Does spanking a child really work?

When it comes to kids, the subject of spanking is not so much a raging debate as it is a perpetually unresolved one. There’s a lot of emotion on the subject, but not a whole lot of reasoning. From a psychological point of view, however, there is compelling evidence as to why physical punishment, in general, is not appropriate for children.

Why? Well, for one thing, it can easily turn into abuse. Child abuse occurs when an adult releases his or her frustrations and anger upon the child. In other words, the child becomes part punching bag, and part recipient of a punishment. In the heat of the moment, there is no way to control or monitor when (and if) the adult crosses that line. I’ve even had parents tell me that it ‘made them feel better’ to spank their child. Oops! See what I mean?

Initiating physical force against a child tells him or her that force is superior to reason. Is it healthy for kids to grow up with this idea? We know that very young children are not always capable of reason, and are certainly not very willing to use it. But this alone doesn’t justify the use of force. Plenty of other alternatives are available, such as the strategic use of positive incentives. 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 misbehaving.

Is physical 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 end the fight. If your daughter refuses to go to bed, you may have to pick her up and make her go to bed. If your son 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 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, to show him what it feels like. Care must be exercised, however, to make sure that the hit or the spank is restrained and that the child does not become the target of your own anger or frustrations. At the same time, you have to be absolutely certain that the physical force initiated by your child was completely unjustified. If either of these criteria cannot be met, then err on the side of caution and steer clear of hitting or spanking.

It is true that the threat of physical punishment can be motivating. It can seem appealing when compared to today’s permissive approaches 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 mindlessly afraid of doing something arbitrarily deemed ‘wrong.’

As kids get older, the reasons for being ‘good’ become increasingly significant as tools of motivation and self-discipline. If reason and the ability to ‘think things out’ have been instilled in the child’s mind at an early age, he or she has a much greater chance of enjoying life as a thinking, ethical adult.’But little kids can’t reason!’ is the most common rationalization I hear 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 they often know exactly what they’re doing. They may not be able to grasp more complex concepts such as ‘justice’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ as adults (attempt to) do, but in many ways, like adults, they will try to get what they want in the fastest and easiest way possible. Even if reason won’t work when verbally applied, you can still motivate them through positive and negative incentives—punishment chairs, kind words, nice faces, disapproving faces, time-outs, and so forth. Limits and boundaries are always necessary, and can be set and enforced in a variety of ways.

Spanking is nothing more than the ‘easy way out.’ Instead of trying to connect with a child’s mind, or at least find effective ways to motivate a child through positive and negative incentives, an exasperated adult lifts a hand or a paddle. It’s counterproductive, and, though it might feel good to do it (bad sign!), it doesn’t work. Take the time to figure out what does work. Both you and your child deserve better.