Is Spanking Part of Discipline?

Laura Markham's picture

QUESTION

Dear Connection Parenting Expert,
I need some help to talk to my mother about spanking. She insists that spanking is the only way kids learn. And I have to admit my son is a handful. Timeouts certainly don't work with him. The only thing that does is staying three steps ahead of him, and that isn't always possible.

ANSWER

Hi,
Sounds like you're wondering if there are any answers besides spanking for managing kids who are "a handful." I suggest you check out the Positive Discipline section in my blog and let me know what you think.

Now some information to share with your mother. The research shows that children do 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). 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.

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 hard for us to believe that people who loved us would intentionally hurt us, so we feel the need to excuse that hurt. But 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). A landmark analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies over six decades by Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff (2002) showed that spanking was associated with negative behaviors. 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 believe that discipline is important for kids. But discipline means "to teach," and I want to use methods that really teach kids to manage themselves. We need more discipline of children such as explaining and reasoning, establishing rules and consequences, praising good behavior in children and being good models for our 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.

I hope this helps in talking with your Mom about your choice to find other ways to discipline and teach your son.

  -- Dr. Laura