Spanking has been a hot parenting topic for many years. There are strong opinions and a lot of emotions on both sides of the paddling fence. When it comes to discipline many parents wonder: Should I spank my child?
With countless studies outlining the negative effects of spanking children, but more than half of the parenting population still doing it, it’s easy to understand why so many are confused.
If you’re trying to decide if you should spank your children, you’ll need to evaluate the facts to decide if it is an effective form of discipline. You should consider any potential negative effects it may have on your child and determine if there are appropriate alternatives.
- Spanking has negative long-term effects, causing aggression, shame, damaged relationships, and impaired brain development.
- Physical discipline may lead to increased violent behavior, impaired cognitive development, and feelings of fear and shame in children.
- Spanking can damage the parent-child relationship, lead to child abuse, and create a cycle of violence that continues into future generations.
- Alternatives to spanking include evaluation, redirection, time-outs, time-ins, positive attention, logical consequences, and discussion to teach children right from wrong.
Why Parents Spank Children
We’ve all heard the pro-spanking rhetoric. Perhaps someone has ever-so-helpfully suggested that physical discipline will solve all your child’s behavioral issues because “all that child needs is a good, hard spanking.”
But new evidence is continually being released about the negative effects of spanking children (1). What was once viewed as a standard discipline is now being seen as harmful and even abusive. There are many countries that have banned the practice altogether, and citizens are advocating for changes to be made to American laws.
In spite of this shifting mindset, polls reveal that 8 out of 10 adults still believe spanking is appropriate. In fact, 60 to 70 percent of parents admit to having spanked their child (2).
So, why are we still doing something that is proven to be ineffective and harmful?
- Spanking has been around for generations: For most parents, spanking is a tool they inherited. After all, 86 percent of American adults claim they were physically disciplined as children and they turned out “just fine.”
- It gets quick results: Many parents claim that spankings work nearly every time to stop bad behavior in the moment. Often even the threat of a spanking is enough to make a child reconsider their actions.
- Kids can be frustrating: As parents, we’re often tired and stressed, and sometimes kids can be hard to deal with. Spanking can feel like an easy solution that doesn’t require a lot of creativity to end problem behavior.
Is Spanking an Effective Form of Discipline?
When it comes to discipline, what is your desired outcome — short- or long-term lessons?
Is spanking effective? Perhaps if you are only looking for short-term results. Spanking teaches children not to break the rules because doing so will result in physical pain, so physical discipline may initially end bad behavior.
But if your goal is to help your child learn to consider the effects of their actions on others and themselves and to develop empathy in difficult situations, corporal punishment is not effective in any way.
Negative Effects of Spanking
Over 1,500 studies have linked physical discipline to negative outcomes. These far outweigh any perceived benefits. The following are some of the negative effects of spanking children:
Violent or Aggressive Behavior
A child who is spanked may see physical violence as a means to conflict resolution. It is difficult to explain to a child why it’s okay for you to hit them when they’ve done something wrong, but it’s not okay for them to hit others who have wronged them.
Studies show an increase in aggressive behavior in children who have been physically disciplined at home (3).
Impaired Brain Development
Spanking can affect later cognitive development in children, including lower receptive vocabulary and externalizing behavior like acting out and aggression (4).
One study showed visible changes to brain matter as a result of harsh physical discipline (5). Another concluded that the effects of standard spanking differed little from those of children who were physically abused (6).
These brain alterations can lead to a higher likelihood of future mood, anxiety, or personality disorders along with substance abuse issues (7).
Feelings of Fear, Shame, and Powerlessness
Even when done in a calm and controlled manner, physical discipline results in a measure of fear and shame for the child. It establishes a relationship of parental power and dominance over the child and can lead to an unhealthy view of authority. Spanking also makes children feel powerless, which often leads to more behavioral issues.
Damaged Parent-Child Relationship
Although the act is a powerful one, striking a child is not empowering. When parents feel they have no choice but to hit their children, they are often left with feelings of guilt, shame, or disgust toward themselves. Some feel angry toward their child for “making them” have to do something they don’t want to.
