We live in a world that often separates physical abuse and spanking. When an adult hits an adult, it’s called assault. When an adult hits a child it’s called discipline. But it shouldn’t be. New research explains why.
Spanking is a hangover from the days when we didn’t know better. Now we do. A new study, based on 50 years of research, leaves absolutely no doubt that not only is spanking useless for positive behaviour change, it actually does damage.
In the face of steely proof, it is hard to give up what we have always done, particularly when there is nothing obvious and failsafe that can take its place. Now we have the proof – and plenty of it – that spanking should be left well behind somewhere in the dark ages. Spanking does nothing positive. It shames, it disconnects, and it harms our children.
The ‘to spank or not to spank’ debate is one that can see a conversational spark turn into a blazing inferno. For many, an open-handed hit now and then is the obvious way to bring kids back into line. Hitting has never worked this way for adults – we tend to react badly when slapped – but there are plenty of intelligent, loving and well-intended people who feel differently about using physical force with kids. (And yes, ‘a little smack’ counts as physical force.)
According to a 2014 UNICEF report, as many as 80% of parents throughout the world spank their children. Once upon a time, it may have seemed like a reasonable thing to do, but now there is enough research on spanking to cover a small planet, and all of that research is telling us the same thing – spanking does harm.
‘We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors. Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.’ – Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas, Austin.
Spanking. The research is shouting at us.
A massive study based on 50 years of research, has shown that the more that children are spanked, the more damage will be done to them. The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, came to its conclusions through a detailed analysis of 50 years of research involving over 160,000 children.
For the purposes of the study, spanking was defined as an open-handed hit on the bottom of extremities.
The study found that the more that children are spanked:
- the more defiant they are;
- the more they show antisocial behaviour;
- the more aggressive they are;
- the more mental health problems they have;
- the more cognitive difficulties they have.
‘But I was spanked and it didn’t do me any harm.’
People who were spanked as children are also more likely to use physical punishment as a response to their own children. Often, the justification goes something like, ‘Well, it didn’t do me any harm.’ Many people who are spanked probably do grow up to have happy, successful lives with healthy, fulfilling relationships. None of that changes the enormous potential for damage that always comes with spanking. Maybe they will be okay. Maybe they won’t. Most probably they won’t. And for what? There has been no research ever that has shown any positives to come from spanking. There have been plenty that have shown us the negatives.
Understandably, as adults, we would be ticked at any adult who hit us to change our will or behaviour. Yet for many people who grew up being spanked, the idea that it is okay to hit children seems reasonable. The harm lies in being desensitised to the use of physical force against children. That desensitisation is understandable, but now we know better.
What’s wrong with spanking?
Parents have the greatest capacity to shape the way their children look at the world. Sometimes it seems as though our kids aren’t listening, but they are always noticing and taking on the messages that we send them through the things we do. Often we don’t even realise ourselves what those messages are.
Spanking is often justified as, ‘just a little tap – doesn’t hurt a bit’. It might not cause physical harm, and it might not cause any pain, but spanking does damage from a number of different angles. The physical side is just one of them.
Spanking sends so many messages that will contaminate the way children see themselves, the world and the way they think they should respond to it. Kids won’t always listen to what we say. In fact, they often won’t listen. What they will do is watch what we do and take on the subtle messages that are contained within that.
When the response to them is a physical one, and when it is done in the name of love or discipline, the messages may be subtle, but the potential of these messages to influence them throughout their childhood and into their adult relationships is massive, and destructive. Here are some of the messages they might take on:
- It’s okay to hit someone smaller than you if they aren’t doing what you want.
- If someone hits you, it’s because they love you.
- Someone who loves you might hit you sometimes, especially if you don’t do what they want.
- If someone you love doesn’t do what you want, it’s okay to hit them.
- It’s okay to hit someone if you love them.
- If someone hits me, it’s because I’ve done something bad.
- If someone hits me, it’s because I deserve it.
- Don’t say ‘no’.
- Don’t disagree.
- Don’t make a mistake.
- Don’t get caught.
- Don’t tell the truth if it will get you in trouble.
- People will only love me when I do what they want.
‘Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviours. We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.’ – Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas, Austin.
So if spanking is out, what then?
One of the biggest problems with spanking is that it does nothing to teach a better way of being. Instead, it teaches kids that some there are some behaviours they need to avoid the behaviour, not because the behaviour is wrong, but to avoid getting caught. They learn to avoid the behaviour, but they don’t necessarily internalise the important values that would steer them away from the behaviour independently when there is no threat of being found out. In an effort to avoid the shame or humiliation that comes from spanking, children will be more tempted to lie or avoid responsibility for what they have done wrong.
