The Spanking Debate Is Over

Category: Play Therapy

The Spanking Debate Is Over
What the research is saying about spanking and what you can do instead


You’re at home on a Monday night after a long day at work. Your child, whom you know is overtired and hungry, starts throwing an absolute fit because you said he couldn’t have three scoops of ice cream before dinner. After your first few warnings are ignored you feel your blood starting to boil and you desperately want to communicate to your child that this behavior is not okay! So, what do you do? At this point, some parents may be considering a spanking. Many adults, particularly if they were spanked by their own parents, believe delivering a swift slap to the bottom would communicate a clear message. But is this an effective discipline technique? What are the long-term effects on your child?

Spanking is commonly defined as hitting a child with an open hand on the bottom. While there are many areas of child development research that are still unclear, when it comes to spanking the debate is over amongst professionals and educators. Compared to other forms of discipline, spanking yields more difficulties with both short and long-term compliance (listening to a parent) and results in increased rates of aggression in children. Additionally, research has shown that spanking used as a form of punishment can negatively impact your child’s mental health, academic performance and school behaviors issues, and increase chances of delinquency and criminal behavior. The reality is more than 30 countries around the world have made corporal punishment (spanking) illegal because the research is so clear.

Besides the fact that it is ineffective and often detrimental to the child, with repercussions continuing through the teen years and into adulthood, we know from attachment theory that the relationship a child has with his/her parent is the model for how to interact in other relationships in the world. The problem with spanking is that this interaction inevitably breaks trust. Let’s say that you’re somehow able to be superhuman and deliver a spanking in the moment you need with a calm and level head, without going overboard. Even then, hitting our children conveys a message that when children are feeling most exposed, most exhausted and distraught. . . that in this moment they are met with aggression (spanking) from a person they count on to keep them safe. This teaches them to also be aggressive in these moments in the future. These outcomes can come as a shock to the many parents taught by their parents and grandparents that having your child fear you (through spanking or other means) is essential to having a well-behaved child. In my experience, the opposite is nearly always true.

Children absolutely without question need consequences and limits. Without both of those, we can be looking at a variety of other difficulties for your child long-term. Children need to be able to predict what might happen and what they can and can’t do to feel safe. As you digest this information you may be asking, If spanking doesn’t work, what will get my child to listen?

Try these 5 nonviolent parenting techniques:
1. Use a positive incentive to inspire and look for positive behaviors in your child. “If you’re able to finish your morning routine and be ready to leave for school on time this week we can have a special outing after school on Friday.” “I noticed you picked up your jacket and hung it without asking. Great job!” “It was so grown-up the way you responded to Dad’s request.”
2. Experiment with using a timer and incorporating playfulness with small children. “I’ll bet you can put on your socks and shoes before the timer gets to 30 seconds.”
3. Give your child choices. “Would you like to stop playing in 2 minutes or 3 minutes?” “You have until the count of 5 to come sit in your seat at the table if you want to have dessert tonight.” When setting a limit like this, make SURE you follow through with whatever expectation you set. If you don’t, you’re teaching your child that they cannot trust the limit you set, and you’ll be less likely to get a response the next time.
4. When possible, use natural consequences with your child. “If you don’t put away your toys they won’t be here for you to play with tomorrow.” When your child doesn’t put his/her toys away, make sure they are unavailable the next day.
5. Give your child 3 chances to make a positive decision (assuming they are engaging in a non-violent, not dangerous behavior), then go for a time-out. Time-outs should be for a duration no longer than the child’s current age in minutes (i.e. A 5-year-old would have a 5-minute time-out). Have a designated space, allow your child to sit down, and don’t speak with your child while he or she is in time-out. Try experimenting with language like “You weren’t listening to mommy so you’re going to have a few minutes to calm down in time-out.” Afterward, make sure your child knows you still love him or her but that the behavior wasn’t okay. Helping your child distinguish between bad behavior and being a “bad kid” is important to self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

Looking for more ideas? Check out a book by Thomas Phelan, 1,2,3 Magic . You can also check out more research I cited below.
Gershoff, E.T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2013). Spanking and its consequences for children: New meta-analyses and old controversies.
Gershoff, E.T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and association behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579.