Sauce for sass? Why physical punishment doesn't stop kids from misbehaving

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.
Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.Amy McCready / Today

The recent child abuse trial of Alaska mother Jessica Beagley--who was convicted for pouring hot sauce into her son’s mouth and forcing him into a cold shower-- brings the issue of physical punishment to the forefront again and has people wondering: Is pouring hot sauce in your child’s mouth really abuse, or just today’s version of washing a child’s mouth out with soap?  Does a parent have a “right” to torture a child in a cold shower for misbehaving?  Once again, parents  are debating the hotbed issue of physical punishment.  Is it discipline or abuse?  Does it even work to change the child’s behavior?

Parents who use physical punishment may have the best intentions – to prevent their kids from lying or misbehaving in the future, but strategies like these often have the opposite effect. Beagley’s 8-year-old son was in a no-win situation.  He had a choice; he could honestly admit that he misbehaved at school – knowing that a torturous cold shower would follow.  Or he could lie to avoid that torture hoping that maybe his mom wouldn’t find out.  It’s a pretty reasonable line of thinking for an 8-year-old.  Unfortunately, the lying resulted in a mouthful of hot sauce.

I wonder if Jessica Beagley would be willing to “fess up” to a misdeed if she knew she’d have to endure the torture of a cold shower to pay for her misbehavior. Wouldn’t most adults resort to lying to avoid physical pain and suffering? Why would we expect anything different from a child?

Related content: 'Hot Sauce' mom found guilty of child abuse

Well-meaning parents miss the irony of physical punishment.  Physical punishment – whether it’s saucing, hitting, torturing in a cold shower or any other type of physical pain – isn’t just hurtful, it’s counter productive. The parent’s goal is to change the child’s behavior, but physical punishment creates more problems than it solves:

The learning opportunity is lost in that moment.  When an adult or child is experiencing physical or emotional pain, the natural response is to go into “self-preservation mode.”  Instead of taking personal responsibility for misbehavior and thinking about how to make a better choice in the future, the child’s energy is focused on self-protection and on how to make the pain stop.  The goal of discipline is to teach kids to behave in appropriate ways and make better choices for the future, but that opportunity is lost in the fury of physical punishment.

It erodes trust in the parent-child relationship. Imagine what goes through a child’s mind when being physically punished… “Aren’t these the people who say they love me more than anything in the world?  Why would they do this to me?  I must be a really bad person.”  And if physical punishment were the consequence for misbehavior, why would your child want to confide in you or trust you in the future?

Punishment breeds anger and resentment. Instead of thinking…“Wow, I’d better get my act together—I’m never going to do that again!” the child’s anger turns toward the parent.  With continued physical or emotional punishment, the child may decide to hurt back and a revenge cycle ensues 

It models that using physical force over someone weaker than you is okay.  A man who used his physical size or power to physically hurt his wife or girlfriend would be charged with abuse and it wouldn’t be questioned.  Can you imagine a husband pouring hot sauce into his wife’s mouth or using his physical size and power to make her endure a freezing cold shower to “teach her a lesson”?  Adults would be outraged; yet, many view it as okay for parents to physically hurt a child to teach him a lesson.

Physical punishment encourages lying, which is the very thing Jessica Beagley was trying to guard against.  Why would any reasonable child want to “fess up” about infractions large or small if he knew that physical pain and humiliation would follow? 

Fortunately, the juryin therecent saucing case decided to stand up for the child involved when they delivered their “guilty” verdict. Clearly, this mom—like so many parents – is overwhelmed and needs help finding effective parenting tools to address misbehavior in a more respectful and helpful way, without resorting to physical punishment.

And as parenting expert and author, Jane Nelsen, PhD put it, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that we could make kids do better by making them feel worse?”   From implementing routines to offering choices to setting up a system of fair and firm consequences, there are lots of positive ways to help children make good decisions in their actions and behavior. Not only will kids behave better now, but by using appropriate discipline techniques, we’ll be setting them up for success far into the future.

Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… For more strategies to get kids to listen without nagging, reminding or yelling, follow Positive Parenting Solutions on Facebook.