In 1983, our nation first proclaimed the month of April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. During April, individuals and organizations come together to raise awareness and gain support to reduce and prevent the abuse and neglect of children.

When it comes to the protection of children, it matters not that they live in our home, our neighborhood, or our community. Every child’s safety and well-being is our collective responsibility, no matter the month, week, or day.

As a parent educator and home visitor in the early childhood field, I have the privilege every day to interact closely with parents and their young children. I have an opportunity to partner with parents, share knowledge and provide insight in ways to guide children and nurture a healthy and strong parent-child bond.

I recognize that each parent is on their own journey of parenting, with all its trials, errors, and triumphs. My task is to join them where they are at for part of their journey, to respect their role and their struggles, to be patient with their process, and to celebrate their successes.

I get to witness some special moments on this journey, like when a parent has a realization about their child or themselves. One of those times came when a parent and I were talking about the difference between discipline and punishment. I told this parent that I didn’t know where she and her partner stood on the issue of spanking, but that I wanted to share an article on the topic of spanking.

Here is the parent’s response: “We spanked our older son a few times, but we don’t spank anymore, not since the time me and my toddler were playing rough and tumble. When I told him it was time to stop, he didn’t stop. So, I gave him a swat. His immediate response was to smile and swat me back. At that moment, I realized he thought I was playing.”

What this parent realized was so profound. I told her how her toddler’s response spoke to the trust he has in her. There was no way his little mind could wrap itself around the thought of his mommy intentionally hurting him, when his only experience of her had been kindness, acceptance, protection and love. Would we want a child to think otherwise? Would we want to betray a child’s trust? That is why we should not choose to spank.

Later, I thought of how another, less self-aware parent, may have interpreted and responded to their child hitting them back. They could have seen it as a challenge to their authority, and deserving of punishment. This could lead to the parent hitting again, hitting harder, only to erode the child’s sense of trust and safety in their parent; the one adult a child depends on for protection and love.

People who spank believe that it’s different from abuse. Ask yourself, “Is it?”

When a child is being hurt, their ability to think clearly shuts down. It is replaced with confusion, fear, even rage. Spanking does not teach children that running towards the street is dangerous. It teaches them that the grownups on whom they depend are dangerous.

The more a child is spanked, the less able the child is to regard the parent as a source of love, protection, and comfort. Resentment and mistrust interfere with the child’s healthy feelings of attachment to the most important adults in their life.

It is critical that we choose non-violent means to solve conflicts with children and each other. Whether it is in the home, school, church, or community, children depend on adults for their safety and well-being. They look to these adults to guide them. Let our guidance be positive, respectful, peaceful, and kind.

Discipline is to guide and teach appropriate behavior. When a young child runs toward the street, rather than using your hand to spank, use it to guide the child away from danger. Use your voice, in this teachable moment, to explain that the street is dangerous and they could be hurt.

Children who are shown respect give respect. Respect is learned through watching others model it and through feeling respected by others — parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, and all other adult role models.

Please take this time to reflect on your own parenting practices and the ways in which you guide children’s behavior. How can you improve your interactions with children? How can you support other parents to improve their parenting approach? Is there a child you can mentor? How can you be a positive role model for others?

Jeanine Deas lives in Waterville.