Go Play Outside

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I moved to Oregon 12 years ago. I’ve been married for 11 of those years, and a parent for 10, so it’s worked out well for me. I love a lot of things about Oregon, but I think my favorite part of it is the outside part. And now that Summer is approaching, the outside promises to be less…well, wet. That means lots of family outings.

It may seem all too obvious that it’s good for kids to be outside. There are many compelling reasons for this, and author Richard Louv is eloquent about why that is so. In his book Last Child in the Woods, he details the recent shift away from allowing children to spend their most important developmental years outside. This shift, he writes, has resulted in a disconnection from the natural world that has brought with it a host of health problems, many of them new to the last couple of generations. His solution is simple, but widely ignored: kids, go play outside.

He writes, “…at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.”

Does this mean that we should be sending our kids to summer camp? Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting? Building lean-tos and snow caves? Sure, why not? But it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Nature is everywhere, after all. We noticed that when our family visits Portland, we tend to spend more time outside, walking downtown or along the river, catching the Max instead of driving. Even in the heart of the city we can get our fix of nature.

But we are also very fortunate to live in this beautiful valley, which is full of places to go, to walk and hike or just to wile away an afternoon. And many of them are absolutely free. For one thing, Oregon’s beaches are open to the public, a fact that natives may not realize is a rare and precious thing. But often even getting to the coast takes more time and gas money than we can manage. We live in Lebanon (which incidentally is home to more rainbows than I’ve ever seen in my life) and there are dozens of beautiful spots—heck, maybe hundreds—within a manageable distance.

Here are some of our favorites.

  • Cheadle Lake is just minutes away from us, and its looping paths are just right for a walk that requires as much commitment as we—short toddler legs included—are willing to invest. And there are ducks, and geese. And turtles!
  • Silver Falls State Park is a bit of a drive, but its spectacular waterfalls and sprawling trails have been only fractionally explored by our family on countless trips. Of the places on this list, Silver Falls is the only one that requires a day use fee.
  • We spend a lot of time in Corvallis, and there are a host of lovely spots nearby. Bald Hill and the OSU Forestry Department’s Peavy Arboretum are always a great place for a stroll. And on hot Summer days we like to sit on the creek at the Hesthavn Nature Center, maintained by the Audubon Society of Corvallis, and just hang out. Dipping is optional but very tempting.

I encourage you to explore the Willamette Valley and find your own favorite spots. When in doubt, just go outside.

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Knock Knock

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I don’t laugh enough. I’ve been told that I’m funny, and also that I’m a sad person. I think that both of these are probably true to an extent. It’s accepted as generally true that people who are funny are also sad. I can’t speak for anyone else in this, but many comedians will tell you that humor is a cover for something else. In fact, actor and comedian Kevin Pollak has made a documentary about it.

You know who makes me laugh, though? Genuinely, unguardedly, seemingly without trying? My kids. They get to me every time. And the only thing that is better than my children making me laugh (with them, not at them, as Robin Williams would say) is the first time that they laughed.

As a parent, do you remember when you were sure that your baby was really laughing, and that it wasn’t “just gas?” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so successful as a father. When our oldest was about six months old I would spend seemingly hours playing peek-a-boo, making faces, doing anything that would produce just one more baby guffaw.

Until recently, there has not been much research into this. But a recent study of baby laughter has some interesting things to say about how they develop a sense of humor, and how they learn, from parents and siblings and other people around them, what is funny and how to respond to it.

From the article:

“At around 6 months old, children often look to their parents for cues before interpreting an event as humorous. At around 9 -11 months, infants are able to recognize what makes their parents smile & laugh and then attempt to elicit these responses from caregivers.”

What is remarkable is how complex this behavior is, and how early it develops in children. They learn how people will respond differently depending on the situation. And this sense of humor will carry over into their adult lives: “The ability to interpret humorous situations and respond appropriately is one that may be related to relationship satisfaction among adults.”

