What’s wrong with spanking a child?
It’s not so much a raging debate as a perpetually unresolved one. There’s a lot of emotion on the subject, but not a whole lot of reasoning.
What’s a psychotherapist’s take on the subject? As you probably guessed, I’m against spanking.
Physical punishment, in general, is not appropriate for children.
For one thing, it can easily turn into abuse. Child abuse occurs when an adult releases his frustrations and anger upon the child. In other words, the child becomes part punching bag, and part recipient of a punishment.
Initiating physical force against a child implies that force is preferable to reason. Do you really want your child to grow up with this idea? It’s true that very young children are not always capable of reason, and certainly not very willing to use it. But this does not justify initiating force against a child. Plenty of other alternatives for punishment are available—and positive incentives should be attempted as well.
I have counseled hundreds of parents and they consistently tell me that hitting does not work very well—at least if ‘work’ means raising a mentally balanced child who learns to rationally restrain himself from doing wrong things.
Is physical force or punishment always wrong? No, there are exceptions. If your child is in a physical fight with another child, you will have to use force to pull him away from the fight. When he refuses to go to bed, you may have to pick him up and make him go to bed. If he is about to do something harmful or wrong—such as touch a hot stove or throw food at his sister—you certainly can and should use physical force to restrain him. A smack on the wrist or a pull on the shoulders may be the only option you have under such conditions.
There may also be situations where your child hits somebody else for no reason—in other words, for a motive other than legitimate self-defense. In these cases it may be appropriate to hit or smack your child in return, simply to show him what it feels like. You have to be very careful, of course, to make sure that the hit or the spank is restrained and the child does not become a punching bag for your own anger or frustrations. You also have to be absolutely certain that the physical force your child initiated against another was completely unjustified. If either of these criteria cannot be met, then err on the side of caution and simply don’t hit or spank your child.
It is true that the threat of physical punishment can be motivating in a way. It sometimes seems appealing when compared to the permissive approach of many families today where there are few rules or limits of any kind. But force is still not a good substitute for ideas, reason, and explanation. Force does not tell your child why something is wrong; it only tells him that he should be afraid of doing something arbitrarily deemed ‘wrong.’
As a child get older, the reasons for being good become increasingly important as tools of motivation and self-discipline. You need to instill reason and thought within his mind as early as possible. Otherwise, how can he or she become a thinking, ethical adult?
‘But little kids can’t reason.’ This is the most common rationalization in favor of the belt or the whip. Of course little kids can’t reason like adults. But this does not mean they are mindless. We underestimate children, especially young children. If you watch them carefully, you will see that often they know exactly what they’re doing. The may not be able to grasp more complex concepts such as ‘justice’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ like adults (attempt) to do. But in many ways they are just like adults, trying to get what they want in the fastest and easiest way possible. Even if reason won’t work on the verbal level, you can still motivate them through positive and negative incentives—punishment chairs, kind words, nice faces, disapproving faces, play time, and so forth. Quite frankly, spanking is the ‘easy’ way out. Instead of trying to connect with a child’s mind, or at least find creative ways to motivate a child through rewards and punishments, an exasperated or frustrated adult lifts a hand to the paddle. It’s just not right, and it doesn’t work. My advice is to take the time to figure out how to do it right. You and your child deserve better, and can do better.