Q: Your recent series on punishment was thought-provoking. I agree children should have consequences when they misbehave. Nonetheless, would you please clarify when punishment becomes excessive? What is the line between reasonable and too much? When I was young, I was spanked with a belt on numerous occasions. I always felt, and still do, that they were completely unnecessary and over the top. Do you agree?
A: Absolutely! Belts, paddles, switches, and other nefarious variations on that general theme are dangerous and unequivocally unnecessary.
I don’t have a problem with spankings per se. The best research (that is, research done by people who are dispassionate on the subject) consistently finds that contrary to the ideological myth, when spankings are occasional, moderate (two to four swats on the child’s rear end), and administered by loving parents who spank with their hands only, they are not associated with psychological, behavioral, or social problems.
Then we have well-intentioned claims that the Bible instructs parents to spank with a “rod,” but the biblical term “the rod of discipline” is clearly metaphorical. It refers not to beatings with sturdy sticks, but to parental authority that is reliable, righteous, just, and unequivocal. For more on that subject, interested readers are referred to the statement on spanking found on my website at johnrosemond.com.
Before I answer your first question, allow me to address a misunderstanding. I do not believe that successful discipline is a matter of properly manipulating consequences and I don’t believe it’s always necessary to respond to misbehavior with consequences. Consequences are overrated and often overused. The key to effective discipline is an attitude, a certain presentation style, not consequences or punishment. When parents act like their authority is legitimate, that they know what they are doing and why, children do what they are told. When parents explain, threaten, yell, plead, and the like, children take every opportunity to misbehave.
My recent series on punishment was not an apologetic for a punishment-based approach to discipline. I merely said that punishment is an essential aspect of an effective disciplinary approach. Research – again, studies done by dispassionate individuals – confirms that assertion.
It’s important to note that the “size” of a punishment does not determine whether it is excessive or not. That is determined by the parent’s attitude. Punishment is likely to be excessive when the parent is angry and using punishment as a form of “payback.” The parent in question is being impulsive and vengeful as opposed to calmly corrective. Whatever message the parent intends to send is blurred by his or her emotional reaction to the child’s misbehavior.
Punishment that is driven by emotion accomplishes nothing and serves only to elicit emotion from the child. It accomplishes nothing of value; therefore, by definition, it is excessive.