Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Should I Spank My Child?

There is no doubt that parenting can be difficult at times. If you've ever found yourself telling your child to stop hitting his little brother, to stop jumping on the couch, or to stop taking toys for the 8th time that day (or maybe even that hour), then you know what I'm talking about.

It is important that we set limits with our children and that we follow through with consequences. Often though, families may differ on the consequences that they prescribe, and at times parents within the same family have different ideas about what would be best for the parenting situation.

Spanking is quite common in the United States, with 65% of 19- to 35-month-olds being spanked by their parents and 85% of teens saying that they have been slapped or spanked by their parents at some point.

We all know why it happens. Spanking is an attempt to punish the child and to stop the child from misbehaving in the moment and in the future.

But is spanking effective at reducing undesirable behavior in children? The answer might surprise you.

Dr. Liz Gershoff, expert in the field of human development, recently reviewed all of the scholarly research and work that is out there on the subject (which is actually quite a lot!), and she found that spanking was no more effective than time-outs in getting children to comply.

Are we shooting ourselves in the foot?

Spanking does not get children to comply in the long-term either. Instead, Dr. Gershoff found that spanking actually appears to decrease children's compliance over time.

But what if I have an aggressive child? We find that spanking is more common in families where the child is aggressive, which is not surprising, as this puts a lot more stress on you as the parent and probably leaves you at your wit's end many times in how to get the child to stop hurting others. Yet, the research shows that spanking increases children's aggressive tendencies over time. Once again then, we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we are hoping to get our child to stop being aggressive.

This means that children may comply with your requests immediately because of the threat of physical punishment; however, over time your child is likely to become less obedient (instead of more) and more aggressive.

Thus, the answer to my question is "NO, spanking is not effective at reducing undesirable behavior in children."

Why doesn't spanking work?

1. For punishment to work, it must be "immediate, consistent, and delivered after every instance of the targeted behavior" (p. 134). No one wants to spank their child this much, and I'm pretty sure that this would end up being called child abuse or at least borderline child abuse.

2. Spanking does not teach the child what is wrong about the behavior or what to do instead. It teaches the child to fear the punishment, and when the punishment is gone (e.g., the parent steps out of the room, etc.) the child has no reason to obey.

3. Spanking involves hitting. No matter how you slice this it is a form of violence, and it "causes physical pain, and it can be confusing and frightening for children to be hit by someone they love" (p. 135). When they are spanked, children often experience emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness, that flood them so that they have trouble really listening to and internalizing the parent's message. Instead, they focus more on the pain and the aggression than on anything you might say.

4. You are showing your child how to use aggression and violence to get what he/she wants. How can a child understand that hitting is wrong, if you use aggression (spanking) to tell them that their own aggressive tendencies and bad behavior are wrong?

Research Article Citation:
Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives.

Image Citation: Strocchi

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