Spanking is one of the most widely debated parenting topics. While most paediatricians and parenting experts don't recommend spanking, the vast majority of parents around the world admit to spanking their kids.
For many parents, spanking can feel like the fastest and most effective way to change a child's behaviour. And it often works in the short-term. But, studies show spanking has long term consequences for kids.
Spanking remains controversial because it’s a difficult subject to study. Researchers don’t have an exact way to differentiate between a family’s use of more severe corporal punishment and basic spanking. The causes and effects of spanking are also incredibly subjective.
The Risks of Spanking
Children who are spanked also tend to lie.
Think about it. To a child, it makes sense to lie to a parent to dodge a painful or embarrassing consequence or avoid a parent’s disappointment. A little white lie—or even a big one—seems like the easier choice.
Lying and spanking can become a vicious cycle. Lying can further motivate a parent to use spanking as a consequence, can undermine parent-child trust, and, ultimately, can damage the parent-child relationship by making children feel unworthy of our love.
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary’s definition of spanking is “a series of hits on the bottom, given to somebody, especially a child, as a punishment.”
We certainly don’t want our children hitting us, or anyone else. Most parents would be appalled to get a call from school saying their son or daughter had been hitting kids on the playground. But from a child’s perspective, there’s no difference between being spanked and hitting a friend for taking away a toy.
Despite even the best intentions, spanking teaches that hitting and aggression are appropriate ways to resolve conflict and vent frustration. So studies understandably show that children hit through spanking are prone to aggression.
If a spanked child is showing aggression, it’s time to consider spanking’s harmful side effects.
A 2009 study from the University of New Hampshire said that children who were spanked had lower IQs than those who weren’t. A similar decade-old study from Duke University also concluded that children who were spanked had lower scores on tests that measured thinking when they were 3. The study went on to say “when parents use physical discipline through childhood, their children experience more behaviour problems in adolescence.”
While advocates of a spanking usually insist there is a difference between spanking and abuse, it’s important to note these studies did look solely at spanking and not other forms of corporal abuse.
Ways to Discipline Your Child Without Spanking
Here are some tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on the best ways to help your child learn acceptable behaviour as they grow.
1. Show and tell.
Teach children right from wrong with calm words and actions. Model behaviours you would like to see in your children.
2. Set limits.
Have clear and consistent rules your children can follow. Be sure to explain these rules in age-appropriate terms they can understand.
3. Give consequences.
Calmly and firmly explain the consequences if they don't behave. For example, tell her that if she does not pick up her toys, you will put them away for the rest of the day. Be prepared to follow through right away. Don't give in by giving them back after a few minutes. But remember, never take away something your child truly needs, such as a meal.
4. Hear them out.
Listening is important. Let your child finish the story before helping solve the problem. Watch for times when misbehaviour has a pattern, like if your child is feeling jealous. Talk with your child about this rather than just giving consequences.
5. Give them your attention.
The most powerful tool for effective discipline is attention—to reinforce good behaviours and discourage others. Remember, all children want their parent's attention.
6. Catch them being good.
Children need to know when they do something bad--and when they do something good. Notice good behaviour and point it out, praising success and good tries. Be specific (for example, "Wow, you did a good job putting that toy away!").
7. Know when not to respond.
As long as your child isn't doing something dangerous and gets plenty of attention for good behaviour, ignoring bad behaviour can be an effective way of stopping it. Ignoring bad behaviour can also teach children the natural consequences of their actions. For example, if your child keeps dropping her cookies on purpose, she will soon have no more cookies left to eat. If she throws and breaks her toy, she will not be able to play with it. It will not be long before she learns not to drop her cookies and to play carefully with her toys.
8. Be prepared for trouble.
Plan ahead for situations when your child might have trouble behaving. Prepare them for upcoming activities and how you want them to behave.
9. Redirect bad behavior.
Sometimes children misbehave because they are bored or don't know any better. Find something else for your child to do.
