Let’s autopsy what just happened here. Was the child disobeying? Yes. Was the four-year-old’s behavior atypical? No. Four-year-olds do things we’ve told them not to do even when we’ve explained the consequences 700 times. So do adults. The difference is that, developmentally, the part of a four-year-old’s brain that controls reason and logic hasn’t fully formed and his understanding of cause and effect is still developing.
In all probability he’s not thinking about the consequences at all because he is singularly focused on what he is doing at that exact moment—which is getting out of his bed and finding you. Four-year-olds don’t have the mental facility to extrapolate out the greater moral implications of disobeying parents, nor do they have the mental facility to plot elaborate, ingenious ways to push all our buttons at two hours past their bedtime.
I know what you’re thinking: “You don’t know my child.” You’re right, I don’t. Your child might be the exception, and really is cunning enough to engage in bedtime psychological warfare. Even so, it doesn’t abrogate your responsibility as the adult in the relationship. I give parents a lot of grace on this one; parenting is tough. If you don’t think it’s hard, you’re either doing it wrong or you just haven’t had a big-enough challenge yet. But there is a reason adults are parents (ideally), because we (ideally) have the maturity to raise children.
Refer back to my hypothetical situation. Did we really have to spank our four-year-old? No. We resorted to spanking because we got tired, ran out of patience, and for the love of all things holy just wanted to go to bed. We didn’t want to have to think about it, we just wanted compliance. Ultimately, that’s what spanking is designed for: compliance. Whether it’s disobeying a bedtime routine or telling a lie, we want the behavior stopped. While that might be the expedient thing to do, it’s not the adult thing to do. We are the adults in these situations; our behavior has to be at least more mature than that of our four-year-old.