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Is it ever okay to hit your child? If so, what are the reasons that parents do this? If not, what can support a parent in choosing not to use physical punishment on their child?
My wife, Jisho, and I are taking a 10-week class to certify to become foster parents. The teachers of the class said during the first lesson that we may learn better parenting skills which we can apply to our own children. In many ways the subject matter has been illuminating. We have learned, for instance, the importance of maintaining good relations, as best we can, with the birth parents. This realization caused me to wrestle with my own assumptions that the birth parents didn’t care about the child, due to physical or sexual abuse or neglect. Though the child may have experienced these things from their birth parent, because of the strong role that attachment plays in bonding a child to their parent and vice versa, foster parents can never be a replacement for the birth parents. Severing that bond does not help the child, no matter how good the intentions may be to protect the child.
As our class turned toward the subject of discipline and punishment, we learned that foster parents were, by law, never permitted to physically punish their foster children. One teacher went as far to say that you can do that with your own child, but not with a foster child. In my ignorance, I assumed that all of the parents in the room did not use physical punishment as a form of discipline. I was deeply mistaken. I piped up and said, “Isn’t it not a good idea to use physical punishment on any child regardless of whether they are in foster care?” My question was ignored or not heard, as the facilitators chose to move on.
Later conversations during the class revealed that many Christians in our Ames area justify physical punishment to children based on Biblical verses. There are numerous verses that speak about discipline some are more sophisticated than others. Perhaps the most common one pointed to is, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). This verse is often quoted as, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Honestly, at the end of the class I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Psychological and medical studies reveal so much about the negative consequences of physically punishing a child regardless of whether the child is in foster care. Knowing this and knowing that I have never hit my own son give me deep pause to reflect on this situation. Have I ever lost my patience with my son? Absolutely. Have I come close to wanting to hit him? Yes. But if anyone needed a time out, it was me, not him.
While I understand that these thoughts and impulses are normal, I would be defending my own ego if I were to try and justify not only thinking them, but carrying them out. One study has shown that, in America, most parents have used some sort of physical force on their children by the age of four. Moreover, two-thirds of American adults agree that children sometimes benefit from a strong spanking. I’m sure that, of the 15 students in our foster certification classroom, those statistics were reflected. I can certainly understand the statistics, given that I was physically hit by my mother.
While I love my parents, regardless of their actions, I made the decision long ago to never willfully hurt any child physically or verbally as a form of punishment. I don’t agree with it as an effective means to stop an unwanted behavior, regardless of what the Bible or Zen Buddhist teachings say about it.
Many may be surprised to find that even within Buddhist teachings one finds justifications for corporal punishment. Zuimonki 1-7, Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji, says “If you are an abbot or a senior priest or even a master or a teacher, if your disciples are wrong, you have to instruct and guide them with a compassionate and parental heart.”
Note here that Zen Master Dogen makes the comparison between a parent and a Zen teacher. The Chinese character for “parental heart” is robashin, or “Grandmotherly mind.” A teacher is to care for the Dharma (in the student) in the same way that a parent takes care of a child.
Dogen goes on to say, “In doing so, however, when you slap those who should be slapped or scold those who should be scolded, do not allow yourself to vilify them or arouse feelings of hatred.”
Zen doesn’t get off the hook as a “better” religion when it comes to views of punishment. We need to learn both from present day psychological studies as well as teachings within the Buddhist tradition that can help us, ignoring ones, like the above that should be dismissed and/or criticized.
So, what can we do in lieu of physically punishing a child? I’ve provided some links in the footnotes to possible alternatives. These are good, but they don’t mention anything about introspecting on one’s own motivations. This is where Buddhism may be helpful. Punishment is all about getting a child’s behavior to change. Modeling the behavior you want to see can be effective, but only if we’ve done the internal wrestling with our own egos. Ego tells us to change our external environment so that we don’t have to change anything about ourselves. Ego says the problem is with the child, not “me.” If we can see our egos at work, then we can take it up as a practice in letting go of the hold of ego. The behavior that needs to change, then, is our own way of seeing the world. This is the first of the Noble 8-fold path: right view.
In practice, this may look like taking time to remove yourself from the situation and calming down using your breath or walking more mindfully. Asking yourself questions like, “where is my anger coming from?” may be helpful. Taking time to look at your own family history, and how you were treated, and seeing if there is any connection between your past and present, can be helpful in shedding light on abusive patterns in your family and in yourself. Then you can choose whether or not to continue those patterns.
Having compassion for yourself for having been hurt by significant caregivers that you trusted, is also an important element. Our anger, on the surface, appears to originate from the immediate actions of our children. Yet, a closer look may reveal one’s own grief and hurt stemming from the past and being triggered by the present.
I’ve seen this happen in myself. One time when Malcolm fell, hurt himself, and broke out into a scream, I found myself in anger mode, even blaming my wife for the situation. Jisho and I later talked about my response and, later still, talked about it while my mother was present for the conversation. My mother revealed that she would often feel extreme anger when things like that happened when I was a kid. It wasn’t something she could control. She would blame me or the other kids for their getting hurt.
My mother’s openness allowed for a moment of insight. When I would get hurt as a child, my mother’s response was often that of anger. Without conscious awareness, how could I possibly act different when my son gets hurt? My mother taught me to do this. She in turn, probably learned from someone in her family. This is something I need to be aware of and change in myself. This is not Malcolm’s fault, or anyone’s. I need to learn to respond out of compassion. I also need to grieve the fact that I did not receive compassion from my mother when it was needed. I don’t want or need to blame my mother. If anything, I can have compassion for her for the fact that she, too, didn’t receive compassion when she was hurting as a child.
This is obviously ongoing work and practice. I write about it here not to receive empathy, but as a reminder to myself of the work that I need to do, and to hold my own feet to the proverbial fire.
I love the following verse from Shantideva:
Where is there enough leather to cover the whole earth? But if I have leather on the soles of my feet, what need is there to cover the whole world? In the same way, how is it possible to control unruly beings who are as vast as space? But if I only control my mind, what need is there to control other things?The Way of the Bodhisattva
How about my relations outside my blood family? What about when there is anger in the the student-teacher relationship? While the form looks completely different, there is still the same underlying pattern that is asking to be addressed.
While this foster parenting class has been an eye-opening experience for me on many fronts, what I’ve learned is how deeply ingrained it is for most of us in American culture to use physical punishment to control our children. This pattern is a problem not just for kids, but for how we treat adults as well, and how those kids grow up to be the kinds of adults who have not experienced the fullness of love that is their birth-right. Anger should never be suppressed in adults, but it needs to be reflected upon, and it is our responsibility as adults and as practitioners of the Buddhadharma to learn better ways of offering love and compassion to the most vulnerable, especially children, elderly, minorities, and marginalized populations.
 See Gershoff, E.T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579.
And, Gershoff, E.T. (2008) Report on physical punishment in the U.S.: What research tells us about its effects on childnre. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline.
 Straus, M.A. & Stewart, J.H. (1999). Corporal punishment by American parents: National data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration, in relation to child and faily characteristics. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2(2), 55-70.
 National Opinion Research Center. (2006). General Social Survey. Chicago, IL: National Opinion Research Center.