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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Spanking, karma and children's thinking

Today I shared this little meme on my Facebook page:

I love the interactions on my Facebook page, I really do. They make me think. They make me see things from other people's perspectives.

Almost at once, a parent posted this comment:

"Ya it is! Suck it up! Call it karma..."

Now, when I stop to think, I can really understand how this parent came to this point of view. The idea of karma (on a superficial, buzzword level) is that what goes around, comes around. So if a child hits, this parent feels that it's karma if he then hits the child, to balance the equation. In Christian terms, some would call it 'an eye for an eye'. The concept is similar; the hitting justifies the hitting. It's fair.

There are other seemingly logical reasons to believe that spanking a child for hitting is a good idea. If we look at what happens on the streets outside the pub at closing time, we can all picture what will happen if our 18-year-old decides to lash out and hit someone. Someone will hit them back, probably hard, and there will be tears before bedtime (possibly in a hospital ward, or worse).

It's understandable that we might want to teach a child cause and effect by pre-empting that scenario. Perfectly understandable. 

Sorry- I know you mean well- but it doesn't work like that. Not for children.

Before I explain how does it work, let me call a point of order here, because I have some Indian readers and I'm feeling a bit snarky on their behalf. One of their religious concepts has been acquired and misused here.

It's probably not all that wise to use a faith-based word like 'karma' without really knowing what it means (though I realise that many of us do use it in jest- I've done it myself). If you really understand the concept of karma, you'll know that you can't manipulate it or rush it. Karma is delivered by the Universe or by God, not by you, and in the Universe or God's own good time. If you decide to appoint yourself the agent of karma and rush things through, you've kind of missed the point. 

A simple search of Wikipedia will tell you, among other things, that

"Karma operates as a self-sustaining mechanism as natural universal law, without any need of an external entity to manage it. "

So if we could be serious for a moment here about the term we're using, karma does NOT justify you smacking a child who hits. If you wanted to continue the karma analogy more accurately, perhaps the most short-term 'karmic' result of the child hitting might be that the victim refuses to cooperate or share in a later game- that is the natural consequence of putting bad energy out there; it comes back and bites you on the proverbial, just when you've forgotten all about what you did wrong.

That's the time for a wise parent to engage, and point out the emotions involved. "Ethan doesn't want to play with you. Maybe he is still angry that you hit him when you were in the sandpit this morning. Do you remember that?"

That is how you use karma in behaviour management- by explaining cause and effect, not by appointing yourself as God.

As for the Christian 'an eye for an eye'- I think we'd do better to pay attention to a much more recent Biblical directive, 'do unto others as you'd have others do unto you'. (I mean, do you really want someone bigger and stronger than you to hit you every time you make a mistake? That's the essence of the Christian message.)

But both 'karma' (which I suspect was actually used rather flippantly in this context) and 'an eye for an eye' are adult concepts. To understand why smacking doesn't work as 'justice', you have to look at it through the eyes of the recipient- the child. The real problem here is a mistaken understanding of how a child thinks.

Children tend not to project understandings the way adults do; that isn't where they're at, in developmental terms. Nor do they sit there thinking deeply about interpretations of actions. Children are usually very literal. 

So when a child hits, and then an adult intervenes and also hits, the child doesn't take away a lesson of 'karma' or justice. That is an adult interpretation. 

The child sees only the modelling expressed by your action. You, as the parent, are first and foremost a role model. The child sees that hitting is an accepted strategy for expression of difficult feelings, because even you do it. You are angry with them, so you hit them. But all the time, you're shouting "Don't hit"!

Naturally, this is very confusing for a child- and this is where the cartoon above starts to make sense. What they are seeing from their role model is that hitting is okay, but what they are hearing from their role model is that hitting is not okay.

There's a word for that- hypocrisy. Children generally don't know that word, but they'll learn the concept mighty fast if you do it often enough (and then heaven help you when they're teenagers).

The child might indeed stop hitting right now- but not because they've learned that hitting is wrong. You just showed that hitting is okay. No- the child, with his literal mind, saw that only the biggest, strongest hitter is allowed to hit. (Well, that is exactly what just happened, isn't it?) 

And so they are much more likely to have learned not that hitting is wrong, but that while a bigger, stronger hitter is around, they'll get hurt if they hit. That might cause them to become sneaky, and hit other kids- maybe kids who are smaller or weaker than them- when and where no adult can see them. (That's called bullying, by the way.)

You haven't taught a lesson about behaviour or empathy- that got lost in the confusion. You've taught a lesson about power.

A more introspective child might learn that the world is a scary and unpredictable place, with rules they don't understand, and start to withdraw trust from you, or even from anyone large and powerful. (That's called anxiety, by the way.)

So while I do understand the reasoning behind thinking that hitting the hitter is 'karmic' or just, I can't agree, and neither will your children. I think it's a clear case of hypocrisy- and believe me, that's exactly how children will see it.

How are you going to wriggle out of that one, when they turn into teenagers and throw the word back at you?


  1. A very insightful and logical post for adults to understand! I have always been against any physical "punishments" but it's really hard to convince other adults who take "karma" and "an eye for an eye" as their logical explanantion.. now i can share this point of view with them! Thanks!

    1. That's a pleasure, arumchan. I'm glad you've found this post useful!

  2. "You've taught a lesson about power."

    Every form of punishment involves exerting power over someone less powerful than the punisher. Every form of punishment involves using superior power to hurt the person being punished.

    This argument, then, can be turned against any form of punishment.

    1. Yes, it can! Only natural consequences teach behaviour in the way that a punisher intends.

  3. I do appreciate your insights & have loved reading your wonderful posts. I'm still trying to work this particular issue out myself and would like to know this.. So we are not to model what we don't want our kids to do, which make perfect sense in times of reflective thinking. But caught up in the moment, what do I do with a repeat offender? When words alone seem to fall by the wayside & have no effect?

    1. Hold their hands, or their whole body if necessary, to physically prevent the behaviour.
      Say "I won't let you do that."
      Explain why, very calmly.
      Search for and acknowledge the feelings that have led to the behaviour. "I see you're angry- is that right? It's okay to be angry but it's not okay to (whatever they were doing)."
      Give them another way to deal with the big feeling that caused the misbehaviour in the first place. "You can punch a pillow but you may not punch a person."
      Repeat, calmly, every single time. Eventually the gentler message will get through!

      Sorry it took so long to respond- somehow I missed the notification of this comment!


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