. Then they will tell his parents they did this and the parents will thank them." My Nigerian colleague, Leonard, confirms this. "If no one beats children, how will they learn?" Leonard remembers frequent spankings and beatings. He remembers being whacked across the face so hard he got dizzy. Leonard loved his mother dearly. And you will not find a nicer, gentler, more sweet-tempered person than him. You won't find a funnier comedian than Russell Peters either, but even he has something to say on this subject. Food for thought, isn't it?

I'm not advocating spanking or beating. I think that the blind respect of authority it instills isn't really the kind I want. I think it shows a shameful abuse of power and a failure to use logic and reason. I think it teaches children that you can get your own way if you resort to physical force, and I'm against all of that. I do think, however, that in certain emergencies the odd spanking won't kill a kid. And that if your kid shoves you off the sidewalk, you don't have to beat him, but you probably shouldn't laugh.


Kim Ayres said...

The way pro-spankers go on, you would think hitting was the only form of discipline. Personally I think it's the laziest form of discipline

I have never raised my hand to my kids, and I think they've turned out OK. But I've never let them get away with being selfish and disrespectful either.

e said...

Coming from a family of spankers, I'm not one as it creates both fear and resentment. I learned early to avoid my parents and I had a secret life they knew little about.

Kit said...

I'm also against any form of physical punishment, as I think it teaches fear rather than respect.

I think the problem is when people get rid of the physical punishment but don't replace it with any other form of discipline or restraint for their kids. You can learn respect without being spanked, as long as your parents teach it to you.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think part of it is the need for parents to feel like they are friends to their kids. Not something I grew up with.

Anne M Leone said...

This is a really interesting post. I've also taught in a school where corporal punishment was the norm for most families. You've done a nice job of examining both sides of the issue; a lot of families can't imagine raising children without physically punishing them. However, like you, as a child I remember being humiliated and upset by spanking. I think Kit's right about the problem being a complete lack of discipline.

Eryl Shields said...

To echo Kit, it seems to me that now physical punishment is frowned upon in our culture parents have no idea what to replace it with. When they were kids yelling and beating were the only form of discipline, so why should they know any better?

My mother was so yellish and beatie that I made a decision that I would never do that to my child long before I had one (I spent so much of my childhood bewildered and sore), and I never have. I've always just explained to him why he should or shouldn't do something, shown him the effects of certain behaviour and told him how I, and others, feel about them. I think I probably bored him into submission! But now he seems to be about as perfect as a 24 year old man can be. He's never picked up a mop without me asking him to, though.

Mimi and Tilly said...

I agree with Kim and believe spanking to be a lazy form of discipline, and am wholly against it. It's easy to lash out at a child and give them a smack, and a lot harder to create healthy and loving boundaries for a child without hitting them. I believe the reason children don't respect adults isn't because they haven't been spanked but because many adults are too tired and stressed to say what they mean and mean what they say.

A Paperback Writer said...

As a teacher, I can see both sides of this issue, and I think it comes down to the kids and the parents. Regardless of the culture, the parents are not always right and the kids wrong. Some kids need little more than a raised eyebrow to get them in line. Most need a time out or grounding or reduced freedoms of some sort until they get the message. And some kids need a good swat. In some cultures, too many kids get swatted; in American culture, too few.
I discipline with tongue-lashings and sarcasm if a kid doesn't respond to warnings. And some parents think I'm horrible because of it. Tough cookies. The kids need to learn there are consequences if they cross the line.
So, I don't know that anyone can say in black and white that any method of discipline is the best of all kids. It varies. For every person here saying that spanking is evil, we can find a person who respected her/his parents because of it. But, of course, there's the fear factor now; any American who believes in spanking nowdays is seriously in danger of being reported to Child Services. That is obviously over the top.
Ah, I wander everywhere in this comment. Sorry for the lack of focus.

Vijaya said...

