Benjamin Witts, Sartell
(Editor’s note: Dalman did not suggest in his column that spanking should be the one-and-only method of correcting children. Not at all. Dr. Benjamin M. Witts writes that spanking can at times be used “sparingly and appropriately.” As such, per the doctor’s good advice, Dalman does think a spanking was appropriate for the raging kid in the cookie aisle.)
In a recent editorial column, Dennis Dalman suggested “a good spank or two on the butt” might be helpful in curbing grocery-store tantrums. Many of us, like Dalman, vividly remember the days of grocery-store-aisle spankings from when we were children (I certainly recall my fair share). But we have come a long way since Dalman was a child. What science has discovered throughout many decades of research, practice, and trial and error is spanking only teaches the child three things: 1) that hitting is a great way to deal with frustration, 2) your parent is sometimes scary, and 3) what not to do. What spanking does not teach is what the parent actually wants: good behavior.
The problem here isn’t that the child wanted cookies. Neither is it a problem that the child had a tantrum. The problem is the parent lacked the skills needed to deal effectively with problem behavior. We could do as others have done and “spank” the parent by giving nasty looks, muttering comments beneath our breath or even outright telling the parent of her shortcomings; but what does that teach? Instead, we must help parents learn to teach good behavior to their children, in turn helping the child become a good citizen. What we need, then, is something to help us build good behavior for the child (and for the parent, too).
One means of easily and effectively teaching is to use rewards to help guide the child’s behavior to what we want. And before we turn this conversation from spanking to bribery; no, I’m not talking about bribery. Rewards can be high-fives for youngsters, extra privileges for older kids and even an earned allowance for teenagers. Heck, most kids just like hearing they did a good job, something they may not hear from their parents enough. Rewards, if used appropriately, will not affect the child’s motivation at all — in fact, used correctly, rewards help build motivation where none currently exists.
Think about why the child even had a tantrum to begin with. Is it because the child loves to see his mom get upset? I doubt it. Likely the child has learned the tantrum is the most reliable way to get cookies (even if tantrums work only on occasion). So if the child throws a tantrum, there’s a possibility at getting cookies. If the child “behaves,” there’s zero chance at cookies. I’d call that one savvy kid.
The parent Dalman discussed in his editorial should give the child cookies. Of course, she should only give cookies when the child shows good behavior, and the cookies should be given only on occasion. Good behavior could be asking politely, staying close to mom while shopping or using a good inside voice (all of which are the opposites of a tantrum). Even better is if mom can get the kid to swap out cookies for sweet fruits, like apples or grapes — but as I don’t have a regular column in the paper with a generous word limit, I’ll keep the examples simple and short.
This is not to say spanking cannot be used sparingly and appropriately to complement efforts to get better behavior from a child. But the point here is that spanking, used alone, is not a good teaching tool. Learning better behavior takes time, effort, careful planning and a lot of support as the child struggles with the adjustment. Today, more than ever, we can teach parents to help support their growing child. But the parent, like the child, must invest time and effort in learning better behavior, and must be forgiving of his or her eventual failures and setbacks along the way.
Witts is an associate professor in applied behavior analysis at St. Cloud State University. He holds a doctorate and is a board-certified behavior anaylst.