Does spanking really help?

Parents may spank their child in anger or frustration or when they don’t know how else to get their point across. Some parents believe that spanking is the only way to teach children to listen and behave well. Yet, spanking is not necessary; there are other, more effective ways to get children to change their behavior.

In our society, spanking is still a widely accepted method of discipline. Although many parents defend spanking by saying, “I was spanked and I turned out OK,” or, “It’s the only way to get the message across,” others feel guilty, defensive, and embarrassed about hitting their children: “I know I shouldn’t have spanked him, but…” They often wince when seeing a child spanked in public and wonder, “Is that what I do to my child?” Some parents feel guilty after spanking and want to follow up with a hug or an apology to assure themselves they haven’t lost their child’s love. Still other parents say that, though they spank, they really don’t believe spanking changes their child’s negative behavior. Even those parents who strongly believe in the effectiveness of spanking say it usually only temporarily stops inappropriate behavior.

There are problems with spanking. One is that a child will imitate what her parents do. If they hit her in order to change her behavior, shouldn’t she also hit when someone does something she doesn’t like? Can they fairly tell her not to hit when they discipline her spanking?

Spanking can be a particular problem with a child under two and one-half, who often doesn’t understand ahead of time that an action is wrong. She may touch a glass vase because she thinks it’s beautiful. If she’s suddenly spanked, she won’t easily see that she has done something inappropriate, but rather will focus on the pain and shock of the spanking. It’s very difficult for a child this age to make a connection between her own behavior and a spanking, yet one of the goals of discipline is to have children make those connections.

Spanking a child who is over three or four may actually hinder discipline. Parents hope their child will eventually develop self-discipline and a sense of right and wrong. As she grows older, she should begin to feel bad about her unacceptable behavior, and her gradual emerging sense of guilt should start to keep her from misbehaving as frequently. But when she is spanked for her wrongdoings, she doesn’t learn to monitor her own behavior. She may learn instead that as long as she doesn’t get caught, she can misbehave. And if she does get caught, any guilt feelings she has will be relieved by the spanking, since she has “paid the consequences.” Eventually, she will learn that if she can tolerate the spanking, she no longer has to feel bad about her negative actions or try to alter her behavior. Even when parents explain to the child why they have spanked her and how they want her to change, she may be too angry or humiliated at the time of the spanking to listen and learn.

Discipline works best when parents set firm limits verbally and then follow through by removing their child from the scene of her misbehavior, taking away an object or privilege she’s abused, or having her spend time alone until she can change her behavior. When punishment is relevant to the inappropriate behavior—when the child who throws a block has to stop playing with the blocks—she can make the connection between her actions and its consequences. Until children develop self-control, they are motivated best by the desire for parental approval and the fear of losing privileges and toys.

Even a child under two can make a connection when she’s given a firm “no” and removed from a dangerous situation. Parents often feel that they must spank their young child to teach her critical safety rules such as not to play in the street. But firm and consistent warnings, frequent reminders, and most importantly, close supervision are effective in keeping children out of danger.

Sometimes parents say, “When I tell my child to stop, she ignores me, but when I spank her, she does what I want.” One mother who was browsing in a department store with her three-year-old became angry when he tried to investigate the dressing rooms. She repeatedly warned him not to go near them and then spanked him for not listening. He cried, turned around in circles several times, and looked defeated. The situation is a familiar one, yet the mother had other options that would have left her and her child feeling happier. Since young children have a hard time listening to limits when they have an intense need to explore, the mother could have acknowledged her child’s interest and even taken a moment to look into the dressing room with him. This might have made it easier for him to do what she wanted. Or she could have gently but firmly told him there was no time to explore that day. She also could have tried to distract him or to carry him away from the area of the dressing room.

Because children’s behavior can be so frustrating, parents sometimes find themselves on the verge of “losing it” and may feel ready to hit or spank their child. At such times, it’s important to remember that young children have only a limited ability to integrate rules.

Disciplining children is a complex, gradual task. Your young child needs to be reminded of the limits over and over, and you will have to be patient as she slowly learns self-discipline. If you spank her, she will feel defenseless, humiliated, and angry, and may not understand the connection between what she did and what you are doing to her. It takes a lot of self-control not to spank and to trust that she can still learn appropriate behavior. If, instead of spanking your child, you set firm limits and follow through in relevant way, she will be able to listen to you without feeling vulnerable and defeated.

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