This morning when I got up, I heard the TV on and realized my son was up. Before I came out to the living room, I heard an entertainment news story he was watching, about a woman who had been on the Dr. Phil show, confessing to bad parenting and looking for help. My son watched the story and learned that this mother was using extreme measures in order to affect her son’s behavior, to include making the 7 yr. old child hold a mouthful of hot sauce for up to a minute, and putting him into a freezing cold shower. [If you want to see the video of the interview with this mother and clips of her abusing her son, do an internet search on Dr. Phil’s website for the show called Mommy Confessions, show 1545, aired ?November 17, 2010.]
After the story was over, I joined my 8 yr. old and we talked about it. I turned the sensational TV piece (designed to get people all riled up) into a teaching moment. I asked my son some curiosity questions about what he thought about this mother and how she punished her son. (I won’t use the word discipline because what she was doing was abusive and was not disciplinary in any way. It was pure punishment). His answers were typical of an 8 yr. old: if he were the boy, he’d want to shoot her. But I reminded him that it was this boy’s own mother. I told my son that this mom needed parenting skills (and anger management skills) to teach her son to act the way she wanted. Punishing a child in order to change their behavior is never a good way. [On top of this child’s consistant “disobedience”, it is likely that he is not a neuro-typical child. If a child has brain issues, they will affect his behavior; and the issues must be addressed first. Dr. Phil offered to have the boy evaluated by several professionals to see if this was the case.]
We talked about the subject further. I used an example of when a child uses a swear or a “dirty” word, the way some people deal with it is to wash out the child’s mouth with soap. When the parent tells the child, “If you use dirty words, I’ll wash out your mouth with soap,” the parent thinks they are making a logical argument to the child- and the child will stop the behavior (out of fear of getting soaped). If, as a parent, you use this tactic and your child stops using dirty words, consider it a miracle. You have stopped unwanted behavior by scaring your child into it. If you use this tactic and your child still uses dirty words, consider it normal behavior on the child’s part. If you continue to use this tactic, knowing it doesn’t work, you are being abusive to your child.
My son and I talked about what I do when he uses swear words. I tell him that they are not appropriate, and there are lots of better words to use. Then we brainstorm lots of descriptive, colorful, yet appropriate words. I don’t get angry or upset. It’s a teaching moment.
I also talked with my son about what abusive means, and examples of what it is; both physical and verbal abuse. In doing so, I am starting the innoculation process, starting the conversation of what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior between people. My hope is that, if he has a friend who doesn’t treat him well, the friendship won’t last long. I explained that people are not perfect, and once in a while, they say hurtful things to ones they care about. That’s where apologies come into play. I’m teaching my son the difference between having a disagreement (and making ammends), and being verbally abusive. He already knows that striking out in anger is not ok.
Back to my thoughts about Hot Sauce Mom. When you punish a child, they become resentful (It’s not fair! I can’t trust adults). They may become vengeful and seek revenge (acting out or stealing to get even). They may rebel, doing the opposite of what you want, just because they can. And it reinforces the idea that the child is bad, squashing their self esteem into a puddle on the floor. The goal of discipline is to teach a child. The goal of parenting is to teach your child skills so that they can handle what life throws at them. They need a healthy self-esteem and self-discipline. They need to know how to solve problems. They need to know how to negociate and be cooperative to get what they want. And they need to learn responsibility. They need lots of different skill sets. [Read Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.] Does putting hot sauce or soap into a child’s mouth teach any one of these things? Does hitting them on the butt or pinching a child teach them any of these things? No.
So, the next question is, why do parents use punishment? In the case of Hot Sauce Mom, she didn’t know any other way. When the punishments that “worked” with her other kids didn’t work on this one, she figured that the punishment wasn’t severe enough. I put “worked” in quotes, because the punishment temporarily stopped the unwanted behavior, but taught the child nothing that would help them in life. Sometimes, parents will scream or yell at their kids, or hit their kids to get out the parent’s own frustrations and anger. Is this acceptable? No way. That’s when the parent needs to take a few minutes to calm down, give themselves a time-out and cool off. Is it ok to let a parent continue to punish a child when there are other, much better ways? Of course not. That is why I write and talk about using Positive Discipline, frequently.