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I recently found out that my brother spanks his son, who is four. I overheard my parents talking about a recent incident where my brother spanked his child. I don't know any details other than the fact that the spanking occurred and it's not the first time.

Background:

Growing up, my parents spanked my brothers and I occasionally. This was usually done after a warning, and usually by the other parent (so the angry parent wasn't doing the spanking). Usually, but not always. I presume that my brother and his wife follow a similar pattern, but I don't know. He is not an angry or violent person, and clearly loves his child very much.

While these spankings were infrequent and never resulted in physical damage requiring medical attention, this doesn't minimize the severity of the mental and emotional trauma that it can cause.

The situation:

I mentioned in passing to my partner that my brother had spanked his child, and she reacted very strongly. While on my own I had long since concluded that spanking children is wrong, she helped me understand just how traumatizing and damaging it can be. While it was her concern which made me think more deeply about this, I am also now deeply concerned about the potential impact spanking could have on the child.

My question:

I believe it is my responsibility as someone who loves my brother and his child to say something to him about this. How can I have a conversation with him about this?

Additional details:

My brother and I are not close -- we see each other perhaps once every month or so. We have had some difficult conversations in the past and it is generally awkward and uncomfortable for both of us. I am concerned that depending on how I handle this, he may be more upset that I would say something (as I don't have children), or it may just be so uncomfortable that nothing I say really gets across. I'm also concerned about losing my nerve and missing a chance to say something.

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    Welcome! Could you provide the location as different culture will affect the outcome of the answer. – Revol729 Jul 20 '18 at 3:58
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this looks much more like a request for help constructing a compelling argument than it is a question about interpersonal skills. Phrasing requests are off topic for this site. Furthermore without knowing your brother personally we would have nothing more than wild guesses about what would influence them one way or another. – sphennings Jul 20 '18 at 4:31
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    @sphennings how can I improve the question? Having compelling arguments is not the issue -- it's how to have a conversation about this charged topic with my brother in a way that causes him to reconsider his choice. – J.A.R.V.I.S. Jul 20 '18 at 4:41
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    How do you expect us to get your brother to change their mind without knowing them? If there was a method that would get people to reconsider their choice about anything It would render all of politics and advertising moot. – sphennings Jul 20 '18 at 5:12
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    I think sphennings might mean that you’re asking what looks like a “convince question.” See this meta for more. Maybe you can edit your question to be more focused on how to have the conversation instead of how to argue and convince? – scohe001 Jul 20 '18 at 6:01
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Some facts:

  • you don't know how often or under what circumstances your brother spanks his child. You think it's important to tell him not to.
  • you don't have children or parenting experience
  • Your partner raised the suggestion that you should contact him out of the blue to make sure he's not parenting wrongly. You think that's a good idea.

Let me suggest a better approach than trying to correct his wrongness. Tell him that you and your partner were discussing parenting styles as part of planning your future together. Say that she is very strongly against spanking. Then ask "do you find you are able to raise [childname] entirely without spanking?" Depending on the answer you get, ask more.

  • You may find your brother never spanks, and has lots of great ways to handle things instead. Success: not only does he not need your unsolicited advice, he is going to be a great source of advice to you! [But wait, someone told you he definitely did and not for the first time? Well, that may or may not be true.]
  • You may find your brother admits that even though he doesn't think spanking is good, he has done it when tired, frustrated, or whatever. Clearly taking him aside to tell him it's not good will be pointless: he knows that and wishes he had other strategies. Unless you have some, which is unlikely, you can just be a supportive and caring sibling and encourage him to keep looking for alternatives, or to notice before frustration gets too high, etc. Obviously from a gentle and tender perspective: you haven't been through this yourself, so it's hard to know what you would do or how you would feel.
  • You may find your brother thinks spanking is terrific, and wishes more people would do it, and tells you how well it works etc. You can gently ask "but what about" kind of questions, drawing on your own childhood, to try to show him another perspective. He may even ask you "well what would you do instead?" and it would be good if you had an answer, not just "my partner told me spanking is really bad and nobody should do it."

This may lead to you and your brother being able to talk about your shared childhood, the good and the bad, and to being a source of advice and support for each other - both directions! That's so much better than you, a nonparent, stopping by to lecture him that he's Doing It Wrong with nothing more to offer than "make sure you don't spank your child."

  • I made some edits to the question, not sure if this will affect your answer -- I do know for a fact my brother spanks his child, and while my partner was the one initially concerned, I am now equally concerned myself after discussing with her. – J.A.R.V.I.S. Jul 20 '18 at 18:44
  • I don't think it makes much difference, though I've edited slightly. Few people like a "you're doing it wrong" speech especially from someone who isn't doing it at all. Asking will, I think, be better for your relationship, more likely to lead to any changes you want in him, and potentially help you to be a better parent when the time comes. – Kate Gregory Jul 20 '18 at 18:57
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I'll bite the bullet:

How can I have a conversation with him about this?

