Gentle Nurturance=Gentle World?

why we shouldn't spank

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A little girl about three years old trails behind her mother in the store. She seems tired and distracted, as if it’s difficult for her to keep up. Her mother is busily shopping while pushing a cart with a baby in a carrier at the front, oblivious as her daughter lags farther behind. Every minute or so the girl says, “Mommy,” but her mother doesn’t look back so the girl hurries to catch up. Not long after the mother turns to another aisle the little girl loses sight of her and wails loudly. Her mother, surely distracted and now embarrassed, hustles back to grab the child, shakes her, and through clenched teeth issues a threat. The child cries quietly and resumes following, more closely at first but again lags behind in the crowded store. A few aisles over she loses sight of her mother again. This time the mother picks the child up by the arm to smack her fiercely.

The problem continues to escalate. The entire time this family is in the store the mother repeatedly threatens and hits a child who may be ill, or needing a nap, or simply isn’t able to keep up. No one intervenes. In the checkout line they stand under an overhead TV screen blaring with news. Crime, war, and looting at the scene of a disaster are shown in vivid video clips. The little girl, tears still drying on her face, reaches up to the baby sleeping in the carrier and squeezes his toes until he too is crying.

Many of us probably see such scenes on a regular basis. Those of us who are parents know full well that gently nurturing a child’s growing body and mind isn’t always easy. Sometime days it feels as if good parenting requires sainthood. But gentle nurturance is the way that we adults constantly demonstrate, in hundreds of seemingly insignificant ways, that a child is a person worthy of love and consideration. We wipe a face softly rather than harshly, we take an extra moment to see what a child sees, we find ways to distract a grumpy toddler or a moody teenager, we share real work with our children so they know the satisfaction of a job well done, we turn away from our own amusements to take part in what delights our children, we teach our children to wait their turn, we cuddle and guide and care.

raise children tenderly for a more peaceful world

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This doesn’t mean we empower children to do whatever they want or raise them without limits. It simply means that it’s possible to touch a child with kindness and respect, to consider situations from the child’s point of view, and whenever possible, to listen to what a child has to say.

Gentle nurturance resounds through a child’s entire life, bringing forth a greater potential for happiness and success. Children treated with love and consideration become adults who treat others well too.

no spanking leads to better behavior

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There’s plenty of evidence that this is the case. Let’s take one example, that of corporal punishment. Ninety percent of American parents say they have spanked a toddler, 61 percent in the same week they were asked. If it “worked” parents who spank would have more compliant children. But that’s not the case. In fact, children tended to act out again within a few minutes after being spanked or hit by a parent.

Spanking leads to children who are more easily frustrated, have more frequent temper tantrums, demonstrate greater defiance, and who are more likely to physically harm others.

Spanking is also associated with lowered IQ scores. A U.S. study found children who were spanked had lower IQs four years later compared to those who were not spanked. The more frequently the children were spanked, the slower their intellectual development. Researchers speculate one factor may be that regular physical punishment is a chronic stressor for young children.

Negative consequences aren’t limited to childhood. Children who are punished by spanking, slapping, or grabbing even occasionally run a higher risk of growing up to have mental health problems, according to a study of nearly 35,000 people. Those issues include depression, anxiety, and drug or alcohol abuse as well as more complex illnesses such as narcissism and antisocial behavior.  

Even crime is associated with physical punishment. Take time to read this linked article, titled “The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime” by Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (courtesy of The Natural Child Project) which features data including the following chart:

Degree of physical punishment






Violent inmates
at San Quentin












High School


















Corporal punishment is just one factor among many. There are plenty of other elements to consider as we raise children to respect themselves and others.

raising children peacefully

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It has to do with consistent and fair discipline. (See Positive Discipline)

It has to do with understanding a child’s temperament and informed parenting as Kloppenmum so aptly explains.

It has to do with free play  and plenty of time in nature.

It has to do with our expectations and our ability to listen.

It has to do with responsible media exposure.

It has to do with an understanding that we as a species are innately kind and cooperative.

And so much more.