My daughters can crack each other up like nobody’s business, especially when I have asked them to, say, put on their pajamas and brush their teeth. And I know that they will continue to find each other hilarious. I frequently hear my wife giggling helplessly as she is texting her sister. When she tells me what’s so funny, I might not get it. It’s like a secret language. And it seems to do them good.

The benefits of laughter are well documented. “Laughter is the best medicine,” after all. But a sense of humor is also linked to the way we see the world, the way we understand and think about things.

Families are the laboratory in which these skills take shape. The stories we share about ourselves and about them when they were “little,” and the jokes we tell around the dinner table, are actually helping their brains to develop.

My four year-old:

“Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Chocolate cupcake.”

(Chocolate cupcake who?)

“Oh, I didn’t know you were a chocolate cupcake! Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Meatball.”

And so on.

I’m grateful that my kids can make me laugh. I needed that.

 

Thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for suggesting this topic.

Freedom From Choice

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In our culture, we associate freedom with choice. In many cases, freedom of choice has turned into freedom as choice. But this freedom can become overwhelming; in fact, it can come to feel like the opposite of freedom.

As a music fan, I actually miss having read about some elusive album and feeling the excitement of coming across it years later in the used bin at a record store. Now, of course, I can find pretty much anything I have ever heard of online, and download it instantly. It’s just not as much fun. The sense of anticipation and mystery has been replaced by a sense of…shopping. In a similar way, I often feel paralyzed scrolling through my list of movies to stream on Netflix and coming away with nothing to watch.

This is a thing, and it’s called decision fatigue. As adults, we can cope with the increasing array of choices by working to limit the number of things we have to choose. In order to live a more efficient and healthy life, we have to hold on to priorities and consciously set aside a large number of choices.

Now imagine that you’re a toddler, and you’re expected to choose what to wear today.

Something I still struggle with as a parent is presenting expectations as questions: “Do you want to wear a skirt or a dress?” “Are you ready to brush your teeth?” “Do you want to play outside?” Children of any age, up to and including teenagers, are not equipped to make the number of choices with which they are presented on a daily basis. They are not ready to engage in the sifting and prioritizing that we as adults take for granted (and which can sometimes still be a struggle).

Children need our help. And we can help by knowing when to give them a choice and when to make one for them.

This goes along with the routines and rhythms that are so important to the daily life of a child, and can free up the energy for them to learn and grow in a way that is more appropriate for young brains.

It starts with the basics: limit the number of choices by limiting the number of things from which to choose.

  • Have only a few items of clothing available, according to the needs of the season, and store the rest. Kids who are old enough to get dressed on their own will appreciate having a reliable outfit for the occasion.
  • Keep toys in bins and rotate them out. Play is important for child development, and a child that is surrounded by toys will just be confused and frustrated. The effect on attention spans and behavior is pretty easy to see.
  • Come up with a limited menu and rotate meals. We all look forward to Meatball Monday and Taco Tuesday, and they are events in themselves. Of course it’s important to introduce new foods on a regular basis, and these can be slipped in to the routine. And you can set a day of the week aside for trying something different.

The great thing about this deliberate limiting of choices is that it is compatible with not having a lot of money. Definitely a bonus.

Sick Days

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So, I’ve been sick for the last week. I’m fortunate to have a job with generous paid sick leave, so I’ve been home with my family. As we homeschool, my wife and all four kids were there as well. At first it was easy; I’d like to think that I’m a “good” sick person, meaning that I don’t whine and don’t put a lot of demands on other people. The problem with our particular situation is that, having been exposed to my illness, everyone else was soon sick as well. That’s when things got complicated.

It’s a truism that parents don’t get sick days. Having children at home does not suspend any of the duties involved in taking care of them. It just means that we do it while we’re sick. So when the kids are all up several times in the night coughing or presenting with fevers (and rarely at the same time), a lack of sleep certainly raises the stakes for adults who are trying to get better.

Last week I went in to the doctor and took the four girls with me. The good news is that none of us have the symptoms of whooping cough, which has been going around. The not so good news is that it is viral bronchitis, for which there is basically no treatment other than to wait it out and to try and not spread the contagion back and forth like a game of volleyball. How many times a day can you remind a four year-old to cover her cough? The answer is many, many times.

