Parenting Corner: Spanking, When Parents Disagree

What happens when parents disagree on discipline styles?

Welcome to the Parenting Corner Blog, where parents can share questions and reflections on raising children. All questions will be read by licensed clinical social worker and licensed creative arts therapist, Karen Bagnini. Responses to selected questions will be posted, with names omitted. Questions are edited for space.

Responses will be framed in the context of child-centered and developmentally appropriate approaches to parenting dilemmas. This is not an advice blog. Rather, this forum is meant to serve as a place for dialogue. We welcome your comments below.

Please send questions to: karenbagnini.patch@gmail.com.

A parent writes: I am firmly opposed to spanking children, even when they are hitting a parent or sibling. I simply believe that hitting is wrong, no matter who does it and sends the wrong message about how to treat people. My husband, however, will occasionally spank our kids. He doesn't cause bruises, but he nearly always acts out of anger and is reacting to their behavior. He feels that hitting them is a justified and appropriate way to respond when they are acting out. Neither of us is willing to compromise and this difference is causing a lot of conflict in our home.

Different styles and approaches to parenting are very common – perhaps more common than encountering parents who are supremely aligned on their parenting practices.

With regard to discipline, the law in New York State regarding child abuse states the following: It is within the law to strike your child with an open hand, below the waist. Any strike above the waist either with a hand or an object is against the law. There do not have to be bruises for a charge of abuse. Any questions about the law can be addressed to the State Central Registry in Albany.

Parental philosophy on formative issues such as discipline, eating practices or how feelings should be expressed are fundamentally shaped by how the parents themselves were parented. When one parent is firmly opposed on any childrearing issue, tension is inevitable and can feel intractable. Resolving the issue can take many forms: couples or family therapy, structured conversations after the children have gone to bed, consultation with a trusted person of faith in the community, and/or talking with friends and family. Honest, thoughtful communication between both parents is key.

That said, the culturally-bound practice of self-reflection is useful in expanding our repertoire of response to our children. Many parents have experienced trauma in their childhood and, until worked through, the impact of the trauma can continue to manifest in the ways they express feelings and needs and how they respond to the need for control, dependency and fulfillment. Every person, family situation and attempt at health and resolution is different. Flexibility (and forgiveness) with how we approach this is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. It can feel like work in the fullest sense of the word.

Here are some guiding questions to consider in a self-assessment of parenting choices: Is the intervention having the desired impact? How do I understand the purpose of my child’s behavior? What do I want my child to learn from me about how to cope with this situation? How do I use language to talk through what I expect and why? What are my expectations of my child and are they clear and appropriate to his/her ability and stage of development?

Some authors and books to consider: "Trauma-Proofing Your Kids" (Levine and Kline), "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting" (Gottman, PhD) or anything by Daniel Siegel, MD.

Karen Bagnini, MA, LCAT, LCSW has 25 years of experience working in the field of human services and has been working with children and families as a therapist since 1998. She is a certified school social worker with experience in New York City public schools. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the Hunter College School of Social Work and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn. She is also a parent.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Karen Bagnini March 20, 2013 at 03:21 PM
Thank you for your opinion and question. The original comment, as I read it, had two parts. One outlined a common conflict between her + her husband with regard to their beliefs about spanking and expressing that this difference was causing a conflict in their home. The other part seemed to convey her firm position against spanking. The title addressed the first part: what can happen when parents do not agree on discipline styles and how to move toward a solution that works for all. This dilemma leaned into an opportunity to share New York State law (not an opinion) regarding the definition of abuse. I did not write my position about spanking (this is not the forum for me to share my personal beliefs). It is fair to say that my beliefs about spanking (and all matters related to my relationships with children) are grounded in how I answer the "self-assessment" questions I posed in my response: Is the intervention having the desired impact? How do I understand the purpose of the child’s behavior? What do I want the child to learn from me about how to cope with this situation? How do I use language to talk through what I expect and why? What are my expectations of the child and are they clear and appropriate to his/her ability and stage of development? I would be hard-pressed to find a down-side to thinking about the answers to these questions. Please feel free to remain engaged in this conversation as that is one of the purposes of creating this forum.
Patti March 20, 2013 at 04:38 PM
I don't believe in spanking; had 3 children and never hit or spanked them. If you are spanking because the child hit someone else doesn't seem to make any sense. Hitting to teaching no hitting??? I don't think so.
Barry March 21, 2013 at 02:22 AM
My question is for the original posting (the letter writer). When is a good time for parents, or prospective parents, to begin the discussion about discipline? Before or after the child(ren) is/are born?
Patti March 21, 2013 at 01:20 PM
I am not the letter writer; but the answer is before you get pregnant. It's too late after.
Karen Bagnini March 21, 2013 at 02:28 PM
How we discuss approaches to parenting depends an awful lot on who is doing the discussing, and when. Barry's question is salient and Patti's position that it's never (ever) too early for adults to ask, "What are your beliefs about spanking?" is sensible and understandable. In reality, becoming a parent can change many things about our beliefs and plans - even our tolerance for a screaming child on a crowded train or bus can shift after we've had the experience ourselves. In addition, some parents decide before a child arrives (adoptions, foster children, births, step-children, etc.) who will or won't return to work at a certain time. The actual arrival of a child can alter these plans monumentally. Parents who entrust the care of children with family members and/or baby sitters are likely to establish a common understanding about how to approach naps, toileting, and discipline. For example, some grandparents believe in spanking to teach limits or right from wrong, while a parent might not. (Note: approaches to these can shift as the child grows). If we make assumptions or avoid talking about these fundamental aspects of parenting, we take the risk of experiencing conflict and tension later (as the original comment so candidly demonstrated). The child, then, can be drawn into this dynamic and any ensuing power struggle.


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