Children who regularly receive physical discipline may begin to view themselves as bad and their parents as frightening. Over time, these negative feelings on both sides can lead to a breakdown of the parent-child relationship.
Spanking Can Lead to Child Abuse
Although spanking may initially work to stop disruptive behavior, children learn to weigh the risks of their actions and sometimes decide the consequence is worth the crime. Parents end up feeling the need to spank more frequently or with more force, and what was once a last resort technique soon becomes the only method of discipline.
As children reach adolescence, parents may find themselves helpless with no other tools to control their child’s behavior as they are used to doing. Too many parents resort to other methods of physical violence as a means of discipline.
Creating a Cycle of Violence
Children who are spanked may be more likely to spank their own children someday, leading to a cycle of violence. If you search now for a better way of discipline, you may be sparing your grandchild from violence.
Alternatives to Spanking
Of the parents who admit to spanking their children, 85 percent say they would rather use another method of discipline if they could find one they believe in.
If spanking has been your primary discipline tool, you may find it awkward to transition to a more positive approach. But with time, these methods will begin to feel even more natural than paddling ever did, and the benefits will be worth it.
Before jumping in to punish a child for misbehavior, consider the root cause. Are they melting down because they’re overtired, overstimulated, or just plain hungry? Sometimes you can quickly turn a situation around simply by meeting a child’s physical needs — no spanking required.
When children are young, parents can usually spot when things are about to turn sour. If we’re able to intervene quickly and redirect their attention elsewhere, we can often avoid a meltdown.
In the midst of a difficult moment, try to shift your child’s focus to something positive such as another fun experience. Point out something visual (“Look at all those birds outside in the tree!”). Or turn on some fun music and watch how quickly they transition from angry monster to dance party champion.
A time-out usually involves separating a child from others or removing them from a difficult situation to allow them time to cool down. This method of discipline is most effective for children who are 3 to 8 years old. The recommended length of a time-out is one minute per year of the child’s age (e.g., 5 minutes for a 5-year-old).
Similar to a time-out, time-ins are used to remove a child from a difficult situation. However, with time-ins, the parent or caregiver stays near the child until they calm down. This allows the child time to process and express their feelings and prevents them from feeling isolated when they are overcome with emotion.
Children desire to please those they care about, but when they feel they aren’t able to do so, they’ll often act out. To a child, negative attention is better than no attention.
Make an effort to pay attention to your children when they’re behaving well so they won’t misbehave to feel noticed. If you look for opportunities to praise them when they make good choices, they’ll be more likely to continue making them.
Logical consequences are consequences connected to the action. If a child is acting out at the dinner table, they can be asked to leave. If a child is throwing toys, the toys get taken away.
This allows them to make the connection between the behavior and its related result, unlike with spanking.
You don’t need to punish every misbehavior.
Discipline should be viewed as a teaching opportunity. The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction.” If we view ourselves as a coach instead of a cop, we can better teach our children right from wrong.
When negative situations occur, discuss them with your children. Talk about their motives and their feelings. Have them define what they did wrong and why it was wrong, and discuss how they will do things differently in the future.
If they seem to have learned from their mistake and have done what they can to correct it, offer them some grace, trusting that they will choose better in the future.
Are There Any Benefits to Spanking?
The only reported benefit of spanking is that it can make children immediately compliant.
However, this compliance rarely lasts. One study revealed that in 73 percent of the evaluated situations, the child who had been spanked returned to some form of misbehavior within ten minutes of being smacked (8).
With countless studies demonstrating the negative effects of spanking, it’s safe to say that any perceived benefits are not worth the potential harm.
When it comes to disciplining our children, it helps to step back and look at the big picture.
If our goals as parents are to raise responsible, empathetic children who know the difference between right and wrong, it’s going to take more than a whack on the butt whenever we’re displeased.
When so much research points to the negative effects of spanking, it may be time to consider a better approach.