As I mentioned, I am fortunate in my job; I know that many working parents have it much harder, as many employers don’t look kindly on parents taking time off to care for sick children. Still. It’s an uphill battle trying to recover when everyone else now needs extra time and attention.

What’s good about sick days? The lowered expectations. The slowed pace of daily life and the imperative to take it easy. Reading books, when my voice will hold up, and watching movies when it doesn’t. A marked increase in board games and drawing. Laying around listening to audiobooks. Sitting in the sun like a lizard, when there is sun. Early bedtimes. And lots of homemade chicken soup. Come to think of it, my time home sick has worked better than some of our vacations.

If it wasn’t for the sickness part, it would be perfect.

More on the Cell Phone Thing

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Last week I wrote about my attempts to use my smartphone responsibly around my children. It makes sense to address the other side of this issue.

Though my eldest daughter is not quite ten, it has already come up. She has a running list of things that she wants to have and/or do as soon as we deem her ready. In addition to being able to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which beckons portentously from a high shelf, she would like to have a phone. It is not an urgent need, and as she is home schooled she is probably missing a lot of the social pressure she would otherwise be experiencing to be “connected.” She is only tangentially aware of Facebook, and she still thinks that her mother and I sometimes communicate telepathically when we are actually just texting. But she knows what a useful and desirable device it is, and after all we have been modeling its use for as long as she can remember.

What we decided is that when she is 16, and has earned her driver’s license (something that has not yet appeared on her list, as far as I know), she can have a phone. So we’re a ways out from this occurrence.

This leaves a lot of questions unanswered, however; among them: just how smart does her phone need to be? It used to be easier to separate the calling and texting functions from the games, apps, internet and social media. But there’s not stopping the hyperspeed evolution of technology. In fact, six years from now it will surely have developed in ways we can’t imagine. Which makes questions of limits and safety all the more important.

This article is typical in its approach to these questions, and it’s useful enough that I want to quote it at length.

“Just remember: When you hand kids phones today, you’re giving them powerful communications and production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to Web sites. They can broadcast their status and their location. They can download just about everything in the world. If you think your children’s technological savvy is greater than their ability to use it wisely, pay attention to the gap. Times may have changed, but parenting hasn’t. We’re still the parents. And it’s our job to say ‘no, not yet.'”

Our decision to wait until she is in her mid-teens is a common one, but as with most things it depends on your own child and your family’s situation. And it’s okay to experiment and make changes to the arrangement, allowing more or less access according to how safe and responsible they can be.

The Real Social Media

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Here’s what I hope my children don’t say about me when they’re older:

“But he was always on his phone.”

I am of an age. I went off to college with an electronic typewriter, and this is what I used exclusively for the next seven years. It had a little screen that showed one line of text, and when I hit “enter” it typed out the line. I started using email after I graduated from college. I did not become familiar with the internet until I was out of grad school, and working the swing shift at the front desk of a library. I became an adult, ostensibly, without the benefit of this technology.

I didn’t even have a cell phone, in fact, until I became a parent at 32. It was not a smart one; that came a couple of years later. Once I met my iPhone, though, it was love at first sight. There was no turning back.

My phone was extremely useful to me as a parent of small children. I could look up the lyrics of bedtime songs. I could read in bed while the toddlers drifted off beside me. I could fire up Netflix when the baby woke in the night, and watch Battlestar Galactica while rocking her back to sleep. Before my phone had a built-in flashlight, I used an app.

The trouble started later. It was all too easy to be staring at my little screen instead of looking my children in the face. Somehow, I was always terribly busy finding out about something. Now Facebook was a thing. It is a lot for a child to compete with.

I would like to say that I put my phone away now when I need to be present as a parent. I’m not there yet. For a variety of reasons I left Facebook sometime last year (for one thing, I realized that it’s not healthy to argue with strangers; for another, I just don’t need to have an opinion about everything). This has helped tremendously. But I still find it all too easy to pick up my phone and let it soak up my time and attention. I imagine that this is a common experience.

Is there a middle way? I wanted to learn about how parents could use their devices in a moderate and balanced way. I found a lot of useful information (on my phone, of course). Some articles are more alarming than others. But I have also been working on some principles of my own.

  • If I’m going to spend time reading in the presence of my children, let it be a book. Having books around, reading and holding them, showing that they have value, is a much clearer and more powerful way to model literacy for kids.
  • Writing is also an important thing to model, and I’m often making lists or jotting down notes. I try to do it on paper. Handwriting is in danger of becoming a lost art (heck, a lost skill). As with books, showing the work brings it into the physical world and children notice and will emulate it.
  • When I want to spend time on my phone, I can do it when they’re sleeping, or when they’re occupied elsewhere, or when I’m taking a break in another room.
  • Since my phone is obviously such a useful and fascinating machine, I can use it to share things with my kids. Look things up when they ask questions; show them photos of animals and planets and works of art; let them watch tutorials and documentaries and, yes, videos of cats. They love that.
  • Most importantly, I can put my phone down during times in which I value our being together. Meal times, for example. I would not want them to have devices at the table, and they will do what they see much more than what I say.

Face to face conversation: that’s the real social media.

On Chores

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There are a lot of ways to present chores to kids. They can be tied to allowance or to other privileges, and this is fairly common. But I would like to propose a different approach.

I grew up under a straight system of chores for allowance, and given my comic book habit this worked nicely for me. However, this arrangement encouraged me to cultivate a somewhat mercenary attitude: I failed to see the use of raking and bagging leaves, for example, other than as a source of income; and if I did not have plans for the money my enthusiasm for the job was…lacking.

More useful, though, was my weekly job of mowing the lawn for my grandparents: the expectations were clear, and the wage ($10 per job) allowed me to steadily accumulate funds for movies and role-playing game modules. More importantly, it prepared me for the exchange of labor for pay that goes into any future job, particularly of the sort available to teenagers. I was expected to show up each Saturday morning, and my grandfather was good enough to inform me of when I needed to do the job with a different emphasis or with increased vigor.

As a result of these experiences, I have come to see the use in framing a job as a job and chores as something else entirely.

In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what need to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life. It is important for chores to be age-appropriate, and there are a number of resources that can help ensure this. I like this list put out by Montessori educators, and it has served as a useful guide.

Recently, inspired by a Nurturing Parenting training, I decided to formalize the process. I bought a whiteboard (though a piece of paper, or any of a number of online templates, would serve as nicely) and created a chart, with chores listed down the left-hand column and days of the week along the top (no chores on Sunday, as we go to Church in the morning). I found a set of magnets and labeled them with names, with two magnets (two daily chores) per child. I rotate them daily so that they are performing different tasks each time—their preference—and place them according to age. I allow the girls to write and/or illustrate each chore.

Here is the current list of chores for our household:

Ages 4-6

Trash patrol (gather bits of paper and other detritus and put in trash bin)

Sock matching

Sweeping

Dusting

Laundry patrol (gather clothes and put them in hamper)

Ages 8-10

Put away dishes

Sort and put away clean laundry

Vacuuming

Library (gather and shelve books—we have a lot of books)

Take out trash

Clean bathroom (Scrub sink and bathtub, tidy and clear floor)

Making beds is a daily chore for everyone.

Sometimes we assign “big girl” chores to the little ones with the expectation that an older sibling or adult will assist them. This helps to familiarize them with tasks for which they are not yet ready.

We have been using this system for a month now, and it seems to be working. The kids are more willing to do their part when they see that it is consistent and part of an organized system. I expect that changes will continue to be made, which is why I use a whiteboard and dry-erase markers.

This is not the only way to do it, and it may not be ideal for your family. I encourage you to explore resources, talk to other parents, and come up with something that suits you.

