Once again, people are talking about spanking and physical punishments. This time, thanks to the reality television program “John and Kate Plus Eight.” I have not watched the show, so I am not writing about that family and their parenting practices. However, I am always glad to see people talking about parenting. A lot of parents wonder about spanking. All of us who care for children need to think about how we feel about spanking and other physical means of punishment. Spanking, especially among parents of young children, is still very common. There is no topic related to parenting that stirs up such intense controversy as spanking. Want to turn that friendly parenting-group potluck into a war zone? Just start loudly voicing your opinion on spanking. It seems that the more it is discussed, the more people become entrenched in their positions—everything from spanking is absolutely necessary, to spanking is needed sometimes, to spanking is always wrong no matter what.
No one enjoys spanking a child. Remember that moment you first held your child in your arms? No parent has ever spent that moment looking forward to a time when they would want to hurt that little person. Yet everyone who already has children knows that a child’s behaviors can create most intense frustration we have ever experienced. Those times happen for all of us, and we owe it to ourselves and our children to think in advance about we will respond. My goal in writing is to send a hopeful message-- that you can raise wonderfully behaved children without spanking, and to describe why it is a good idea to avoid it.
Of all the things we do for our children, discipline is one of the most important. Children desperately need limits and consequences. Taking the time and effort to discipline thoughtfully is a great act of love. But many people do not know that discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is teaching children to choose to do what is right, instead of what is easy or feels good. It includes all of our methods for teaching them control their own behavior. The goal of discipline is to teach children to become people of good character, not just to make them submit to our authority.
Punishment is different. Punishment is a specific act done to create unpleasant consequences (such as physical pain, shame, or discomfort in the case of spanking). The goal of punishment is to reduce or eliminate an undesirable behavior. Spanking is a form of punishment. Many people do not know that you can be a very effective disciplinarian without ever using harsh punishments or spanking.
This posting is organized as a discussion of arguments I hear in favor of spanking and physical punishment. The information below reflects scientific evidence about parenting and child development, my clinical experience as a psychologist, my work as a special educator, and undeniably my experiences as both a mother and daughter.*
1. “Spanking is the only thing that really works!”
Many people who spank do it because they believe it is an effective tool for improving child behavior. Parents are surprised to find that this is actually not true. When scientists have compared spanking to other methods of changing behavior, they have found that spanking is actually not very effective. Scientists who study spanking have learned that parents believe spanking works because it often stops the unwanted behavior ‘right then and there.’ This sounds great; however, the important thing to know is that while spanking stops the behavior for the moment, it generally makes the problems worse. I liken spanking to scratching poison ivy. Spanking, like scratching poison ivy, does bring a moment of relief. Yet as anyone who has had poison ivy will tell you, the more you scratch it, the worse it gets. Spanking does little to eliminate or reduce problem behavior over time. Spanking does not teach the child to engage in better behaviors, it merely stops the behavior for the moment. Unfortunately, the unwanted behavior is very likely to return, and then it becomes harder to stop.
Scientists have been studying spanking for decades. Results across studies show that spanking and use of harsh punishments increases children’s level of aggression. Children who are spanked tend to become more defiant in response. This is not surprising. When a parent hits a child, she teaches him that it is ok to hit someone weaker than yourself as long as you feel you have a good enough reason. Children who are spanked are more likely to be physically aggressive towards others, including little brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, family pets, and even their parents. Psychologists others who work with children know that it is all too common for children and teens to hit their parents. Children who are hit learn to hit back, and they grow bigger and stronger each day.
In addition, just as with most punishments, children who are spanked get used to being spanked. It loses its effect. Over time, it can take more and more spanking (or spanking harder) to get the child to comply. Unfortunately, many parents find themselves rapidly depending on spanking once they start. They find that their kids are harder and harder to control. This is awful both for the children and their parents when everyone becomes stuck in a cycle of never-ending power struggles.
2. “Spanking works well if you do it in a controlled, loving, manner.”
I have heard this ideal of the ‘calm’ or ‘loving’ spanking held up as a ‘gold standard’ how to use this technique. However, this idea does not match what we know about human nature and how people behave when angry. In the real world, many parents can not meet the ideal of staying calm in the face of challenging child behavior. Studies show that many parents spank when they lose their temper. Multiple studies also show that when parents spank, the risk of crossing the line into abuse grows. Parents who spank more frequently or who spank with objects are at the highest risk. The reality is that parents who spank are at higher risk for going too far and harming the child as compared to parents who do not use physical punishments.
