What is spanking
Spanking, a form of corporal punishment, is using physical force to inflict pain on someone. This can include hitting, slapping, whipping, etc. Importantly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “open hand” or not, or how light or hard spanking is—if the intention is to cause pain, discomfort, or fear, it is spanking1.
The harsh punishment is intended to cause fear, pain, and the threat of harm to the child in order to change the child’s behavior.
5 things to consider before hitting
Despite the warnings of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)2 and the American Psychological Association (APA)3 about the potentially harmful effects of spanking, many American parents still use this form of physical punishment to discipline their children.
The topic of corporal punishment of children usually elicits fierce debates among parents, educators, scientists, and pediatricians alike.
Disciplining children can be a very challenging experience for parents. It is difficult to know what to do when your child tests limits, misbehaves, or has a tantrum.
Some of us grew up learning that spanking was a necessary or effective method of discipline. Thus, it’s natural to use it when disciplining. Others may feel that nothing else they’ve tried works and so they turn to physical discipline.
If you are using or considering using spanking to discipline, here are 5 things you must know4.
- Spanking is an ineffective disciplinary measure and it may even cause more behavioral problems in the long term.
- It prevents you from building a close relationship with your child. A close parent-child relationship is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s success in the future.
- It is harmful to your child’s brain development and mental health.
- It is associated with negative outcomes in the child’s well-being
- It teaches the wrong lesson
1. Does Spanking Work
The vast majority of parents turn to using spanking because they are at their wits’ end trying to get their children to behave. Some parents believe that disciplining their children harshly will make their children recognize that their behavior is unacceptable and, therefore, make them stop.
The problem is that the use of physical punishment to discipline is not effective.
Corporal punishment studies show that spanking may change behavior in the short term — as in, if you spank your child, they may change their behavior at that moment — but that it is not effective in the long run. Even as a short-term solution, spanking has not been shown to be more effective than a time-out5.
Decades of research show that spanking is not an effective long-term solution to children’s behavior problems. It may make children become less obedient and show more aggressive behavior over time6 , particularly in cases where the parent is routinely spanking a boy7.
In other words, spanking may make children worse behaved than children who do not get spanked at all.
2. Spanking damages the parent-child relationship
Why do parents have kids?
Many of us want close, connected relationships with our kids, but spanking has the exact opposite effect.
When you spank your child, you break their trust. Trust is lost when the person who is supposed to protect you causes you physical harm. Spanked children will likely avoid their parents and hide their problems, even when they need help most.
A parent-child relationship is special, but it’s not that different from any other relationship because children are people, too.
As a person, do you like or trust people who would hurt you, and want to have a close relationship with them?
There is a strong association between spanking and the development of child aggression, especially child-to-parent violence. One study finds that child-to-parent violence only occurs when there has been physical punishment of children8.
So parent hitting a child can lead to a child hitting the parent later when they grow stronger — a hardly surprising outcome.
This form of punishment can damage your relationship with your child to an extent that it cannot be repaired.
3. Effects of spanking on a child’s brain & mental health
According to a new study from Harvard University, spanking can harm our kids’ mental health and change their brain response to environmental threats in a similar way to physical abuse9.
That is, the negative effects of spanking on a child’s stress response system are similar to those caused by child abuse.
Not only does too much harsh disciplining cause suffering, but a history of spanking can also lead to damage to a child’s brain.
The stress created from spanking elevates the cortisol levels in the child for a prolonged period of time10. This sustained cortisol exposure has been linked to brain damage and decreases in brain size11. Researchers find that children who have been spanked routinely have a marked reduction in gray matter volume in the brain12.
Spanking has profound negative effects on children. It can leave wounds and scars that go deeper than the skin. Spanked children are more likely to have the following mental health problems and developmental issues4.
- Lower self-esteem
- Increased risk of mental health disorders such as depression and substance abuse
- Greater risk of self-harm, suicide, or runaway
- Impaired cognitive development
4. Poorer physical health
Using physical punishment to discipline is using fear and threats to teach.
Being under threat is stressful.
Besides mental illness, exposure to prolonged stress in early childhood is also related to many negative physical outcomes later in life. These adult children are almost twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, premature mortality, and generally worse well-being13.
No matter how one defines spanking or whether one believes it is child abuse or not, a growing body of research finds strong associations between spanking and numerous detrimental outcomes over time.
5. What lesson does spanking teach
In addition to being ineffective and harmful to health and relationship, spanking teaches children the wrong lesson.