Easy: you don't. It's simple:

It's almost never a good idea for non-parents to give parenting advice

As an experienced parent myself (I have lots of children), I don't even give parenting advice to my friends unless asked. There have been plenty of times I've wanted to, and plenty of times where I thought a little friendly advice could help, but I know that more often than not it will backfire badly. I've had non-parents give me parenting advice before. I'm too polite to literally laugh people out of the room, but that's usually what I want to do. The advice has never even been remotely applicable. That's the case here too because:

Parenting is complicated. Sometimes you don't know what you don't know, and in my experience that is what is going on here. "Don't spank your children" seems like simple and actionable advice, but it really isn't, and as a non-parent I don't think you appreciate how complicated this is. In particular:

A) Spanking is a method for enforcing boundaries. You can't always just remove it

Boundaries, rules, and structure are very important to children. Don't get me wrong - I'm not voting for children to be raised in army boot camps, but it is important for parents to set boundaries and rules. It both keeps children physically safe and is also an important part of how they learn to interact with the world around them and grow into mature adults.

Imagine parents who use spanking as a regular tool to enforce boundaries for their children. If you take that away without providing an alternative, the result could easily become children without boundaries. A common source of frustration for parents is feeling like they have no control over their children. Taking away a primary tool for that without giving the tools to replace it is (IMO) more likely to make matters worse than better. All that to say:

B) Even if the general goal is good, that doesn't mean that giving advice is helpful

We had a mom and her 3 year old daughter staying with us for a bit. It was clear that the child in question liked doing things her way (which meant ignoring her mother), and the mom didn't really know how to handle it and primarily got frustrated as a result. It seemed to me that the main problem was that the mother was unsure how to properly enforce boundaries. For a 3 year old (IMO), judicious use of spanking can be a good way of dealing with this. However, I never gave advice to the mother, and never suggested spanking, regardless of whether or not the mom was willing to hear advice from me (she probably would have). I kept quiet because:

  1. I didn't know the daughter well enough to know if spanking would have actually been something she responded well too
  2. I didn't know the mother well enough to know if spanking was something she could actually execute appropriately
  3. I knew that the advice by itself would be meaningless - this was not a small change and what was really required was a new approach to parenting. That might involve spanking, that might not, but I knew enough to know that I couldn't give the mother the guidance she needed. What was needed was not a simple conversation where I convince her to do something different, but more of a "parenting mentor" that could help her come to a better place all together.

I think these general points are all very applicable to you:

  1. You don't know anything about parenting in the first place - you just have one "fact" (spanking is bad) that you are taking as "Truth"
  2. You don't really know anything about how your brother spanks his child
  3. You don't know anything about how your brother parents or what methods of discipline work best for his child
  4. As a result, you don't know if this "fact" of yours is actually going to be helpful to your brother and - more importantly - you don't know how to turn it into actual advice that will be helpful.

In essence, you are treating parenting as a list of "do's and dont's". It's not. Every child is different, and it is the job of every parent to get to know their particular child and figure out how to guide them best. You have neither the experience nor proximity to help your brother navigate this issue. Any attempt to do so is unlikely to be well received, but more importantly you are probably more likely to hurt his parenting than help it.

On a controversial note

It's probably obvious from above, but I think your fears about spanking are overblown. Obviously spanking is growing out-of-style these days, and some professional organizations recommend against it (studies about how spanking has negative impacts on child psychology are also popular). However, even that doesn't mean this is the hill you should choose to die on, even ignoring everything else I've said above. Some estimates suggest that upwards of 85% of children are spanked during childhood. That includes you, your brother, and myself. When something is that common it is hard for me to seriously consider the possibility that any amount of it might have immediate and lifelong negative repercussions, which seems to be your concern.

Anecdotally, I've been around lots of kids and I'd loosely group their parents' parenting style into three categories:

  1. Parents who set and enforce clear boundaries, with or without spanking
  2. Parents who don't discipline their children at all
  3. Parents who abuse their children and use spanking as a cover.

Not surprisingly the latter doesn't go well. Item #2 (parent's who just don't enforce boundaries) doesn't actually go much better. However, when it comes to item #1 (i.e. good parents), I've never seen a big difference between children who are spanked and children who aren't.

In summary: Nothing you have said suggests that your brother is harming his child. Both because of your lack of experience, and because you are not in a close relationship with him, it is unlikely that your advice will be well received. Moreover, because of your distance and inexperience, you can't do anything but repeat what you have heard from others, and you are not going to be able to give actual, practical help. As a result, just don't do it.

