Hitting your child is bad. (But don't yell at me for writing it. Yell at science. Multiple studies say so.)
Most school districts have moved away from corporal punishment entirely, and even though you will find some very staunch pro-"whoopings" enthusiasts, they remain greatly outnumbered by the multitudes who think that any hitting of a child is abuse.
But you have to do something as a parent to get your kids to behave. Some parents have simply traded one technique (hitting) for another (yelling).
Instead of "Spare the rod, spoil the child," these parents are of the "Spare the mouth, spoil the child" variety. The kind of parents who angrily curse their kid out in Target to the shared embarrassment of everyone. But before you pat yourself on the back too hard for choosing to tell Junior off instead of lighting up his behind, a new study published by the University of Pittsburgh has found that yelling at a child as a form of discipline is just as bad as spanking.
The response to the study online included a lot of frustrated parents asking what can they do to discipline their children. Spanking and yelling are both considered damaging. Time-outs don't work. Bribing your kids isn't considered wise. So what's a parent to do? The grab bags of go-to punishments for wayward kids are quickly becoming no-goes.
But what was bubbling up underneath all this frustration was the real concern of parents desperately not wanting to screw up being a parent. It was one of mothers and fathers who fiercely love their children, want them to be safe, stay out of trouble, do well in school and grow up to be well-adjusted adults. Parents who fear that if their children grow up to be "a hot mess," it will be their fault because they either didn't hit their kids or hit them too much, didn't yell or yelled too much, tried time-outs but caved in after five minutes, who did all the things you're not supposed to do because, let's face it, sometimes it's hard to know just what to do when a child doesn't mind.
The reality is, you are going to screw your kid up ... a little, even if you do all the right things that the experts tell you to do. There is no "perfect" way to parent because all parents are human beings who bring a lifetime of experiences and issues to the parenting table, making them inherently flawed.
Now, there are ways to mitigate damage. Child abuse and neglect are still awful and not recommended under any circumstance. You can try not to yell or hit and focus more on reasoning with your child, talking things out, ignoring temper tantrums and focusing on positive reinforcement, as studies suggest. Or you could try my parents' most potent method: guilt.
Before I was born, my parents made the conscious decision that they were not going to hit me or my sisters to get us to behave. It was my mother's idea, and my father, despite coming from a household that believed in corporal punishment, decided to go along with it. Other parents, often surprised to learn of my mother's complete disdain for hitting children, would ask her why she saw hitting as bad. She had a go-to response that was both heavy-handed and full of guilt bait: "They beat the slaves and they still wanted to be free."
It was pretty much a conversation killer.
My mother, who was a stay-at-home mom, was a hands-on, attentive, loving and organized parent who set clear boundaries and always followed through. She was always confident and self-assured, even when she had no idea what she was doing. There was no way to pit her and my father against each other because my father always, always, always deferred to her, and neither of them made a major parenting decision without consulting the other first.
She also believed that you tailored how you parent based on how your child is, and I was an emotionally needy, sensitive child who was overinvested in getting my mom and dad's approval. Hitting me or yelling only scared me so bad that I wouldn't remember what the "discipline" was for anyway. But the thought that my parents wouldn't love me if I wasn't well-behaved was pretty strong.
If my parents said they were "disappointed" in me, it was like being stabbed. If I was told that my behavior was ruining everyone else's day and was rude, I felt bad for being such a burden. Once, I watched an old episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show with my father about teens sneaking out of the house. After the show ended, my father said that it would break his heart if I ever lied and did anything like that to him. Not that it was wrong or potentially dangerous to sneak out, or "Don't do that because I say so," but that I would hurt the man who cared for me and loved me dearly.
"Oh, no! Daddy won't love me if I act like a normal teenager!" was all my brain said. So I was an extremely well-behaved teen who complained about how strict my parents were but never truly challenged them on their right to be in charge, out of fear that they'd stop loving me.
Guilt was very effective for my parents. And I grew up to be a fully functioning adult ... who's also pretty neurotic and probably too focused on people-pleasing. Sure, there are worse problems I could have, but the point is, every style of parenting has consequences. With my parents', it was that I didn't feel capable of taking care of myself or making my own decisions without their help until I reached my 30s.
I still love my parents. And for the most part, most kids will continue to love their parents even if they don't have much of a clue as to what they're doing. Because there is no way to be perfect. Every parent is sort of fumbling about and guessing what's right or wrong, comparing notes with other parents while keeping an eye on the experts. You should try your best no matter what, hoping that in the end your love and guidance will get your child to adulthood, prepared to be a healthy, functioning member of society.
But you probably still shouldn't hit or yell at your kids.
(Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog blacksnob.com and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.)