To Spank or Not to Spank?

Laura Markham's picture

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If your parents used spanking as a discipline method growing up, you may have reconciled yourself to their behavior by justifying it: You came out ok. You may even think there is no other choice for managing kids who are "a handful." How else do kids learn?

We now have a wealth of studies on how spanking affects kids, and the research shows that children do indeed learn from spanking, but they don't learn what we want them to.

One large study showed that the more parents spanked children for antisocial behavior, the more the antisocial behavior increased (Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, l997). The more children are hit, the more likely they are to hit others, including peers and siblings and, as adults, they are more likely to hit their spouses (Straus and Gelles, l990; Wolfe, l987).

Quite simply, hitting children teaches them that it is acceptable to hit others who are smaller and weaker. "I'm going to hit you because you hit your sister" is a hypocrisy not lost on children. As every parent knows, kids do what we do, not what we say.

I often hear "I got hit when I was a kid and I turned out OK," or "I was spanked as a child, and I deserved it." It is very hard for us to believe that people who loved us would intentionally hurt us, so we feel the need to excuse that hurt. If you were willing to reach deep inside and really feel again the hurt you felt when you were physically punished as a child, you would never consider inflicting that pain on your own child.

And the pain does not end in childhood, even if we repress and deny it. A landmark analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies over six decades by Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff (2002) showed that spanking during childhood was associated with negative behaviors in adults, even when the adult said that the spanking was deserved and had not hurt them. Studies show that even a few instances of being hit as children are associated with more depressive symptoms as adults (Strauss, l994, Strassberg, Dodge, Pettit & Bates, l994). While most of us who were spanked "turned out OK", it is likely that not being spanked would have helped us turn out to be healthier.

I also hear "If we don't spank children, they'll grow up rotten." Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Finland and other countries that have banned corporal punishment of children have remarkably low rates of interpersonal violence compared to the United States. Professor Adrienne Haeuser, who studied these educational laws in Europe in l981 and l991, said "Children are receiving more discipline since the law in Sweden passed. Parents think twice and tend to rely more on verbal conflict resolution to manage their children".

I strongly believe that discipline is critical in child-raising, and permissiveness without limits creates children who are impossible to live with. But discipline means "to teach," and I want to use methods that really teach kids to manage themselves. We need more discipline of children that consists of explaining and reasoning, establishing rules and consequences, praising good behavior in children and being good models for children. Such methods develop a child's conscience and self-control. Children who experience teaching discipline are less likely to misbehave and more likely to become self-disciplined adults.

So next time you get so angry you want to hit someone, tell your kids you're taking a timeout and you'll deal with them later. Then go into the bathroom, run the water, and calm yourself down. Use the time to get calm, not to justify your anger. When you come out, tell them you need to think hard about what they did, but right now you need to fix dinner (do the laundry, whatever.) Tell them you need them to be little angels, and you will talk when you are all calm later. Then follow through. Your discipline and teaching will be so much more effective. They'll learn a lot better when they aren't in the flush of flight or flight hormones. And you will be so grateful to see yourself becoming the kind of parent we all deserve.

Dr. Laura Markham