While I was in the park the other day, I saw a mother smack her six-year-old daughter's hand because her child hit another child. The child cried and then the mother picked her up, apologized, and consoled her. If it had been my kid I would have hit her naked butt, made her apologize to the other child, and marched her home to send her to her room. What would have been the most appropriate punishment?
When my six-year-old did this I removed her from the situation quickly, took her to a quiet area of the park, and we waited with each other while she calmed down to include splashing a little cool water on her face from the drinking fountain. Once calm, I asked her what prompted her to act that way. She told me the other child threw sand at a younger child and wouldn't stop even after the younger child started to cry and she'd told the older child to stop.
I told her it was indeed bad for the child to have thrown sand at another child and that I would speak to the child's mother. Then I asked my daughter about other ways she could have dealt with the older child. She had many ideas, including throwing sand at him, biting him, and kicking him. We discussed some of the reasons these ideas wouldn't work to include the kind of trouble she would get into trying out her ideas.
Finally she said she could come and tell me. I asked her why she didn't. She said it was because she didn't think I would do anything about it. I reassured her I would always do something about it. She told me about situations from then on.
I spoke to the mother of the older child about why my daughter had behaved the way she did and had my daughter apologize to the boy. The mother was not receptive and insisted I spank my child instead. Curiously, she didn't smack her own child and didn't have him apologize to the younger child even after she'd been shown the younger child's sandy face and clothes.
The mother of the younger child was pleased to have been alerted to her child being hurt (none of us saw sand thrown at the younger child because it happened behind a pillar of playground equipment). I offered my assurance to both mothers that my child was not going to be acting that way again and that she would come get me if she had any more problems instead of taking matters into her own hands.
The mother of the younger child was fine with this. The mother of the older child was not fine. She took her child and left the park. My daughter continued to play and let me know of two other times when another child was being hurt and when she was being called names. I spoke to two other mothers that day who were also receptive.
While punishment, and specifically spanking, may seem like a workable solution, the first and foremost thing it teaches is that hitting is okay. Any secondary lessons (i.e. come tell me instead of handling it yourself) are lost in the process. Consequences, on the other hand, come from a logical approach and are within context.
This is to say that had I smacked my child — instead of finding out what happened and addressing that issue — she would've learned that hitting is a viable option (just don't let mom see). She would also have learned she is deserving of being hit – something mothers with 20-something daughters scratch their heads over when their daughters date abusive men. My daughter is in her 20s now. She doesn't hit people and she doesn't allow herself to be hit.
Conversely, delivering consequences and then backing down from them sends the message that mommy doesn't mean what she says. This instills a lack of trust and teaches that adults cannot be readily relied upon when push comes to shove. The parent is not the child's safety net – and the child knows it.
A child raised in a passive environment learns quickly how to cry their way out of even the most appropriate consequences and learns little of boundaries, rules, and self-restraint. If one cannot accept the consequences of taking a child's plaything away, for instance, one need then think of something else (like removing the child from the plaything) to show the child that throwing their playthings won't get them their way.
It is not the heavy or the light hand that raises a child with love, safety, and the welfare of the child in mind. One oppresses the child (and later cannot contain the child) while the other leaves the child in the position of parent – and the parent at the whim of a child.
The middle ground — where even adults thrive best — involves natural and logical consequences, having more than a passing familiarity with child development, and a sense of self that is not so easily threatened that it would feel compelled to physically hurt a child in any way.