Spanking: The Case Against It (Ages 6 to 12)

Should I spank my child?

The short answer is no. When children misbehave or act in defiant, inappropriate, or even dangerous ways, parents want to show that this behavior is unacceptable and needs to change. Parents may erroneously think spanking seems like a direct and effective way to do that, but it delivers other messages that we 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 and communicate effectively with your children.
  • Violence. Spanking teaches your child that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. Not surprisingly, perhaps, research shows that children who are spanked are more likely to fight with and hit other children. And other studies find that kids who are hit are also more likely to become violent adults.
  • Distrust. Spanking teaches your child that when you 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.
  • 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 kid, 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 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, most of us were spanked as children -- 82 percent, according to one 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 children?

But today we know far more about the negative effects of spanking than we used to. Our parents may loved us more than life itself; they may have been wonderful parents. But if they knew then what we know now, they might not have spanked us. Among other things, we know from researchers that children who are physically punished by their parents are more likely to engage in violent, aggressive behavior -- something that will hurt all of us in the long run.

Not very many years ago child-rearing experts -- even noted pediatrician Benjamin Spock -- used to see 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.

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 Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, followed 800 children between the ages of five and nine and found that kids who were spanked scored lower 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 also 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 other antisocial behavior. This was one of more than 25 studies that found children who were physically punished by parents were more likely to be physically aggressive themselves. The harsher the punishment, the greater the transfer effect on the kids: Male teenagers who were regularly hit by their parents when they were younger are much more likely to be violent themselves or to wind up in juvenile hall; girls were more likely to suffer from depression.

"I have yet to see a repeat male delinquent that wasn't raised on a belt, board, cord, or fist," says Ralph Welsh, a child and adolescent psychologist who has interviewed over 4,000 juvenile delinquents in more than 30 years of research. According to Welsh, the physical and mental pain of being hit by a parent frightens children. "But eventually," he says, "the fear fades out and what's left is anger and aggression."

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 found that kids who are hit or verbally abused are more likely to suffer depression or fits of uncontrollable anger as an adult, 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 a child's annoying behavior, but research shows that it's not effective in the long run; it results in more misbehavior and aggression, not less.

Many parents also find that once they start spanking, they soon need to escalate -- to spank more and 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 the statement come true. And spanking an older child is proof in itself that this form of punishment isn't working: You should be able to control your pre-teen's behavior by reasoning with him, not hitting him.

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 rarely remember what they were punished for. So they don't really learn anything from the experience, except that "My parents might hit me when they'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?

All parents get angry with their children. But if you make an ironclad rule for yourself that you won't hit your child -- 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.

It also helps to remember that when children enter elementary school, they'll be expected to manage their own behavior in a world that is far more demanding, competitive, and critical than what they have experienced before. School-age children are expected to act like adults-in-training, and are held accountable for their failings and mistakes. They are scrutinized and judged on everything from their academic performance to their prowess on the athletic field; they're rated by other kids on how fun, cool, and smart they are. These passages are stressful and sometimes humiliating. The pressure can lead to a lot of acting out as kids seek to relieve their anxiety and fear, express their frustration and anger, and rebel against the authorities controlling them.

However empathetic you are, you're still going to get frustrated and angry at times -- it's simply inevitable. Be sure to develop your own supports to help you keep your commitment to your decision -- friends or family you can call in a pinch, ways of getting time off when you are feeling stressed out and fear you might lose your cool. Your pediatrician or your birth hospital should be able to help you find one.

How can I discipline my child without spanking?

Here are some ideas from child-rearing experts:

  • Direct your child with positive rather than negative commands. "Do" really does work better than "don't," so reserve "don't" for truly important rules and then make sure you stick to it. For instance, "Don't ride your bicycle in the street without a grownup" is a rule you should not allow to be broken, even if you want your kid to go down the street to do an errand.
  • Be as specific as you can when telling your child what you want him to do. "Behave yourself" is too vague -- give a few examples of what you expect when you go to Aunt Barbara's for lunch. And when you tell your child to do something, explain why. Make sure he understands the reasons you give; if he does, he's a lot more likely to comply. Try to limit the "because I said so's" -- it teaches a child nothing that he can add to his understanding of how to behave in the world. (In emergencies, of course, insist on obedience now, then explain later.)
  • Let your child express negative feelings such as anger, sadness, or disappointment. Empathize with him ("You must feel so sad that we're moving to another city"). Ask your child what he might do to make things better. At the same time, set limits on inappropriate behavior ("I know you were really mad when your little brother wrecked your model airplane, but you can't hit him or call him mean names").
  • Create positive incentives for your child; that way he'll be more likely to do what you want. Try to give him a lot more positive than negative feedback.
  • Be flexible. Give in to your child on lots of little things, but be unyielding on the important things, especially issues of safety.
  • Remember that if your child does something he shouldn't, your disapproval may be punishment enough. When you must feel you must use further discipline, make sure that the consequence fits the offense and is logically related to it. If he makes a mess on the living room floor, for example, have him clean it up. If that's not appropriate for some reason, find another chore for him to do.
  • When your child is behaving in ways that are not acceptable and ignores 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 where he's misbehaving and move him -- briefly -- to a quiet, neutral 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.
  • Tell baby-sitters and relatives about your approach to discipline, and ask them to behave in ways consistent with your decisions. Make sure you understand school policies and know as much as you can about what's going on in the classroom.

Finally, demonstrate to your child with your own actions 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.

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. Attittudes Towards Spanking. 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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