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Is it ever okay to spank your kid?

April 26, 2013, at 9:00 AM

Dear Starshine,

Recently, a video went viral of a father mercilessly beating his daughters with a cable wire. I saw it, and it's been haunting me. All the old memories of my childhood have flooded back. My father would dole out similar beatings to my brother and I. We have permanent scars on our backs, chests, and legs to prove it. My wife Becky is pregnant with our first child, and we've been discussing how to raise our daughter; we want to be on the same page about discipline. Becky feels that an occasional whack or spanking is acceptable as long as it's done as a last resort and not past the age of eight. I loathe the idea of striking a child for any reason and feel that there are always alternatives to corporal punishment. (I am also terrified that I will somehow become like my abusive father, who would fly into rages.) Becky says that my past has left me unable to judge the issue fairly. Is she right? I don't want to spank our daughter but I certainly don't want to be a "soft" parent either.

The distance between "being a soft parent" and "beating your child" is a chasm as wide as… well, as wide as the emotional rift between you and your explosive, bullying, shoulda-been-locked-up dad.

You're right to be worried about your own rage. Kids can yank, twist, and fray anyone's last nerve, and you may need therapy to avoid perpetuating the paternal response patterns that were so dangerously, carelessly modeled for you. 

But your wife is wrong. You're precisely the right person to judge this issue fairly. You know firsthand that hitting children doesn't magically make them considerate and respectful. It makes them frightened and resentful. Is that Becky's dream for your daughter? Is it yours?

Please have her explain to you what makes an 8-year-old child more deserving of a "whack" than a 9-year-old child. Is it because the latter is more likely to whack her right back, having learned from Becky how your family expresses its frustration?

Then ask her to name a situation in which violence isn't a last resort. Aim higher. Both of you.

**

Dear Starshine,

I am afraid that caring for my elderly mother with dementia will ruin my relationship with my brother. I live near my mother and my siblings live far away. I email them regularly, explaining actions taken on Mom's behalf, telling them how she's doing, and sharing my feelings. It's a stressful role, and important to have people who can listen and keep you grounded. All of a sudden, my brother has become judgmental about how I'm handling things. I don't even want to talk to him for fear that things will blow up between us. Should I stop sharing anything other than the most basic information? He can continue to call Mom on the phone, fly out to visit, and speak to the companion he arranged to be Mom's "friend" a couple hours a week.

I'm gonna tell you what your brother should be telling you, because it needs to be said and I'll bet Mom isn't saying it, either: Thank you. Thank you for taking care of your mother in a way that your siblings can't (which can look a lot like "won't" to the exhausted eye, so be careful here). What you do is hard, unenviable, and critically important to your mom's well being.

But dementia does enough damage to a family's lines of communication; don't pinch off another one, or add to the number of unreliable narrators in your family's story.

Allow for the possibility that your brother is having a hard time, too. He may feel helpless (wouldn't you? In fact … don't you?), and prolonged helplessness has a way of exploding out of a proud man's face as uninvited, even unfounded criticism. It's not your job to take care of him, too; your hands are plenty full. But if you see his questioning as guilt-induced, rather than doubt-induced, you may find it less irritating.

Remind him that decisions about Mom's care must be made by those who see her day in and out, who are there to notice small changes in her health and happiness. And welcome him — any time — to join her in-person team of caregivers. Lord knows you could use the break, right?

Send me your dilemmas via email: ToughLove@TheWeek.com. And follow me on Twitter: @ToughLoveAdvice.

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