10. Call a time-out.
A time-out can be especially useful when a specific rule is broken. This discipline tool works best by warning children they will get a time out if they don't stop, reminding them what they did wrong in as few words―and with as little emotion―as possible, and removing them from the situation for a pre-set length of time (1 minute per year of age is a good rule of thumb). With children who are at least 3 years old, you can try letting their children lead their own time-out instead of setting a timer. You can just say, "Go to time out and come back when you feel ready and in control." This strategy, which can help the child learn and practice self-management skills, also works well for older children and teens.
Healthy & Effective Discipline Tips by Age/Stage
- Babies learn by watching what you do, so set examples of behavior you expect.
- Use positive language to guide your baby. For example, say, "Time to sit," rather than, "Don't stand."
- Save the word, "no," for the most important issues, like safety. Limit the need to say "no" by putting dangerous or tempting objects out of reach.
- Distracting and replacing a dangerous or forbidden object with one that is okay to play with is a good strategy at this age.
- All children, including babies, need consistent discipline, so talk with your partner, family members, and child care provider to set basic rules everyone follows.
- Your child is starting to recognize what's allowed and what isn't but may test some rules to see how you react. Pay attention to and praise behaviors you like and ignore those you want to discourage. Redirect to a different activity when needed.
- Tantrums can become more common as your child struggles to master new skills and situations. Anticipate tantrum triggers, like being tired or hungry, and help head them off with well-timed naps and meals.
- Teach your toddler not to hit, bite, or use other aggressive behaviors. Model nonviolent behavior by not spanking your toddler and by handling conflict with your partner in a constructive way.
- Stay consistent in enforcing limits. Try short time-outs if needed.
- Acknowledge conflicts between siblings but avoid taking sides. For example, if an argument arises about a toy, the toy can be put away.
- Preschool-age children are still trying to understand how and why things work and what effect their actions have. As they learn appropriate behavior, expect them to continue testing the limits of parents and siblings.
- Begin assigning age-appropriate chores, like putting their toys away. Give simple, step-by-step directions. Reward them with praise.
- Allow your child to make choices among acceptable alternatives, redirecting and setting sensible limits.
- Teach your child to treat others as she wants to be treated.
- Explain that it's OK to feel mad sometimes, but not to hurt someone or break things. Teach them how to deal with angry feelings in positive ways, like talking about it.
- To resolve conflicts, use time-outs or remove the source of conflict.
- Your child is beginning to get a sense of right and wrong. Talk about the choices they have in difficult situations, what are the good and bad options, and what might come next depending on how they decide to act.
- Talk about family expectations and reasonable consequences for not following family rules.
- Provide a balance of privileges and responsibility, giving children more privileges when they follow rules of good behavior.
- Continue to teach and model patience, concern and respect for others.
- Don't let yourself or others use physical punishment. If you live in an area where corporal punishment is allowed in schools, you have the right to say that your child may not be spanked.
- As your teen develops more independent decision-making skills, you'll need to balance your unconditional love and support with clear expectations, rules, and boundaries.
- Continue to show plenty of affection and attention. Make time every day to talk. Young people are more likely to make healthy choices if they stay connected with family members.
- Get to know your teen's friends and talk about responsible and respectful relationships.
- Acknowledge your teen's efforts, achievements, and success in what they do―and don't do. Praise the choice to avoid using tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs. Set a good example through your own responsible use of alcohol and other substances.
Learn from Mistakes—Including Your Own
Remember that, as a parent, you can give yourself a time out if you feel out of control. Just make sure your child is in a safe place, and then give yourself a few minutes to take a few deep breaths, relax or call a friend. When you are feeling better, go back to your child, hug each other, and start over.
If you do not handle a situation well the first time, try not to worry about it. Think about what you could have done differently and try to do it the next time. If you feel you have made a real mistake in the heat of the moment, wait to cool down, apologize to your child, and explain how you will handle the situation in the future. Be sure to keep your promise. This gives your child a good model of how to recover from mistakes.
I’d like to share a quote with you from Astrid Lindgren, the author of Pippi Longstocking, that made a big impact on me when I first read it years ago: