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.
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