Spanking, Ages 3 to 6

Should I spank my child?

The short answer is no. When your child misbehaves or acts in ways that are defiant, inappropriate, or even dangerous, you want to show him that this behavior is unacceptable and needs to change. Spanking may seem like a direct and effective way to do that, but it also delivers other messages you don't want to be sent:

  • Fear. Spanking teaches your child to fear you -- not to listen to you or respect you. Instead, he may feel hurt and resentful, and retaliate by being uncooperative. If you refrain from spanking, you'll be better able to reason with your children and set limits for them.
  • Violence. Spanking teaches your child that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems and change behavior, especially if someone is smaller and weaker than you. Studies show that kids who are spanked are more likely to hit and fight with other children.
  • Distrust. Spanking teaches your child that when he makes mistakes, you'll punish him rather than give sympathetic guidance. It undermines trust and damages the bond between you and your child that should allow him to be confident and flourish.
  • Poor self-esteem. Many studies have shown that hitting your child can hurt more than his body: It can injure his sense of who he is. He may reason that if he weren't such a bad child, he wouldn't get hit. Soon, being "bad" becomes part of his identity. Studies by the late psychologist Irwin Hyman and colleagues at Temple University have shown that regardless of how nurturing a family is, spanking always lowers self-esteem.
  • Danger. Spanking can be physically dangerous if you get carried away and hit your child much harder than you intended to. Sometimes spanking can bruise a child, leave hematomas (blood blisters), or injure soft tissue; some kids have even been hospitalized because of it.

But if I was spanked and I'm okay, what's wrong with it?

That's a natural question. After all, many of us were spanked as children and we didn't turn out so bad, did we? We may feel that our parents were good parents, that they spanked us because they loved us, so why shouldn't we practice the same "tough love" on our kids?

The answer is that we know far more about the negative effects of spanking than we used to. Among other things, a mountain of studies show that children who are physically punished by their parents are more likely to engage in aggressive or violent behavior.

Not very many years ago, some leading child-rearing experts -- even noted pediatrician Benjamin Spock -- agreed that spanking was an acceptable way to discipline children. But Dr. Spock and his colleagues have learned better. Today the American Academy of Pediatrics and other child health organizations strongly oppose physical punishment for children.

What's the harm in a little smack?

Plenty. In a study released in the Bulletin of the American Psychological Association, a psychologist who analyzed six decades of research on corporal punishment found that it puts children at risk for long-term harm that far outweighs the short-term benefit of on-the-spot obedience.

Working with Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, Psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff found links between spanking and aggression, anti-social behavior, and mental health problems. Gershoff spent five years analyzing 88 studies of corporal punishment conducted since 1938.

Another study by Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, followed 800 children between the ages of 5 and 9 and found that kids who were spanked didn't perform as well on tests that measured their ability to learn. Straus thinks the reason is that parents who don't spank their children spend more time talking and reasoning with them. "The less corporal punishment [parents] used, the more stimulation they provided to the child," he says. Straus believes that while spanking may get children to stop misbehaving in the short run, it makes them more likely to act out later on. His 1997 study found that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to fight, steal, and engage in antisocial behavior. And another study found that children who were spanked at home in their pre-school years were more likely to be physically aggressive toward their classmates in kindergarten, and that the more often they were hit at home, the more aggressive they were.

A Canadian study of 4,900 adults also found that those who were spanked or slapped "sometimes" or "often" as children were at twice the risk of developing an alcohol or drug abuse disorder or an antisocial behavior problem; they were also 43 percent more likely to develop anxiety disorders. (The study excluded adults with a history of physical or sexual abuse.) Other studies have also shown that children who are hit or verbally abused are more likely to suffer depression or fits of uncontrollable anger when they become adults, lashing out in rage at their spouses, children, coworkers, and others around them.

But isn't spanking effective?

Spanking may work in the immediate moment to stop an annoying behavior. But parenting is a long-term proposition, and research shows that in the long-term spanking is not effective. Many parents find that once they start spanking, they soon need to escalate -- to spank more and hit harder in order to get a child's attention. Hitting a child, while yelling "This is the only way I can get through to you," is an act that makes that statement come true.

Experts have also found that over time, spanking makes a child angry and resentful and less -- not more -- willing to do what you ask. Researchers have found that children who are hit usually don't remember what they were punished for, so they don't really learn anything from the experience, except that you might hit them when you're mad.

Do many parents still spank?

While a significant number of parents still use corporal punishment, recent research shows that the majority are now choosing not to physically discipline their children. A 1995 survey by the Gallup organization found that 94 percent of parents said they had physically punished their 4- and 5-year-old children, and nearly 30 percent of the parents admitted to hitting children between 5 and 12 with belts, paddles, or other objects. But a 2010 University of Michigan poll suggests a national trend toward non-physical discipline, with just 38 percent of parents saying they are likely to spank or paddle children between the ages of 2 and 5.

How can I avoid spanking my child?

It's natural to get furious with your child sometimes. But if you make an ironclad rule for yourself that you won't hit him -- ever -- you'll avoid all the negative consequences of spanking. Most of all, you won't have to worry about having a light slap turn into a dangerous blow.

What's a better way to discipline?

Pre-schoolers are going to push your buttons and test limits -- it's part of their job description. But so is their desire to learn and to have new experiences. Here are a few ways to discipline without spanking:

  • Use "do" instead of "don't." Direct your child with positive rather than negative requests. Child development expert and author Penelope Leach points out that telling your child "'You can't leave your tricycle there' is a challenge. It makes him think 'I can too. Just watch me.' But 'Put your tricycle over by the wall so that nobody falls over it' tells the child something positive that he ought to do."
  • Enforce limits. Reserve "don't" for truly important rules, then make sure you stick to those limits. For instance, "Don't ever go in the street without a grownup" is a rule that you can never allow to be broken, even when you want your kid to go deliver a message to a neighbor.
  • Teach morality. From the earliest time that a child can begin to understand, it's important to teach empathy and morality. That is, the child should learn to do the right thing because it's right, not because he'll be punished if he doesn't do it. This can be done by explaining to the child why it's wrong to do something that may be hurtful to others. For instance, rather than saying, "If you hit me, I'll hit you back," try saying, "You shouldn't hit me because it hurts, and you know how it feels to be hurt."

