To Spank or not to Spank

When my mother had her first child my grandmother visited her in the hospital and gave her a wooden spanking paddle.  “Some day you will need this,” she told my mother.  I heard my mother tell this story again and again throughout my childhood to justify her use of corporal punishment.  As a child, I was determined never to spank my children.  “Some day you will understand,” my mother told me.

When I became a pediatrician, I took care of toddlers that ultimately died from corporal punishment.  I watched their brains swell until the neurosurgeons had to drill holes in their skulls to release the pressure.  I took care of one teen who was beaten so badly by his mother that he was hospitalized with renal failure.

Then I became a parent.

I, like 94% of American parents, utilized corporal punishment.  Not often.  Not severely—just an occasional quick swat on the buttocks.  Spanking was an ultimatum used only for defiant children that refused to go to time-out, and I threatened it far more than I ever actually did it.  I finally understood what my mother, my grandmother, and generations of parents faced.  But I don’t spank anymore.

Few issues are as controversial as corporal punishment.  In September, 2012, Delaware made spanking illegal.  Yes, that’s right, parents who inflict any “pain” on their children can go to jail… in Delaware.  Yet 19 states still permit spanking in public schools.  California and other states are working hard to push through legislation that makes spanking a crime.  There are organizations that oppose all forms of child punishment, including extra chores, writing assignments, etc.   But you can go online and hire a professional spanker to come and spank your child or teen.  There are even those who advocate for “spanking therapy” and discuss “whipping theory” as a cure for depression, and addiction.   Is your rear end burning yet?

The experts are just as conflicted.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly opposes corporal punishment.  But The American College of Pediatricians (ACP) feels that “Disciplinary spanking by parents, when properly used, can be an effective component in an overall disciplinary plan with children.”  From the AAP’s  “Guidance for Effective Discipline.”

  • Spanking children <18 months of age increases the chance of physical injury, and the child is unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment.
  • Spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in preschool and school children.
  • Spanking and threats of spanking lead to altered parent–child relationships, making discipline substantially more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents.
  • Spanking is no more effective as a long-term strategy than other approaches, and reliance on spanking as a discipline approach makes other discipline strategies less effective to use. Time-out and positive reinforcement of other behaviors are more difficult to implement and take longer to become effective when spanking has previously been a primary method of discipline.

But the ACP criticizes the research behind the AAP’s statements.  The ACP feels that “appropriate spanking” should be an option for parents.  “Appropriate spanking” includes:

  • two open-handed swats to the buttocks in a child of about 2-7 years who defiantly refuses to cooperate with milder disciplinary measures, such as time out

The ACP quotes other research “That limited use of spanking, when directly compared to alternative disciplinary tactics, has actually been shown to lead to improved compliance and less aggression in children.”

As for me, my spanking days are over.  I have other parenting methods that are more effective.  Violence is a poor solution to the ills of our world, and the challenges of parenting are no exception.  I feel freed from some burden now that I don’t have to spank my kids.  But I certainly have not given up discipline.  Teaching discipline and self-control is a primary obligation of a parent.

So what do we do instead of spanking?   In our house we do a lot of service projects for people we have disrespected.  If you mouth off to me, you might need to help me with laundry, or gardening, or cleaning the bathroom.  If you are mean to your sibling, you might have to help them with homework or clean their room.  Exercise can also help calm strong emotions.  Sometimes I’ll send a child outside to walk a few loops of our cul-de-sac.  If a child is truly out of control, they usually have to sit in the bathroom and draw a picture or write an essay about the issue at hand.  Those too young to draw pictures just have time out in the bathroom, one minute for each year of life. Five-to-eight- year-olds often have to copy essays I have already written.  My favorite starts like this: “Attitude is a choice.  When I have a bad attitude, I am hard to live with.”  If they refuse to write their essay, they get a longer essay.  Until the essay is written there are no privileges such as tasty meals, toys, extra-curricular activities, etc.  Different children have different needs and temperaments, and there is no one-size-fits all form of discipline.

Many people say they spank as a rare attention-getter when a child puts his or her life in danger.  My ear piercing screams have served this purpose the few times my toddlers have run towards busy streets or otherwise endangered their lives.

Most importantly, we try very hard to tame our own anger.  Yelling and using angry verbal reprimands is just as bad, if not worse, than spanking.  We say we discipline out of love.  Anger is not love.

Love and discipline go hand in hand.  For my grandmother, spanking was what it meant to love and discipline her children.  When I had my first child, I wondered if my mother would bring me a spanking paddle as a baby gift.  Fortunately, she loved me enough to find a better gift.

Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. About Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D.

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, M.D., is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Social Media Team, and co-founder of the ChildrensMD hospital physician blog. Her work has been featured in print and online publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Fox2 News STL Moms. Kathleen and her husband are raising five children.

Follow Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs Twitter: @MomDocKathleen and connect with her on .

Comments

  1. “two open-handed swats to the buttocks in a child of about 2-7 years who defiantly refuses to cooperate with milder disciplinary measures, such as time out”

    I think this is the MAXIMUM amount of physical punishment ANY parent should ever consider. Anything more than that a parent isn’t controlling their own anger. I also think someone prone to anger should NEVER spank their children because of how easily it can escalate.

    I seldom spank and make a vested effort not to, but there have been dangerous situations, where a swat was the quickest way to get the message across and to “stick.”

    It’s all about finding discipline your child responds to. If a parent is spanking their child every day for misbehavior something isn’t working.