Raising little people to be healthy, strong, well-adjusted big ones takes time – as in a couple of decades worth of time. There is no window in which they have to learn certain things. They have time to learn and we have time to teach them. This isn’t a race. Some kids will seem as though they were born knowing how to behave. Some will be more spirited and curious and will take more experimentation and time to figure out what works for them. The more time we take, and the safer we make it for them to learn from their mistakes, the more enduring those positive behaviours will be.
Connection and conversation are key. The time will come very quickly when we have no control. A 16-year-old won’t care about a smack. There will be things they do care about – being banned from wi-fi, having to do extra chores – but they are smart and resourceful and they will find ways to avoid being found out if there is no incentive to preserve their connection with you or an adult who is important to them.
We might not have control, but what we can have is influence. They need this and so do we – but we need to work for it. Influence is something that takes years to build and it begins when they are little. Anything that shames them, such as spanking, has a devastating effect on our influence. Spanking might give us the illusion of control, but it will be just that – an illusion. As soon as they decide otherwise, that control we thought we had will be gone.
When they are connected, on the other hand, they will care about what we think. That doesn’t mean they will always do what we want them to do. What it means is that when they get it wrong, they will listen and learn. We still need boundaries, but when the crossing of those boundaries is met with conversation and consequences that make sense, not ones that belittle and shame them, it will make it easier for them to listen and learn. It takes time, but that’s okay because we have plenty of it.
If we want them to come to us when they get things wrong or when they have hard decisions to make, they need to know they can trust our response. Spanking does nothing to build that trust. They will get it wrong and so will we. A lot. Effective parenting isn’t about knowing everything and getting it right all the time. It has nothing at all do with that. It is about having an open heart and an open mind and being ready to change course when it’s needed. Above all else, it is about building a relationship based on connection, gentle boundaries, respect, and room to learn.
[irp posts=”1309″ name=”The Things Our Kids Will Learn From Us (Whether We Like It or Not)”]
I just recently spanked my 5 year old boy for the first time on the bum 3 times, the last one a little harder than I would’ve liked because he was hardly reacting. Maybe he was shocked that I was hitting him at all. My wife and I never hit or smacked him before, as we both agreed not to raise him this way.
The last hit broke him down and he started wailing and my heart just sank. What prompted this was he was being very defiant and giving me lip (he’s a talker) saying he’s not going to listen to me and that I’m a joke to him, all the while rolling his eyes and had this indignant arrogant look on his face. I know there must be other ways to deal with this but it scared me to think he has no fear or respect towards anyone or anything. The thought that a kid with this type of attitude already at 5 years old might get him into serious trouble later on.
With him not listening at all to his teacher, and already picked out as the trouble maker in kindergarten to the point his teacher called me to complain about him prompted me to do something drastic.
Before I spanked him I explained to him he’s going to get a spanking for the first time and afterwards, I hugged him and told him that I needed to do that to show him that he needs to learn to respect, in my convoluted way. I know I had just made a mistake because I felt wrong, and he has been a little distant and not his usual carefree self.
I made a promise to him and myself I will never hit him again. I need to never do that again and show him with love to learn respect. I’m just glad my wife was there to console him.
Bobby it sounds as though you have gained much wisdom from this experience. You sound like wonderful, committed parents raising a spirited little man. It can be so frustrating, and difficult to know what to do next when your kids don’t seem to be showing any respect. Remember that building humans takes times. Keep letting him feel where the boundaries are. Try taking away privileges for a certain amount of time (screen time? favourite toys?). Before you give them back, make sure he has learned something and understands what he has done wrong. Do this gently so it feels safe for him to explore it with you. It’s also an opportunity to teach him empathy, ‘How might you feel if you were speaking to me about something important and I acted like I didn’t care?’. Let this conversation be when things are calm. There’s no point having it when he is upset or angry because the part of the brain that can process this information is sent temporarily ‘offline’ during high emotion. Ask him to say back to you what he has learned about his behaviour. This will help to reinforce it. Also ask what he might say to someone else his age who was doing the same thing. He might not have the right answers and that’s okay. It’s about layering the learnings so they stick.
Thank you Karen for the helpful kind words. I will follow closely to your suggestion. What made things okay for him I think was when my wife and I made it seem little less heavy by sharing our stories of being beat by his grandma and grandpa when growing up, like it wasn’t such a big traumatic event. I don’t know if the message is a right one, but it seemed to put him at ease and he seemed to put it behind him. This is a great article and it’s been really helpful for relatively new parents to read as well as the discussion from it.