I'm in the minority here ... I'm in favor of physical punishment especially for dangerous situations -- it is swift and severe enough that the kid knows to never cross that boundary again.

But I also know that overuse kills the effect. From the age of 6-12, it seemed I got a daily rap for something, so I became a mother's nightmare. I did exactly what I wanted and took my punishment without flinching. And when asked if I was sorry, would say No. Because to say yes would be to lie and I knew it was a sin to lie. Needless to say, my poor mother had white hair prematurely. She told me I gave them all to her.

When I came to the US at age 14, I was appalled at how students spoke to teachers. When I became a teacher, I would not tolerate any belligerence.

Kids have far less respect for their betters and elders than when I was growing up. And it's terrible in the classroom. The worst part is that the teacher cannot rely upon the parents for support. So many parents want the teacher to be permissive with little Johnny instead of using ways to restrict bad behavior.

My own kids talk back to me in a manner that I never would have to my own mother. But I hear they're good as gold in school :)

So we're working on keeping some of that same self control at home. Just because they can speak and do things doesn't mean they should.

Great post, Mary.

Charlie said...

I'm going to jump on the wagon here and agree with Kit.

I wonder, though, if any kind of discipline teaches respect rather than resentment.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I think it's usually the laziest, though my father got a pretty good work out when he whipped us.

I've had occasion to slap my kids, I'm afraid, but I reserved it for emergencies so I didn't wear out its efficacy. And whatever they may tell you, I didn't do it hard.

e -- What I minded most about being spanked was not being able to reason with my father. I think if he'd at least let me have my say, I wouldn't have felt so resentful. Other kids who were spanked have said the same thing: the corporal punishment didn't offend as much as the adult's absolute control over the situation.

I think that even kids who don't get spanked develop secret lives; it's the one way to cope with the relative powerlessness, the invasions of privacy and the insults to dignity that all come with being a kid. I know I had a private life, and my kids definitely did.

Kit -- I agree. Parents tend to lump all punishments into one category and allow their kids to do whatever they please, imagining this to be a gentle form of parenting. What it creates is kids who are very confused and don't have a notion of boundaries.

Charles -- Not something I grew up with either, so that broadens the gap.

Given the naturally selfish nature of humankind, somebody has to be in charge. Somebody has to say no, set limits, monitor behavior, and occasionally play the heavy. If you're pals, it's a lot harder to do that.

Anne -- Thanks for commenting.

I agree. My Asian and African students see disrespectful Western kids and immediately associate this with a lack of corporal punishment. I've seen kids who were never spanked but still have great manners and good behavior; I know it can be done. But it's hard to tell them this. And when I consider how well behaved most of them are, I can't help but think there a lot of effective ways to raise decent children whether I would personally choose to use them or not.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I'm always intrigued by the parents who, having been beaten as kids, automatically assume it's the way to go when they themselves have children, and the ones who vow never to beat their kids because they were beaten as children. I can't help but believe that the latter are naturally more sensitive and compassionate, but I've known a lot of perfectly decent people who whack their kids without a moment's hesitation. I doubt I've ever met anyone who wasn't slapped as a child who decided it was okay to slap their kids, but I'm sure they're out there.

(Congratulations on your graduation with honors, by the way -- we saw it in the paper!)

Mimi and Tilly -- I agree with you. Hitting is easier. It doesn't require thought or real effort. We're bigger than our kids, but we're wiser too, and we should be using that.

I know that when I'm physically and mentally exhausted, I tend to be less effective with my words and more inclined to be nasty. And there are few jobs more exhausting than parenting. My father-in-law never hit his kids, but he used to say that it wasn't surprising that parents hit their kids -- that the fact that many didn't was amazing.

Vijaya -- You and me both on the talking back problem. It's hard for the part of me that can still remember being hit to cope with the cheekiness of my kids. I watch them and flinch, just imagining what their impudence would have cost ME as a kid. But I would rather be the parent I am to them than the parent my father was to me.

