Research from the American Psychological Association, the Journal of Family Psychology, and others generally concludes that spanking your child has long term negative effects. Research similarly shows that spanking is rarely effective at promoting the desired behaviors. There is some dissent, but the strong majority scientific opinion is that spanking a child is psychologically counterproductive.
Despite the research, a majority of parents continue to condone spanking; about three-fourths of mothers in one study, for instance, say it’s acceptable to spank toddlers. The most common defense is some version of, “I was spanked as a child, and I turned out fine.” Another one is the one I used myself, “If they’re too young to understand language, we need to use other ways of communicating.”
I believe that spanking is generally lazy parenting. It’s easy and quick, and provides an emotional outlet for the adult to assert their authority. However it doesn’t address the root issues for the child. As a teacher in Michigan, corporal punishment of my students isn’t even an option for me. As teachers, we are forced to find other ways of addressing problem behavior. This is more challenging, but if the goal is to raise children who have the tools to resolve disagreements peacefully, that goal is not accomplished through the violent act of spanking.
I am now that parent of an eight-year-old. Below is an article I wrote four years ago on Google Plus (with light edits for this republication), reflecting on my attitudes at the time. Since then, I have become even more convinced that spanking a child is rarely appropriate, and that is usually abusive and counterproductive. I will not say there are never cases where it’s appropriate, but I think that such cases are extremely rare.
A recent post in an online community promoted spanking as an appropriate discipline technique. In the comments, there was a false dichotomy constructed: Either spank your child (or rely on equally ineffective measures like time-outs or bribes), or just let your child run amok.
I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m just a parent of a 4-year-old. So far, my wife and I seem to be doing a good job of raising a well-mannered, mature, conscientious, and caring child. We don’t spank, we use minimal time-outs, and we don’t bribe him in exchange for good behavior.
So what do we do?
While we don’t bribe, we do take away luxuries. Rather than saying, “If you behave, you get (desired thing),” we say, “If you don’t behave appropriately, you don’t get (desired thing).” The desired thing is sometimes tangible (a book or toy) and sometimes intangible (as I’ll explain below). It’s important, though, that the thing withheld is never so significant that it will be torture; love, attention, favorite cuddle toys… these should never be withheld.
Before my son was born, I felt that spanking was appropriate in extreme cases when it was immediate; the most obvious example was if he ran out into the street. Swatting his butt there on the easement, I figured, would be sufficient to connect the action with its inappropriateness.
I still think that that may well work with some children. Spanking when the act is distant from the misbehavior (twenty minutes later, for instance) or an excessive response (spanking a four-year-old for saying “dammit” when that’s something their parents say multiple times a day) is completely wrong, in my opinion. Spanking as an immediate response to a life-threatening situation, though, I can somewhat understand.
However, with my son, it was not effective. It confused him, it made him mad at me, and it didn’t curtail the behavior. What did work? He’s a very independent child. He hates holding hands with us when it’s not his idea, and he hates being carried when it’s not his idea. He does love both of those things when they’re his idea; we’re “cat people,” so perhaps he’s part cat.
So when he forgets himself and runs too far ahead of us near a street, we make him hold hands with us; if he still acts up, I tell him I’m going to carry him. I had to force the issue a few times; now, he complies with just a verbal reminder.
He values his freedom, so one effective disciplinary response is to take that away temporarily.
There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. It’s part of a general Attachment Parenting strategy of treating him as a human being who happens to need more explicit guidance, direction, and advice. We treat him with respect, and part of that respect includes not hitting him.
What we don’t do, and one place where I think many parents struggle, is treat him as a friend first and a son second. We have a good relationship, but the parent-son relationship is first and the friend relationship is second.
As a teacher, I have a lot anecdotal data on spanking and misbehavior. Promoters of spanking often say that the children who run amok aren’t getting discipline at home. I’ve called parents of misbehaving teens; I’ve been told that spankings will be coming. Sometimes they’re getting the belt ready before they’ve even hung up the phone.
Other parents offer to come in and have three-way conversations with me and their student, or put their child on speaker phone. The latter cases are far more effective in changing student behavior, while the students who get spanked are sullen for a few days but go right back to the misbehavior within a week.
Most children want the same thing that most adults do: To be noticed. Sure, spanking can communicate “I care enough to notice you,” but it more loudly communicates “Do what I say because I have physical power over you.” It might provide some short-term correction, especially for children who don’t get enough attention. But I don’t think it’s nearly as effective as treating your child with true respect (which includes realizing that they’re children and need solid direction, not bribes).
Photo credit: Getty Images