Growing up, I don’t remember ever being spanked. I’m sure it happened a time or two (because my parents weren’t opposed to spanking), but there are no instances that come to mind. But I do distinctly remember the times when my brother was spanked.
In our household, spanking was a punishment that was dispensed exactly as it’s “meant” to be: calmly, rationally, and with a focus on helping the child to understand the reason for the punishment.
Having grown up in a home where spanking was an accepted form of punishment (and neither my brother nor I seem to be irreparably harmed from it), you’d think that today I would be in favor of spanking myself.
But personally, I’m not in favor of it. My daughter is now 3 years old, and it’s never been something I’ve been comfortable with. I have friends who spank, and I don’t for a second judge them for that fact.
Here are the pros and cons of spanking.
Should you use spanking as a form of punishment?
The most recent research out of the University of Texas compiled over five decades of study data. The experts came to a rather startling conclusion: Spanking causes similar emotional and developmental harm as abuse to children.
According to the study, the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and experience:
- antisocial behavior
- mental health problems
- cognitive difficulties
This is certainly not the only study of its kind. Plenty of other research exists that highlights the negative effects of spanking. And yet, 81 percent of Americans believe spanking is an acceptable form of punishment. Why the disparity between the research and parental opinion?
Obviously, parents must perceive that there are some positives that the research is missing for them to still use spanking as a form of punishment. So what do people believe are the pros of spanking?
Pros of spanking
- In a controlled environment, spanking might be an effective form of punishment.
- It might shock your child into behaving better.
- All children respond differently to different forms of punishment.
The pros of spanking
1. Lesser-known data
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any large-scale research that shows spanking to be effective in changing behavior and having no negative effects. But there are some studies out there that suggest spanking administered by “loving, well-intentioned parents” in a “nonabusive, disciplinary” environment can be an effective form of punishment.
The key is that the spanking must be administered in a calm, loving environment. Remember, the focus is on helping a child to learn appropriate behavior, as opposed to simply satisfying a parent’s frustration in the heat of the moment.
2. All children are different
Perhaps the biggest argument for spanking is the reminder that all kids are different. Children respond differently to forms of punishment, even kids who grew up in the same home. My brother and I are the perfect example of that. For some children, parents may truly believe that spanking is the only way to send a lasting message.
3. The shock factor
In general, I’m not a big yeller. But I will never forget the day my daughter let go of my hand and rushed out into the street ahead of me. I yelled like I’ve never yelled before. She stopped in her tracks, a look of shock across her face. She talked about it for days after. And so far, she has never repeated the behavior that inspired that yell. The shock factor worked.
I could see how spanking could bring on the same response in similarly dangerous situations (though, again, research shows that spanking does not change short- or long-term behavior). Sometimes, you want that message to ring through loud and clear. You want the shock of it to remain with your child for days, months, even years after the fact. At the end of the day, protecting our children is often about stopping them from doing dangerous things.
Cons of spanking
- It can lead to aggression.
- Experts are against it.
- There are very limited circumstances where it would be effective.
The cons of spanking
1. The experts are opposed
Every major health organization has come out against spanking. And several international organizations have even issued a call for criminalizing corporal punishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. According to AAP, spanking is never recommended. The experts are all in agreement on this fact: Research shows that spanking does more harm than good.
2. Spanking teaches aggression
When my daughter was 2, she went through a pretty severe hitting phase. So severe, in fact, that we visited a behavioral therapist to help me establish the tools for putting an end to the hitting. Several people in our lives commented that if I would just try spanking her, she would stop.
I have to admit, that never made sense to me. I was supposed to hit her to teach her to stop hitting? Luckily, I was able to curb her hitting within a few weeks of that first visit to the behavioral therapist. I have never regretted following that path instead.
3. The potential for doing it wrong
One thing is clear: Experts in this field stand firm that spanking should only be used in a very specific set of circumstances. That is, for children in the preschool age range that have committed truly willful disobedience — not small acts of defiance.
It should never be used for infants, and rarely for older kids with better communication abilities.
It is meant to send a strong message, not to be used on a daily basis. And it should never be motivated by anger or meant to illicit feelings of shame or guilt.
But if spanking is an accepted form of punishment in your home, what are the chances that in a moment of anger you might lapse and resort to this punishment when you shouldn’t, or more aggressively than you should?
There seem to be very limited and controlled occasions when spanking might be truly effective and appropriate.
Ultimately, spanking is a parental decision to be made on an individual basis.
Do your research and talk to the people and experts in your life whom you trust. If you choose to spank, work to ensure you are only implementing this form of punishment in the calm and measured way the positive research suggests is necessary for it to be effective.
Beyond that, continue to love your children and provide a warm and caring home for them. All kids need that.
What are some alternative discipline techniques that parents can try instead of spanking?
If you feel you’ve run out of other options for changing your preschooler’s behavior, first make sure your expectations are appropriate for their developmental stage. Toddlers do not remember things very long, so any praise or consequences need to happen immediately and every time the behavior occurs. If you tell your child not to do something and they continue, move your child or change the situation so they cannot continue what they were doing. Pay a lot of attention to them when they are behaving as you like, and little when they are not. Stay calm, be consistent, and use ‘natural consequences’ as much as possible. Save your loud, stern voice and using time-out for a few of the behaviors you most want to stop. Talk to your pediatrician if you feel you have no choice but to spank your child to try to get them to behave.Karen Gill, MD, FAAP Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.