To Spank Or Not To Spank

Recently I overheard two mothers talking in a restaurant. One mother was concerned about one of her children who was talking back to her and not complying with rules. She said she had tried many things but nothing seemed to work. She spanked him which seemed to work for a while, but now he wanted to get the spanking to be over with it. She said that he was constantly angry at her. The other mother replied that she also spanked when nothing else worked, but thought it caused a more distant relationship with her daughter and tried to use other methods of discipline.

This is a typical conversation on spanking. Some parents use it more than others, but there seems to be negative effects to spanking. Parents who believe in spanking as a form of discipline are much more likely to be harsh and abusive, although used in a loving and supportive relationship moderate spanking probably doesn’t harm children. The results of the overuse of spanking and other punitive interaction, such as yelling at children, are related to a poor parent/child relationship and low-self esteem, increase negative behavior, and a reduction in respect for authority in children.

Approximately 30 years ago the government of Sweden decided that it was time to stop parents from using physical punishment to discipline children. Parents who were caught spanking their children had to appear in court and give an account of it. The law was not meant to be punitive to parents, but merely to get their attention that there were better ways to discipline their children. Parents who spanked their children had to pay a fine and/or attend parenting classes to learn other ways of discipline.

As would be expected, most parents in Sweden reacted to this law with outrage. The government had gone too far. Now it was intruding in how parents discipline their children in the sanctity of their own homes. They reasoned that the government had no right to tell them how to parent. Initially, more than 70% of parents were against the enactment of this law.

As data were collected and the incidences of child abuse were significantly decreasing after this law came into effect, parents began to feel much better about the law and about their parenting skills. Within a short time frame the majority of citizens became enthusiastic supporters of the law. As other countries struggled with the same issues of reducing child abuse and improving the parent/child relationship, the Swedish law became a model that other governments followed.

While no law has ever been passed in the United States about physical punishment of children, the debate about it is no less intense. Many people in our society were physically punished as children, turned out fine, and feel there is nothing wrong with it. Spanking has been passed down from one generation to the next without a great deal of thought or evaluation of either the immediate or long term effects. An interesting statistic from research on the type and discipline methods of parents is that the oldest child in the family is spanked more than the youngest child, indicating that by the time parents have had several children they learn that other methods have better outcomes.

No doubt spanking gets immediate results and this seems to be the main factor that reinforces parents’ use of spanking. The parent usually is in a state of anger and outrage at the child and has the feeling that he or she must respond quickly to prevent the child from gaining the upper hand. This fear of not being in control may be the root reason why parents have persisted in using this method of discipline. The use of force and the subsequent submission of the child gives the parents instant feedback they they are in control.

The negative effects of spanking children often and in a harsh manner have been chronicled by writers from Dr. Spock to contemporary researchers on domestic violence, such as Dr. Murray Strauss, author of Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. When parents rely on spanking as the primary means of discipline, children do not learn how to behave properly, how to comply with expected behavior, or how to show respect and understanding in a disagreement.

Physical punishment teaches children that might is right. As such, spanking reinforces the violence that children are exposed to from TV viewing and movies. It also models that physical force is the best way to solve human relationship differences between persons. For sensitive children, spanking may build a wall of resentment that will reduce trust and openness with that parent for years to come. It makes children comply out of fear and not out of a natural inclination to love and honor their parents.

If spanking sends the wrong message and created negative consequences for parents and children, what other methods can parents use? Obviously parenting is an on-going dynamic process that doesn’t conform that well to specific how-to guidelines that easily tell parents what to do, but here are a few suggestions.

• Calm down before applying discipline. The tendency to use physical punishment is increased when a parent is angry and out of control. A parent must get oneself under control before applying control to the child.
• Communication expectations to your child. Many times children misbehavior because they do not know what is expected. They should know what the rules are and consequences for misbehaving.
• Be firm but not punitive. Parent should show respect when disciplining their acting out child. Parents must set the limits and hold children accountable.
• Yelling can be as damaging as physical punishment. Children can be psychologically damaged by parents who yell at them. Yelling is related to low self-esteem in children.
• Isolate a child out of control for a period of time. Parents can calm a child who is out of control by sending them to their room.
• Take away a privilege for a period of time, not indefinitely. Taking away a favorite toy for a day or other privilege such as use of the telephone or playing with friends are other good methods of discipline.
• Talk to your child about why their behavior is problematic. Let them know why you are disappointed in their behavior and what you expect from them. When parents do this in a loving but firm manner, they will find that their children respond favorably and they will have a better on-going relationship.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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