  2. I find it intriguing and completely frustrating that those in the “no-spanking” camp seem to equate spanking with anger. I completely agree with the statement that you should never hit your child in anger. That is wrong and can and does lead to actual child abuse. However, this does not mean that proper spanking is wrong and ineffective. From my experience it seems that most parents misuse the rod entirely, leading perhaps themselves and witnesses to proclaim that because of their obvious ignorance and inability to use it correctly and Biblically, it must be wrong. Flimsily swatting at your child in irritation while they kick, scream, and wiggle is not discipline, love, or the correct way to use the rod. They are not a buzzing, annoying fly to be swatted at in frustration. No wonder these children have discipline problems, relational deficiencies, and self-esteem problems. Their parents have treated them as annoying pests, no more deserving of love and proper discipline than a pesky animal. Proper corporal punishment should be administered after a calm, loving (private) conversation with the child, a firm but gentle rebuke of what they did wrong and why it is wrong, how there are consequences to every decision that we make (and in our families’ case, the remedy to their inability to do right), and slow, steady, in-control swats followed by lots of hugs, cuddles, and reconciliation with the offended party (if necessary). There is nothing done in anger, no voices raised, no “hitting” done in haste or frustration. That is loving discipline. Anything less than that is simply irresponsible parenting and should not be done. But please, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater simply because the parents use the wrong soap.

  3. Seems weird to make a child do chores as a punishment. My kids do chores because they are a part of the family. I don’t wan to condition them to think that if they’re good, they can play, but if they’re bad, they have to do work. Sorry, that’s not a great solution.

  4. Samantha says:

    I do not believe in beating a child until they are unconscious or anything like that. The only time I find spanking appropriate is with toddlers who DEFIANTLY disobey you. And even that, it’s a swat on the hand or butt.

  5. I agree with Tim, making them do chores for misbehaving is only setting yourself up for lazy teens/adults who will never want to clean. They should already be helping out around the house. As Katy stated, please don’t group everyone that does spank in a right manner with those who abuse their children because they have no self-control. Better my child has a “sting” that will last them 2 seconds than a lifetime of pain and sorrow.

  6. Ann Onnimus says:

    I agree with the person that said it seems weird to use chores as a punishment… counter-intuitive, even. Chores are something that all kids need to learn to do and do well and do when they need doing, even though they’re not fun. Sure, chores aren’t fun for adults either, but they HAVE to get done… I wouldn’t want my child to grow up and then, once they move out, be thinking “great, I’m on my own now, I never have to do chores anymore because I don’t want to punish myself!” Besides, sometimes it’s actually more fun to do them with someone else (even a parent or sibling) than to do them alone.

    The concept of “work” as a punishment doesn’t fly, either, for similar reasons. Why would you want to teach your kid that work=punishment, and not a legitimate pathway to earn rewards like money and a career?

    To use these as punishment would risk teaching children to be spoiled and entitled (hmm… maybe that’s part of our problem with kids these days!) I would think that a punishment should be a clearly defined PUNISHMENT, separate from ALL other tasks and experiences, whether it’s a time-out, or being grounded, or a spanking.

    So, I’m sorry, but I must respectfully disagree with you. And, as a child that was raised with spanking as a potential punishment (where it was used in a manner that I felt and still feel was fair and fitting), I DO think that spanking can be an appropriate tool for discipline when used calmly, and with an attitude of discretion, consistency and fairness.

  7. Great article! I am very grateful that you write unbiased articles with solid references on both sides and then state what you personally do and how it works for you. I strongly believe that you have the right to choose how to raise your children and though I personally want my children associating chores with punishment, I don’t think it’s a bad method and I really like the homework helping idea.

    I am appalled to find that any state bans spanking! I do not think there is a fine line between beating your children and spanking. Spanking doesn’t necessarily mean you cause “pain” either. The best learning moments I’ve had are a simple pat that shows them “you can’t do that” and hold them in my arms until they understand that I have their best interest in mind.

  8. Paul Kercher says:

    The Delaware law may be misrepresented in this article. The following quote was taken from an article in the New American (www.NewAmerican.com):

    Behind the push for this law was state Attorney General Beau Biden, the son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Biden insists that the law does not prohibit spanking. “This will not do anything to interfere with a parent’s right or ability to parent as they see fit, but it also makes it clear that if you abuse a child in any way, shape or form, we’re going to have a statute that we’re going to be able to use to protect kids,” he stated.

  9. So good. Excellent, excellent article.

  10. I believe that effective methods of discipline are going to be different for every child and family In some cases spanking can be one of those effective methods. As has already been noted discipline is supposed to be an act of love; if spanking is done in anger then it has certainly crossed the line of effective and appropriate discipline. As a child my parents used spanking as a method of discipline, there were also (very few) times when I was spanked out of anger ( I am not angry at my parents because I know that we all have our failures). I can remember specifically the times that I was hit in anger, however I can not remember any of the times that I was lovingly disciplined by spanking ( though I know there were many). This personal experience is the reason that I believe that spanking in loving discipline is effective and harmless.

  11. Thank you!

Trackbacks

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  4. [...] the poor choice a child made, such as being left hungry until dinner after refusing to eat lunch.  Spanking or corporal punishment is not an effective method of teaching attunement to the needs of [...]

  5. […] I was shocked when I read a recent study in Pediatrics and learned more than 50% of American parents still spank their kids.    Even more surprising is that up to 15% of parents report spanking their infants. Despite the fact that many developed countries have laws banning all forms of corporal punishment, spanking is still a common method of disciplining children in the United States. In this post, my colleagues Kathleen Berchelmann discusses reasons why she stopped spanking her kids… […]

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