I agree that corporal punishment is warranted in emergencies. Our eldest daughter once ran into the road when she was a toddler. My husband didn't even hesitate to hit her, and then he and she both cried together. She never did it again: the slap let her know that what she had done was terribly wrong. I got the worst spanking of my life for doing something similarly dangerous, and it was the only one I never resented. It also kept me out of the road from then on when nothing else had.

Charlie -- It definitely does. Our eldest kid had a part-time job cleaning hotel rooms. She sometimes skipped her daily house chores so she could do her paid job even though she promised us she would never do this. One day, I told the lady she worked for that she hadn't done her chores so she couldn't work. I then went and cleaned hotel rooms at £8 an hour and pocketed a cool £24 while our eldest stayed home and cleaned the shower stall.

I guarantee you she respected me a little more after that. And I definitely respected myself.

Carole said...

I come from a family that used much more than corporal punishment. Hose and willow whippings, humiliations and kickings, and much more. Out of a family of seven kids three of us never hit our kids and three used corporal punishment, although not to the degree we lived it. One never had children.

One of my brothers was very tough on his kids and his youngest son just got a dishonorable discharge from the army because he he was involved in a physical hazing incident. What a legacy we leave when we choose to be brutal.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I remember you alluding to this before, so I'm glad you weighed in on this subject. My heart goes out to you, reading that. You had it very hard, and I'm filled with respect for you for not using corporal punishment on your own kids. My father was very strict and he usually made the mistake of not telling us WHY he was punishing us (something I particularly resented), but he had a certain standard of behavior (hands only, no face slaps, no humiliation), for which I have to be grateful. I could never subject my own kids to even his comparatively gentler corporal punishment, but I still wish I knew how to make them respect me more. Without leaving them that terrible legacy.

angryparsnip said...

What a post and comments.
I can remember twice that I got hit as a child but when we were disciplined we were told what we did wrong there was a consequence for our action.

My x came from a family of hitters and I was shocked when he hit our first child, but what was worst was the verbal abuse he heaped on all of us. Sometimes what said can never be forgiven.
Two children mid 20's have never spoken to him after he walked out and one in his 30's has very limited contact and only on his terms.
I disciplined them and made them responsible for there action.
When I see kids misbehaving or disrespectful it is hard for me to not step in. Sometimes you have to just look at the parent to see where this behavior come from. Some people should never have children.

Sorry for the long comment...

cheers, parsnip

Blythe said...

When I have really reached the end of my tether, I always recite this, which I read on a bottle of soap:
"Frisky wolf pups obey their tiny dachshund mother with zip and pep."

I *am* the tiny dachshund mother. I demand a little zip and pep from the pups.

Miss Footloose said...

As with many other family issues, it is interesting to see the different way different cultures handle physical punishment of children.

The issue of respect for parents is not necessarily related to physical punishment. Fear for the broomstick causes fear for parents, not respect.

I do feel that in the western world parents are often too afraid to harm their children's precious psyches by punishing them in any way. They want to be their child's "friend," rather than an authority figure. A family is not a democracy. Children need an authority figure to learn about boundaries.

When my kids wailed "but why?" I would say: "Because I am the boss."

Robin said...

I don't think corporal punishment is very effective, but I've given a few spankings in my time. Boy, did it feel good.

While I was writing Shrink Rap, I confronted my parents on their disciplining techniques. "I can't believe you used the strap on me!", I told my dad.

"Robin, I never hit you with the strap," he said.

"Uh, Dad, maybe you should look into some preventative medicine for Alzheimer's", I told him.

"Robin, I hit the BED. I never hit you!"

And you know what? When I really thought about it, I didn't remember any pain, or red marks. He probably did hit the bed. So my parents believed in fear inducing psychological torture, but not corporal punishment.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nancy worked for Child Protective Services. Often the emotional abuse had more devastating and long-term ramifications; destructive criticism, insults and cruel remarks. These were the kids who would act out and come to the attention of authorities. Often these emotional scars last a lifetime.