Our children can make us more angry, more afraid, and more frustrated than just about anything else in the world. As any parent knows, our children’s provocative behavior produces an extreme stress response. It certainly does not make us feel calm and loving. During emotional stress, our heart rates increase, we get an adrenaline rush; our bodies get ready for a ‘fight or flight.’ This is the time when we are least capable of thinking clearly. It is the time when we have the least self-control, when we risk going too far in punishing our children. It is easy to say “Oh that will never happen to me.” It is harder to face the idea that it could.
Surprisingly, releasing our anger physically tends to make us angrier and more aggressive. Scientists who study the human brain have learned that releasing aggression produces pleasure—it feels good to release pent up anger. The satisfaction we take in releasing anger makes it all the harder to stop. We all have it in us to do damage to others, and avoiding spanking is one way we can protect our children. Mixing messages about love with actions that cause shame and pain is very confusing to a child. The last thing we want to do is to teach our children, particularly our daughters, that it is fine for people who claim to love them to hit them.
3. “Spanking will help my child become a better person”
Many well-meaning parents use spanking in the hopes that it will help their children to acquire morals and values. While the goal is excellent, spanking teaches a very different set of lessons about how to treat those weaker than yourself. We can use pain and shame to force people to comply with our demands, but spanking does not teach our child how to be more loving, empathic, or considerate.
Imagine that you arrive home and tell your spouse that you forgot to make the bank deposit. Suppose your spouse then punches you in the face to ‘teach you a lesson.’ You might never forget the deposit again, but what would that punch do to your relationship? Would you ever feel the same about your husband or wife again? Would you gratefully accept that kind of treatment because you really did make a mistake? Human beings respond to punishment with anger, avoidance, and feelings of vengeance. Too often, people then turn that anger loose on whoever is available. Children may be afraid to hit the parent back, but they can hit the new baby, kick the dog, or beat-up the small kid in their class. As it is often said, children ‘learn what they live.’
I have often heard people argue that because spanking has been used in the past, that parents should keep doing it. However, people of the past did many things that we find unacceptable today, such as practicing racial segregation, allowing husbands to legally beat their wives, and abandoning children with Downs Syndrome and Autism in institutions. We have come a long way in our understanding of how such behaviors hurt people. Today’s parents are fortunate to have access to more effective means of changing behaviors. Every generation abandons practices when the research shows us better ways of living. For example, today’s doctors would never tell women that breast feeding is unhealthy for babies, or encourage parents not to hold and cuddle infants, but these were common child-rearing recommendations of years past. Today, we know better, and we can choose to do what works.
4. “If I don’t spank them, my kids won’t respect me.”
Parents do need to be authority figures. They do need to be in-charge if their children are to learn to self-control. However, parents are not in-charge when they are screaming at the kids, weeping with anger, or so angry they are ready to hit. Consider a work-place example. Employees are unlikely to respect a boss who has regular tempter tantrums. They might fear him, but he would not be likely get loyalty and devotion. Just as an adult would do with a punishing boss, research shows that children who are spanked learn to avoid their parent. Instead of learning to ask for guidance, these children learn to hide their mistakes, or plan revenge. Instead of creating respect, spanking is toxic to the parent-child relationship.
As tough as it is, the best way to teach our children to respect us and our rules is to ‘practice what we preach.’ Parents can demonstrate that even when you are furious, you do not lash-out at others. Parents can show that just because you feel like hurting someone, you do not give in to those feelings. We can teach children that being an adult means being able to master your impulses.
Finally, I have heard people make the argument that spanking is necessary because of “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child.” Some believe that “Spare the Rod” is an essential directive for parenting. Clearly, I am a psychologist and not a theologian, but I would offer this thought about that idea. The ‘big picture’ of all religions is the message of self-control. Human beings are charged to rise above our fear, aggression, and other baser instincts. Every religion teaches the central tenet of “do unto others” we call the Golden Rule. There is much in religious texts about mercy, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. These most important messages can serve as excellent guides for all of us making parenting decisions.
*Note: There are many excellent discussions of the scientific literature regarding spanking, and this post is intended to highlight a few of the key ideas in the debate regarding spanking. What I have written here summarizes ideas from many minds far greater than mine, and I would encourage anyone who is interested or skeptical to investigate further. The reader is directed to the following sources to learn more about managing difficult behavior:
The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child by Dr. Alan Kazdin
The Men They Will Become by Dr. Eli Newberger
The American Academy of Pediatrics www.aap.org
The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene
How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Touchpoints by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton
To examine the research about spanking for yourself, go to PubMed, an online database of journal articles: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/