Enough with the spanking already!

It’s time for another little chat about spanking children.  Yet another study has come out about the harmful effects of spanking, but this one is an enormous meta-analysis covering 160,000 child subjects and decades of research.  A meta-analysis is simply a study that collects together the results of many studies and analyzes them to get a sense of what the “big picture” is telling us about a given topic.  In this case, the big picture is that spanking is not good for children!

The press release summarizes the findings succinctly: “The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.”

Many parents who spank find this hard to accept, even though it’s not a new finding and psychologists have been teaching this for decades.  Indeed, the study found that about 80% of parents worldwide still approve of spanking!  Why?  My experience is that many parents (even those who do not spank) say things like, “it really taught me not to do that!”  I even heard from a Black mother, “Black children need whoopings more than White kids do.”  The bottom line is, most parents still spank because they think it works.  

At best, spanking results in a brief, short-term reduction in an unwanted behavior.  But research shows us that chronic spanking only results in an increase in problem behavior, in part because children become accustomed to being spanked.  And if parents who spank are really honest with themselves, the primary reason they do it probably has nothing to do with intentional parenting.  There is no well-considered theory of parenting at work here, no attentive monitoring of whether spanking works or does not work over time for their children, no experimenting with other parenting techniques to see if something else works better… no, I think, for the most part, the main reason why parents spank is simply about anger.  They are angry at their children, and they hit them just as many adults would like to do toward other adults who anger them, but can’t, because it’s illegal or because the other adult might hit them back (or worse).  The justification that the intent is to improve a child’s behavior is often really just a post-hoc rationalization, a way to make it okay to do something that is not okay in any other circumstance, with any other human being that is not one’s own child.  Most parents who spank really do think they are doing the right thing, but generally they are not aware of or willing to use alternative forms of shaping behavior in children, and often are not aware that their own anger is the primary reason for why they choose to spank as opposed to using words, redirecting, distracting, reinforcing an alternative behavior, etc.  

Part of the reason why spanking is the default discipline choice for so many parents is that it is so easy.  Spanking is fast, unsophisticated, results in an immediate effect, and requires none of the calmness, patience, creativity, or verbal intelligence that is often needed for more effective parenting behaviors.  That’s the best defense I can give for spanking.  To those adults who think being spanked helped them to behave better, I would argue that it may have, but that improvement may have come at a cost, and the same improvement could almost certainly have been achieved using alternative, non-violent methods.  

I don’t spank my child.  I never have.  That’s not because she is perfectly behaved, in fact she can do all the things that result in spanking for other children.  If I did spank her, I might even think it “worked” because for the moment she stopped doing whatever naughty thing she was doing, but as a psychologist I know that spanking carries with it far more risk, and is far less effective, than alternative parenting behaviors.  I also don’t spank because of the Golden Rule:  I teach my daughter that hitting is unacceptable, so it would be hypocritical of me to hit her (and all children recognize hypocrisy at some level.)  I try to treat her the way I expect her to treat me and everyone else.  To do otherwise sends the message that violence in certain circumstances is acceptable, as well as the message, “do as I say, don’t do as I do.”  Nobody earns respect that way, and I think it is the reason why parents who themselves were spanked choose not to spank their own children.   

Spanking is like smoking…even if there’s a perceived “benefit” to doing it, there’s always a better way to achieve that benefit, and the benefits never, ever outweigh the harm.  There’s just nothing healthy about it.  Angry parents need to learn to calm themselves, lazy parents need to try harder, and unskilled parents need to learn better parenting skills.  There are many great books out there on parenting, and many mental health professionals who are happy to help develop better ways to discipline.  It’s not okay to spank, slap, hit, pinch, or otherwise physically hurt our children, as much as they may drive us crazy or make us angry.  It’s time to stop.