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But corporal punishment is the example I’ve used because there are larger cultural factors to consider when force is used on children, whether physical or other forms of coercion. There’s a connection between harsh treatment of children and harsh societies. Researchers Carol and Melvin Ember, in a journal article titled “Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study” conclude that force is commonly used against children in highly stratified societies, societies with low levels of democracy, and those with a propensity toward violence.

And there’s more evidence. James W. Prescott, former administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, analyzed cross cultural data using 20,000 statistically significant correlations from 400 studies. The information included presence of physical punishment, freedom or repression of sexual practices, social status of women, degree of affection toward children. He concluded that societies based on affection were highly unlikely to be violent.

These conclusions are of global significance to you, me, and everyone else in today’s world.

peaceful world starts with parenting

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This isn’t easy to see on an individual basis. Plenty of anecdotal accounts contradict these assertions, but individual exceptions don’t prove the point. I was raised by loving parents who, yes, spanked a few times and yes, tended to lose me in stores. I don’t see many after effects . (Well, I detest shopping.) The point remains. A gentler world can emerge from gently raised children.

This starts in our homes, stores, everywhere. I know what it’s like to shop with kids (I have four) so I can understand the time pressure and distraction the mother of that three-year-old girl must have been under. But each moment of parenting provides us with an opportunity to help our kids find positive solutions. This builds inner strength and fosters skills they’ll need to deal with future difficulties. Trouble is, parenting skills take patience, conscious attention, and lots of opportunities to observe other parents we admire. The time required is exactly what’s missing in the lives of busy parents. What are some things that could have helped when the little girl couldn’t keep up with her mother?

Connect. “Mommy needs to see where you are. I miss you when you lag behind.”

Empathize. “Oh Sweetie, you’re having trouble keeping up with Mommy.”

Problem solve. “How can we stay together?”

Engage her help. “Can you help me find the cereal you like? Do you remember if it’s in a yellow package?”

Distract her. “Let’s count all the other _____ in the store today (little girls, women with hats, times the loudspeaker interrupts, etc).”

Celebrate and appreciate. “I’m so glad you’re staying with Mommy and helping me watch the baby. Let’s _____ after we get home.”

And it would have helped if this mother had the resources to avoid taking a child to the store who was tired, or sick, or needing closer attention.

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It’s important to recognize that in our society, parents tend to be isolated. A whole tribe of extended friends and family aren’t there to watch, guide, nurture, and enjoy each other’s children. Cultural forces of work and time pressure and distance divide us. Parenting is too often a solitary venture, performed under the gaze of strangers who judge one’s parenting in every store and sidewalk.

As Urie Bronfenbrenner noted, we need to understand what forces affect family so we can to best enable them  “to perform the magic feat of which they alone are capable: making  and keeping  human beings  human.”

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21 thoughts on “Gentle Nurturance=Gentle World?

  1. I have often told the mother with young children and a full shopping cart to go ahead of me in the checkout line; I have pushed the cart to the car for the woman so she didn’t have to juggle kids and a cart that time. I have held the door open, because, even though she can do it, it’s nice not to have to. I have been the mom with young kids, and I will always do that for the next generations of moms. “It’s not hard to be nice,” I used to tell my kids. And so it is.


  2. This was the topic of my research project when I became a La Leche League Leader and I found this to be quite true. I’ve always been a peaceful parent and I’m so happy for those families that can see how much this benefits their children and society and pass that on by example. Thank you so much for this article!


    • It’s fascinating to research isn’t it Shawn? I teach non-violence workshops (altho rarely these days) and so much of it leads back to patterns we learn in childhood. I’m so glad you’re there to make a difference in LLL>


  3. So appropriate and thoughtfully written. May all of us ‘seasoned’ mothers and grandmothers be better mentors for the younger mothers all around us. It only takes a moment or two to be compassionate, and remind ourselves that we’re all in this journey together.


    • You’re so right Kimerly, we need to look for opportunities to mentor young parents. I remember clearly a LLL family meeting when a father (who seemed impossibly old at what was probably 30 years of age) explained that after his third child he relaxed into letting children be children. All of us gathered with our first babies, eagerly talking about the milestones they’d achieved, paused to take in that wisdom. It stayed with me every day afterwards.


