Why you shouldn't spank your child

by Kristin Cantu on September 28, 2009

sad kidLast week, a Duke University study published in Child Development concluded that spanking has detrimental effects on the behavior and mental development of children. The researchers found that children who were spanked as 1-year-olds tended to behave more aggressively at age 2, and didn’t perform as well as other children on a test measuring thinking skills at age 3.

Here, Children’s Hospital Boston’s Jayne Singer, PhD, clinical director of the Child and Parent Program and a clinical psychologist for the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, weighs in on the spanking study and offers her professional views on the subject.

The results of the study make sense. Spanking a child does show the child that the  parent is bigger and stronger and can take control of the child. But, it doesn’t show the child how to learn to develop  control of themselves. Spanking may stop the child then and there, but there’s a cost emotionally and cognitively to a child, and over the long run, it doesn’t usually lead to the child learning not to repeat the behavior that resulted in the spanking in the first place. It can also lead to the child learning to behave because of fear, not because of respect.

I’d like to suggest that the real issue is how we think about discipline. If we move away from the idea of discipline as a punishment, we can think about discipline as teaching the child by using necessary limit setting as well as praising desired ways of being. Young children need to learn how to gain control of themselves and how to respect the limits of other people. Spanking may stop a behavior  in the moment, but it isn’t how a child actually learns to control his or her own actions.

Infants and toddlers learn more from behavior that’s modeled for them than anything else. Spanking results in them being  afraid—and that hitting is the way you handle conflict. It’s pretty scary for children to be spanked. Parents don’t need to use discipline as punishment. Instead, send a message to your child such as, “I love you and I can’t let you do that.” Even if this results in a time out and a tantrum, the child is learning more from the experience than if they are in physical pain or discomfort. Even the tantrum that results from being told, “no” is an opportunity for the child to learn how to get themselves back under control.

Children can learn best by mimicking their parents’ ability to control themselves, and parents can be models by using calm, firm and neutral discipline. To a child, spanking feels like the parents are out of control and the only reason for them to stop their behavior is that they might be harmed. This doesn’t help children think for themselves.

It’s difficult for young children to differentiate between an adult’s idea of what is right and what is wrong. Cognitively, toddlers don’t understand the difference. Young children also often learn about the world by testing the limits set upon them. This doesn’t mean that they are misbehaving even if they’ve been told many times before not to do something. It takes a long time for children to learn self-control, but it is one of our major goals for all children in early childhood. If given the chance to sit and think about their actions, they learn and become more socialized. Time outs should be used not as a punishment, but an opportunity to stop your child’s unwanted activity and to give them time to think.

Parents are under a lot of pressure from people around them to keep their child under control. I would love for whole communities to be supportive of parents so that parents don’t have to feel so judged for their child’s behavior that is often developmentally typical, and to join parents in the goal of  wanting children to have good emotional experiences.

It takes a long time for a child to learn how to control themselves. We hope that by age 5 there is a greater ability to sense that people other than themselves have needs and that they can stop themselves from doing things that will hurt somebody, not because they are afraid that they will get hurt themselves if they do the “wrong thing”, but because they care about the well-being of other people. These are the foundations of self-esteem and empathy, which we all want children to develop. The skills we want them to have are what are modeled around them: We want them to have the ability to control themselves.

Much of my thinking has been influenced  by working with T. Berry Brazelton, who wrote the book, Discipline the Brazelton Way. It’s based on the kinds of ideas such as thinking of discipline as teaching and not as punishment. This book brings home  ideas that are kind toward both children and parents. In the end, we just want a child to be someone who is able to have healthy relationships, be in control and show empathy.

12 comments

  • http://www.naturalchild.org/ Jan Hunt

    We’re making progress, but I’m sorry to see that time-out is still being recommended. Whether the parent sees it as punishment or not, the child always will, and punishment of any kind damages essential trust between the parent and child. Please see The Case Against Time-out by Dr. Peter Haiman at http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/peter_haiman.html

    Children behave as well as they are treated.

    Jan

    Jan Hunt, M.Sc., Director
    Natural Child Project
    http://www.naturalchild.org

  • Truthhurtsbut

    Wow…have to comment on this. I grew up in Southern, Baptist home where your grandmother owned a “switch tree”, where she would make you select a branch of a tree before “whooping” you for bad behavior.

    All I know is I grew up fearing my grandmother’s wraith and my respect from her came mostly out of fear than love. I think children understand role-modeling of postive behaviors more than they understand the frustrations of a parent or adult.

    Good job, Children’s on giving this topic it’s due voice!

