What does hitting children actually teach them?
Spanking is a tool that has been used for generations. Even if in some countries it is now illegal, hitting is still used worldwide with the hope of teaching children ‘a lesson’ of safety, obedience, good-manners, auto control and so on. But what do children feel and really learn when they are hit by their parents/caregivers?
“Hitting a child doesn’t teach them that the road or stove or the outlet isn’t safe. It teaches them that the person hitting them isn’t safe.” – L. R. Knost
When the child is hurt by the person to whom he should run for safety, he gets stuck: ‘my parent should keep me safe, yet my parent is hurting me and I’m scared and I have no place to go, what am I to do now?’
At the same time, his ‘thinking brain’ gets disconnected because his limbic brain feels a threat, so it goes into survival mode, a state in which no one can learn anything. At that moment, what your child learns has nothing to do with the lesson you’re trying to teach – he might learn that violence is the answer and he will also learn that his safe harbour isn’t there anymore, he is in danger with no safe place to run to. He feels alone and scared – and his eyes will tell you this.
“Oh, but he’s just one, he’s too young to remember!” some might say. Yes, at one year of age he is too young to remember via the explicit memory because that part is not fully developed until the second birthday [*]. But the implicit memory, where the feeling of being scared or frightened gets stored, functions perfectly well since before birth. So when the child is being hit or spanked, those feelings of fear, helplessness, confusion will get stored in the brain and will get triggered in the future, leading to behaviour through which the child will try to heal that hurt and the parent won’t understand where it’s coming from and will consider it as misbehaviour.
‘What should I do instead of hitting/spanking my children?’
‘How will my child learn to listen to me?‘. He will. Because he loves you and wants to cooperate with you. Because he feels safe with you, seen and connected, so his thinking brain works well and he is able to learn whatever you have to teach him.
And if he still does something that looks like misbehaviour, instead of ‘This child never learns, I have to teach him a lesson now!’ translate it into ‘My child knows better than this, I know that. I wonder what made him do this…’. Stop the misbehaviour with warmth and then listen to whatever your child has to tell you or emotional release he has to do. It won’t be easy, parenting will never be an easy ride, but hitting children will never make things easier either, on the contrary, it will just cause more pain, more confusion, more disconnection, more hurt, more frustration, more anger, more resentment – and you don’t want to give all these to your child, no one does.
‘But what am I to do when I feel like hitting my child?
This is a hard question (I’ll try to answer it more fully in future posts, here are just a few ideas), especially if you were hit by your caregivers while growing up. Yet all hope is not lost, far from it! You still can rewrite your story, rewire your brain, heal your triggers, learn new ways.
Keep in mind that the impulse to hit doesn’t make you a bad parent, it doesn’t reflect your parenting but the hard times you’ve been through.
If you can find someone to listen to you while you remember and talk about what it felt as a child to be hit by your parent, that will, in time, heal the hurt and you will start to interact with your child from a better place.
If you can’t find such a person, you can use a movie which in some way reminds you of your hurt and allow yourself to cry and then imagine you an adult going back in time, next to the little you, and take that child’s side, shout ‘I won’t let you him this kid! He’s a good child and he doesn’t deserve to be hit!’. And then cry some more.
Until you manage to do this work with yourself, whenever you feel like hitting your child, just stop and look into his eyes, really look, and see your baby there, the baby you fell in love with a few years ago, the baby that needs your protection, the baby that is now scared and needs your warmth and love. And breathe. You are safe now, and your child is safe too.
Note: you can read a great article, written by Patty Wipfler on the topic of spanking / hitting children, on HandInHand website.