I spanked my son until he was 5 and a half. I was really abused as a kid and I really struggled with the spanking. I was only a smack on the bum or hand.
It’s been almost a year now since I stopped. He’s no longer hitting at school and he’s calmer. He and I are very connected and close.
I feel like I messed him up though bc 90% of brain development happens until age 5. I wish I had stopped earlier. I didn’t know what to do.
He still hits his sister, so I think that’s my fault. If I hadn’t of hit him, maybe he wouldn’t hit his sister now.
I worry very much that I messed up his brain 🙁
Louise one of the most exciting things we’ve discovered in the last decade or so is that brains can change. They can heal and get stronger and they’ll do that throughout our lifetime. We used to think that brains tend to stay the same, but now we know that’s just not true. Your son’s brain is changing all the time, and the love and gentle guidance you show him, and the connection you have with him will be more powerful than any spanking. Your relationship with him sounds so loving, close and supportive, and exactly what he needs to thrive. You sound like you’re doing a wonderful job.
When an adult touches another adult’s body or takes things away without permission, it is an assault and harassment but it has to be done sometimes for children that cannot reason yet. Seeing parental spanking for certain age-children as hitting (just like the adult roles) could be a too simple/immature logic. Even well-applied spanking can look bad but if it is done out of love and guardianship on a close bond between a child and parent, it is more than hitting.
As a child grows to be able to understand and reason, spanking becomes unnecessary. When spanking is applied as an emotional explosion or abuse, it is sure harmful to children.
While spanking becomes to be seen as concerning and to be less , parental emotional distance and abuse to children seems to become more in the modern times where people/parents become more self-seeking and self-centered and divorced. Bigger problems there to cause the children to suffer later in their lives.
I understand what you are saying, and you’re right – there are many things that can leave children vulnerable to problems later in. The problem with spanking a child who is too young to reason, is that he or she isn’t capable of understanding the reason for the spanking. That’s when it can send really confusing messages. One of the big problems with spanking is that it doesn’t teach the child why their behaviour is wrong. It also doesn’t teach important skills and values such as empathy or respect. In fact, it pushes against these. Children want to do the right thing. They don’t do the wrong thing to be naughty or bad, or to annoy their parents but because they’re curious and they don’t understand why something isn’t okay. Sometimes they don’t know how to express themselves or how to do the right thing. As parents and carers, our job is to gently navigate them through this and teach them what they need to know. Kids will also push against the boundaries to feel the edges of those, and even that is an important part of their growth and learning, but they don’t need to be spanked to learn where the boundaries are. This is where conversation and connection is so important. The more we can direct them towards the right thing, and teach them why certain behaviours are important and why others aren’t okay, the more they will move in that direction. This takes time, but like any of us in any new job, we will stay more open to learning and doing the right thing if we are taught and guided in the right direction, rather than shamed for getting it wrong.
difference to beating ,abusing and spanking. I and my siblings were spanked in rare major infractions. We are all alright. I visit fellow humans not spanked or loved in a disciplined manner in prison, at the mission or drug rehab. A little education to the seat of education could of changed the course of life for many,my kids also got spanked and they are better for it they tell me. . Loving discipline is different from caning, beatings etc.
The application of physical form of punishment to tame down unwanted human behavior may work out at times, but only temporary. The psychological impact resulting from physical abuse endured by these children could left a permanent scar in their beings which they will carry throughout their lifetime whether they are successful in their chosen field or not.
A lot of people who are product of parents known to use physical form of punishment to discipline their children tend to continue the cycle into their own children. The psychological conditioning they have acquired through their battered childhood will continue to feed their minds with something that stimulate craving for more physical assault on their subjects.
this is a most interesting discussion.. if we look at managing children’s behaviour as discipline rather than punishment then we are less likely to want to hurt(ie spank) them for making a mistake. A mistake is just that – a miss take, we go through life making lots of these . Discipline helps children learn how to behave appropriately. Up to the age of 3 years parenting is about keeping the child safe as they explore their environment – thats a full time job. Along side of that we are also helping the child learn socially appropriate behaviour by role modelling, redirecting, offering distractions,’and giving lots of positive reinforcement through the use of language and pats and hugs . The most helpful thing for children of any age is for parents to use positive reinforcement when the child does what we want or expect them to do.This helps children to KNOW how to behave. When our focus is more on the negative behaviour, then we are actually reinforcing this and will see more of it.
Being consistent with rules and routines helps children know what is expected too – children are vulnerable to parents will , and sometimes we can inadvertently set a child up for mis behaviour.
Knowing that the child innate purpose is to grow toward independence , giving them opportunity to experience their own choice whenever possible helps them learn how to make good choices, builds their confidence and self esteem and lessens opportunity for confrontations.
Yes Robina I absolutely agree. Well said.
Thank You Grandma Karen for some “alternatives”. My daughter was also spirited. I am still amazed that both of us came through it all with our sanity intact & her a reasonably well adjusted & integrous human enjoying a professional career.
It saddens me that all these reports from professionals do not suggest / give examples of positive options to ( in this case ) spanking for people, enabling individuals to begin seeing/developing alternatives for them selves.
“In the heat of the moment” is no time to start thinking / knowing how to do things differently.
I spanked or smacked my kids with a wooden spoon, I am sure that only stirred up more upset behavior. But I didn’t see that then. I just wanted to be in control of the situation and be like other moms of my age group in their mode of discipline (switches, belts, ping pong paddles used at school and soap in the mouth for bad words). Yes, horrible!
My daughter has a spirited daughter, age 5, who wants to challenge desisions. I suggested spanking her as I saw her as spoiled! Wrong!
I now see this intelligent child as very creative and enthusiastic. Her mind is always learning as she experiences testing all boundaries.
The best reaction to her challenging moments is distraction. She wants desperately to learn so giving her a new idea to think about really helps. Removing her from the area also helps, such as ” going for a walk” or even acknowledging verbally that
she is miserable helps. Comforting words soothe the sadness, washing her face with a cool cloth calms too.
Beware of giving a treat or yielding to buying a new toy. This negatively says tantrums are rewarding. But it is good to tell her you love her and give hugs as she struggles to calm down.
I for one, will never suggest spanking my granddaughter again! Love is the answer, always!
I fully support Suzy’s comment. Exactly my life, exactly my thoughts. And guess what: I neve leave my kids with my parents either, for that same reason. My mother still hit my son twice when we visited, while I was out of the room. The first time I to her my kids don’t get hit. The second time I shouted at my mother for the first ever time in my life (at 40 something …) and when she tried to justify herself I told her bluntly that if she couldn’t love kids enough to not hit them she did not need to see them. I don’t think she will ever see any wrong doing in her attitude because just like Suzy’s parents mine were always right too, but she hasn’t hit since. she was always right too and I stopped loving her at 15 years old.
Sure I might have been infuriating and difficult to communicate with (I was a new teenager, after all!), but I loved my parents a little less every time they hit me, and every time, I grew more defiant, to the point where I would shut down and become withdrawn and subsequently accused of being a ‘sulk’. It put me in good stead to practice the same defiance in measures of insolence towards not just my teachers but bosses that proved less than competent… and even my spouse when our differing parenting values were brought into question.
Spanking/hitting/yelling: It’s not productive.
I read once that children remember the physical punishment, but rarely do they remember the lesson that the punishment is meant to teach. I fully agree. I remember the smarting pain, and the fury and hate I felt towards my father.
I saw my mother hit my niece once, and the burning fury I felt when I saw it came rushing back to me. I hated my mother for hitting my niece and the look on my face made her stop in her tracks. And I promised to myself that I’d never leave my kids alone with her, ever.
My parents were always ‘right’ and never, ever apologized. So I make a point to apologize to my children whenever I ever get upset at them and rant. Later I talk to them (albeitly tersely!), and tell them how I feel when they dont listen, dont acknowledge me or refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Sure they may be little (preteen), but I’m hoping that when they’re older they’ll appreciate that I was open and wanting to spend time discussing (aka lecturing). And I’ve promised to them that they can fully trust that we’d never, ever hit or smack them.
Suzy this was my experience too. My parents rarely spanked – I can remember three times maybe – but the shame is what I remember clearly. I don’t remember what I did wrong and I certainly don’t remember the lesson. I have a really clear memory of feeling a deep sense of loneliness afterwards – and shame.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with our kids seeing us get it wrong sometimes, and there is so much they can learn from hearing us apologise and show humility sometimes. It’s also good for them to learn that just because someone is wrong, it doesn’t mean their behaviour is right. Keep doing what you’re doing!
I was spanked and “spanked” with a belt. One time hard enough to leave a welt. My parents regularly yelled from the time I was a baby or toddler, so from a very young age I learned to not say “no”, to lie because I hated getting in trouble, to not disagree, and that if I would be loved if I was “good”. My parents weren’t bad or evil, they just were parenting based off what their parents did. But the results were kind of devastating to me. I had no ability or knowledge of what healthy conflict resolution looked like. I didn’t know what a healthy disagreement between spouses looked like. I didn’t know what healthy boundaries were. I didn’t know how to communicate at all. I would get upset and immediately shut down. Until eventually I exploded. I wound up in codependent romantic relationships when I got older. It took me going thru an epically horrible time to realize what my issues were and where they stemmed from. And now I get so frustrated and upset because the go-to methods for parenting my child are what my parents used, just to a lesser degree. And I struggle with coming up with healthy conflict resolution with a very intelligent, and very tenacious 4 year old. I do not want to teach her the same things I was taught. I desperately want her to have healthy boundaries, and a healthy sense of self and know how to communicate in a healthy way. But most of the time I feel like I’m floundering.
Depends on several things: what is considered spanking? (Is one swat on the butt considered spanking?) What state is the parent in when the child is spanked? (Does it make a difference whether the parent is angry and yelling vs calm and under control?). How was it determined what any negative effects were attributable to? (To the spanking, per se, or the uncontrolled anger of the parent, for example?). How old is the child who is being spanked? (Does repeatedly spanking a 7 year old have different effects than one swat to the well protected backside of a 3 year old?). I am of the opinion that one-swat spanking of a 2-4 year old is not only effective but actually better than trying to reason with them. In my opinion, a few one swat spanking between 2-4 in association with a firm “no” from a calm parent, makes any spanking after age 4 completely unnecessary. I believe it is inappropriate to use physical punishment after age 4 as there are more effective punishments available and the child’s reasoning ability can make the connection between their behavior and the negative consequences. I find it absurd and disturbing listening to parents giving 2-3 year olds choices and trying to reason with them. Imagine the confusion created in the mind of the child and how they learn what the expected answers are. What does that teach besides inauthenticity?
In the study a spank was considered an open-handed hit on the bottom or on the extremities, so yes, a swat on the butt would be considered spanking. There is no differentiation made between ‘calm spanking’ or ‘angry spanking’. The potential for greater physical harm is probably greater when the parent is out of control but the harmful messages, the shame, the damage to the parent-child relationship (as can be seen in some of the comments) and the harm to the child otherwise would happen regardless of whether the parent is angry or calm.
A 2-4 year old is in the process of learning right from wrong and figuring out how the world works. Spanking might stop them doing something but it doesn’t teach them why. 2-4 year olds are very concrete. Things are either right or wrong; good or bad. When a parent hits, that child is interpreting that as hitting is okay. They aren’t able to process the complexities of it being okay for them to be hit but not okay for them to hit other people. This is why spanking increases aggression. Things are pretty simple in the life of a small child. Either something is right or wrong and they are either good or bad. Their behaviour might be bad, but they aren’t, and they need to understand this. Spanking always comes with shame, which is ‘I’m bad’.
Reasoning with a small child won’t work straight away, but they don’t have to know all the rules by 4. The reason, as you suggest, that there is no need for spanking after 4 isn’t because the early spanking has taught them how to behave, but because at age 4 they are starting to develop empathy and a capacity to understand that just because they want something a certain way, it doesn’t mean that other people will be okay with that. They also start to develop the ability to put their own needs on hold to look after the needs of others. These are really complex things, and they will take a long time to develop. Our job as parents is to be patient and guide them, not to hurry them into doing things that they just don’t have the cognitive capacity to do. Children don’t do the wrong thing to be naughty – they do the wrong thing because they don’t know the right thing yet. It’s our job to teach them in a way that won’t hurt them, even if it takes longer. They learn by experimenting and feeling the edges of our boundaries, but there is no need for those boundaries to be painful or shameful.
When parents talk to young children and give them choices or try to reason with them, they are teaching them how to relate, how to solve problems, and helping to soothe their big, confusing feelings – anger, jealousy, sadness, disappointment. These are confusing feelings for young kids – they can be confusing enough for adults. It is these feelings that often drive ‘bad’ behaviour. By using words, parents can soothe a child’s big feeling, validate the child and make sense of their experience. Spanking does none of this, and I’ve yet to see a child mid-tantrum stop because of a spanking. If you were confused or angry or sad or jealous, what would be better for you? To have someone hit you? Or to have someone listen to you, tell you they understand why you feel the way you do, and then explain the situation? Spanking might change behaviour in the short term, but the research – fifty years of it – has shown that it just doesn’t work for long-term change. I know that there are plenty of people who were spanked who grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, but it wasn’t because of the spanking.
Sorry but I think this article sees too much into an act of discipline. My father was the one who punished me in this manner and though it was rarely, those times I did fully deserve some sort of punishment. And AFTER that we had a talk. I loved him dearly despite or maybe because of this, and still do to this day, may he Rest In Peace.
I went to Catholic School, and the nuns were quick to dish out punishment. One nun spanked the whole class because according to her, our penmanship was terrible.
Historically, a canning was the normal punishment for centuries in schools up until recently. Did all those students end up thinking as this article claims they would? Highly unlikely.
Children have to learn to take life’s blows. Talking things out certainly makes sense but despite the research cited above, I see plenty of children acting out despite the kinder, gentler approach. In fact, over the last year or so, my two nieces became holy terrors, despite using only the talking and denying (like cell phones) approach. The biggest force that feeds unwanted behavior is for each parent not being consistent in backing up whatever punishment is meted out, regardless by whom. When Dad takes away their cell phones, Mom sneaks them back to the children. That to me is more damaging than a spanking would be.
I was spanked too. As I listen to the person, Sharon, above, yes you were spanked, and apparently remember when you were spanked. I don’t want my child to remember when I spanked her, so I guess I was lucky, because we didn’t spank her. But I remember vividly being spanked, and I remember wondering why parents, who claimed to love me, hurt me. It never solved any problems. It teaches our children to hit. Nothing good comes from spanking. It’s violent. I don’t want my child to remember being hurt physically by her parents.
Our son is 4 years old. And we have spanked. Not many times, but we have. And each time we have, it has not even felt right intuitively. It just felt yucky. My husband believes in it though. He is one of the ones that says ” I was spanked and I turned out fine” as you write about. How do I forgive myself now for the times I did resort to spanking? How do I stop feeling guilty for those few times? Did I damage him already? I have a history of mental illness (depression, anxiety). I am still healing from a battle with postpartum depression. I am very afraid he will suffer like I do.
Oh my gosh, Christina, you need to forgive yourself. Parenting is difficult, and finding your footing as a mother takes some time. It especially takes time to learn to trust your instinct. You felt yucky because you intuitively knew what was and is right for your son. You can make up for so much now by not spanking him again, and insisting your husband not spank him either. That is what this article is ultimately saying. Love him to bits. Figure out other ways to punish him when he needs to be punished. And talk. And love him to bits. He’s only four! You have years in which to make all of this but something that he won’t have been affected by.
So to contradict your article, it’s not so bad because she felt bad about it and her child is only four? What do you sugges in lieu of spanking? I am not a huge proponent of spanking, however sometimes it is a suitable consequence. Your idea of shutting off wifi or extra chores send the same psychological message as a spanking. “If I am to get love, I must comply” all consequences have that underlying meaning. To fit in with society we comply with its rules. Otherwise DUI should only be illegal if I cause damage.
Jonathan, the key is that it hasn’t happened very often and there is a commitment to turning it around. There is nothing to be gained from feeling guilty and a lot that children can learn from parents who are are able to model self-compassion and a change of direction. We all do things and then realise there’s probably a better way. It’s how we grow and learn. Courage comes in realising that there is a better way and moving towards something that feels better, rather than in defending a behaviour that isn’t working. The research is pretty clear – the more spanking is used, the more damage it does. The problem is the shame that comes with spanking. Not only that, but we teach our kids not to hit, and then we hit them. As an adult I can’t make sense of that message – ‘I can hit you, but hitting is wrong.’ I can only imagine how confusing it must be for a child.
All healthy relationships have boundaries, and when those boundaries are broken there will likely be consequences. The problem with spanking is the shame that comes with the consequence. There is also big problem with the confusion of love and hitting and the messages that can be taken from that moving into adulthood. As adults, when we upset the people we love they might withdraw a privilege or we might have an argument, but healthy relationships generally don’t resort to shaming behaviours and they certainly don’t tolerate hitting. This is the difference between spanking and withdrawal of a privilege. A privilege has to be earned, a right is a given. So, wi-fi for example, is a privilege, not a right. Similarly, we all have to help out with chores – sometimes different people in the family have to help out at different levels or in different amounts. The right to your physical boundaries just that – a right, not a privilege. Kids need to earn the right to wi-fi or freedom from chores, but nobody should have to earn the right to not be hit or violated. It’s a basic right, hence the shame that often comes when that basic right is violated, even if it is done with the best of intentions.
