Spanking is the Wrong Way for Parents to Discipline Children


“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass

If you ask parents what their intentions are when they decide to have and rear a child, the response is inevitably similar in each singular case. They want their child to develop normally –  be respectful and compliant while excelling in school in order to have a more successful life than the parents. Because of this intense preoccupation with parenting outcomes and how their child will function in society, many parents have conversations and preview their philosophies about child rearing during the course of pregnancy. Many parents enthusiastically purchase books during this period. Once the baby is born, some parents begin to perceive that their child is challenging their authority by not following routines, sometimes making it impossible to follow expert advice. The words “nothing works” begins to form part of many parents’ verbage by the first month of life.

Enter discipline. Discipline is a term often poorly defined and frequently associated with the spanking of a child as a means to get children to comply with rules when they are disobedient or as a negative consequence of undesirable behavior. It has its roots in the Judeo-Christian traditions which are the cornerstone of our American society. Many parents have been raised to believe that The Bible (Proverbs 22:15; 13:14; 23;13-14 and 29:15) teaches, in fact urges, parents to discipline the child with “a rod.” The biblical mandate to spank the child, however, has undergone some scrutiny. It appears that we have not reached the correct conclusions when reading this historical document. For example, highly observant Jewish families who live by the rules of the holy book do not use spanking as a means to correct their children. In psychology, we know that spanking has deeper roots, as it is more likely a learned reaction of anger and frustration while performing the incredibly challenging job of being a parent.

So is spanking effective? Parents that I have interviewed in the course of 15 years as a child therapist believe rightfully that it is not. Even parents with lower socioeconomic statuses and education can point out its ineffectiveness in their own lives, when perhaps their parents were heavier-handed. In the past 10 years, child protective agencies and overall community vigilance about child abuse have forced parents to be more mindful of the way and the frequency with which they spank. But many parents agree that it has little or no effect in getting their children to be more compliant, the ultimate goal of parenting. They have also shared that for them, the price to pay is an intense guilt about “hurting” their child. The question is why parents still use this approach, knowing what they know and how they feel overall about spanking? The answer: It is still both a learned and instinctual reaction in the face of overwhelming emotions, which disregards education and essentially discipline in order to get immediate compliance with little or zero lasting effects, except for the mistrust and lack of safety the child learns to live with.

Spanking is also bad in other ways. A classic parenting story retold in Dr. Sears’ (a well known pediatrician) website describes a mother who believes in spanking hearing her three-year-old daughter hitting her one-year-old brother. She promptly asked the little girl what she was doing. The little girl answers, “I’m just playing Mommy!” When I use this story in my “spanking” parents’ groups, there is a collective gasp! No one ever imagines that the imprint of the mother image in a child’s mind is not that of the kind, tender, loving, caring mother of our culture.

Spanking can also lead to abuse. I always ask parents, how do they prepare to measure force and establish frequency rates of spanking. There is always silence after this question because often, there is very little thought put into spanking. The parent is often caught off-guard and there is usually unusual force involved. More often than not, even if the spank is not hard and does not leave a mark, the child feels humiliated, hurt, diminished. They can also feel quite angry and defiant setting up a repeat of what can become then the hallmark of the parent-child relationship. 

It is worth noting here that there are also forms of verbal and emotional spanking that can be as confusing and damaging to a child. Neither of these forms are effective, kind, and respectful ways to teach a child compliance. The most important key element of a discipline that is spanking-free and effective is the management of stress by the parent. If the parent has a good, fluid, and steady fountain of emotional resources, they will think instead of reacting. When a parent pauses in response to the child’s behavior, the parent gives him/herself the opportunity to find meaning in what the child is doing. Only then can s/he offer the child teaching moments that will be long-lasting and will translate to compliance and success in the child’s life and within her family.

Photo Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov