Q&A: wanting to spank children

An anonymous reader writes:

"I'm not a mom, I'm a nanny, for two twin boys who are almost 21 months old. They're great kids, but I have a problem that's been feeling harder to deal with as time goes on.

When I was younger, my parents used corporeal punishment on my brother and me. It's the only form of punishment that they ever used until we were old enough to hit them back. I never really thought anything of it until I was old enough to start babysitting, and then one time, a small child I was caring for did something wrong that made me angry, and I struck her. Not violently, just a spank. But I'll never forget it, because I quit babysitting the next day. I didn't tell anyone I was afraid I'd beat the kids, I just decided I shouldn't babysit, ever. Everyone thought I didn't like children because I didn't tell them I was afraid that I'd hit them.

The twins I'm nannying are children of dear friends of mine, and I do it because they need all the help they can get; their mom still works and dad does too, and I don't currently have a full time desk job, so I wanted to help out. I've been sitting for them since they were 4 months old, and I feel comfortable with them and they like me; we understand each other and they know the limits I set. And let me make it clear - I don't hit the twins. I've smacked a hand or two, but that's it.

The problem is that as they increasingly try to test boundaries, I feel that same angry feeling that I know leads to hitting, and I don't don't don't want to do it. I've read lots of book and information about positive reinforcement, the uselessness of severe punishments like that, and I've even worked in a preschool and gotten to see the techniques of teachers who believe any form of punishment is wrong.  When I try to take a minute to calm down, I can't; I just feel stifled and guilty and out of control. I have to spend several minutes  in the other room taking deep breaths. I feel like a monster. How could I be like this? The twins are wonderful guys, and I know they don't know any better.

My friends who are their parents think I'm God's gift to babysitting, and I can't see raising this issue with them without upsetting them or just getting the old 'Oh, everyone feels that way." Can you offer any advice or encouragement?"

Welcome to the club?

I think you sound like you're having hundreds of small victories.

There's a huge difference between thinking "Shut up, you stupid little asshole!" and actually saying it to your 9-month-old at 2 am. Are you not human? If someone's been waking you up by crying every night for months on end, of course you're going to feel some resentment (just to begin with). But it's your actions that matter, and that's why you go to get your child and offer a soothing "What's wrong, sweet baby?" even when that's not what you feel like saying.

The same goes for toddlers (and preschoolers, and big kids) and spanking. Of course you want to just pummel them sometimes, especially if you yourself were physically punished as a child. I think being a victim of violence (and yes, spanking and hitting is violence, even if your parent only meant it as "correction" and thought they were doing something appropriate) rewires us somehow to make the violent instincts bubble closer to the top. Which is why, even when we know without a doubt that hitting our kids is counter-productive and wrong, it's still the thing that seems like it'll be the most effective and satisfying. Having that instinct doesn't mean we're bad people or hopeless caregivers. It means we're having an initial response that we don't want to have. It means we have work to do.

I'm not going to go into alternative discipline strategies here, because (fortunately) there's enough information about that out there other places. And I'm still working on it myself. The message I want to get across in this post is that deciding not to hit your child or use other corporeal punishment is a process, not a one-time thing. It isn't like you determine that it isn't something you do and then magically you never feel like doing it. When people give up smoking they don't just lose the desire to smoke. They work through each urge one at a time. Not hitting or spanking is the same. It gets easier the longer you do it, they tell me. I'm hoping that by the time my kids go off to college I'll have completely lost the urge to smack them on crappy days. Then I can be the calm voice of reason as a grandmother.

The one thing I do know to be absolutely true about not using violent methods of discipline is that it's a lot easier to stay out of situations that trigger you than it is to struggle with the urge to spank. Plan your day and control the situaion so that the kids can be as well-rested and not too hyped up. Make sure you're getting enough sleep so you stay on top of them. Limit the things you ask them to do that you know are tough for them. Don't procrastinate. And be with other people as much as possible. Isolation is the enemy of good parenting.

I also think you should talk to the parents to get on the same page with disipline methods. Maybe they've found some things that work for them and could share them with you as more tools in your non-violent toolkit. And I'm sure you have techniques that could help them, too.

Since you were spanked as a child, you could probably use a little positive reinforcement yourself. Maybe every time you resist the urge to wallop them you can give yourself a little mental pat on the back for successfully not hitting; "I'm the positive discipline queen!" "I'm giving these kids what I should have gotten." "Only three more hours until I get to go home." That sort of thing.

You've been doing absolutely the right thing by reading about and surrounding yourself with people who use non-violent discipline methods. You've fought your urges and cooled off and not hit the kids. Now keep doing it. It's all you, or any of the rest of us who struggle with the urge to hit, can do.