Last 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.