Spanking Part I (In Laws & Spanking)

Recently, my in laws had our two children, ages 2 and 3, over for extended visits lasting 3-4 nights while I took care of our infant and my husband traveled for work. In the most recent visit, the 2-year-old was jumping out of his pack-and-play at nap time and tearing apart the room, so my mother-in-law gave him several verbal warnings in an aggressive manner and then spanked him on two separate accounts for jumping out, etc. I was immediately appalled and shocked that she did this without speaking to us about discipline first. I sent her an email after finding out, saying it was to never happen again, etc. There are a bunch of other issues we have been sweeping under the rug because we are thankful for the help they provide and don’t want to seem ungrateful, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She responded basically saying she won’t watch the kids again and she finds this punishment appropriate for a 2-year-old and she is unlikely to change her opinion, as am I. My husband doesn’t want them ever to watch them again based on her response and a bunch of other history he has with his parents. I have not responded to this email because we are shocked that they could so easy wash their hands of their grandchildren and son. Thoughts?
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Thanks for sharing a dilemma many parents face, and that brings up important topics such as spanking and navigating in-law childcare differences. Emotions run high in these topics and it can take some deep breaths and quiet time to be able to approach them.

First let’s talk in general about spanking. For most of history spanking has been used as a form of discipline and many if not most families did not consider it harmful. So while we know now that spanking is absolutely not a good choice for discipline, we need to be cautious about being too judgmental of parents who used it thinking it was a good choice.

It is safe to say virtually no serious professionals support spanking any longer as a form of discipline. Numerous studies have shown other forms of teaching work far better, and while physical punishment may at times stop an undesired behavior, it can do so with negative side effects to the individual and the relationship. So given physical punishment can have negative side effects and tends to be less effective, there’s just no logical point to using it. (It would take another column to address what the better techniques are to use, and how to control one’s own temper in the moment, so perhaps I can write about that next month.)

One important point your experience highlights is the importance of talking about discipline prior to having others care for our children (so often, maybe most often, we forget to do this). In the moment, your mother-in-law disciplined her grandchild the same way she has always disciplined children I imagine, i.e., verbal warning/threat and spanking. As parents we should assume our parents are going to discipline our children the same way they did us, and if we are not OK with that, we need to preemptively engage in a conversation about this before we leave the children with them. The tone of that talk is important. It should be structured in a way that the message is something like: “We deeply appreciate any childcare you can assist with. We know no two sets of parents do things exactly the same. In us talking about parameters that we agree are important to us in raising our children, we have agreed to a no spanking policy. We want to check in with you that you will be OK with following this part of our parenting design for our family.” Sometimes an initial response may be to say there is nothing wrong with occasionally spanking a child, or your kids will end up spoiled, or are you trying to say they raised you wrong, etc. Do not bite into any such lead; your role is to avoid negativity. Responses to that are things like: “Our intent in thinking about how we want to raise our children is not to judge how anyone else raises theirs. We simply are sharing what we have decided are the important aspects of raising our kids with people close to us who are involved in the kids’ care to see if we can all be on the same page.” (I’m not saying to never have the conversation about physical punishment being bad and about the various research, just not during this conversation.)

In some families the grandparents will agree and then all is well. In some they will not agree, in which case they are no longer a viable childcare option for the parents. Since the latter can result in anger by the parents having lost this (often free) resource, I will say it is an important time in life to remember what I call the importance between expectation and appreciation. In life it feels better to be appreciated and to appreciate things than it does to expect. For example, if my husband appreciates things I do for him that feels good for me, if he expects me to do them that doesn’t feel as good; or reverse, it even feels better to appreciate what he does for me than to just expect it. As parents, with grandparent childcare, we want to come from a place of appreciating it if it can happen, but not expecting it. We can’t expect our parents to care for our children exactly the way we want them to. For those of us who luck out and get parents who naturally do, or will by design, care for our children as we wish, that’s just something to really appreciate. For the rest of us, if you let go of the expectation you can let go of any anger.