Mary Witzl said...

AP -- How sad that your ex managed to alienate your children so thoroughly. I can remember visiting a friend once when I was about twelve. Her mother was very sarcastic and verbally abusive and I was astonished. Respect goes both ways, doesn't it? I can't imagine being able to respect my parents if they showed me no respect at all, especially in front of others.

Blythe -- I love that! What kind of soap do you buy?

Sadly, I think I'm more like a tired old wolf mother whose legs are getting snapped at by frisky dachshund pups. With zip and pep.

Miss Footloose -- Boy, do I agree! I once saw a kid at a fancy party knock over a large cut glass bowl full of cream cheese. He'd been horsing around right in front of his father, who seemed oblivious to his terrible behavior. There was glass and cream cheese everywhere, but the Dad, instead of giving the kid a piece of his mind, immediately told him that it wasn't his fault, that he'd pay for the damage -- and that was that. The kid went right back to his horsing around, to the irritation of the guests and catering staff. The kid's Dad acted like his pal, but you have never seen such a rude, unhappy, disrespectful kid. Over the years, whenever I see kids who are indulged like that, they're always miserable.

I used to tell my kids that they could do what they wanted when they were old enough to push me around in my wheelchair and change my diapers. That always hushed them up.

Robin -- You made me laugh out loud! Some parents claim that they burst out crying when they punish their kids. I always remember Erma Bombeck's line about never hitting your kids in anger: "When SHOULD I hit him, then? When he's giving me a birthday present? When he's being presented with a Bible in church?" It's hard not to get even a little satisfaction meting out a perfectly just, well-deserved punishment. Like taking back that bearded dragon equipment, for instance.

Robert -- I've seen emotionally abusive parents in action and so have my kids. (Our acquired daughter has suffered a lot with this.) My kids used to think that my nagging was bad, but watching a mother intimidate, humiliate, and use mental cruelty on her child changed their minds.

Anne Spollen said...

It's such a delicate balance teaching respect and self discipline. I always feel like I am making deals, negotiating, trying to show them how you have to compromise. I want them to feel valued so they value themselves and have a voice -- yet it takes so long to negotiate every little thing.

And I come from the parenting school that finds physical punishment a form of sanctioned abuse. I don't think anyone should have to hit anyone to make a point, especially one about respect.

Then there is the whole adult thing. Sadly, I've worked in enough schools that I've learned there are a good number of parents/adults walking around who don't deserve automatic respect.

Of course there should be consequences for bad decisions (and all behavior is a decision), just not physical ones.

Angela Ackerman said...

I would give my kids a swat when they were toddlers to 'shock' them out of a fit or behavior, but the day they turned on their sibling and did the same was the day that stopped. It was at that point that the kids were learning that it was okay to hit as a means of showing anger and frustration.

Ever since that point, I've simply applied the choice/consequence system. The kids choose what to do or not do, and how to act or not act. Each choice has a consequence, some good, some bad. when they kids were smaller they would get a warning that if X continued, Y would be the consequence. I made them understand they and they alone were the ones who made the choices.

Now that the kids are older, they are very aware of the consequences of their behavior. They know certain things they do will result in losing privileges or grounding, but again as always I make it clear that when this happens it is not me being mean, it's me following through on delivering a consequence to their choice.

I don't know if this is a good way to parent or not, but for me it works. The kids are mostly respectful and have learned to be aware of the choices they make not only around me but with their friends as well.

I think there are always a few common things us parents can do no matter what the culture or personality involved: first, respect others if you want to be respected in turn. Be consistent when disciplining (if we are wishy-washy, the kids will turn that inch into a mile, leading to a total lack of control and disrespect). And finally, do check ins on the methods being used and adapt if changes are required. My kids are different creatures and what works for one as a motivator or deterrent doesn't always work for both.


Isn't parenting fun? LOL

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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