Why spanking doesn’t work

Dear Mr. Dad: I know that spanking is politically incorrect these days, but I don’t want kids who are out of control. Is on occasional whack all that bad? If so, what are the alternatives?

A: At one time or another, every parent has been in a situation where the temptation to spank was strong. But the jury is in—and yes, it’s all bad. Spanking, also known as corporal punishment, is worth avoiding for two reasons. First, it doesn’t work beyond the short-term, and second, it creates a lot of new problems in the long-term.

Researchers at Columbia University looked at 88 corporal punishment studies and found a definite connection between spanking and ten negative outcomes, including damaged parent-child relationships, increased potential for aggression, lying, cheating, bullying, and depression, as well as a greater chance that the spanked child will physically abuse his or her own children.

Spanking did, however, achieve one thing: immediate compliance. In other words, the child will do what you want in that moment. But what about all the moments to come? That’s where the trouble begins. There’s also the danger of teaching kids that violence is an acceptable way of dealing with problems and disagreements.

If your ultimate goal is to create autonomous adults—and if that isn’t the goal, what is?—we should raise children who are not merely disciplined but self-disciplined. Spanking doesn’t do the job. Here are some tried and true discipline methods that work better than spanking, and without the nasty side effects. Consider these:

  • Take every opportunity to help your child develop moral judgment. Start by asking her to recognize and name the problem herself. For example, instead of “Don’t pull the dog’s ears,” say, “Why might pulling the dog’s ears be a bad idea?” The difference is huge: you’ve required them to think, not just to obey. And the more practice they get at moral reasoning, the less they’ll need correction in the first place.
  • Start with the positive. Give children incentives for good behavior and you’ll find yourself dealing with a lot less bad behavior. Catch them doing well and being good.
  • Express disappointment. Your approval means more to your kids than you may think. Simply saying “I was so disappointed by the way you acted” can go a long way toward getting the behavior you want and expect.
  • Give time-outs. For younger children, a temporary loss of freedom and a moment of focused disapproval can really make the point. End the time-out by having the child tell you not just what she did that was wrong, but why it was wrong—again, to exercise that moral judgment.
  • Suspend privileges. Make sure your kids know the difference between rights (food, clothing, shelter) and privileges (staying up late, going to the mall, reading time before bed, Xbox, personal freedom, dessert, etc.). Making privileges contingent on good behavior can work better than spanking. Spankings are over in a few seconds, after all. Suspended privileges can go on making the point for hours, days, or weeks.

The key to any discipline plan, of course, is follow-through. If kids learn that your threats are idle, you’re in big trouble. Never negotiate with terrorists! Show that you mean what you say. Before a threatened consequence leaves your lips, take a moment to be sure you can live with it—and once it’s out, see it through. Don’t say “That’s it, we’re not going to that World Series game” unless you know you’ll be content to watch the game on Tivo after the kids go to bed. You’ll suffer much more in the long run from a hit-and-miss discipline policy.

If you’re interested in some other spanking-free discipline alternatives, check out an of the Positive Discipline books by Jane Nelson, and visit www.nospank.net.