Valerie L. Sizelove
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Freelance writer, mom of four.

Disciplining children is no easy task, but is it ok for parents to spank their kids? The consensus among scientists and human rights organizations is that no, spanking is not a good way to enforce discipline. Still, regardless of the studies, parents all over the world practice corporal punishment anyway. So, should parents be allowed to hit their child?

Arguments in favor of spanking.

A Brown University document published in 2019 says that 65 percent of parents still spank their children, despite research showing that it’s ineffective and dangerous. Let’s look at some of the common reasons why parents argue that spanking is a good, or even necessary, thing.

1. Spanking teaches discipline.

Parents generally spank children because of a belief that it will teach them discipline. In part, this may be true. One researcher, Harold Hoff, studied the effects of negative consequences on population of children in 2012. Those who didn’t experience negative disciplinary consequences were more likely to act aggressive at school than those who received negative disciplinary consequences, including spanking. Scientists argue, however, that other types of negative consequences are more effective than inflicting physical pain.

2. Nothing else seems to work.

Discipline isn’t easy. Sometimes, your kid won’t stay in time out. Other times, you’re desperate for them to stop what they’re doing instantly, and spanking is the only solution you can come up with. What makes non-corporal discipline difficult is that it doesn’t have the instant effect of a spanking, but rather requires repetition and discipline on the parents’ part. Spanking instead seems to offer a quick solution to problems.

3. It’s a negative consequence children want to avoid.

Children learn to behave because they don’t want to receive a spanking again in the future. That’s the simple explanation behind why spankings seem to work. The negative feeling of pain involved with spanking is meant to be a deterrent from the unwanted behavior. However, the spanking doesn’t address the root of the cause of the undesired behavior. There may be better, deeper ways of addressing the problem that will have more lasting effects.

4. Studies are based on correlation, not causation.

There’s some debate about the validity of the studies against spanking. Because it’s impossible to conduct an ethical experiment on children being spanked by parents, studies instead focus on correlations between spanking and children’s outcomes. Correlations, however, are not proof that spanking produces these effects.

For instance, there could be hidden variables such as genetic predisposition to violence. Are spankings causing a child to be violent, or is it already in their genes? Could the parent be predisposed to violence, so they spank more often than others? These types of factors can make a difference between correlation and causation.

Arguments against spanking.

For all the arguments in favor of spanking, there’s plenty of evidence that argues otherwise. Here are some of the reasons experts think spanking is detrimental to children.

1. Spanking is strongly correlated with negative outcomes for children.

Researchers keep finding that negative effects are correlated with spanking in children. A 2016 research review in the Journal of Family Psychology highlighted studies showing that children who are spanked are more likely to develop a violent nature, experience stress and undergo emotional trauma. Another negative outcome that’s been attributed to spanking is an increase in the likeliness that aggression will affect children’s social competence.

2. Spanking doesn’t teach effective discipline.

Many argue that instead of teaching children behavioral skills, spanking instead teaches kids to be sneaky — to just not get caught and avoid the negative consequence. When children are afraid of a spanking, their choices are driven by fear, not discipline.

Spanking might seem to work in the moment, but children don’t really learn from it and are bound to repeat the same mistakes again. Kids can’t learn anything when they’re afraid because “fight-or-flight” response kicks in, which makes it impossible for a child to focus on learning a lesson.

3. Spanking can cause emotional damage and trauma.

The American Psychological Association (APA) summarized research on spanking in 2012, stating that the APA supports further research on outcomes associated with the practice. In the APA article, it’s claimed that spanking is dangerous because it’s not effective, which causes parents to feel the need to increase force. This ripple effect makes the practice even more damaging than helpful.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, spanking causes negative behavioral, psychosocial, emotional and cognitive effects. Plus, findings show that spanking may even elevate children’s stress hormones and change the brain’s structure.

4. It’s hard to draw the line between spanking and abuse.

Both corporal punishment and abuse cause pain. How will your child know the difference? When your child is spanked, they will think they deserve to be physically punished when they make mistakes. It teaches them that the bigger, stronger person has the authority to exert pain on the smaller and younger person. Many parents spank out of anger, which is no different than abuse. Later in life, children could be in an abusive situation and not recognize the difference.

Alternatives to spanking.

There are other effective ways to discipline children without going as far as spanking. It takes practice and patience, but other discipline methods allow you to teach your child behavioral skills while taking the physical trauma out of the equation.

  • Time-out

Studies show that placing a child in time-out can be just as effective as spanking them. Time-out is a negative consequence that should teach the child not to repeat offending behaviors.

To reinforce good skills, try positive reinforcement. Rewarding good behavior can be much more effective than punishing undesired behavior. Offering rewards or using a sticker chart can make your child feel good about themselves while reinforcing desired behavior. Positive discipline makes a child “want” to act good rather than acting good out of fear of consequences.

  • Teach new skills

Understand the motivation behind your child’s misbehavior. What do they want? Offer to show them a better way to get what they want. Teaching a new skill can also distract them from being upset.

  • Allow natural negative consequences

Instead of inflicting negative consequences, allow your child to learn that some decisions simply come with negative consequences. When your child makes poor choices, they’ll learn on their own how the outcomes are negative, and they’ll be less likely to repeat that behavior again.

To spank or not to spank…

So, we return to the question of whether or not parents should be able to spank their children. The real question is, who should make that decision? In 2006, the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child made a directive that condemned the spanking and physical punishment of children. Only the United States and Somalia didn’t ratify it, while 192 other countries did. Furthermore, thirty countries have banned the use of spanking at all, even at home. For now, in the United States, the choice to spank is left to individual parents.

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