Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Spank Your Child

Let me be upfront: I personally don’t believe in spanking children. Now, I realize that I have likely isolated much of my audience by being so open about this controversial topic. Many of you are probably in staunch agreement with me, while some of you may have chalked me up to being narrow-minded, idealistic, naïve, or – simply - out of touch with reality. Many parents from older generations scoff at the idea that spanking a child can be harmful to his or her development. Others from a younger cohort are appalled that hitting is still even considered an option. Although, personally, I believe physical punishment is not the most appropriate means of discipline, I am a reasonable guy. I can see both sides of the argument, and I understand why spanking may be attractive to some parents. After all, many children stop their undesirable behavior immediately after they are spanked. Some parents may wonder, “if it ain’t broke, why would I fix it?” My argument would be that it may not be a completely broken method of discipline, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best option we have available to us. If you are someone who believes in spanking, take a moment to consider the following information before you administer physical discipline on your child.

What Does the Research Say?

 Most of the research conducted on physical punishment and children has shown negative effects on those who were physically punished. Some more recent findings indicate that physical punishment

·      Increases aggression in children.

·      Increases the likelihood of developing antisocial personality disorder.

·      Has been linked to depression, anxiety, and the use of drugs and alcohol.

·      Results in higher than normal levels of fear (Durrant & Ensom, 2012).

Many parents who advocate for physical punishment might perceive these findings as dramatic or unbelievable. After all, many of us (including myself) were physically disciplined by our parents and may not experience these symptoms. Some may question the legitimacy of this information if it does not align with their experience. It may be easy to dismiss such findings (which have been confirmed across multiple studies) and continue with your chosen discipline methods. However, if you are committed to disciplining your child physically, I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions before you do. If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you are likely to cause harmful effects to your child by administering physical punishment.

·      Do you have a history of losing control of your anger or frustration? All discipline needs to be administered with a cool head and clear mind. Those who struggle with staying calm in heated moments need to re-think their discipline methods. Discipline needs to be administered for the good of the child—not so the parent can have a cathartic release of anger. If you have a propensity toward anger, be honest about what’s best for your child—not you—and please consider an alternate means of discipline.

·      Does your child have a history of abuse? Children with abusive or traumatic backgrounds should not be disciplined physically. Solid research has shown that when we have experienced trauma of some type our brains operate more fearfully than a “normal” brain does (Forbes, 2010). Physical punishment causes a child’s brain to operate even more fearfully and does not lead to behavioral modification. Instead the child learns to respond to the parent or caregiver as an object of fear, and this interferes with parent-child bonding and attachment.

·      Does your child scare or intimidate easily? Children who have a more anxious or timid temperament should not be physically disciplined. Usually physical discipline is overboard for these children because they already feel badly or guilty for their misbehavior. Often strategies like time-outs or losing privileges are much more effective.

·      Is your child under the age of three? Children under the age of three should never be physically disciplined. A child’s frontal lobe comes “online” between the ages of two and three. The frontal lobe is what enables us to learn from experience, understand cause and effect relationships, and think critically. The frontal lobe does not finish developing until our mid-twenties. A child doesn’t understand cause and effect relationships until roughly age three. This is why we describe the toddler years as the “terrible twos.” No matter what we do to discipline a two-year-old they never seem to learn! Physically disciplining a child prior to age three is most likely to scare them and cause confusion because they lack the ability to connect their misbehavior to the spanking.

Overall, discipline is meant to correct and teach. It is not intended to make a parent feel better by lording power over a child or having a cathartic release because your child may have upset you. Whenever you discipline a child there needs to be a conversation—not just a punitive action. Explore with your child why he or she may have acted they way they did. Talk with them to see if they can think of different ways they could have behaved or responded. Too often I see parents spank or yell at children without any conversation being had. This does not lead to long-lasting corrective behavior. Rather, it breeds resentment and anger in the bonding between the parent and child. A strong bond between parent and child is the primary factor that leads to healthy child development and pro-social behavior. There will likely be times that you are unsure how to handle your child’s behavior and do not know what to do. Know your options if you feel your child is unmanageable. Seek professional help and allow yourself to be open to new ideas.

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Durrant, J. & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: Lessons of twenty years of research. Canadian Medical Association. 184(12).

Forbes, H. (2010). Beyond consequences, logic, and control: A love-based approach to helping children with severe behaviors. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.