For children, crossing those boundaries should never come with shame. It’s the shame that does the damage with spanking. They’re learning and they will make mistakes and they need to be taught and guided – sometimes over and over. Spanking doesn’t teach anything and as a form of discipline, the research suggests that in the long term, it doesn’t work. Discipline comes from the word ‘disciple’ meaning to teach – not to punish. The shame that comes with spanking shuts down the connection, which shuts down the dialogue, which shuts down the influence. For people who were spanked and who have grown into healthy, successful adults who have great relationships with their parents, it is unlikely that any of that is because they were spanked. There is no research to suggest that the healthy, happy adults in the world became that way because of a spanking.
I expect that this is a topic that will be fiercely debated for a long while yet. It’s good that we’re having the conversation though.
I understand that this article was written a while ago, but I am just reading it now so here are my thoughts. You only cite Elizabeth Gershoff as a source, so I looked up her research. She used a multitude of published psychology papers to create a synthesis report supporting her conclusion that corporal punishment is dangerous. The problem with her research is that it is based soley on other’s work which includes abuse and does not sufficiently separate abuse from instinctual spanking. Nor does she go into any detail regarding the nature of the association she cites, ie; Does a spanked child retaliate with bad behaviour or is a misbehaved child more likely to be spanked? Again, when abuse is taken fully out of the equation, her research becomes more questionable.
Personally I believe that spanking is a parental instinct and spanking alone can be beneficial to the development of a child. Again, a spank not a beating. Many of the correlations provided as “messages you give your children when spanking” could just as easily be gleaned from other non-physical punishments. If I take my childs toy away, I am able to do so because I am bigger and stronger.
As an example of what I mean I will give you a story. When I was younger my family was walking to the grocery store across the street from our home. My little sister had walked ahead of my mother, my father, and me, and began crossing the street while skipping. My mother and father called out to her to stop as she had been told many times not to go ahead. She was too caught up in what she was doing and kept skipping along. A car was coming. My father, who had never spanked her, ran and grabbed her out of the street while simultaniously giving her one smack to the bottom. She was shocked and cried, but to this day she looks for traffic before crossing a street. Now anecdotes prove nothing, but it can give you a sense of my belief. I think the effect would have been different had he grabbed her and made her stand in a corner later. She wouldn’t remember so well not to do that, and someone might not always be able to grab her.
The natural way to learn this lesson, however, would be to get hit by a car. Seeing as how I have been hit by a car before, I’d rather take a spanking.
Shawn thank you for your thoughts on this. I think it’s an important conversation to be having. This study was a meta-analysis of research papers for the last 50 years. Elizabeth Gershoff was the lead author of the study, but it was a study of the last 50 years of the work of many other researchers. What this means is that these findings aren’t based on her direct work, but on the work of others. For the purposes of the study, spanking was clearly defined as ‘open-handed hit on the bottom of extremities’. Are you suggesting that this constitutes abuse? I’m not sure what you mean by ‘instinctual spanking’, but hopefully it is not more than this.
Also contrary to your suggestion, Gershoff is very clear about the association. As you will read in the article, 50 years of research has found that the more children are spanked,
the more defiant they are;
the more they show antisocial behaviour;
the more aggressive they are;
the more mental health problems they have;
the more cognitive difficulties they have.
I’m not sure how the association could be clearer. And this is from ‘open-handed hit on the bottom of extremities’ – which I assume is what you mean by ‘instinctual spanking’. At any rate, it is clearly not a ‘beating’.
In response to your argument that spanking is instinctual, even if that was the case, that doesn’t make it ok. When behaviour is driven by the fight or flight response, as when people are under threat, it may instinctive to want to fight and be aggressive, but that doesn’t make it appropriate or acceptable. Also, just because a behaviour is instinctive, doesn’t mean it is effective. The very nature of instinctive responses are that they are done without deliberate thought or consideration. Having the self-control to tame and manage our instinctive responses (such as aggression) is part of living well. The point is that just because something is instinctive, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate, effective or acceptable.
Discipline is meant to teach, not to hurt. If a child tells breaks something accidentally and tells you about it, there is probably no lesson to be learned that could effectively be taught by consequences. In fact, rewarding truth telling by not having consequences is probably far more effective in nurturing the values that will drive healthy behaviour. On the other hand, if a child breaks something because they throw it in a rage, then there are lessons to be learned – self-control, respect etc. Taking toys away then makes sense – playing with toys is a privilege – if you aren’t going to respect your things, they get taken away. Or, on a broader level when you disrespect you things/lie/hurt other people, you lose privileges.The consequences are related to learning the value (disrespect), not the act (breaking the toy). The consequences are related to the loss of priveleges. Even as adults, we lose priveleges when we do the wrong thing (e.g. when we speed, we lose money through fines). Freedom from harm, shame, or to have our physical selves assaulted by another isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.
