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Why Loving Parents Hurt Their Children

Featured Article from Issue 2 of Positive Parenting Digest

Many years ago, way before I ventured into the field of parent education, my younger child once asked me,”Daddy, why do some parents hit their children?”  Honestly, I didn’t really have the answer.  How would I know?  I don’t hit our children. But I know from childhood experience that my mother was pretty upset when she caned me.   So, wanting to look knowledgeable, I made up an answer and explained that perhaps these parents were angry with their children.

I thought that would satisfy his curiosity, but I was wrong.  “So, is it okay to hit someone when you are angry?”, he further inquired.  Now, that made me felt like I was walking on a slippery slope.  Young children are very smart these days, and they don’t let you off the hook easily.  I decided to come clean and confessed, “To tell you the truth, I don’t really know why some parents hit their children.  But I do know that it is not alright to hit someone, regardless of whether you are angry or not.”  He seemed pleased, and that bought me some time to investigate further.

Over the years, I have become an avid student of a topic called ‘discipline.’   I have read scores of parenting literature on this subject, held countless discussions with parents, and consulted with several parenting experts.  I studied the findings from the multitude of research that social scientists have done on corporal punishment.  I interviewed advocates of corporal punishment (some of whom are deeply religious and highly educated individuals) to understand their point of view.  This article presents my key findings and conclusions.
 
Firstly, I discovered that all parents are driven by well-meaning intentions.  They seek to do what they think is of the best interests for their children, although some of their actions are hurtful.  The reasons that parents hit their children are many, but there are generally two categories of parents – those who reacted emotionally and those who acted with conscious deliberation. 

Hitting Children out of Anger

The first group of parents confessed that they hit their children out of anger or frustration.   In other words, they had lost control of themselves, and often felt remorseful subsequently.  They acknowledged that hitting children is inappropriate, especially when they witnessed the latter picking up aggressive behaviors after them.  They simply couldn’t help it when emotions run high. 
 
Emotional reactions almost always occur unconsciously, and most people have some difficulty managing their emotions.  Parents are no exception.  Some have learnt to cope by walking away when they are upset, only to return to their children when they have calmed down.  Others simply stopped when their children have grown too big to be hit without risking their physical retaliation.  A consistent observation from these parents is that they don’t justify their actions, for they certainly don’t feel good about hurting the children they love.
 
Hitting Children as a Form of Punishment

 The second group comprises practitioners and advocates of corporal punishment.  They come in different degrees of zealousness about the merits of being strict or harsh with children.   Some swore by it, citing that it works miraculously to get their children to behave desirably, especially after having exhausted other methods such as reasoning, bribing, threatening, and nagging.  Some voiced that the adverse effects of corporal punishment reported in research might be overrated, as either they or their children had turned out “fine.”  Many felt that children must not be allowed to ‘get away’ with their wrong doings unpunished for fear that the lack of consequences will encourage further misdeeds.  Some quote the Holy Bible and words of their religious leaders as the sources of authority, while others claimed that even parenting experts advocate the use of corporal punishment.
 
What do they have in common?  Unlike the first group, these parents had reasons for their actions.  They were able to justify the act of hurting children with explanations that are ‘valid’ at least from their unique perspectives.  Although most of them expressed that they felt somewhat ‘bad’ about hitting their children, they sincerely believed it was the ‘right’ thing to do. 
 
The Right Thing Isn’t Necessary Alright
 
Now, just ask any five-year-old if he or she thought whether hitting another person is alright, and the answer is obviously “No!”  How is it that grown-ups who are supposedly wiser and more experienced thought otherwise?  They know instinctively that hitting children is undesirable, yet they do it anyway.   The absurdity illustrated by the following words from Haim Ginott:

When a child hits a child, we call it aggression.
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility.
When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault.
When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.

What is it that the innocent young child sees that these adults don’t? Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) has an explanation.  In his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Goleman attributes such phenomenon to what he termed a lacuna, meaning a ‘blind spot’ that escapes our field of attention or awareness.  He suggests that somewhere in the human mind lies a mechanism of self-deception that filters out the facts that we don’t want to know, without even us knowing.  
 
Beware of Blind Spots

And just as any driver would know, ignoring our blind spots is dangerous and predisposes us to possible disasters.  In parenting, the stakes could be too high to handle. Some people lose their children, while others struggle with daily conflicts that deprive them of the intrinsic joy that parenting was supposed to bring.
 
Now, if you fall into the second category of parents that I had described above, consider examining the possible blindspots by reading the 5 Common Misconceptions About Discipline and Punishment with an open mind, and form your judgment thereafter.  If you’re in the first category, you may wish to pick up Goleman’s bestseller Emotional Intelligence and hone your emotional management skills. 
 
Whichever category you fall into, let me invite you to support a nationwide movement to help parents to stop hurting children in the name of discipline, and start loving them through the practice of non-punitive discipline by making a PLEDGE TODAY!
 
[Contributed By Kenny Toh, Founder of Institute of Advanced Parentology]