Care and Feeding

I’m Stunned by How My Sister Chose to Punish Her 6-Year-Old Stepson

How big of a deal is this, and how big of a deal should I make out of this?

Broken teacup.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by damaloney/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve recently been trying to reconnect more with my half sister, who is in her mid-40s and about 20 years my senior. We became really close several years ago, but then we both moved, the pandemic happened, she voiced borderline anti-vax views, and the closeness I used to feel with her dissipated, to my great sadness.

I’d already been trying to figure out how to broach some of these issues when she related to me a story about her 6-year-old stepson, “Johnny.” Apparently, Johnny was very curious about an antique tea set my sister inherited from her mom. She caught him playing with it once and warned him he’d be severely punished if she caught him at it again. Well, sure enough, he played with it again and broke two of the teacups. He denied doing it, but she spanked him.

I’m stunned. I don’t know if our dad spanked her, but he did spank me once that I recall, vividly, when I was 5. I didn’t “learn my lesson” (I hadn’t even done anything wrong); instead I just learned he couldn’t be trusted. It so terrified me that I was afraid to turn my back to my father for weeks after, because I thought he might suddenly be seized by the urge to hit me again.

My first instinct was to tell my sister that I consider spanking children to basically be abuse. However, I didn’t want to alienate her by calling her abusive, especially since spanking is still, somehow, socially acceptable. This has been bothering me ever since, and I can’t think how to approach it with her or if I should at all. I don’t have kids yet, but I feel like the responsible decision would have been to lock up the tea set, especially once she realized Johnny was interested. I mean, he’s 6! He’s curious. Kids break things, so childproof your home and lock important stuff up. This seems natural.

Is spanking ever acceptable anymore? Could this be a generational divide? (I certainly won’t be spanking my kids.) How big of a deal is this, and how big of a deal should I make out of this? I know this column often advises butting out over differences of opinion when it comes to parenting. Does spanking count as just a difference of opinion and I should just quietly disagree? My husband and my best friend agree it was wrong but think I shouldn’t say anything. Do I need to mind my own business?

—Spooked About Spanking

Dear SAS,

The dangers of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment are so widely agreed-upon by parenting experts (not advice column ones, I mean scholars and doctors) that I don’t think this is one of those topics where you can agree to disagree. This piece from the American Psychological Association is one of many you can share with her that discusses both the potential harm caused by physical discipline (including “increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems”) and the agreement among researchers that spanking is an ineffective tool anyway: Not only can you traumatize your children in the process, but you’re unlikely to get the sort of results you were looking for in the first place.

To answer your question—is spanking ever acceptable? To a good number of people across the globe, unfortunately yes. To the people who have committed their lives to understanding how it affects children, emphatically no. You may have experts on your side, but your sister very well may have a large number of Americans. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need to hear your take—far from it. You love her and her child and only want what is best for them, and you owe it to your nephew to kindly encourage your sister to explore new ways to enforce household rules. Be patient, be understanding, be unwavering.

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

This week, my first grader had his two front teeth adorably crooked and very nearly falling out spontaneously. I wanted to get a good picture of them before they fell out, but when he got home, he was toothless. He presented them to me in a bag and said a teacher (not his own teacher, but another teacher he knew) pulled them out. He said he bled a little but it didn’t hurt. He never admits to pain.

He didn’t seem too upset about it. My husband was incensed and wants to escalate this. On the one hand, the teeth were going to fall out eventually. But I’m sad that I didn’t get a picture. I’m also shocked that some adult would do this to my kid, or any kid. I would understand if my kid’s teeth were some disruptive distraction to the class, but he’s a quiet guy. Should we demand an apology?