After being interviewed on a recent podcast, and quoted in a recent article, I’ve been thinking a lot about spanking. I’m grateful for the reminder and perspective that spanking is still happening in lots of households across this country (35 percent are the latest numbers of spanking households in the USA according to the JAMA pre-covid numbers), and for a chance to address some of the reasons I don’t believe spanking is an effective approach, regardless of potential damage done. [NOTE: we aren’t talking about abuse here, but intentional and gentle spanking that does not cause injury]
#1 Discipline is Love. Boundaries are Love. Limits are Loving.
If you’ve heard this before, you probably already understand that showing your child structure, rules, and limits is an expression of how much you love and care for them. Children need structure and boundaries to learn and grow. To know what is acceptable and to feel safe. Consistency in the response of their caregiver helps them regulate their behaviors and let’s them know what to expect next time. Those boundaries can be communicated by what you model, by how and what you allow in your home, and through conversations around reasoning, logic and family values. “The Rod” of the bible doesn’t have to literally mean physical punishment, but instead can be a symbol of commitment to the structure and predictability that parents can have for their young children.
#2 Discipline Looks Different in Different Families
Just as it is our children’s job to test our limits and try on various behaviors, it is our job as parents to define what we will and will not allow in our house. Talk with your partner or co-parent around family values, how you will address certain behaviors, and what your goals are in disciplining your child. This first requires facing and confronting our own childhood and how you feel about it. Then, create a new family Mission Statement together around what you both value, what you want for your family, and what your parenting “North Star” will be moving forward.
#3 You Have to Account for Temperament
It may be easier for you to justify spanking if it worked for you. Many families will say – about spanking or other parenting behaviors - “It worked for me” or “They did X and I’m OK.” When I hear this, I always ask people to think of someone in their family for whom that isn’t true. Maybe it’s a sibling who didn’t feel a close relationship with their parents, or one who experienced addiction or depression. What we know from research is that children have varying sensitivities. Some can withstand almost anything and will thrive on their own. Others need just the right amount of care and tending to find their way. What works for one child will not necessarily work for another. That’s why the research shows that what matters most is the match between parent and child. This means the parent adjusts how they respond to the way that each child needs to be taught. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
#4 Young Children Cannot Regulate Themselves Yet
Often, parents’ misconceptions about what their children can “control” leads to increased frustration and punishment. We assume that our young children “know better,” but neglect to remember that they are only beginning to learn how to control their bodies. Even if they know something is wrong, they lack the ability to stop themselves each time. Their brains are only beginning to make the connections between what they know and what they do. We can’t ask our young children to learn from spanking if we don’t acknowledge that they can’t get keep their hands to themselves all the time, share toys nicely, or follow directions the first time we ask, even if they want to.
#5 Physical Punishment Doesn’t Work
Spanking is associated with reduced language skills, more aggressive behavior and poor academic achievement. While it may work for getting kids to listen (compliance) in the short term, when you pull back and see the larger picture in the research, it may also contribute to behavior and academic problems in a child’s life. Physical punishment can also lead to more covert behaviors, like lying or sneaking out, or cause a severe disruption in the closeness and trust of the parent-child relationship.
At a certain point, the message to your kid is that you are not the person to go to if they mess up. So, when they become adolescents, they may rather put themselves in a dangerous situation than get caught by you.
#6 Spanking is About YOU
Consider this framing. When parents intentionally spank their children, they do it for themselves. To feel like they are doing something to address unacceptable behavior. To make it clear they are unhappy, to make their disapproval known, and to establish authority in the parent-child relationship. But the message they are actually sending to their child is different. Think of spanking as saying to your children, “Hitting isn’t acceptable for YOU, but it’s OK when I want to. It’s my only solution when I am frustrated with someone’s behavior.” This mimics the logic of a 3-year-old who snatches a toy, or punches their sibling when they lose the race. That’s how spanking teaches children to become more aggressive. The intentional and routine use of spanking teaches children that this is the way to express anger, disappointment and authority. Instead of modeling a calm, sensitive and thoughtful approach, spanking models the use of corporal punishment as the most effective tool in managing behavior.