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Malcriado: The Decision to Not Spank

Photograph by Twenty20

Lately, my 3-year-old has been throwing more tantrums — berrinches — as my mom says. I don't know any child her age who doesn't occasionally break down. But recently, one happened while I was out with my daughter and my mom at our local market. My mom's shock reminded me that in the eyes of Latino grandparents, a public outburst is really, really bad.

There's a word for such children: "Malcriados." It literally means, "badly brought up."

Spanking is supposed to be the remedy for niños malcriados, or so the older generations in our families believe. But it's not something I want to do.

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Latino humor is painfully self-aware and we often poke fun at how brutal our abuelitas could be. "Tráeme el cinto," (bring me the belt) has stricken fear in the heart of many a Latino child. Corporal punishment is justified because it comes with swift results. With that, I do not disagree. If you hit a child, that child will respond immediately.

The problem is everything else that comes along with it.

There are numerous studies that point out the negative effects of spanking. It can lead kids to be increased aggression in children and antisocial behavior reports the American Psychological Association. Harsh corporal punishment, defined as spanking with a belt or paddle at least once a month for more than three years, was the subject of one 2009 study. These children were found to have have less gray matter in the certain areas of the prefrontal cortex of the brain — areas linked to depression, and other psychological disorders. It leads to overall decreased cognitive ability says another report.

I definitely look up to the wisdom of our ancestors, but sometimes you have to pause and reassess.

Here's where my parenting style departs from that of my parents. I think you can be firm without resorting to hitting. When my daughter wasn't playing nicely at the library, I picked her up and we left after giving her a few warnings. While she pouted and cried, I explained to her that her behavior was the cause of having to leave a place she enjoys.

Not spanking doesn't mean not disciplining. It means discipline without hitting, and suspending privileges is one example of a spanking alternative.

I definitely look up to the wisdom of our ancestors, but sometimes you have to pause and reassess.

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I see a deeper problem in using spanking to discipline, though — it doesn't even mean the child has learned the correct lesson. They may have learned to fear being hit, yes. But I don't want my daughter to fear me; that's not my job. The goal is to raise a person with strong critical thinking skills and a sense of right and wrong. My daughter is smart and strong-willed, and yes, sometimes that's a challenge for me as her mom. But even though it might boggle the abuelos' minds, I want to preserve and cultivate those traits.

Our children must learn the lesson, not fear the punishment. Those are different things.

There's another problem with spanking. Even articles that discuss using spanking as a form of discipline say it should only be used as a last resort — after milder tactics have been employed. It should not be severe or prolonged. It should always be done dispassionately and never as a way of dealing with your own anger. I think plenty of us would agree that's not how it always goes down.

The most compelling argument for spanking I found was mentioned in this piece in The Atlantic. In it, an NBA star recounts being badly beaten by his mom as a way to deter him from getting involved with gangs. The expert says that if spanking is the only way to save a child from something much more dangerous, then it may be the best scenario in the circumstances.

I don't blame my parents for being pro-spanking. Every parent does the best they can, and the information we now have wasn't available to them. We're the generation that can refuse corporal punishment, thereby ending this running joke in our community.

Pro-spanking parents are apt to point to themselves as examples of "turning out OK" despite spanking. But this is a poor defense of spanking. No can know if they could have turned out better than OK. Would we still respect our parents if they didn't hit us? I think it's possible, but it depends on knowing how to exert more than your hand on a helpless bottom.

Maybe abuelita got this one wrong. It gives new meaning to "malcriado."

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