Getting It Our Way

I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents. lex luthor shouting wrong!

As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.

In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.

What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?

I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.

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10 comments so far

  1. Cynthia Pakenas on

    With children at least you can explain consequences esp the consequences which affect your feelings. Corporal punishment is much easier than the consistent followthrough needed for enforcing consequences which the child will not find positively reinforcing. This is similar to slowly shaping canine behavior at the dog’s speed rather than the quick results with the ecollar or prongcollar.

  2. Linda Trunell on

    Excellent post! It is true that aggression breeds aggression – in people and dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are indeed studies indicating that this is the case. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. rangerskat on

    I spanked my son once. Not my proudest moment as a parent but he had learned to escape from his seatbelts on his child safety seat and nothing else I had tried had resolved the problem. A rampaging two year old loose in the backseat is a danger to everyone. Distractions hadn’t kept him in place, reinforcing him for staying in his seat didn’t accomplish the goal, redirecting him didn’t work. And I didn’t just make these attempts once and giving up these were planned and well executed efforts that I invested weeks in. Ultimately, at my wits end, I hit him on the bottom. He stayed in his car seat after that and I used all my other skills to reinforce that behavior.

    I have roared at my dogs, too. I haven’t ever reached the point where I’ve laid hands on them in anger or frustration but there have been occasions when I have yelled.

    I think with both kids and dogs the overall nature of your relationship with them is what makes the difference. In a relationship built on mutual trust, affection, and communication the occasional aberration is just that but a relationship built on a power struggle or bullying doesn’t have a solid foundation under it. A healthy relationship is able to withstand the hiccups but a relationship should never be built on the hiccups.

    • fearfuldogs on

      What a very good way to describe it…” A healthy relationship is able to withstand the hiccups but a relationship should never be built on the hiccups.”

  4. Morgan on

    This is really interesting. When trying to briefly describe positive reinforcement to adopters I often draw parallels between children and dogs (ex: “It’s easier to encourage behaviors you like than try to explain why a past behavior is wrong” or “If they get bored and are left unattended, odds are the way they choose to entertain themselves will not be one you like”) but I had never fully recognized the parallels between punishing the two the way you explained it. I would NEVER spank a dog, but I have always thought that if I have children (which I frankly don’t ever intend to) that I would probably spank them on occasion. After all, I was spanked and turned out just fine. But this has totally made me rethink that thought process! Great post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad the post “resonated” for you!

  5. Frances on

    Many years ago, when I shared my house with a friend and her very young daughter, a neighbour was concerned that her own little girl was being bullied. My friend very gently questioned her daughter whether she and her friends were always kind to Lucy – “Well”, came the matter of fact reply, “She is smaller than we are, so she should do what we tell her, and if she doesn’t we hit her.” I don’t think my friend ever smacked her child again…

    But I do agree about the hiccups – my own mother would always come and apologise to us as children if stress had pushed her into an unfair response, and it is something I still do with my dogs on the rare occasions when I am wound up enough to do something that scares them. We have a mutual Saying Sorry session in a cuddle on the floor, and I promise to put more effort into preemptive training, and less into outraged reaction.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good life skills include how to address mistakes we have made 🙂


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