  • Gene Hauta

    I am one to disagree with this article. Yes, discipline is one way of teaching but children are much smarter than we are giving them credit for. Once they realize that no matter what the wrong-doing is, all they get is an “I love you, and I can’t let you do that”, they will continue to stress the limitations to see what could possibly come next. If children are aware that some sort of punishment will come if they do not control themselves, they are more likely to think about their actions BEFORE they go through with them. Spanking does not need to be violent and harsh, but if children know the possibility of being punished exists, they will stop and think. It will not make them violent, I am not suggesting that spanking or other punishments take place regularly, but remain only as a last resort, and let your child be aware that there is harsher punishment if noncompliance to limitations occurs.

  • Spanked lovingly since 1983

    The study concluded that spanking 1 year olds was detrimental to the child’s subsequent development. But why would you spank a 1 yr old to begin with.

    Spanking in a non-violent environment should start no sooner than 2 years of age. Furthermore, in a nonabusive environment where the parent is not frustrated, I surmise that the outcome of spanking would be at the very least equal if not better than telling your kid “I love you sweetie” when they do something wrong.

    Non-abusive spanking, contrary to the misinformation spread about spanking, does not necessitate that the parent spanks all the time. Rather, it is most effective when used in response to repeated or extreme acts of misbehavior. Non-abusive spanking used as a backup and adjunct to parental instruction/discipline is perfectly healthy.

  • PDeverit

    Child buttock-battering vs. DISCIPLINE:

    Child buttock-battering for the purpose of gaining compliance is nothing more than an inherited bad habit.

    Its a good idea for people to take a look at what they are doing, and learn how to DISCIPLINE instead of hit.

    I think the reason why television shows like “Supernanny” and “Dr. Phil” are so popular is because that is precisely what many (not all) people are trying to do.

    There are several reasons why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea. Here are some good, quick reads recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak,

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson,

    NO VITAL ORGANS THERE, So They Say
    by Lesli Taylor M.D. and Adah Maurer Ph.D.

    Most compelling of all reasons to abandon this worst of all bad habits is the fact that buttock-battering can be unintentional sexual abuse for some children. There is an abundance of educational resources, testimony, documentation, etc available on the subject that can easily be found by doing a little research with the recommended reads-visit http://www.nospank.net.

    Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea:

    American Academy of Pediatrics,
    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
    Center For Effective Discipline,
    PsycHealth Ltd Behavioral Health Professionals,
    Churches’ Network For Non-Violence,
    Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
    Parenting In Jesus’ Footsteps,
    Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
    United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    In 26 countries, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  • natasha

    I thnk spanking is wrong, i would also tie spanking to children get jumpy when someone raises their hands and there speaking problems.

  • natasha

    I thnk spanking is wrong, i would also tie spanking to children get jumpy when someone raises their hands and there speaking problems.

  • Anonymous

    There is no doubt that spanking will stop, temporarily, the parent-offending behavior. Decades of well-conducted research show a variety of deleterious results that can last a lifetime—–including the anger in the then grown parent which makes that parent strike his/her child. Rather than speaking from opinion, we need to look to valid and reliable research to guide our child rearing practices.

  • peterernesthaimanphd

    There is no doubt that spanking will stop, temporarily, the parent-offending behavior. Decades of well-conducted research show a variety of deleterious results that can last a lifetime—–including the anger in the then grown parent which makes that parent strike his/her child. Rather than speaking from opinion, we need to look to valid and reliable research to guide our child rearing practices.

  • Mr Mom

    “Spanking does not need to be violent.” This is oxymoronical, nonsensical double-speak. Spanking is violence of the worst kind because it’s from a parent to their child. Spanking of any kind is taking an unacceptable risk that your child may act out later, like in school against another child. Spanking sets a child up to fail, to fear, to act out, and to avoid their feelings by using substances. Spanking shuts down thinking. So don’t be surprised if your child starts attacking others as you have attacked them. Don’t be surprised when they yell and scream just as you have yelled and screamed. Don’t be surprised when they start getting drunk and stoned. Spanking is always an act of violence. So don’t be surprised when your spanked child acts out in violence – s/he got their coping skills from you.

  • Mr Mom

    “Spanking does not need to be violent.” This is oxymoronical, nonsensical double-speak. Spanking is violence of the worst kind because it's from a parent to their child. Spanking of any kind is taking an unacceptable risk that your child may act out later, like in school against another child. Spanking sets a child up to fail, to fear, to act out, and to avoid their feelings by using substances. Spanking shuts down thinking. So don't be surprised if your child starts attacking others as you have attacked them. Don't be surprised when they yell and scream just as you have yelled and screamed. Don't be surprised when they start getting drunk and stoned. Spanking is always an act of violence. So don't be surprised when your spanked child acts out in violence – s/he got their coping skills from you.

  • jonny

    I agree with mr mom. Great comment. God bless you for your kind words about children.

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