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Published on January 28, 2015

mother disciplining her son

The Spanking Dilemma

Spanking children is deeply ingrained in our culture. Most adults remember being spanked as a child. Today, physical punishment of a child is legal in all states and many states also allow the use of an object — paddle, switch, wooden spoon, strap — for reasonable supervision and control of a child as long as it is not “excessive” and does not cause injury. Depending on what survey you look at, an estimated 70 to 90 percent of American parents have spanked their child at least once.

Most doctors, psychologists and child development experts tell parents not to spank or hit their children. Physical, or corporal, punishment has been banned in 39 countries worldwide.

Attitudes toward spanking have changed and evolved over the years. For instance, in 1996 at their Consensus Conference, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated this policy on spanking:

Corporal punishment possesses some negative side effects and only limited benefits. It is recommended that parents use other forms of discipline. Corporal punishment should not be used on children under age 2 and should not be used on adolescents. It may be effective for preschoolers when combined with verbal correction.

Today, on their website, however, this is their stand on spanking:

We strongly oppose striking a child for any reason. Whenever a parent strikes a child, it may undermine the relationship of trust that the child needs to thrive.

This change in thinking is based on emerging research, but the clash of culture, experts, research and parental experience has caused a dilemma for parents. Is it OK to spank and is spanking effective?

First of all, what do we mean by “spanking”? The dictionary defines spanking as “an act of slapping, especially on the buttocks, as a punishment for children; to strike on the buttocks with an open hand or object.” Dr. Murray Straus, Founder and Director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Lab, has studied spanking for over 30 years. His definition is “the use of physical force with the intention of causing pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of a child’s behavior.”

Positive and Negative Effects

We are personally opposed to spanking or hitting children, although we admit we have both spanked each of our children on at least one occasion. We have asked many parents about their opinions on spanking. When we asked them what they think the positive outcomes of spanking are, here is what they said:

  • Spanking sometime works to end a behavior in the short term.
  • Spanking is sometimes a last resort when nothing else is working.
  • Spanking can be a way for me to “let off steam.” Afterwards, I’m able to return to more logical solutions.
  • Spanking stops the behavior by getting the child’s attention; then we can use other methods to teach correct behavior.

We have also researched the negative effects of spanking:

  • The more spanking is used, the less effective it is.
  • Spanking tends to be an “easy” option for parents: They spank the child and then think they have taught a lesson.
  • Spanking itself does not teach correct behavior.
  • There is always the danger of the parent losing control if spanking in anger.
  • Spanking is sometimes used to control children rather than guide them.
  • Children outgrow spanking. If this has been the primary means of discipline, parents are left without other options when the child is too big to control physically.
  • Spanking may give the impression that if you are bigger, you can control others by hitting.
  • Spanking may result in the child imitating and hitting another child, sibling or adult.
  • Because siblings are different in temperament and personality, parents may find that they are spanking one child more frequently, causing that child to think of him- or herself as the “naughty” or “bad” child.
  • Spanking can evoke feelings of humiliation and helplessness in children — usually not methods effective in teaching acceptable behavior.

As you can see, the negatives definitely outweigh the positives. It will still be your choice, as a parent, whether or not to use physical discipline.

Think about the word "discipline." It comes from Latin and Greek words meaning “to teach or to guide.” Punishment may be part of discipline, but your first job as a parent is to teach. The ultimate goal of discipline is for children to not only know right from wrong, but to understand correct behavior and choose to use it.

Some parents will still choose spanking as part of their discipline plan. If you are one of those parents, please carefully read the following.

Things to Consider if You Spank

  • Practice positive forms of discipline and communication first. Keep spanking as a last resort. Develop respect in your home by listening to your children, involving them in family work and play, and teaching them rules of behavior.
  • Think about what behaviors you might eliminate by using spanking and how many warnings you would give first. The most common are behaviors that threaten a child’s safety, or open defiance (“You’re not the boss of me!”). Stick to the behaviors you have identified. Don’t spank for every little thing.
  • Understand your child’s stage of development. Children under age 1 cannot understand consequences or effectively control their behavior. Never spank an infant! Toddlers are just starting to learn about rules and acceptable behavior. They’re naturally defiant as they work on independence. In most cases when you spank a toddler, you are punishing for something he or she hasn’t had time to learn yet. For preschoolers, some behaviors like not telling the truth or cheating at a game are typical for their development. Teaching rather than punishing is more appropriate.
  • Think about HOW you spank. A typical spanking is firmly patting the buttocks two or three times with an open hand. Hitting on the head, rough grabbing, shaking, slapping, “biting back” or hitting that causes physical injury is never acceptable. Shaking can cause irreparable brain damage, blindness and even death. Hitting with an object can also be dangerous. An object doesn’t allow you to feel the force on your own hand. It’s too easy to lose control.
  • Repeatedly using spanking as a threat is not an effective guidance tool.
  • Avoid spanking when you are extremely angry. Take a self-time out first. Walk away and take a few deep breaths. Imagine that your pediatrician is sitting in the room. A self-time out allows you to find an alternative to deal with the behavior instead of spanking.
  • Always use the situation to teach. Go to your child for a hug and reassuring words. Explain or ask the child to tell you what behavior caused you to spank and what the acceptable behavior should be.
  • Examine the issue of control. Do you find yourself looking for misbehavior in your child so you can correct it? Do you feel a sense of power when you spank your child? Do you see yourself as an “enforcer”? If so, you may need some help to redefine your role as a parent. You should feel some sadness and regret after spanking your child.
  • We all have a mental image of the “perfect child,” but there is no such thing. Children are not miniature adults. It takes many years to learn self-control as well as the rules and expectations of our society.
  • If you feel you are spanking more and more, or harder and harder, or if you feel out of control when you spank your child, seek help.

In the U.S., whether or not to spank is still a decision each family must make. We hope you will wisely consider the different viewpoints on spanking as you make this decision.

Learn tips about discipline and positive reinforcement.

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