American in Spain

Parenting In Spain: Inanimate Retribution

February 17, 2011

What!  Now, how did that table get in my mouth?As an expat parent of a toddler in Spain, I have noticed a rather bizarre parenting behavior exhibited by Spaniards caring for small children. A typical scenario goes something like this:

A toddler is careening around and hits her head on a table. Tables and desks are right at forehead height for a two-year-old. The parent or caretaker rushes over and hugs the crying child. Immediately the caretaker turns to the table and shouts, "Bad table!" and smacks the table hard with his hand and encourages the child to hit and scold the table as well.

If you're like me the first time I saw this parenting technique, you have a big "WTF?" thought bubble above your head. The only possible positive effect of this behavior would be to distract the child away from thinking about her pain, which is a good idea for sure. But if you think about it for more than a second, you see that you're teaching the child that:

  1. There are no accidents
  2. Some external agent is always to blame for your pain
  3. That external agent must be punished with violence

It's exactly this kind of thinking that is responsible for some of the worst litigation, legislation, violence, and war that has plagued our species throughout history. The exact negation of each of these sentences is what makes (some of) us responsible, honorable, mature adults. The main goal of good parenting should be to teach the child to fight her innate tendencies to think like these sentences and to accept responsibility for her actions.

When you ask a caretaker who has just exhibited this behavior what he is trying to accomplish by hitting the inanimate object and what that teaches the child, he will invariably say that he's never thought about it and "that's just what everyone does in that situation", and that yes, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, that is a bad thing to teach a child. I've talked to a few people about this, and they all say the same thing...and then keep right on doing it the next time their kid falls down.

This parenting technique seems pretty well ingrained in Spanish culture. I've seen my in-laws do it, the people at the grocery store, and parents in the playground. I can only assume that the daycare workers spend a good part of their day reprimanding inanimate objects. Thankfully, I've never seen my wife do it. Not that it matters, since my child has already learned the behavior and will often say "Bad!" and slap an object that she's just carelessly bumped her head on.

Does this happen in other cultures? The only culture of toddlers and toddler parenting I know is the Spanish one. Do American parents exhibit this behavior?


I fully understand that I'm making a mountain of a mole hill here. The vast majority of baby and toddler parenting techniques make no difference in the long term development and maturity of the child. I've never seen an adult Spaniard shout at or hit an object that he's bumped into, so the actual effects of this particular parenting behavior on the majority of children are most likely nil.

It does make me think, however... What behaviors do I exhibit that I do unthinkingly simply "because that's the way everyone does it", that, with a little thought, are clearly a bad idea?