It was one of those rare occasions where the stars aligned with my husband’s back-to-school schedule and my son’s soccer schedule and (Thank you, Lord) I got to go to the grocery store by myself. Like just me. No kids. No husband.
So I was obviously in a great mood, humming my way through checkout when the toddler in the aisle next to me started to throw a massive, screaming tantrum in the seat of the cart.
I hardly noticed (I have learned to tune those sorts of things out), but the lady who was checking me out stopped scanning my groceries to cover her ears. And then she looked at me, obviously hoping for camaraderie and said: “I can’t believe some parents let their kids get by with stuff like that. If I were his mom, I would smack him so hard he wouldn’t know what hit him.”
The lady in line behind me chimed in: “I’m with you. My kids would have never acted out like that in a store. She needs to show him whose boss.” And the two women rolled their eyes at the young mom and proudly regaled me with tales of their perfectly behaved children who wouldn’t dare throw a tantrum in the store. Because if they had, they would have been “smacked on their little butts so hard that they would never forget it.” (That’s a quote.)
I wanted to say something snarky like “And you’re proud of that?” or “Really? You think that’s good parenting?” but I bit my tongue. And I stayed quiet. And then I walked out of the store totally annoyed.
I’ve encountered this “I’m proud of myself for smacking my kids into line” attitude quite a bit recently. From moms and dads who truly are good parents who want to do the right thing by their kids. But for some reason, these same parents have for some reason decided that the instant reaction of “stopping bad behavior” is more important than the long-term goal of teaching our kids what is right.
This really bothers me. And worries me. And makes me worry for these sweet kids who need loving guidance, not authoritarian discipline.
Now I know this probably isn’t a popular sentiment with many of you and to clarify, I want you to know I’m not talking about the spanking debate here. I’m calling this smacking instead of spanking. I’m talking about the knee-jerk, anger-driven ‘smacking’ that seems solely driven by a desire to control our kids. And to fix their behavior instantly. And I have to wonder why parents are not only resorting to this kind of discipline, but they seem so proud of themselves for doing it. Is fear really the end goal when we’re working on getting our kids to behave in public? And is smacking our kids into submission really something we should be bragging about as parents?
I don’t think so.
I want my kids to desire what is good and true and beautiful. I want them to truly seek God in their hearts and to do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do, not because they are scared to do anything else. And I think knee-jerk, smack-your-kid, scare-him-from-doing-wrong discipline does just the opposite. It teaches our kids to avoid what is wrong, sure, but not to desire what is right.
Take the toddler in the store, for example. If I were his mom (and trust me, I have been lucky enough to mother through fits like that multiple times), I would want him to learn that:
- Screaming in a store is rude and disrespectful and bothers the other shoppers.
- Throwing a fit in a store is disobedient to me (the mom) and goes against what our family stands for.
- Demanding and whining in a store is selfish and never results in mom giving you what she wants.
- Respectful, kind children use words and politeness to ask for things in stores.
What do I not want my kid to learn?
That if they scream, they’ll get smacked.
Because honestly, what does that teach them? It teaches them that screaming is something I don’t like, sure. And that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to stop them from doing it. But I doubt any kid will learn to desire right, to seek truth, to be a child after God’s own heart even when no one is looking when they are only learning that screaming results in them getting smacked.
And I have to be fully honest here, it really concerns me that our Christian culture has come to a place where we almost take pride in smacking our children so they’ll obey. It’s as if the whole “spare the rod” thing has gone too far—and parents are almost proud of themselves when they stop a behavior with physical force.
That’s not discipline.
It’s a scare tactic.
And that’s not the way I want to raise my kids.
Now hear me out: I know it works. It’s embarrassing to have a screaming kid in a store and to not know what to do at that moment. And smacking them will almost certainly stop the fit. But I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and think about your long-term vision for your child.
Do you want your child to stop screaming right now or do you want your child to learn that screaming isn’t appropriate behavior and learn what appropriate behaviors can replace it? I want the later. And so what I do in the moment to stop the fit must have a long-term vision for my child’s heart in mind. So instead of smacking, I could:
- Take my kid out to the car and strap him into his seat and talk to him about trust. Explain that you learned you couldn’t trust him not to throw a fit in stores. Which means you now know it will be a long time before you can take him to the toy section again. Stick to your word.
- Go home and role-play good store behavior, practice it together. Get out a shopping cart and pretend play the correct behavior over and over again.
- Make your child stay strapped in the cart or stroller next time you are at a store and remind them that kids with good behavior get to walk.
- Give your kid an extra chore at home for wearing you out at the store. Maybe he puts the snacks away in the pantry or helps you sort socks.
- Make a chart for good behavior and give your child a sticker for every time he does behave in the store. Reward him after ten good visits with the thing he was crying for.
Those are just ideas. And I realize they aren’t as immediately effective as smacking your kid. But long term? I feel like they are so much more valuable. Because each of the strategies above helps you to connect with your child in a way that’s positive and teaches your child the right way to act.
I’m not perfect at this—trust me, there are many times I am tempted to smack my kid so he’ll just stop—but I’m really trying to be intentional as a parent. Intentional to think long-term about my kid’s hearts instead of relying on “instantaneous discipline.” And as I wrote my latest book Free to Parent with my mom, I really tried to think of my long-term vision for my kids. And I came to the conclusion as I wrote chapters on desire and discipline and grace, that as a mom, I have to give my kids the same heaping dose of grace and mercy that God gives me.
Because while smacking may seem like an easy solution, I believe it’s the wrong one.
Not if I want my kids to learn to desire right, instead of simply fearing what comes when they do wrong.