I've generated a lot of online material since my first Huffington Post blog in January of 2006, but no single post has garnered more email than one about parenting and the about-to moment written in response to a 2010 study that connected the dots between spanking children in early childhood and their increased odds of aggressive behavior in later childhood. This week a new study was published by the American Association of Pediatrics finding that children who are pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by a parent, or other adult in their household, are more likely than those who are not treated in this way to suffer from mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders as adults.
Here's the money quote from the lead author of that study, summarizing the findings for USA Today:
Although it is well established that physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and other severe forms of maltreatment in childhood are associated with mental illness, this is one of the first studies to show a link between non-abusive physical punishment and several different types of mental disorders, says epidemiologist Tracie Afifi, lead author of the study in today's Pediatrics.
"There is a significant link between the two," says Afifi, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Canada. "Individuals who are physically punished have an increased likelihood of having mental health disorders." Approximately 2% to 7% of mental disorders in the study were linked to physical punishment, she says.
While characterizing pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping or hitting as anything other than abuse is a slippery slope upon which I am not willing to step, I appreciate the decision to limit the study to the effects of the ordinary, everyday occurrences of corporal punishment that a shocking number of people find acceptable and are commonplace throughout the world.
Armed with even more evidence that spanking is bad for children and teens, here's a gentle reminder that peacefulness and restraint is available to all of us when we learn to identify those moments when we are about to do or say something that we might later regret. Below is an updated version of my original 2010 post for parents on using the about-to moments in our lives to teach by example and parent peacefully.
Have you ever noticed a funny feeling in your body the split-second before doing something that you later regret? Maybe the funny feeling is a tightening in your chest, or a flush of heat rushing to your face, or a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. These funny feelings can take place in what one of our leading American meditation teachers Joseph Goldstein calls the about-to moment, in other words that moment when you are 'about-to' do or say something.
The about-to moment - that split-second before you speak or act - is a chance to ask ourselves: "Why choose to act in this way?" "How does it make me feel?" and "Will what I'm about to do or say lead me and my family closer to, or further away from, genuine happiness?" We can train ourselves to identify the about-to moments in our lives, and notice when a funny feeling accompanies them. By paying attention to the physical sensations that sometimes accompany an about-to moment, we have an opportunity to pause and reflect before speaking or acting.
The about-to moment has special relevance to parenting because it is also the place and the time where we choose (whether consciously or not) what we are teaching our children by example. It is a chance to shift direction if we recognize that our automatic reaction to a stressful situation is not consistent with our image of the parent we hope to be, or the adults we hope our children will become. Character development is an ongoing process that happens all life long through repeated actions both large and small. One place it happens is during the countless about-to moments in our lives.
In 2010, several prestigious universities published a study about the effect of spanking on three-year-old children. They reported that three-year-old children who had been spanked by their mothers more than twice in the month prior to the time they were assessed by researchers had an increased risk for higher levels of child aggression at age five than children who had not been spanked. Even though this finding is consistent with a well-established body of academic literature on the topic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents refrain from spanking entirely, the reporting of this study has been somewhat controversial. In the comment section of several Internet blogs about the research some have taken offense. Perhaps because many parents continue to spank their kids, even those as young as three. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics more than 90 percent of families report having used spanking as a form of discipline, even given their recommendation:
Because of the negative consequences of spanking and because it has been demonstrated to be no more effective than other approaches for managing undesired behavior in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in developing methods other than spanking in response to undesired behavior.
The about-to moment when a parent chooses to spank a child is an opportunity for the parent to ask what he or she is trying to accomplish. Spanking is, at the very least, a stressful life experience for both parent and child, and it is well known that stressful life events can have a profound impact on brain development, especially in young children. In their book Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential, Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz explain that when early childhood experiences are nurturing and empathetic, a child's nervous system will wire up one way; but if early childhood experiences are stressful, harsh and frightening, the same child's brain wires up in a different way that can make learning and later relationships more challenging. I doubt that any parent, upon reflection, hopes that his or her actions will make it more difficult for kids to learn and get along with others at school or home.
The about-to moment when a parent chooses to spank a child is also an opportunity to reflect on the quality that we are reinforcing within ourselves and modeling for our children. Is striking out in response to behavior that we disagree with (or disapprove of) a quality that we want to strengthen in ourselves? Is it one we want to model for our child? Will teaching children that it's okay to hit other people help them become their best selves? Will it help them have an easier time on the playground? Will it lead them toward genuine happiness?
The choices that we make in our about-to moments determine who we are and who we will become. They also let our children and teenagers know loud and clear what's important to us. Making the choice to exercise restraint, empathy, compassion and even-handedness time and time again is how these qualities become habitual in both parent and child. When our children and teenagers see us being kind to others, we're not only modeling it for them, we're practicing kindness ourselves; when they watch us exercise patience while waiting in the grocery line or when stuck in traffic, we're both modeling patience to our kids and practicing it ourselves; when we find nonviolent ways to address inappropriate behavior, we're both modeling nonviolence and practicing it ourselves.
To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Character is higher than intellect." It is the choices we make in the about-to moments - choices we make over and over again all day every day - that determine our character and set an example for our children to follow.