  4. Thankyou for taking the time out from four children (soon to know what that entails….) to write such a great piece. I feel that the breaking up of the extended family is all too often the stressor for parents losing sight of what kind of example they want to be ‘of an adult’ to their children. Sometimes for a good reason, sometimes a not-so-good one…Personally I like to notice my own parents ways of guiding or dealing with my children, because it often pricks my consciousness, and I realise that I can do something differently.

    If at times I find myself ‘losing it’, I am drawn back to this one thing…’what kind of example of an adult do I want to show my children?’, and it instantly produces a change in my behaviour, tactic, strategy, solution etc.. :] Sometimes I’ve even stopped mid-rant to say ‘see how silly I look behaving this way?!’ and then I calm down ;}, that always makes my 8yr old boy smirk…

    I appreciate the work and research an article like this takes. Thanks again xxx


    • What an eye-opening way to look at one’s own parents. And too, what a good centered question to ask oneself “what kind of adult example do I want to show my children.” Thank you.

      I find it heartening to realize that the vast majority of human history was spent in the hunter-gatherer era, when we lived in small closely-knot groups where children played freely and were watched casually by every adult. What we call “family” now is too small, too isolating, and not healthy for parents or kids. Many of us have to reinvent our tribes out of friends and neighbors, but these tribes are essential.


  5. Nicely written. I am a parent of a very willful, independence-seeking, daredevil, running-away-prone, 3 year old boy. And oh, the tantrums! Finally phasing out of a yucky, nightly tantrum over tooth brushing (this Mom’s Guide was helpful in that area, by the way!) I agree; some days it seems like parenting this child requires a saint, not just regular ol’ me! BUT the response I get from him when I maintain my calm tone with him is amazing. And unless he’s running toward the street that’s the tone I strive to maintain. Thanks for this post. Very encouraging.


    • I had one like that too Emily. It was a challenge to keep things positive when I couldn’t turn my back for a moment to put on a tea kettle without him scaling the bookcases in a rapid ascent to the ceiling. And that was when he was 14 months old. Make sure you check out the suggested links, particularly for some great ways to soothe, encourage, and empower kids of all temperaments.


  6. I have 3 children, 6, 3 and infant, and I want to see long-term results of this parenting method. Because, honestly, after doing all the “right” AP things, I am really starting to lose faith in AP. My oldest is, even by the lenient standards of understanding fellow APer’s, destructive, rude, selfish, mean, spoiled, disrespectful – you name the negative adjective; it has been used to describe him. (A child psychologist acquaintance smugly remarked to me that perhaps this style of parenting works with some “naturally nice” children, but was obviously an ineffective method for my eldest’s personality.) The second shows the beginning of following a similar path. Our AP friends wonder what we are doing “wrong” while all our non-AP family and friends point to us as proof that AP does not work, as if we were laissez-faire permissive parents who let our children run wild, when nothing could be farther from the truth. It is really difficult to believe in and justify continuing AP when my kids are the “worst” in all the various groups they frequent.


    • Oh, I’m so sorry. Sounds like you’re dealing with a lot of challenges.

      I never stuck exclusively to AP or any one style of parenting. I don’t think, honestly, that any one parenting philosophy can be applied to all children, at all ages, in all families.

      I have two suggestions, both remarkably wise and useful resources.

      First, the blog Kloppenmum Under “categories” you’ll see “boundary setting,” “temperament,” “tantrums” and “parenting tricks.” I highly recommend this information. Karyn bases her posts not only on parenting experience but also a wide range of neuroscience, psychology, and other research. Her methods are kind, respectful of children, and they work!

      The other is the book Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World: Seven Building Blocks for Developing Capable Young People by Jane Nelson. Again, very useful and empowering information.


  7. Marie Jospeh, I really felt for you as I read your comment.
    AP isn’t very big here in NZ, but I have learned a lot about it since I have been doing my research. Attachment is vital and AP, from what I can see, seems to be a great approach until parents get to boundary setting. Parents simply must be the authority (not in a mean way – but like a rock…this is the way it is…) otherwise children don’t thrive. I hope you can find some useful articles on my blog – idenitfying the different kinds of tantrums might be a great place to start. Let me know how you get on, I will help as much as I can. Have a great day. 🙂


  8. Great article. Putting parenting in the larger context (of society or the world) is very important. The way we raise our children determines what the future world looks like.


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