Do You Want A Spanking?

Photos: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / PhotoEuphoria

Photos: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / PhotoEuphoria

As an academic psychologist and practicing clinician, I’ve studied parent-child interactions in many settings—hospitals, clinics, university laboratories, refugee settlements, schools, homes, and summer camps. While these locales appeal to the scientist in me, there exists no better place to study parent-child interactions than the supermarket. Yes, the supermarket. And within the supermarket, there exists no better place to observe the range of human behavior than—you guessed it—the cereal aisle.

Once there, one can observe what sometimes appears to be a lethal struggle for dominance. Children cajole and berate their parents. Parents alternately negotiate with and rebuke their children. And occasionally one hears the most absurd question any parent has ever yelled at a child: “Do you want a spanking?” 

I love this question for what it reveals about our limitations as parents, but only when it’s asked rhetorically. (Research has shown that corporal punishment is more often an expression of a parent’s anger than an effective teaching tool. Bag that spanking and opt for a deep breath and a time-out instead.) I also love this question because it includes an important human emotion: anger.

Identifying Anger

As youth leaders—parents or not—we all get angry. Ironically, anger is the emotion that people have the most trouble acknowledging. So, let’s lay it out there: Whether you’re a leader-in-training or an executive director, parent or not … we all get angry. What separates a great youth leader from an average one is his or her capacity for kindness and empathy. And those skills can transform an obstreperous moment into an opportunity.

The question, “Do you want a spanking?” is one you can also hear around candy, games, and electronics aisles in any department store, especially Toys R Us. I am still waiting for the day when some child is witty enough to turn, face his parents, and calmly say, “Yes, I do want a spanking. It’s what I think we both need to resolve this dispute about whether to make this purchase for me. And this time, Dad, put a little stank in it.” I may be waiting a long time for that one.

Ask Better Questions

We do need to ask our children better questions, even when we’re angry. Case in point: How many parents, upon their child’s return from school, have asked, “How was school?” only to receive the uninformative reply, “Fine”? But parents persist, “What did you do?” Answer: “Nothing.” Now the child begins to head out the front door. “Where are you going?” parents ask. Answer: “Nowhere.” Impossible and uninformative.

The problem is not the vapid answers children give, but the poor questions adults ask. If we want information, we have to solicit it intelligently. Happily, better conversation means better connection, and that’s the cornerstone of a healthy adult-child relationship. Here are some ways that youth leaders can make their next conversation with a youngster even richer:

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