Practical Parenting: Spanking

Were you spanked as a kid? 

Most people our age or older can recall being spanked as a child.  You bet your buns that I was.

My mother tells (fond?) stories of picking her own switch off a bush, as well as a particular “paddling” where she whipped out the wooden spoon on my brother because he started laughing at her, and “he couldn’t feel it through his diaper” (my emphasis).

I don’t remember exactly what kinds of behaviors deserved spanking, but I’ll say it was generally disrespect — lying, “backtalk”, etc.  I got spanked a lot.  To contrast, I seem to remember my older brother getting spanked much less frequently.  That speaks loads about our different personalities. 

I remember getting my last spanking sometime around 12 or 13.  I don’t remember what it was for, but I do remember thinking, “I’m way too old for this.”

My husband claims he got spanked maybe once or twice.

But today?  A few years ago when I was teaching preschool, I remember being surprised to see a mother of a toddler spank her child, and I’m pretty sure she was in the minority in that community.  But she did it in front of the teacher, as if it was perfectly acceptable.  It got me to thinking…is spanking perfectly acceptable?

Is spanking an effective form of discipline?

A lot of research is being done, not just on spanking, but on rewards and punishments in general, and is coming to some interesting conclusions — namely, rewards and punishments are not as effective in changing behavior as many people think. Oh, you might see a change on the outside, but the inside, the conscience — the thing that controls future behavior, remains unchanged, or even resentful and likely act to out.

The ineffectiveness of punishment is displayed frequently in the driving behaviors of adults.  Maybe you’re driving down the highway, when all of a sudden you spot a patrol car.  What do you do?  If you’re like most adults I know, you slow down.  You certainly don’t pass it.  But what if that patrol car wasn’t there?  Would you behave differently?  Again, if you’re like most adults I know, you probably would.  You might drive over the speed limit, or squeak under that red light, or pass on the highway without flinching.  The fact is, that while the police have succeeded in altering our behavior when they’re around, we behave as we please when they’re not around.

Children are the same way.  While punishment is effective in controlling your child’s behavior when you’re present, as soon as you take the “punisher” away, the child is likely to behave differently.  I saw it first-hand in the preschool — I could always tell the kids who were spanked at home, because they kind of went nuts once their parents left.  Alternatives to spanking were less effective on them, because they knew that we couldn’t and wouldn’t spank them.  To them, if they weren’t getting spanked, it wasn’t worth behaving.

So is it effective?  Kind of.  In the short term.  For the child reaching for a tempting item, a spanking will alter his trajectory.  This short-term effectiveness is what keeps parents spanking.  But long-term is a different story.  And isn’t a long-term change in behavior the ultimate goal of discipline?

Is spanking harmful?

I suppose it depends on your definition of “harmful.”  Many people my age and older have proudly given credit to spanking for the way they turned out.  Some people would claim that without spanking, children would be “soft” or disrespectful.  But corporal punishment has left the schools, and fewer and fewer parents will (openly) admit to disciplining their children in this manner.  So clearly, it’s fallen out of public favor.  It has also fallen out of favor among child development experts and psychologists. Study after study have found spanking to effect aggression in children, self-esteem, success in school, etc.

In fact, the majority of sources I found to extol the benefits of spanking were primarily religious, using the famous line “spare the rod, spoil the child.”  What I found most interesting about this study was that the negative effects of spanking seemed to be strongly influenced by the age of the children when they were spanked.  Children spanked after age 6 were more likely to have behavioral problems than kids spanked before 6.   And teens who were spanked had the worst problems. (Teens?? Do people really spank teens??)

Another uncommon view to consider is not only the effect spanking has on the child, but on the parent.  Our brains respond in surprising ways when we spank our child, and not in ways I think many parents would find to be beneficial.

Being spanked myself, I have difficulty accepting that spanking has a universally negative effect on a child.  I did well in school and generally stayed out of trouble.  I haven’t had a particularly close relationship with my parents, but I hesitate to blame spanking.  But I’m sure there are people who were spanked more frequently (or more harshly) than I, and perhaps they do blame spanking for the way they turned out.  And when spanking turns into abuse, it is definitely harmful — and sometimes that line is easy to cross when you’re angry with your child.

Conclusions:

Personally, I wouldn’t classify spanking as abuse.  Not by itself, anyway.  It definitely has the potential to be harmful, though, and at it’s best it’s mostly ineffective.  As a nanny and preschool teacher, I would’ve lost my job if I had relied on corporal punishment to correct behavior, and I quickly learned many peaceful strategies that were quite effective.  So if a discipline strategy is at best ineffective, and has the potential to be harmful at its worst, and there are more effective, arguably less harmful strategies available, wouldn’t it make sense to try something else?

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