I just received a call from a young mother who tries very hard to properly rear her children. They are very obedient and pleasant. However, she has one concern. Her little three-year-old girl seems to be fearful and anxious when disciplined. She seems to withdraw into an “I’m being hurt mood.” There is no rebellion. There is instant compliance. When spanked, she stands rigid and stoically accepts her “just due.” Afterward she looks anxious and fearful.

I asked the mother if she was expressing hostility or anger toward her daughter. She answered as I expected (knowing the family well), “No, I am not angry or impatient. I always take a long time and explain how she has done wrong and why I am spanking her.” So I asked the mother, “Does she begin to be withdrawn and hurt before the spanking?” “Yes, as soon as I begin to talk to her, she acts like she is going into some kind of a trance or something. She just acts like it is hurting her so much to be rebuked. If I tell her to stop crying, she does. If I tell her to smile, she does, but I don’t feel like I am getting through to her soul.”

Just to make sure of what I already believed, I asked, and she assured me, that she was spending time building her child up as a worthy and valuable member of the family.

So, as we evaluate this mother’s concern, note that she is not concerned that her child obey, or even that she have a good attitude; this she does. She is concerned for what is going on behind those cold, misted eyes. Ultimately, that is our deepest concern. Let a child get rowdy, fail to do his chores, tear something up, steal a cookie, hit his sister over the head with her favorite teddy bear, or sneak off to play with an undesirable neighbor; but make sure the light that is burning behind the windows of their soul is bright and honest.

In such a situation as this, my first thought is to search out any emotional or physical abuse. That trance-like, non-resistant submission is symptomatic of a child scared to death. That not being a possibility here, I was puzzled until she told me that the child began to withdraw as soon as the lecture began. I have seen this situation many times before. It occurs as a result of an intense, oversensitive mother or father — usually mother. A mother who is consumed of her own deep feelings will project that same emotional seriousness into every personal confrontation. Have you met people to whom you wanted to say, “Lighten up, relax; It’s not that serious yet?”

Don’t overwork your child’s emotions with excessive indulgence in: “Why did you do that? You hurt Mother. You make me feel so badly. What you did is wrong, and God wants us to love our neighbor, etc.” Children, especially young children, are not equipped to deal with great questions and issues of right and wrong, or of motive and consequence. The degree to which they are morally awakened should be addressed; but to expose them to the adult burden of motive and responsibility can cause them to carry a weight too heavy. A child can become depressed and withdrawn when they know that they are about to go through another emotionally heavy grilling that only spells rejection to them. If they had the courage to speak they would plead, “Whip me double time, but stop whining and looking at me with that forlorn pitiful expression.” A child can take the spankings and bounce back before you find a place to lay the switch. But your emotions can bury them under a pile. Save the deep hurt and serious lectures for those rare times when the child’s offense is worthy of Hell. Don’t take them to the judgment seat of Christ every time they act like a kid.

The mother confessed that when she wanted the children to do something, she would ask them to do it rather than tell them to do it. They were left with the responsibility of deciding whether or not they should act. In some cases, when the mother really was giving them a choice, they found that they can say “No” and the mother let it slide. But at other times the mother expected the child to obey her “suggestion.” When the child fails to agree to do what is “asked,” the mother just sighs deeply and takes on a look of being personally hurt. The children are then expected to evaluate the mother’s pain and alter their choice accordingly. Of course, the children will eventually be emotionally manipulated into following the mother’s feelings. This is beginning to get sick.

Hey! where is the old fashioned: Mama says, “Pick up your clothes in the next thirty seconds.” No emotion, no alternative, no mercy. “In this household there is ‘one law of the Medes and the Persians, which changeth not’, and I am it. You now have nine seconds and counting.” The mother is not angry. She is not hurried. She is smiling. “I think that she is hoping I don’t make it in time. I believe she is going to enjoy spanking me. Get out of my way sister, I am coming down the hall with a load of dirty clothes at about sixty miles an hour.” As the little tot dives into the clothes hamper with his pile of laundry, the mother makes a little buzzer sound with her mouth, laughs and lays her switch down, saying, “You made it this time; Oh well, maybe next,” and turns to another chore. The kid backs out of the clothes hamper, laughs and feels like he just won at some sort of competition. He feels secure because his mother is secure. He may get half a dozen little spankings a day, but he never has to deal with weighty emotional matters that are meant only for emotionally disturbed adults.

– Michael Pearl