There may be many people who may agree with you that spanking in instances of life or death is important, but there is no evidence that suggests that ‘not spanking’ would fail to teach the lesson. In this case, it worked for your sister, but there is nothing to say she wouldn’t have learned the lesson if she wasn’t spanked. There are plenty of children who have been taught not to run onto the road, and who have never been spanked. Clearly, spanking isn’t the only way to learn the lesson. It can also be taught by conversation. I’m quite sure that there would be people who have been spanked who have also done risky things.
I understand that you believe spanking can be beneficial to a child, but 50 years of research says otherwise.
Love him to bits!!!!! Amen! I do I do!! Thank you for your great response, Nina. I need to work very hard on forgiving myself. Instinctually and intuitively, for me, each of the few times I have spanked, I felt immediate regret and disgust with myself. It made me feel so yucky and filled with rage. And I most definitely saw my son’s behavior in fact increase and escalate with more outbursts and then I’d escalate etc. when I remain calm and loving, he then calms down much MUCH faster and I feel much better as a mother. Now if I could just open my husband’s eyes. 🙁 not that he does it often or intends to often, but it is usually his “go-to” for disciplining and I do not agree or approve or like it. My assumption is that we should both be on the same page with this. Very hard to get thru to him.
Christina, Nina’s response to you is wise and insightful and spot on. Let me tell you a story. When my son was little (he is now 18) I was in a play group and the other mothers in that play group all smacked their children from time to time. Their children seemed so well-behaved and they all seemed to know that they were doing. My little man challenged me at every turn and I honestly felt as though I had no idea what I was doing. I thought maybe the secret to their well-behaved kids was in the smacking, so, the next time he pushed the limit, I smacked him on the hand. Instantly it felt wrong, as it did for you, but he smacked me back and laughed. He thought we were playing a game. At the time I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t even get this smacking thing right.’ So the next time he did something wrong I smacked him again. This time he knew we weren’t playing, and again it felt really wrong for me. I did it a few more times and it felt wrong every time.
I spoke to a colleague of mine who was also a psychologist and a mother, but much more experienced at both than me. She said, ‘Always keep in mind the values you want to teach. Sometimes those values will take time.’ Those few words changed everything for me. I wanted to teach respect, honesty, and humility. None of those came with smacking, but they do come from actively changing course when things don’t feel right. They also take time. Smacking feels instant – they will stop what they are doing instantly, but it wasn’t teaching him any of the values I wanted to teach him. I never smacked him again and over the years, he and I have had conversations about it that have contained lessons. I have told him I made a mistake by smacking him and by doing what other people were doing. I have told him how important it was to listen to my intuition, and how he always needs to keep in mind his own values when he is making decisions, even when it goes against what other people are saying. There are plenty of lessons in there that we have both been able to learn from. The point is, all parents do things sometimes too that don’t feel right, but mistakes and regrets aren’t failure and no experience is ever wasted – our kids can learn from everything we do, even the things we wish we didn’t.
Your son will not be broken because of the few times you have smacked him. He absolutely won’t be! There is also nothing to forgive yourself for. You tried something and it didn’t feel right. That’s okay, so now do what does feel right. You will make so many mistakes before your son reaches adulthood. Those mistakes will be an important part of him growing up to be a healthy, well-adjusted young man. He will learn how important it is to listen to your intuition and how it’s okay to make mistakes. He will learn self-compassion and humility. He will learn how to take responsibility for the things he does that don’t feel right, and how it takes courage to put those things right again. These are all valuable life lessons that our kids learn by watching us do things we regret. None of us are perfect, but none of us were meant to be.
Remember too, the point of this article is that the more they are spanked, the more harm it will do. It is more about the use of spanking as a typical response. You’re not doing that. Be kind to yourself and take the opportunity to show your son what self-compassion looks like. Your son will not be damaged from the few times you have spanked him. There will be plenty more things you do that you wish you didn’t – we will all make plenty of mistakes. Plenty! It’s part of parenting – we learn, they learn, we grow, they grow. Our mistakes and regrets are valuable sources of learning for them. Keep the connection alive, be affectionate and open, have your boundaries and be ready to let your son know when they have been crossed. I can tell how open hearted you are and open you are to your son and to what he needs. It sounds as though your son is in wonderful hands.
Thank you SO MUCH for your lengthy and thoughtful reply. I very much appreciate the reassurance and the insight. Sincerest thanks. 🙂