During a recent primary care rotation in northeast Philadelphia, I was privileged to witness a community experience on a daily basis. Each morning I took the elevated subway to the end of the line out of the city, and transferred to a bus to get to the office. The 24 bus at 8:30 a.m. has the same faces every day, making their way to work at various stops along the route. There was also a mother of a particularly cute set of twin boys. Every day she also got on the “El” and transferred to the bus with me, in order to get her boys to the day care she also went to as a child, where she told me she trusted her kids so much it was worth the daily trip.
On my last day of the rotation, enjoying the familiar scene again of people saying good morning to each other on the 24, everyone’s pleasant morning was suddenly interrupted. The twins were being particularly annoying to their mother that day, and she began disciplining them. The entire bus witnessed this: a mother “popping” her boys on the arms repeatedly while yelling loudly, “No hitting! You don’t hit each other and you don’t hit mommy!”
As a pediatrician, this was hard to watch. “Popping” is a common practice here in Philadelphia, and it involves a quick but loud slap that leaves no mark and I assume only stings a second or two, and thus is not too physically harmful. I chose not to speak up as they are not my patients, and it was not my place to be confrontational at that moment. But the thought that went through my head immediately was, “How can this caring and well-intentioned mother expect her sons to learn the lesson to not hit while she is doing exactly that?”
Get online and you’ll see plenty of bloggers arguing the topic of popping, swatting, slapping, and spanking. People say, “My generation was spanked and we turned out fine!” or “It toughens kids up and teaches them discipline.” But the main problem here is the mixed message. The old adage, “Do as I say and not as I do,” simply does not work in childhood. The young developing brain of a child can’t make that distinction, and learning by example from their most loved ones on this planet – their parents – is the single most influential factor in their education.
Just because something is common does not make it right. A few short decades ago seat belts were not commonly worn, and we all know of their benefits now. Currently in America, obesity is becoming the normal body shape for adults and children alike, and every physician is trying their best to combat it. Popping, swatting, slapping, and spanking, in this pediatric resident’s opinion, is far too common, and if explained to parents why the practice is counter-intuitive and ineffectual, I do hope it can be a thing of the past some day, too.
Dr. Beardmore is a pediatric resident at Albert Einstein Medical Center and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.