Spanking: The Case Against It (Ages 1-3)

Should I spank my child?

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

  • Fear. Spanking teaches your child to fear you -- not to listen to you or respect you. He may also be humiliated and resentful, and retaliate by being uncooperative. The result: You'll be less able to reason with and set effective limits for your child.
  • Distrust. Spanking teaches your child that when he make mistakes, you'll punish him rather than give sympathetic guidance. It erodes trust and disrupts the bond between you and your child that will allow him to be confident and flourish.
  • Might makes right. If you spank, your child may learn that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. Not surprisingly, perhaps, studies show that kids who are spanked are more likely to hit and fight with other children. Studies also show that children who are hit are more likely to become violent adults.
  • Poor self-esteem. Many studies have shown that hitting your child can hurt more than his body: It can injure his sense of self. He may reason that if he weren't such a bad boy, he wouldn't get hit. 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, especially if you hit harder than you intended. 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, why shouldn't I spank my kids?

That's a natural question. After all, most of us were spanked as children -- 82 percent, according to the latest poll -- 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. Our parents may have loved us; they may have been been wonderful parents. But if they knew what we know now, they might not have spanked us. Among other things, research shows that children who are physically punished by their parents are more likely to engage in violent, aggressive behavior -- both as children and as adults.

Only a few decades ago some child-rearing experts -- even noted pediatrician Benjamin Spock -- saw spanking as 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 in children.

But what's the harm in a little smack?

Plenty. In a study released in July 2002, 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.

Psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff of Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty 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 psychologist Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, followed 800 children between the ages of 2 and 4 and made this surprising finding: Kids who were spanked scored lower on tests that measured their ability to learn. Straus thinks the reason may be that parents who don't spank their children spend more time talking and reasoning with them. "The less corporal punishment [parents] used," he says, "the more stimulation they provided to the child."

Straus also believes that spanking may get children to stop misbehaving in the short run, but it makes them more likely to act out in the long run. His 1997 study found that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to fight, steal, and engage in other antisocial behavior. This echoes several other studies, which found that children who are hit at home are more likely to become juvenile delinquents as teenagers than those who weren't physically punished. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from depression.

What if I just shake my child instead?

Don't do it. Young children are especially fragile because their brains are still developing. Every year, thousands of kids 2 and under are injured -- sometimes killed -- when they are shaken or hit. Shaken infant syndrome, as doctors call it, most often happens to kids under 1 and sometimes to those under 2. It can cause cerebral hemorrhage, blindness, severe brain damage, and even death.

Is spanking still widespread?

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.

But isn't spanking effective?

Spanking may temporarily stop an annoying behavior. But parenting is a long-term proposition, and research shows that in the long-term spanking isn't effective. Many parents who start spanking soon find they need to up the ante -- to spank more and harder in order to get their child's attention. Hitting a child while yelling, "this is the only way I can get through to you," becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many experts have also found that over time, spanking makes a child angry and resentful; he also becomes less -- not more -- willing to do what you ask. That pattern can begin as early as age 1. A 1986 study published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, for instance, found that 1-year-olds who were frequently spanked by their mothers were far more likely to ignore Mom's requests, compared to children who were rarely or never spanked.

How can I avoid spanking my child?

It helps to remember that young children, especially 2- and 3-year-olds, are going to push your buttons and test limits -- it's part of their job description. And it's natural for you to get extremely angry with your child sometimes, but if you make an ironclad rule for yourself that you won't hit your child -- ever -- you'll avoid the negative consequences of spanking. You'll also avoid a situation in which anger can turn a light slap turn into a dangerous blow.

Of course, you will still get frustrated and furious at times -- it's inevitable. It helps to remember that it's hard being 2 and 3. One minute, you're all-powerful and can do anything without help. The next minute, you're frustrated, unable to accomplish a simple task, and throwing a toy across the room. As your child lurches back and forth between being powerful and feeling humiliated, you can help him save face with your understanding and support.

If you're the primary caregiver for your child, cultivate friendships with other parents and set up playdates -- they'll give you a break and are a fun way for your child to feel more independent and learn new social skills. 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.

How can I get my toddler to behave without spanking?

It helps to remember that it's hard being 2 and 3. One minute, your new skills make you feel all-powerful and confident. The next minute, you're frustrated by a difficult task and throwing a toy across the room in a tantrum. As your child lurches back and forth between being powerful and feeling humiliated, your job as a parent is to help him save face and learn how to manage those difficult feelings. Try operating at your child's pace when possible rather than trying to force him to move at yours. Be as flexible as you can, but be unyielding on the important things, especially issues of safety.

What can I do instead of spanking?

  • Make your home safe. Child-proof your living space so your child won't get into things or places he shouldn't -- and you won't be overtaken by a sudden panic.
  • Avoid direct clashes. If you order your child to stop throwing his food and he obstinately refuses, distract him instead. "Stay adult," says Penelope Leach, "and remember that you are much cleverer than your child. You can almost always find a diversion."
  • Teach empathy. From the earliest time that a child can begin to understand, it's important to teach 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." Even though a child may not catch on right away, if you're patient and give examples, he'll eventually understand.
  • Teach children to avoid danger. Rather than spanking your child if he nears a dangerous spot (like the fireplace), show him the fireplace and repeat his word for pain (such as "owie"). Soon your child will point, say "owie," and avoid the dangerous spot.
  • Use your imagination. You're also bigger and stronger than your child you can use that to defuse a situation, rather than letting it escalate. If your child won't head for his room when it's bedtime, pick him up and turn him into an airplane heading for the runway -- his bed.
  • Make room for negative feelings. Let your toddler express feelings like anger, sadness, and disappointment, and empathize with him ("You must feel mad about that"). At the same time, set limits on inappropriate behavior. You can tell him, for example, that it's okay to feel mad at his little sister for knocking over his blocks, but that he can't hit her or call her mean names.

When you feel you must "punish" your child, remember that, in his eyes, your disapproval or anger is the heaviest punishment of all. And any punishment 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 refuses to 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."

Most importantly, demonstrate with your own action the 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. He'll be more likely to grow up into the kind of adult you're proud of.

Further Resources

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.

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.

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

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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