The Daddy Date, and Other Sacred Spaces

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As our kids get older, a lot of things may start to place themselves between them and their family. Their social circle extends ever further beyond their home and their siblings. They want to participate in new activities, take on new experiences, explore ever-widening territory, identify and hone their skills, talents and interests. All of these things are good and healthy and help our kids to establish their own identities. But this can make it harder for us as parents to maintain that connection that used to seem more natural. Just as we discover about making and keeping adult friends, it becomes work.

Often parents find that it’s harder to bridge the distance between themselves and their children as they grow into teenagers and young adults. Part of this is due to a phenomenon which is largely beyond our control, but important for to keep in mind: in today’s culture, our kids are finding themselves more and more among their peers. It starts to happen from an early age and only intensifies as they get older. In the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, authors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté suggest that this phenomenon is a relatively new one, and that it makes staying connected to our tween or teen children that much more challenging. In fact, it renders any connection between children and adults—even trusted, nurturing and mentoring adults such as teachers and coaches, more difficult. They write:

“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role—their own peers. They are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from adults. Instead, children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.”

This phenomenon is termed by the authors peer orientation. We want our kids, in the common parlance, to be socialized, to have experiences with a variety of people and to accept and honor differences among them. But we place them in a variety of situations—otherwise valuable and necessary settings such as public school, extracurricular activities, sports teams, camps—in which they are more likely to be influenced by people their own age, and as a result they may not be getting the adult guidance they need in order to grow and extend their skills and knowledge. And of course, parents are feeling this disconnect most strongly.

What can we do about this? We are busy as well, and often find that to be in the same place in the same time with our kids is a rare and precious commodity.

One answer is something to which we keep coming back around: routines. Establishing times in which to be together with our kids that is protected, even sacred, can never happen too early. When they are young it comes easily, in things like bathtimes, bedtimes, reading and play. But it is just as important to keep these times sacred and continue them as our kids get older.

  • Eating together, if at all possible, is one of the most basic and powerful ways that families can maintain that bond. For many families, in which parents work or go to school at different times, and kids are busy with their own activities, this is not always manageable. But even to set aside one night a week in which the whole family gathers together for a meal can forge a connection that runs through whatever changes may occur.
  • Family meetings are another valuable way to set aside time that strengthens family bonds. This can be accomplished in any number of ways, and can work according to each family’s needs; daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, even yearly. They can be as structured or as informal as you like, and incorporate Powerpoint, a whiteboard, a piece of notebook paper, or…not. The Nurturing Parenting program has some good resources on how to start and manage family meetings.
  • A few years ago I instituted the Daddy Date, in which I, with one of my four daughters, leave the house and spend some deliberate time together. We might go to a coffee shop and read books, run errands or shop for groceries, go for a walk or a bike ride. The important thing is that this time is for us, and that my focus remains on the child. Daddy Dates are not always consistent or regular, and sometimes I find to my dismay that months go by before we can reestablish them. But my girls will take the opportunity whenever it is offered, and often make their own plans for one. The best part is that there will never be any reason to discontinue them; there is no growing out of this sacred shared time.

The Talk

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Not to alarm you or anything, but it has become increasingly common for girls to enter puberty at an earlier age. There is a great deal of speculation about why this might be, but few definitive answers. It may be related to diet, or to the chemical makeup of contemporary foods. It may be influenced by environmental factors, and triggered by stress, trauma, major life events, birth order, or any combination thereof. The fact is that girls’ bodies are often no longer waiting for the teenage years to start those hormonal engines.

My oldest daughter, aged nine, unceremoniously entered puberty a couple of months ago. This should not have been a big surprise, as both her mother and mine were also notably early bloomers. Both of us had talked to her about what was likely to happen, and from her reaction it seemed that she was better prepared than I was.

Case in point: when it happened I was volunteered to go shopping for her first tampons. Armed with specific instructions regarding the number, size and thickness of feminine hygiene products I was to seek out, I found that the industry had beaten me to it: there was in fact a “tween” brand prominently displayed on the shelf. It was as if they had confused consumer dads in mind.

