Dear Imprudence: Inappropriate Discipline

Content note: This Dear Imprudence discusses the use of hitting to ‘discipline’ children.

Dear Prudie’s Monday livechat featured a doozy of a question:

Q. Discipline: My wife and I have been married for eight years, and we have three wonderful children, two girls and a boy. While we agree on most everything, the one thing that really causes trouble is our son, specifically how to discipline him. He is 6 years old and has mild CP and also very high functioning autism. Now my wife thinks that because of his “special needs” he should not only treated differently, but also disciplined differently. I say that consistency is the key and that the Bible says to “spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Who’s right?

Let me make this answer simple, Prudence:

Neither of you is right, Discipline. There is absolutely no reason to hit children, ever.

There you go! That was easy. Sadly, it’s not what Emily Yoffe said.

A: I hope your son’s special needs will be a special gift to your entire family and help you rethink your approach to discipline. I absolutely agree on the need for consistency, especially with a child dealing with autism. But all your children should have consistent, compassionate care, not consistent smacks to the backside. (And the Bible says lots of things I’m sure you don’t take literally.) Lack of corporal punishment does not mean you allow your children to run wild; it means showing them there are better ways to get people to behave. Please talk to the professionals helping you with your son about the most effective ways to discipline him. I’ve recommended the work of Haim Ginott before, but please read one of his books. Even if you don’t use all of his methods, he will help you see the world through the eyes of your children.

Let’s break this down, starting with the first sentence, which made me gag violently. I could really do without classifying disabled children as ‘special,’ period, and especially not as ‘special gifts.’ Disabled children are not ‘gifts.’ They are human beings. It doesn’t surprise me to see Prudence using this kind of language. After all, it’s very widespread and commonly believed, but it irks me nonetheless. She’s widely read, she has a big platform, and she has the power to influence her readers and make them rethink the way they approach disability, simply by not engaging in disability tropes and pushing back on commonly believed narratives. Especially in this case, where it seems pretty clear to me that the use of quotes in the original letter is intended in a snide, spiteful way.

Prudence’s next section, condemning the use of corporal punishment, is pretty solid. I’m well aware that my blunt approach would probably be less than ideal if the goal is actually to convince people to stop hitting their children and calling it ‘discipline,’ it just happens to be one of the things in the world that makes me incendiarily angry and I really don’t know how to push back on it in any way other than incoherent rage. I did like that she specifically used the word ‘compassionate’ in her commentary.

Finally, a recommendation of a book by a (to my knowledge) nondisabled child psychologist. I know Ginott’s books are very popular, but I find it interesting that Prudence would say the letter writer can ‘see the world through the eyes of your children’ by reading a book written by an adult who doesn’t share lived experiences with one of Discipline’s children. Why not recommend works by people with autism and cerebral palsy? And why rely on adults to tell you how children think, feel, and view the world where there are plenty of children around you can interact with directly?

Commenting note: FWD unilaterally condemns the use of corporal punishment on humans of all ages. Any comments defending it/suggesting it is ok in ‘certain circumstances’ will not be approved, so do us a favour and don’t submit them.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

11 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Inappropriate Discipline

  1. Jeebuz H. Ceiling Cat…I don’t know why this is such a debate sometimes.

    The beating of children who can not defend themselves against fully grown adults only teaches children to be afraid of the pain of the beating, and not the consequence of the action.

    Violence begets violence.

    Thank you for writing this, s.e.

  2. I read the “special gift” passage more as that their disabled child would provide a VERY SPECIAL LESSON to the family with his special needs. That is of course equally problematic, acting as though real life is an afterschool special and also denying his personhood.

  3. Uagh, why is this so hard for people? Children, spouses, and animals are not things that need to be beaten into submission. Being “disciplined” did not make me good; it made me afraid. I didn’t learn why doing (insert inappropriate/”wrong”/etc action here) was A Bad Thing, but I did learn how to avoid being seen. I learned to walk on eggshells, and that anyone bigger than oneself would probably hurt one if given half a chance. So thanks, corporal punishment. Good job. AUGH.

  4. I didn’t learn why doing (insert inappropriate/”wrong”/etc action here) was A Bad Thing, but I did learn how to avoid being seen.

    Argh, yes, this.

    What bugged me about a good deal of the punishment (albeit non-corporal) that I got as a kid was that it was never explained to me why what I’d been doing was wrong, just that I shouldn’t do it. Even worse, a lot of the time, it was along the lines of “Don’t do that!”– when I had no idea which of the 5 things I was doing was even being referred to. And of course, being autistic, I often didn’t grasp how general or specific the wrongdoing was… so sometimes I’d not grasp that the wrongdoing was part of a larger class of misbehaviors, and in other cases I’d overgeneralize to things that were completely acceptable.