  • I appreciate the thoughtful answer, but the issue is my brother is doing something which I believe is quite harmful to his child. As a parent, have you had an experience of giving (or receiving) input from someone else which was more than just advice about parenting, but significantly impacted a child's well-being? – J.A.R.V.I.S. Jul 24 '18 at 0:59
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    @J.A.R.V.I.S. The fact that you consider it harmful doesn't really change the situation. I think the mother in my example is very similar: she wanted the best for her child but didn't really know what she was doing, and as a result I believe her parenting was harmful to her child. However I knew that given the circumstances I wasn't able to give her the practical help she needed, and any attempt to interfere on my part was just as likely to make things worse. That is exactly where you are. You believe this is harmful but you can't actually give practical help or suggestions. – conman Jul 24 '18 at 12:08
  • @J.A.R.V.I.S. It would be different if the situation were actually abusive (i.e. unquestionably bad for the child and recognized as such by the state) but having dealt with that before, those situations are even more messy. In my experience you have to be very close to a family in order to have any hope of helping in an abusive situation. – conman Jul 24 '18 at 12:10
  • I second this answer. The only thing you will do by interfering in how he parents his children is to destroy what relationship with him you have, and likely your relationship with your parents. – Rob K Jul 24 '18 at 20:21
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Well, first of all:

I don't think that you can prepare a conversation like this. Your brother can response as he want and you can't plan that.

You could start by talking about your childhood and ask what he propably want to do "better" than your parents. If he won't mention the spanking, just ask him.

Be kind and try to understnad him.

Like you say: ..that it can cause.. and ..it can be... It could be a terrible way to damage his child or it could change nothing.

Don't stay in your opinion and get angry, thats very important. Otherwise this conversation could end worse.

1. Talk normaly and don't force to get to this topic.

2. Be polite and try to understand him

3. Say what you think, but stay in a positive mood. Dont force him to get on your "side"

4. If you notice that he wan't change his mind. Stop talking and maybe try it anoter time

5. If he understands you, show him other ways to address his child's unwanted behavior.

This actually worked in my case.

Hope this answer could help you.

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    You say this actually worked in my case. Can you give a bit more detail if you're comfortable sharing? – J.A.R.V.I.S. Jul 24 '18 at 0:52
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That is a difficult question.

People may get angry when they are criticized about something as personal as how they treat their own child. So tread lightly.

I would talk to him without your partner. I would start out with finding a specific situation. No generalization. No accusation. Just a description of what happened. E.g. "John, the last time we were over to your place I noticed that you slapped Jeremy, when he screamed too loudly."

Then I would add a sentence about how that made you feel. "When I saw this I felt sad and concerned for Jeremy." Lastly, I would say what your fears are. "I am afraid that it will have a negative impact on Jeremy in the future."

An approach like this will make you quite vulnerable and it is hard to approach it that way but maybe it decreases the chances to offend. It's much easier to criticize.

Since you do not seem to have a specific situation like this you could approach it more generally: "John, when we were kids, I remember that one day our father slapped me when I came home too late. It made me feel afraid and helpless back then. Today I feel sad that he did this to me and I have a distant relationship to him. I am estranged from my parents. It's sad because I wished it would have been different. Now that we grew up and you have your own child I am concerned about his future as well. How do you handle that? Do you spank Jeremy?". And then go from there.

Case in point, I have not talked to my parents in years. Back then it was a violent childhood. It had a major negative impact on me.

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Your goal is not to change your brother's opinion. Your goal is to give you brother more information, which will (hopefully) cause him to come to the same conclusions that you did.

I would start the conversation with your brother by saying that you mentioned that you had been spanked as a child to your partner, that she was strongly opposed to the practice and you want to know what he thinks of the issue.

Starting the conversation this way is mildly duplicitous, because the discussion actually began about your brother's child being spanked rather than yourself, and because your goal is to convince your brother not to spank his child rather than to discuss the merits of spanking in abstract. If your brother knows that you know that he spanks his child, you're probably better off being a little more honest. But it allows you to start the conversation without immediately calling into question your brother's judgement.

No matter what, though, the message that you want to convey is that your partner gave you information that you didn't have before, and you want your brother to have that information as well. The decisions he makes based on that information is his own responsibility, and not something that you plan to question (even if you want to).

This means, by the way, that when you go into this conversation, you need to be prepared to provide the information as clearly and completely as possible. In particular, you should be able to provide suggestions as to where your brother can go to do his own research, if he wishes to further pursue the issue.

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I'm going to challenge your frame on this question. I won't open for debate how disciplining is best done because I don't want the flames.

Put yourself in his shoes: someone who he is not close to, who isn't really familiar with the situation of how he disciplines his child and had no children of his own, is offering his views on child-rearing. If you were in his shoes, what would your response be? (Hint: if your answer is "I'd be open to the discussion", I'd suggest being more honest with yourself)

The only way to really have a meaningful discussion is to have a level of authority with someone else. I don't mean power, I mean authority. What do you know of the subject? What is your relationship? What have you done to deserve to be heard? Without having earned the respect of your listener, your odds of having attention paid to your views are minimal.

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