By the same token, when you tell your child to do something, explain why. "Because I said so" teaches him nothing that he can add to his understanding of how to behave in the world. "Pick that toy up" leaves a child with no information, but if you tell him to pick it up so his little brother won't trip on it, it helps him learn for the future. (In emergencies, of course, insist on obedience now, then explain later.)

  • Create positive incentives. Make cleaning up into a game, bring a toy boat for a sailing trip in the bathtub, or take an umbrella into the shower for the rainstorm.
  • Be flexible. It helps to remember that children in the 3-to-6-year-old age group are learning to become independent, to move beyond the home-centered world they've been in to experience new adventures and develop relationships with caregivers and other children. Your job is to help them navigate these new waters, encouraging their desire for autonomy while protecting them from danger. Be unyielding on issues of safety, but give your child a choice on lots of little things, such as which pair of pants to wear outside or what bedtime story to hear.
  • Avoid direct clashes whenever possible. When your child is angry or disappointed, let him know those feelings are all right. Talk with him in private, helping him express himself with phrases like "It sounds like you feel mad about that. At the same time, you can set limits on inappropriate behavior. Tell your child "It's okay to feel mad at your sister, but not to call her mean names. You're bigger and stronger than your child -- and you can use that to defuse a situation, rather than to hurt.
  • Talk about what to do in a conflict. It's important, in disciplining children, to calmly explain why what they did wasn't appropriate, and to give them an example of another way to handle it. For example, tell your child that if another child hits him, he shouldn't hit back. Instead, he should tell the other child that he's angry and report the incident to an adult. This may sound like tattle-telling, but lets a child know that he can appeal to authority when confronted by irrational, aggressive behavior.

What's the best way to use a time-out?

When your child is behaving in ways that are simply not acceptable, and is ignoring your requests to stop, a Time-out may be appropriate. The idea of a Time-out is to remove a child from an enjoyable place in which he is misbehaving and move him -- briefly -- to a quiet place where he can calm down, think about what happened, and get under control. (The incentive to calm down is to return to the more enjoyable place.) Use Time-outs sparingly -- or they won't carry much weight. And don't make them last for a long time or they can be quite frightening. Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, authors of Becoming the Parent You Want To Be, recommend using the child's age as a guide: a 3-minute Time-out for a three-year-old, a 5-minute one for a five-year-old.

What kind of discipline works best?

When you feel you must discipline your child, remember that, in his eyes, your disapproval or anger is the heaviest punishment of all. And any consequences you do mete out should be immediate, because a child this young can't think about later consequences, only what's happening right here and now. So if he misbehaves in the morning, don't tell him he can't watch a video that night. But if he acts up in the video store and won't stop, you can pick him up and say, "That's it, we're going now and we won't be able to get a video."

And don't forget to demonstrate to your child the same kind of behavior you want from him. If you make a mistake, don't be afraid to admit it and to tell him you're sorry.

What if I still feel like I'm going to lose it?

Even after you've made a commitment never to spank, you're going to get frustrated and angry at times -- it's simply inevitable. If you're the primary caregiver for your child, cultivate friendships with other parents and set up play dates -- they're as much about relieving your stress as they are about giving kids an outing. Have friends or family you can call in a pinch, and try to plan some time off for yourself. Many communities have parent talk lines you can call if you're feeling stressed out and fear you might lose your temper. Your pediatrician or your birth hospital can help you find one.

Further Resources

Here are some resources you can use to find out more about alternative discipline:

The Case Against Spanking: How To Discipline Your Child Without Hitting, Irwin A. Hyman, 1997: Jossey-Bass.

Raising a Thinking Child: Helping Your Young Child Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along With Others, Myrna B. Shure, 1996: Pocket Books.

Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, Donald Dinkmyer, 1980: American Guidance Service.

Discipline That Works, Thomas Gordon, 1991: Plume Penguin.

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Ph.D, with Joan Declaire, 1997: Simon and Schuster.

Helping Your Child Handle Stress, Katharine C. Kesey, Ed.D., 1995: Berkeley Publishing Group.

Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, 1991: Harper.

References

The Case Against Spanking: How To Discipline Your Child Without Hitting, Irwin A. Hyman, 1997: Jossey-Bass.

Raising a Thinking Child: Helping Your Young Child Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along With Others, Myrna B. Shure, 1996: Pocket Books.

Discipline That Works, Thomas Gordon, 1991: Plume Penguin.

Discipline with Dignity, Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler, 1988: ASCD.

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman, Ph.D, with Joan Declaire, 1997: Simon and Schuster.

Helping Your Child Handle Stress, Katharine C. Kesey, Ed.D., 1995: Berkeley Publishing Group.

Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, 1991: Harper.

Family Research Laboratory. Staff. http://www.unh.edu/frl/staff.htm

Child Trends Databank. Attitudes Towards Spanking. 2005. http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/indicators/51AttitudesTowardsSpanking.cfm

American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP survey on corporal punishment reveals divergent views. March 1998. http://www.aap.org/research/periodicsurvey/ps38a.htm

University of Michigan Health System. Spanking out, talking in: Most parents opt to talk with misbehaving kids. http://www2.med.umich.edu/prmc/media/newsroom/details.cfm?ID=1556

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