    What would’ve been far more useful for me was for the punishment to also include an explanation of (a) what specifically I’d done wrong, and (b) why what I’d done was wrong. This would’ve solved pretty much all the issues above. Obviously, this may not work for kids with extremely limited language understanding, but even then it’s still worth a shot– kids often understand more than people give them credit for.

    Also, on the note of “violence begets violence”, one thing that bugs me about corporal punishment is that it essentially teaches kids “hey, violence is OK when you’re the one in power.” People don’t tend to consider how this might backfire when the kids do become the one in power…

  5. I picked up Alice Miller’s “For Your Own Good” the other day, and I’m not very far in it, but just in the intro she says that a large part of human violence is caused by violent upbringing, and that some people take out that cycle on their own children while others direct it towards other adults. She basically says that there’s not much of a distinction between spanking and beating, because even if “spanking” doesn’t leave a mark, there’s still the pain and humiliation that goes along with it.

    As someone who was spanked as a child and DOESN’T think that I “turned out okay” or “needed it,” and in fact has horrible painful memories and a disconnection with her father because of it, it’s such a relief to read something like that. Spanking didn’t teach me right from wrong–it taught me to be afraid of my own family, who were supposed to be keeping me safe.

  6. I interpreted the ´special gift´ expression as a way the author tried to put the behaviour that is classified by the father as `trouble` in a more positive light. I do however also see the negative connotations connected to the word.

    I think the answer was handled adequately. The author did express the notion that children should not be beaten strongly from the frame of reference of the asker´s own religion. She did not push her own belief system on the asker, but incorporated a new idea in his existing frame of reference. She then recommended a book which may not be a solution but will be a starting point to begin reading up on rasing children which will provide alternative methods to physical disciplining. You can’t just say: stop beating your children so they behave. You have to provide an alternative.

    Then, after they read up on mainstream parenting they can zero in on specific parental techniques on disciplining and raising an autistic child. Depending on the kind of autism, the degree in which it presents itself and the corresponding personality and behavioural aspects, raising and disciplining an autistic child can be a complex system. The help of a professional would not be amiss, which is also recommended by the author.

  7. I take issue with the description of children, or any human beings, disabled or not, “special” or not, as “gifts” in the first place. When we equate living things with inanimate things (people = presents for us to play with) it makes it much easier to treat them as such – to try to control them physically, like we would a kitchen appliance or a pillow.

  8. “What would’ve been far more useful for me was for the punishment to also include an explanation of (a) what specifically I’d done wrong, and (b) why what I’d done was wrong.”

    THIS. A thousand times THIS. My parents also frequently assumed that I understood what I did wrong even when I was asking them what I did wrong, or that I understood what they meant when they did sometimes explain (yes, as a young child I totally knew what “having my own agenda” was, and why that was a bad thing /sarcasm).

    I kinda turned out ok, still have a good relationship with my parents etc. The end doesn’t justify the means though. I don’t like that people use “I turned out ok” as a justification for hitting their own kids, and not just because it’s purely anecdotal.

  9. My parents also frequently assumed that I understood what I did wrong even when I was asking them what I did wrong

    Oh, gah, that’s another thing. Sometimes when I did ask what I’d done wrong, it would be interpreted as me being sarcastic… in some cases leading to even further punishment for talking back, when I still had no idea what I’d done wrong in the first place. If your kid’s asking what he did wrong, don’t assume sarcasm.

  10. I am often grateful when I think of how my parents approached discipline when I was a child. I was told what I did wrong, and we often had a conversation about why a thing was wrong (at least the first time I did it). The primary mode of discipline was deliberate exclusion from what everyone else was doing – I remember it as being sent to sit on the stairs by myself where I could see and hear what everyone else was doing, but I wasn’t allowed to be involved in it until I’d been welcomed back. It usually was for just long enough for my young soul to recognize the pain of being left out. I found it interesting, as a teen, to find out that horses discipline each other in much the same way. I guess it’s something viceral about things that live in family groups, that discipline like that can be effective.

    I was spanked very, very rarely as a child. I can only remember one occasion (though I know there are a few I don’t remember) and that involved hurting my younger sister. It was just barely hard enough to sting; most of what I remember was the humiliation. I am still not entirely certain how I feel about spanking used in that way – where it causes minimal pain and is limited for extreme circumstances.

    What I can say with certainty is that corporal punishment as a whole, especially when it’s used often, teaches nothing more than how to physically bully. Might is right and similar nonsense.


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