I think you and your husband have been feeling a lot of appreciation, as you said, feeling thankful and not wanting to seem ungrateful resulted in you sweeping some things under the rug. But of course once hearing your child had been hit you needed to be direct about that not happening again. Let me give you some suggestions as to where to go from here since you haven’t responded yet to her email.

First, her response is not shocking to me. I don’t think saying she won’t watch the kids again is washing her hands of her grandkids necessarily. To the contrary, as she explained, she finds this punishment appropriate for a 2-year-old and she is unlikely to change her opinion, as are you, so one logical conclusion is she not watch the kids. Since the exchange occurred mid event versus in a more ideal preemptive format described above, she’s in a reactive defensive mode (normal for human beings), reacting to being told (not asked, no discussion) how to parent and to never do something again that she considers perfectly OK. I’m not suggesting you should have asked per se, I’m just pointing out humans sort of naturally go into a defensive mode when told versus asked.

In fact the situation may not ever progress past that, i.e., she may not provide childcare if she doesn’t agree to do it the way you do it. At joint events such as general visiting or holidays, etc., then you and your husband provide the discipline, not the other adults there, so her not agreeing to provide childcare for your children is not the same as washing her hands of her grandkids. Childcare isn’t a responsibility of grandparents, it’s just super nice when they choose to provide it.

But maybe it can progress. From here, I suggest an approach something like the one below (not necessarily verbatim, but this gives you an idea of an email; you could also talk face to face):

I want to start by saying this email is written in a positive tone of voice. Since email is just read, sometimes it can be easy to misinterpret it as someone being upset or angry when they are not, so I just wanted to say that so you know nothing I write here is negative.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. You are probably correct that none of us is likely to change our opinion about spanking. I apologize if in my email where I said spanking was to never happen again my tone was rude. I was reacting to being very upset XX had been spanked; that is a discipline practice XX and I have decided is not going to be part of our parenting, and it is a practice that is upsetting to me. While I recognize others find it appropriate and I don’t want to come from a place of being judgmental about other parents’ choices, it isn’t something we are choosing for our children.

In retrospect I realize we should have talked with you specifically about our parenting plans and design in advance, and asked in advance if not spanking was a childcare design you would agree to when the children are in your care. I think one reason we didn’t is that we are greatly thankful for and appreciate the childcare you provide and we have not wanted to sound ungrateful, so maybe we avoid some topics. We have no desire to micromanage how you care for the kids, but again in hindsight, it would have been better communication to bring up the things that are of big importance to us so we could all reach agreement in advance and hopefully avoid conflict such as this. I will try to do that in the future.

You said in your email given this all you would no longer watch the kids, and I see how that could be one logical conclusion since we differ on this topic. Obviously we respect that decision if that is your decision. Another option would be, we respectfully request that you consider caring for your grandchildren within the parameters of our parenting choice of no physical discipline.

~~ Now, this email sample is assuming your husband even wants them to care for the kids. Maybe he doesn’t. In which case I would suggest sending a similar email but simply not asking she change her mind about watching the kids. By similar email I mean, as you can see, the point of the email is to end the conflict and not to fan the flames. (This is done by the email coming from an “I/we” perspective, personal responsibility versus blame, positive tone, and future focus.) I can see no point in fanning the flames or engaging in a battle.

~~ I am also assuming throughout that you did not discuss a no-spanking policy in advance. I have assumed if you had you would have mentioned it in your question. When one is discussed in advance and grandparents agree to but break it, parents need to decide whether a second chance is warranted or not, and if so under what conditions. It can be hard for even well-meaning grandparents who have been spankers to change, and they may need help learning new forms of discipline. If they are game there are books, on-line resources, or even child psychologists who can do a 1-2 time consult/coaching. As parents there may still come a time you decide grandparents, or other family or friends, engage in discipline that is too verbally or physically harsh and you do not include them in your network of people you utilize for childcare. Your children may still have wonderful relationships with these people interacting at any number of events; they are just not left alone in their care.

I hope that helps what is actually a very complex subject. For example, there is still a whole other level of the history between your husband and his parents you touched on but didn’t describe enough for me to take it into account. That begs the question of what unresolved issues as adults we should just leave unresolved and what ones it may make sense for us to try to still work out with our parents…