Thursday, August 22, 2013

Confessions of a Choleric Child: When a Little Hit More is Never Enough

If you've ever discussed spanking, you've probably come across a common sentiment. It's cliche, tossed out confidently as if the person claiming it has direct experience with the situation.

And yet, if you're a choleric, you probably see the inaccuracy.

It goes like this:

"All kids are different. Some kids might respond to gentle parenting or warnings. But what about those kids with strong wills? You can talk to them all day but they won't obey unless you give them something a bit more. They need a spanking."

This points draws on several implications. First, it sneaks in the assumption that hitting a child has different ethical weights depending on the personality of the child. Some children deserve to be hurt but not others? Ignoring that, it then moves to the choleric argument: if you've got a strong willed child, then the only/best way to discipline that child is with physical punishment.

Now, I have no idea why this sounds so good on the surface. Because if you take two seconds to look at it, you should see it pretty clearly. Someone with a strong will isn't going to give in over a little smack on the butt...that so-called harmless and legal pat, pop, boppity spanking that parents claim is all they do for discipline.

So if the child isn't going to bend over for a light smack, then what WILL break his spirit? It's not going to be a punishment anyone publicly admits. It will be something harmful enough and abusive enough that the strong-willed child yields (and only momentarily) out of fear for his wellbeing. Is that discipline or is that abuse? How far will you go to break someone's will? And is breaking a child the goal of discipline anyways?

I've always eyed this argument sideways because I'm that Choleric Child. The one you prayed not to get, perhaps...the one that turns your hair gray and forces you to your knees in rejuvenation of some faith, out of desperation that a deity is in the cosmos capable of assisting you with your hellion.

My parents started out with punitive parenting. In fact, it was the narrow faux-Christian version based on spanking the devil out and forcing the child to obey because otherwise *feigned high voice* Hooooow will she ever learn to obey God? That rod better be applied, hard, fast and frequently or your child will rot in hell!

For the strong-willed child, perhaps they meant reign in hell.

My parents changed over the years, grew in grace, learned new methods, asked forgiveness. But before that, I was given several memories of how punitive parenting works on a child who needs a "bit more." The saddest thing is, I can easily recall these punishments but I can't for the life of me recall why I was punished or what lesson I was intended to learn.

One such memory that floats to the surface is being struck repeatedly on the buttocks in a calm manner. I use that language since that's the official pro-spanking language. Nothing wrong here, according to pro-spanking methods. It was calm, so it was loving, right? It was on the buttocks, open handed. And in accordance with how old I was (one spank for each year.)

Firstly, strong-willed children don't give a crap how loving you feel towards them when striking them. Or in general. They are typically concerned with advancement, such as being the best, the most, the highest. Relationships are not a strong point for the undeveloped choleric. So who cares if you feel loving and calm or if you've flown into a rage. What you HAVE done, in the young child's mind, is declared war upon them.

And you will lose that war.

As each slap landed upon my body, my brain registered a distant sensation of pain. A punitive parent intends that hurt to be productive on the parent's behalf. They think that hurt makes the child yield. They think that hurt distributes justice. They think it drives in a lesson or makes the child remember something for next time.

They don't know about strong-willed children. See, pain doesn't do that for the spirited child. Pain hardens them. It strengthens them. Each sting followed by dull thudding, spreading through my back didn't make me feel sorrowful. It didn't drive in a lesson or cause me to yield. In my head, I stood stronger and taller. As my mom spanked me dutifully, I stood there and smiled. Then I chortled. Then when she was done and I had to face her, I did so with the confidence of a soldier who has won a battle. Whatever I resolved that day, it wasn't to be more compliant with her wishes.

I can recall plenty of reactions from my spankings. I probably received many of them in that early time period. I can only imagine how it must feel to parent a spirited child and your only tool is faux-Christian punitive parenting methods. Despair comes to mind!

In my head I would often chant, fueled by those spankings.

SLAP "Ha! Try again!"
SLAP "That's all you've got?"
SLAP "You will never win."

Sometimes, being so motivated by the confrontation, I would even verbally engage. Reminds me of Bart on the Simpson's, waving his butt. "Haha! That didn't hurt! Why don't you try again?" But obviously that's not a great thing to do since it involves more punishment.

One thing I can assure you is that never, ever in that punitive period did I learn a lesson, feel regretful, believe that my parents were in the right or resolve to change my behavior in the future. Cholerics aren't into impulsive behavior. They know what they want and why, and they plan to do things based on that. If they get punished at the end, oh well. It won't change their minds.

If you have a strong-willed child who will not yield, it's actually gentle parenting that will lead the way. It sounds contradictory to some, who think that a heavier hand against a heavier spirit is the way to break through. But the choleric personality is not merely about opposition. It's about being absolutely right and just. Appeal to higher, noble concepts and logical reasoning and you will be granted inside very quickly. In fact, negativity and a punishing environment can quickly lead the choleric child towards perfectionism and despair. As hard as they appear towards others, they are even harder towards themselves, demanding precise performance. As I recall reading somewhere, "If you think the choleric child needs to be disciplined, get out of the way and let him do it!" Underneath that cold, strong surface is a heart that can be appealed to and expanded.

The opportunities for this temperament can go down two roads. Historically, some of the most evil and most brilliant minds were choleric personalities. As parents, do we want to break a child's will, embitter and discourage him and potentially send him down a dark pathway where he grows up thinking his strong will and competent presence permit him to harm others?

