Does spanking work?

TThe subject of spanking children is a perpetually unresolved debate. There’s a lot of emotion involved, but not a lot of reasoning. From a psychological point of view, there is in fact compelling evidence as to why physical punishment is generally not appropriate.

For one thing, it can easily turn into abuse. Child abuse occurs when an adult vents his or her frustration and anger upon the child. The child becomes part punching bag and part recipient of a punishment. In the heat of the moment, there is no way to control when (and if) the adult crosses that line. I’ve 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 teaches him or her that force is superior to reason. Is it healthy to grow up with this idea? Very young children are not always capable of reason, but this alone doesn’t justify the use of force. 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 to restrain himself from misbehaving.

There are exceptions. If your child is in a physical altercation with another child, you might 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 do it. If your son is about to do something harmful or wrong — such as touch a hot stove or throw Cream of Wheat at his sister, you should use physical force to restrain him. A smack on the wrist or a pull on the shoulder may be the only option under such conditions.

There may also be situations where your child hits somebody else 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 to make sure that the action is restrained and that the child does not become the target of your own anger. You also have to be certain that the force initiated by your child was completely unjustified. If either of these criteria cannot be met, then steer clear of hitting or spanking.

Of course, the threat of physical punishment can be motivating. It can seem appealing when compared to today’s permissive approaches with few limits of any kind. But force is not a substitute for reason and explanation. Force doesn’t tell your child ‘why’ something is wrong; it only tells him that he should be mindlessly afraid of doing something you arbitrarily deem ‘wrong.’ 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 greater chance of enjoying life as a thinking, ethical adult.

‘But little kids can’t reason!’ is the most common rationalization in favor of the belt. Of course little kids can’t reason like adults. But this doesn’t mean they’re mindless. We underestimate 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 complex ideas like ‘justice’ or ‘right or wrong,’ but, like adults, they will try to get what they want in the easiest way possible. Even if reason doesn’t work, you can still motivate through incentives like 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 the easy way out. Instead of trying to connect with a child’s mind to find effective ways to motivate through incentives, an exasperated adult lifts a hand. Though it might feel good to do it (bad sign!), it doesn’t work. Take the time to figure out what does work. You and your child deserve better.