"If you don't do what I say, I'll . . . I'll . . . .
Some Family Life readers are willing to back up those words the same way their own mothers and fathers did--with a swat on the unruly child's behind. Others prefer "time outs" or other methods less violent. And one father insists that he has made it through 28 years of parenthood without ever ordering his kids to obey him in the first place.
As a child, Kelly promised herself that when she became a parent, "I would never hit my kids. Then, when I was older, I read an article stating that abused children grow up to be abusing parents themselves. This convinced me to definitely never hit my own children."
Kelly, who now lives in Tustin, never considered herself an abused child. "But I was raised with very strict discipline. My father was a career Marine officer. We had to call him 'sir' and my mother 'ma'am.' He really was never abusive. But I used to go to school with belt marks on the backs of my legs, or a handprint on my arm from where he'd grabbed me."
Now that she's the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, Kelly says, she has broken the promise she made to herself. "I do indeed 'crack' her, not too often and only a small smack on her bottom. She's very precocious and strong-willed, like her mother. She tests me an awful lot. I'll tell her not to do something, and she'll give me one of those looks that says, 'I'm going to do it anyway.'
"I truly feel that every time I cracked her it was deserved (because of) intentional disobedience or, at times, a dangerous situation for her--running into the street, playing at the top of the stairs. I really don't think it's wrong, as long as you use your intelligence instead of your anger. And never in the face. I remember how awful it was to go to school with a fat lip.
"I always have to keep in mind the lesson that I'm trying to teach, not to take my anger out on her. I think that's how children are abused."
Even though she has reasoned it out, Kelly says that when she spanks her daughter, "I feel guilty afterward. So I decided that I had to do something else. Although I still do spank her occasionally, a 'time out' seems to work very well. When she misbehaves, I make her sit in a chair for one minute. She hates it! So instead of saying, 'Do you want me to crack you?' I say, 'Do you want to sit in a chair?' My goal is to stop spanking eventually."
Stephanie, an Irvine child therapist who has a 5-year-old daughter, agrees that time outs--a minute for each year of a child's age--can be a good idea because both parent and child get a break. But she says there are several things that should be tried first.
Parents should try to prevent transgressions before they happen, by keeping forbidden objects out of reach, for example, and supervising children closely in known problem situations, she says. They should explain what isn't acceptable, and why, and tell the child ahead of time what the consequences will be if he or she misbehaves. Stephanie says parents also should "give the child praise and encouragement when they are doing what you want them to do.
"What I tell parents in a nutshell is that the punishment must fit the crime. If they spank their child for spilling milk, what do they do if he or she takes scissors to the living room drapes--use thumbscrews?"
Stephanie does admit that sometimes she resorts to corporal punishment herself. "I use spanking for life-threatening or extremely dangerous behavior--playing with the stove, swimming in the pool unsupervised, running out into the street. Spanking consists of one swat immediately after the problem, followed by a time out in her room to think about her actions.
"In the long run, spanking doesn't work. Most parents who spank will admit that they do it mostly to vent their own anger or frustration at the child for disobeying, or at themselves for not knowing what else to do. Spanking does nothing to tell children what you do want them to do, which, after all, is the goal of discipline in the first place."
Jean, who lives in Laguna Hills, has a son and daughter who are now grown. She agrees with Stephanie that praise is important. "If I were parenting again, I would praise more than I did. I just expected good behavior." Jean earned her bachelor's degree in home economics in 1940, and she says the child development courses she took in college came in handy when her children were growing up.
"We rarely had to punish our two children because we managed things ahead of time. At the age of 2, for example, the child has learned the power of 'no.' So you don't say, 'Would you like to wash your face now?' Instead you say, 'Would you like to use the pink cloth or the blue cloth to wash with?' The child is being conned and doesn't know it."