America is a nation intensely divided on the issue of spanking young children.
Leading child development organizations such as The America Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children speak out against spanking. On the other hand, organizations like Focus on the Family and Fox News report the positive effects of spanking. Individual parenting writers like James Dobson and John Rosemond have advocated a biblical approach to discipline ("Spare the rod, spoil the child") and the common-sense approach of their grandparents' parenting methods.
There is no national policy on spanking in schools, and the courts disagree. A California court ruled in October 2013 that spanking a 12-year-old with a wooden spoon while leaving bruises is not child abuse. But in Texas, "You don't spank children today," said Judge Jose Longoria. "In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don't spank children."
Nineteen states still permit corporal punishment as a legal form of discipline in schools, particularly in Southern states.
Regardless of the studies and the media frenzy over “to spank or not to spank,” an ABC poll found 50 percent of parents with minor children at home report they sometimes spank their children, and 65 percent approve of spanking as a form of discipline. The percentages have not changed from a Gallop poll a decade earlier.
Is it harmful?
The evidence and admonitions are plentiful, particularly in the last decade, but there will always be counter-examples. Time, personalities, circumstances, emotional vulnerabilities and more complicate a simple cause-and-effect relationship between spanking and all children in all instances. Yet here's what the research says:
- The book Primordial Violence (2013) by Murray Straus states "more than 100 studies have detailed the side effects of spanking, with more than 90% agreement among them. There is probably no other aspect of parenting and child behavior where the results are so consistent."
- Columbia University School of Social Work reported in American Academy of Pediatrics Pediatrics October 2013, "results demonstrate negative effects of spanking on child behavior and cognitive development in a longitudinal sample from birth through 9 years of age." Children who were spanked were more likely to break rules and act aggressively, and they had lower scores on vocabulary and language comprehension tests.
- Tulane University School of Public Health reported in Pediatrics May 2010: "Toddlers that are spanked more frequently at age 3 are at increased risk for being more aggressive at age 5." Toddlers who were spanked were twice as likely to get into fights, be mean to others or destroy things.
- The America Psychological Association makes The Case Against Spanking, April 2012, Vol. 43, No 4. From the director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic: "You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want. ... There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. ... We are saying this is a horrible thing that doesn't work.” And from the APA Task Force on Physical Punishment of Children: "Physical punishment can work momentarily to stop problematic behavior because children are afraid of being hit, but it doesn't work in the long term and can make children more aggressive."
Is it effective?
Dr. Phil in his online blog gives The Pro's and The Con's of Spanking Research: "Spanking can be effective on a short-term basis in getting children to change any negative behavior that prompted the spanking." Yet he lists the following "cons": aggressiveness, antisocial behavior and delinquency as long-term consequences. Dr Phil also states: "Spanking is associated with a poorer relationship between parent and child. Children who were spanked feel less attached to their parents and less trusting of them."
Spanking may work in the short term to stop undesirable behavior. But children need to learn to manage their behavior when parents and adults are not present, to have impulse control, to resist peer pressure and to do what's right in varied and complex situations. The goal is not compliance only when someone is watching. The goal is to raise children who are honest and responsible, thoughtful and compassionate.
Spanking, at best, can only offer short term effectiveness with the risk of undermining long term social-emotional and cognitive development. For children to learn self-control and self-management, they need guidance and skill-building.
Is there something better?
The alternative to spanking is not permissiveness, making excuses for misbehavior or laissez faire parenting. The alternative to spanking is teaching.
Teaching is not punishing, shaming or hurting. Through teaching, children learn to manage their own feelings, to acquire patience, to delay gratification, to consider long-term outcomes, to consider someone else's needs and feelings, to compromise, and to find constructive solutions to problems through age-appropriate challenges like protesting bedtimes, meal times and everyday rules. Children continually test parents' sincerity and consistency day after day, year after year.
Parents guide and teach their children through:
- Limit setting and follow-through: Say it once, maybe twice; then be prepared to act. Take the permanent marker away, remove your child from the coffee table or stop the car till your child's seatbelt is on.
- Natural and logical consequences: Parents might say, "When you throw your food, you're telling me you're done eating."
- Disengage from power struggles: Say, "This isn’t working right now, we're both getting crrrrazy. Let's try again in a few minutes when we're both calm."
- Choose the right battle (instead of overwhelming with criticism and no's): If you're fighting over getting out the house in the morning, mealtimes, bedtimes and hitting a baby sister, chose one behavior at a time and accept that the stress of "all the above" is too much for positive change. If your child is dancing on the dining room table for attention, silently remove your child or try to have the least possible emotion reaction so you aren't reinforcing with negative attention. Parent emotions are always gasoline on the fire.
- Use humor and hugs. Humor can really diffuse stressful moments when children and parents get stuck in the emotional drama. Instead of screaming in the grocery store for your child to sit in the cart, pretend your feet are glued to the floor and you can't move (and your child has the magic floor dust to sprinkle on your feet).
- Use "time-in." Children really, really, really want your love and attention, especially at oppositional stages and those high-stress, can't-get-anything-right-days. Take snuggle breaks, a walk, a few minutes to stare at the clouds. It helps to review the easy and the hard parts of the day as part of the bedtime routine. If the days are especially trying, parents can say "It's been really hard following the rules lately, and I miss our happy time, so for the next week, I need a hug every hour."
- Saying what you mean and meaning what you say. So often we are unclear in our message or are busy saying what not to do that children strain to know a better choice of behavior. Say what, when and how: "It's time to put on your shoes and get to the car." (And yes, if they aren't listening, be prepared to follow through to teach them we "mean what we say.") After they believe your words, you can start the next layer of "listening" - self management without constant direction.
- Emotion coaching: Teach your children how to think and feel at the same time. Even grown-ups have enormous difficulty making good choices when emotions run hot - when your mother-in-law says something offensive, when your spouse pretends not to hear you, when you're hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Children need step-by-step modeling and guidance to pause, think, choose a better way and evaluate if their choices worked.
- Creating rules and routines that increase sanity and decrease stress: If a challenging behavior is occurring regularly, it's time to change the routine. Simplify the schedule, put school clothes out the night before, or create safe spaces for meltdowns (when there's a big move or a big change in the family).
Discipline will always present an opportunity to manage our own emotions and reactions, our own goals and personal histories while trying to teach our children how to be kinder, smarter, helpful people. Spanking doesn't make that any easier, but teaching does.
Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, writing and lecturing on parenting and early childhood topics since 1984. Currently, Karen is the director of Family Time classes at The Ruth and Edward Taubman Early Childhood Center at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton. Karen is the author of The Potty Training Answer Book, The Playskool Guide to Potty Training, and most recently The Entitlement-Free Child.
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