I asked my wife when she had first had “the talk” with our daughter, and she told me that it had been coming up in conversation since she was a toddler. Rather than a single instructive talk, the preparation for puberty has been an ongoing dialogue. After all, when four girls and a mom are sharing a bathroom, certain things are noticeable. Nor was this dialogue connected necessarily to the larger—and often dreaded—”birds and bees” talk (does anyone call it that anymore?). There was no need to get into the mechanics of baby-making.

So, talking to our girls about puberty was part of a larger conversation about getting older, bigger and taller. This is an occasion for pride and excitement. I had been approaching it from my own experience with puberty, particularly around the acne that plagued me with some regularity into my early twenties, and which prompted, by advice from my dermatologist, my inaugural attempt at a beard (it was…inconsistent). I figured it was important for my daughters to know about the hair that would be growing in new places; the sweat; the kaleidoscopic surfeit of thoughts and feelings; the sudden variety of odors and bodily substances that are part of the package of growing up. Our eldest was already a veteran applier of deodorant, a fact which has been a source of curiosity, even admiration, for her sisters.

It was a natural progression. In order to mark this event as a cause for celebration rather than fear or trepidation, we have since allowed our eldest to get her ears pierced. Thus we have instituted a tradition particular to our own family culture. No doubt your family will have its own.

Spanking: The Debate, Sadly, Continues

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According to a recent article in the Washington Post (thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for bringing it to my attention), “Millennials – the most recent generation to have been children – aren’t leading any attitudes change [sic] on the issue of spanking… If anything, they are slightly more supportive than their elders.” The article goes on to explain that the age of parents does not seem to have a strong influence on this attitude, but the fact remains that spanking continues to be seen as an effective form of discipline in spite of well-known and widespread research that indicates otherwise.

Because of the continued prevalence of spanking as a practice—and especially the fact that the younger generation of parents is even more likely to find it acceptable than their parents did—I would like to briefly address it here.

There are several generalized reasons given for the effectiveness of spanking children.

  • Some of them are based on personal rationalization, along the lines of “I was spanked as a child, and I turned out okay.” It is difficult to respond to this justification other than to point out that a major effect of being spanked as a child is that it leads to a likelihood of spanking one’s own children. One could argue that this counts as having “turned out okay.” It is okay, if spanking is a good practice, and, well, not so much if it is not.
  • According to the study cited above, religious beliefs play a part in the acceptance of spanking as well, in particular the Biblical passage regarding “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” As a practicing Christian I do not find this to hold water; neither do I wish to get into it here. Suffice it to say that spanking is a prevalent cultural practice among certain religious communities.
  • What is left, then, is the attitude that spanking is, in itself, an effective tool of discipline. And this has been discounted by decades of parenting research. We could apply any of a variety of models to question this attitude. I go to the “4 Questions” formulated by the organization Parenting Now!, because they’re easy to remember and apply to a variety of situations:
  1. What do I want my child to learn?
  2. Is what I’m doing teaching that?
  3. Are there any negative results from it?
  4. If so, what can I do differently?

I think you will agree that the answers are pretty clear. If we are wanting our child to learn any number of things—whether it be a skill, respect for authority, self-control, decision-making, what have you—then spanking does not lead to acquisition of the skill. As adults, do we learn better when faced with the threat of physical pain? Do we respect those we fear, or who hurt us and violate our personal boundaries? Does causing pain teach a skill? Other than that force is an acceptable way to exercise our power?

As for the negative results: are they not obvious?

That leaves the question of what our other options may be. And that is why organizations like Parenting Success Network are here. There are numerous blog entries, articles and resources dedicated to providing positive, nurturing and non-violent tools for disciplining our children. A quick online search for “positive parenting” or “positive discipline” will bring up a wealth of information, most of which is more likely to be useful than not.

I want to add that all parents, and I must include myself, have done things they regret because they feel they have run out of options. This is not the same as working from the assumption that physical discipline is a desirable or effective practice. But knowing the options can help in either case.