Or do we want to raise such a child to use her strength and wisdom in the world for helping others, solving problems, rooting for the underdog? Whichever way your child is compelled, she will go with all her might, seemingly carrying the world on her shoulders and stopping for no one. This then is your decision: will you lift up your child towards the highest human principles of love, peace and courage or break her down towards the lowest, of cruelty, violence and coercion?

And, really, when you think about it, exactly who changes a mind and heart based on a few slaps on the butt? Spirited or not, having a parent hit you doesn't teach you something. It doesn't develop your skills. It doesn't fill emotional needs. It doesn't help you to analyze the situation and think of better ways. It doesn't even fit the crime or make sense as a natural consequence.

Why are we so intent on justifying the act of hitting a child? Why do we think it causes discipline? Why do we think it's effective? Why do we think hitting a loved one can ever be calm and loving? It's time to drop the cliche statements and really think about our own hearts and our own intentions. Sheer, brute force is never the answer for young, developing people. And if your young, developing person happens to be strong-willed, you only serve to drive the two of you apart and to start a war you will never win.

What part of your choleric child do you want to eliminate just
to get temporary compliance with small-peas parental requests?


  1. Excellent excellent
    I love it!
    Sharing !

  2. So brilliantly written
    Thank You

  3. thanks for this post. needing this tonight!

  4. As a choleric child who was very rarely smacked- I disagree. The 'calm and gentle' approach when loaded with frustration of parenting often transmutes into passive agression, which is awful, manipulative and very difficult to discern and dismantle. Either that or your parent turns themself inside out trying to keep cool- which is painful as a child to see your parents go through. There is no certainty in long, sugar-coated explanations that as a child, just do not matter. I longed for some tangible form of discipline to provide clear boundaries not reasoning and explanation. What I wanted most was for someone to put their foot down when I was misbehaving- because I knew what I was doing and I goaded for a reaction. The gentle gentle approach bugged me and gave me little confidence, ridiculous expectations and a lot of anger. What I really wanted was for others to allow me to make my own decisions and trust me when I knew I was right, but give me the protection that you get from firm and loving parents when I knew I was wrong, but did it anyway.

    1. "I longed for some tangible form of discipline to provide clear boundaries not reasoning and explanation. What I wanted most was for someone to put their foot down when I was misbehaving- because I knew what I was doing and I goaded for a reaction. The gentle gentle approach bugged me and gave me little confidence, ridiculous expectations and a lot of anger. What I really wanted was for others to allow me to make my own decisions and trust me when I knew I was right, but give me the protection that you get from firm and loving parents when I knew I was wrong, but did it anyway"

      That is what, unfortunately, people call gentle discipline. The word gentle tends to breed confusion, as people often mistake it for what you received, which sounds more like emotional abuse and permissive parenting. Speaking out against hitting doesn't mean gentle parenting advocates are asking for confusion, passive aggressive behavior or ineffective boundaries.

      If your parent was unable to keep cool and speak clearly, how would you have expected cool and non-abusive physical punishment?

    2. I am a little exasperated by the non guidance I get in dealing with a choleric child. We are told what not to do, but are given nothing but vague platitudes rather than concrete advice. What, concretely, is "gentle guidance"?

    3. This person has just released her third book in a series. I've read the first two and am finishing the last. If you feel things are too vague (and I do understand and that does tend to happen) then please consider reading her books! She's an experienced mama of 6 kids and has been working in the gentle parenting topic for many years now.

  5. Thank God my child was/is strong-willed. Strong enough to stand up to me and call me on my arrogance and ignorance that masqueraded as certainty and righteousness. Strong enough not to give in when I bullied her with my parenting Best Practices. Strong enough to forgive me when I repented after realizing what a tyrant I was and how easily I could slide into abuse.

  6. Thank you so much!! My husband and I struggle with our six year old girl who is so smart, passionate, stubborn, and focused on what she perceives as "right" and "fair". I didn't really know there was a word for her personality...but there it is. I'll read up on the "choleric child" (I think I was one, too) and will seek ways to build her up and support those qualities that can be SO challenging for parents to deal with. Really appreciate your having written this!

  7. Have you read "I'm a Keeper" by Ray Lincoln? It's an awesome book and his views are similar to what you're stating in this article.
    The book is a temperament book to apply to parenting. I'm familiar with is terminology, so it took me a while to connect "choleric" as a reference to a particular temperament. I thought choleric was an illness at first!
    But the book is great! I think you'd find it beneficial

  8. People tend to mistake 'gentle parenting' for 'passive parenting'. Gentle parenting is firm, with clear boundaries, rules, and expectations. A simple example is, if a child is screaming and crying and demanding ice cream, for example, a harsh or punitive way of parenting would be to spank or send the child to time out with a big 'NO!', a passive parent would give in and say 'there,there, here's the ice cream', and a gentle parent would say 'oh man. You are so disappointed. Ice cream is yummy, isn't it? We won't be having ice cream now, though. I'll help you with your tough feelings.' A gentle parent would be able to see that the outburst isn't probably about the ice cream: maybe the child had a tough day. Maybe they're hungry/tired/need connection/need physical activity. Gentle sees the child as a whole person, sees all emotions as acceptable (but not all behavior as acceptable) and responds to that. Passive gives in to silence the child, and harsh breaks the child's will to silence the child. is another great resource to learn about this progressive parenting technique!