Parents aim to teach their children to be obedient and well-behaved.
The lesson children learn, though, is that violence is an acceptable means of resolving problems and the stronger person has the right to dictate what the weaker one does. And they don’t learn how to turn disruptive behavior into appropriate behavior14.
Another lesson this discipline method teaches is to choose a particular action out of fear of punishment rather than because it is the right thing to do15.
As a result, spanked children are found to be more likely to:
- Show increased aggression over time
- Bully others or be bullied by others, especially in boy spanking
- Display lower empathy and moral reasoning development
- Have delinquency and antisocial behavior over time
- Become involved in abusive relationships in adulthood
- Develop an intergenerational cycle of violence
Is it a real debate?
There will always be advocates of using violence to teach children proper behavior, especially those from previous generations.
For example, a child developmental psychologist, Christopher J. Ferguson, reanalyzed research data by controlling for preexisting child behavior differently in individual studies to conclude that spanking had little impact on children16.
Other experts, such as Elizabeth Gershoff from the University of Texas at Austin and George W Holden from Southern Methodist University, disagreed and found new evidence to support their position17.
Nonetheless, even if the adverse outcomes were neglectable, evidence still shows that other non-abusive methods are as or more effective forms of discipline.
As parents, we don’t only teach behavior. We also teach our children values.
Is using violence to get what we want the kind of values we want to instill in our children?
Do we want to raise kids who believe they can use power and position to bend the will of the weak instead of protecting them?
As opposed to a debate, advocating physical punishment is more of a control issue since it gives the parent instant gratification of being in control, which ironically we try to teach our children to give up.
Parents who were spanked as children are most likely to favor spanking their own children18. That is, children who had no control over their own lives grow up to want full control over their own children. That is how the cycle of abuse works19.
Ways to discipline without spanking
There is a high correlation between spanking and the belief in a negative approach to discipline20.
Parents who spank often don’t believe that they have any other choice when their kids misbehave.
Defenders of spanking often say or imply that no spanking equals “no discipline” or permissiveness. This cannot be further from the truth. There are many other and better disciplinary methods if a parent is open to hearing them.
When we say that a child misbehaves, we assume that they know it is wrong and that this is a deliberate act on their part. That kind of assumption will likely lead a parent to believe that only a negative approach will be effective.
Young children who exhibit negative behaviors often do so out of ignorance or a lack of impulse or emotional control. It is unfair to label them “bad” or “misbehave” for things they still cannot control.
Just as a toddler does not learn to walk overnight, a child does not learn to behave the moment we tell them to. It is much more difficult and time-consuming to develop brain wiring than leg muscles. We were patient when our toddlers were learning to walk; we should be even more patient when they are learning how to behave.
With mounting evidence that spanking is harmful and there are better ways to discipline, it is up to the parent to keep an open mind and adjust their beliefs.
Effective alternatives to spanking include:
- Start from a place of connection with your child, whenever possible; they need to trust you if they are going to follow your rules
- Teach your child self-regulation by using a warm and responsive parenting style.
- Use praise as positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior in children
- Be firm and consistent but warm and respectful as you teach your child
- Make discipline tactics fair, and consider having discussions with your child about what that means to both of you
- Young children do best with tactics such as being removed from a situation where they are acting inappropriately or being redirected to a different activity
- Older kids do well with experiencing natural consequences under safe circumstances
- Teenagers do best with teaching and reasoning using inductive discipline
- Discipline must never include shaming, verbal insults, or any degrading forms of treatment
- Teach proper behavior, rather than punish, to discipline
- Recognize that children are people with human rights, including the right to safety
Final thoughts on spanking
Inappropriate child behavior can often trigger anger in parents. They don’t understand why someone they love would deliberately show bad behavior. Parents often turn to methods that are familiar or that come from a place of rage or frustration.
Spanking is never a good option if you want to raise healthy, happy kids who have close relationships with you.
But if you are unsure of how to effectively discipline your child, you don’t have to do this alone. Therapy is a great option if you need support in sorting through your feelings and changing your mindset. Your pediatrician or a clinical psychologist can offer helpful ways to compassionately and effectively discipline your child.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is no good age to get a spanking. A child must never be hurt by parents intentionally.
State laws generally do not prohibit spanking. In the US, it is considered legal if the spanking is justified for the situation and not excessive.
When spanking goes beyond what is reasonable, especially when it causes bruises or bleeding, it is considered abuse by law.
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