As children across the country headed back to school, some students in Missouri returned to find corporal punishment, with parental approval, reinstated in their district. They joined students in 19 other states where corporal punishment is still legal in schools. At home, most American parents—an estimated 52%—agree or strongly agree that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking” Parents hold this opinion despite overwhelming scientific evidence that spanking is linked to mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. In a well-known and highly regarded study of over 1,000 twins, Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin found that spanking was linked to lying, stealing, fighting, vandalism, and other delinquent behaviors. Gershoff’s findings are not new. For decades, nearly every research study on corporal punishment has affirmed that spanking is linked to negative outcomes in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Why then, despite substantial scientific proof that spanking is harmful, do parents still engage in corporal punishment and give schools permission to do the same?
Like most people, parents often put more faith in their own lived experiences and intergenerational values than they put in science. They spank because they themselves were spanked, because they don’t want to spoil their child, and because they believe spanking works. In a very narrowly defined way, spanking does work. Nearly always, a spanking stops child misbehavior in the moment, providing parents with immediate relief and a sense of control. But it is this powerful and direct lived experience that’s at the heart of the differences between parents and scientific researchers. Parents believe spanking has stopped the negative behavior and provided relief to an aversive situation. Researchers counter that—in the long run—spanking has adverse effects on mental, emotional, and physical health, and the relief parents feel when spanking works is like a short-term win at the slot machine that obscures inevitable long-term losses.
American parents live in a culture where they’re expected to parent effectively even without parenting education, training, or support. Parents are pummeled with unsolicited advice from in-laws, parenting blogs with conflicting information, and strangers in the grocery store. Instagram and magazine covers imply children are sweet, beautiful, and all smiles all the time. Most of what American culture tells parents about parenting is filled with myths and lies. Parenting is not easy, and most children are less sugar and spice and more poop, whines, and tantrums. No wonder many parents feel insecure, hypersensitive, and ready to aggressively defend their right to use corporal punishment.
But underneath their aggressive defense of spanking, there is evidence that parents also have their doubts. Some of these doubts are expressed in the classic pre-spanking parental claim that, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you.”
For parents who want to spank less, consider the following ideas. But remember, nothing works for all families and you’ll need to tweak this advice to fit your unique situation.
Consider Your Goals
Discipline is much more than punishment; it involves teaching and learning. In that light, consider your parenting goals as teaching goals. If you’ve spanked your child, you’re not a bad person, you’re just a parent who was trying to teach your child something using a tool that works in the moment, but will cost you later. For the future, think about what you want to teach your child and explore through reading, counseling, or consultation how you might accomplish your teaching goals. For example, if you want to teach your child self-control, you’ll need to model self-control, talk about how people develop self-control, notice and offer positive feedback when your child exercises self-control, and provide small, immediate, and noticeable consequences when your child loses self-control. Grandma’s rule, “When you wait your turn, then you can have some free time” is another effective language-based technique for guiding children’s behaviors.
Many parents struggle to think of what to do instead of spanking. One effective alternative is called natural and logical consequences. For example, if your children are fighting over a toy and your goal is to have them cooperate, the toy can be put in time-out. Or if your children are late to dinner because of playing computer games, they can lose screen time. Like most consequences, natural and logical consequences work best when the children know the rules and consequences in advance.
Parenting is easier when parents discuss their challenges with supportive friends, family, or professionals. Most communities have ready-made support groups. You can call and ask your public library, your children’s school counselor, or your pediatrician’s office for recommendations. Free online resources are also available (see: https://www.parentshelpingparents.org/virtual-support-groups). Like everything, you’ll want to test out these resources to see if they’re a good fit for you and your needs.
Be Patient (With Yourself and Your Child)
Parenting well is a marathon, not a sprint. Most parents include positive relationships and communication as primary parenting goals. Several strategies including special time, mutual problem-solving, and character feedback can help grow positive parent-child relationships (see: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tip-sheets/). Remember the equation: Rules without relationship equals rebellion.
Children regularly test their parents. They will push boundaries, talk back, whine, and throw tantrums. One of the most important qualities parents can display to their children is a persistent and repetitive consistency in the face of children’s naturally-occurring misbehavior. There will be set-backs—if only because all parents are imperfect. When parents remind themselves of their long-term values and goals, it can make easier to parent with consistency.
Learning and practicing alternatives to spanking, both at school and at home, won’t be the first or last sacrifice you make as a parent. But it just might be the most long-lasting contribution you can make to your child’s future well-being and success.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, a professor of counseling at the University of Montana, and author of “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” (John Wiley & Sons). The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the University of Montana. You can access tip sheets and more at: https://johnsommersflanagan.com. The spanking episode of Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast is at: https://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/why-parent-spank-their-children-and-why-they-should-stop
This Post is republished on Medium.
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