Do You Want A Spanking?

By Chris Thurber
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:

Ask open-ended questions, not yes-or-no questions . For example, “Tell me the best part about your day today” instead of “Did you have a good day?” Ask, “What did you like best about sailing?” not “Did you like sailing?” Specific questions show you’re really interested. For example, “What’s the next piece you’re aiming to finish for your crafts project?” and “Tell me what’s going to happen to this basket when you bring it home” instead of “Is your project almost done?”

Set a good example of informative communication by sharing parts of your own day. Some leaders like to play “High-Low” in which each person states the high point and the low point of their day. For example, “Well, the high point of my day was passing from Fish to Flying Fish. The low point was getting cut from the 12-and-under baseball team."

Be a good listener. Lying just beneath the surface of that empty one-word answer to a question is a facial expression and a tone of voice that say a lot about what a child is thinking and feeling. Sometimes it’s helpful to share your observations. For example, “You said the baseball game was ‘fine,’ but you sound pretty down. What’s on your mind?”

Ask for clarification and elaboration. Many one-word answers from children are really tests for adults. If the one-word answer satisfies you, campers sense you’re not really interested. Surprise them by saying, “Tell me more about what happened” or “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘nothing.’ Do you mean ‘nothing you liked’ or ‘nothing I’d understand’?”

Inject humor but avoid sarcasm. “You think your counselor is a dork? Did you hear about the counselor who was showing a boy in her class how to zip up his coat? ‘The secret,’ she said, ‘is to get the piece of the zipper to fit in the other side before you try to zip it up.’ The boy looked at the counselor quizzically and asked, ‘Why does it have to be a secret’?” OK, you can think of something funnier.

Pause for a moment before speaking, especially when you’re angry. Few people are at their most eloquent when enraged. Campers probably know how to push your buttons (what kid doesn’t?), but don’t take the bait. It’s fine to say, “I need a minute before I can think clearly enough to answer that” or “Hmm. That stings. Where did that remark come from?”

Paraphrase what campers have said, so they know you understand. For example, “You feel like all the cereals we have here at camp are too boring, and that Super Sugar Bombs would make breakfast more fun.” Remember, empathy is not agreement. You may hate Super Sugar Bombs, but that’s irrelevant to form a connection with campers.

Offer explanations for decisions. This not only models mature thinking, but helps children accept your decisions more easily. Instead of responding “Because I said so!” you might say, “Super Sugar Bombs are tasty, but they’re more like a sugary dessert. Breakfast needs to taste good and be good for your body. That’s why I suggested you have some yogurt or oatmeal.”

Involve young people in decision-making and problem-solving when appropriate. For example, “You want the afternoon activity period to be more physical and exciting, but I won’t take you out on the lake during a thunderstorm. Let’s think about what other activities are offered during rainy days. If we work together, I bet we can come up with some really cool activity options that are safe and fun.”

As a final note, remember there is no statute of limitations on apologies. Every youth leader says something he or she regrets from time to time. Next time a rhetorical classic such as, “Are you trying to drive me crazy?” is spoken, take comfort in knowing you can return to that conversation any time and build an even stronger connection. Later that day, you might say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you on the sports field today. My patience was just worn so thin. Of course I know you’re not trying to drive me crazy. I just couldn’t think of a way out of that conversation, and we were already late to second period. What can I do to make things better?”

Humbly owning your half of the conversation sets a wonderful example for children to follow, and invariably boosts the quality of future conversations. There is no good answer to the question, “Do you want a spanking?” but there are a hundred great ways to follow up later.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit