Providing the tools to help parents gain confidence in their parenting skills so they can create the family life they desire.

02 December 2010

Spanking Your Children – What Are the Effects?

One of the most long-standing debates in parenting circles is whether or not to spank your children. There are those who believe it is absolutely necessary and others who are fundamentally opposed to the practice. Of course, there are also those who fall somewhere in between the two extremes. However, new research is emerging about the long term effects of spanking, and the information may change opinions.

It seems as though every parent has a personal opinion about spanking. In my years of working with hundreds of parents, I have heard many different beliefs about the discipline strategy. Parents have told me they only use an object (brush, paddle, wooden spoon, etc.) when they spank so the child is not hit by their hand. Another told me she only spanks when it is teaching a lesson about safety. I also had one tell me he spanks and then hugs, so the child knows he still loves her.

Regardless of what your thoughts are about spanking, it is a common practice. Over 54% of 2500 moms surveyed in a recent study reported spanking their three year old at least once in the past month. That means for every two moms with toddlers, one of them is spanking as part of their discipline routine. Or, in other words, for every two toddlers that you see, one of them is being spanked. That actually surprises me, which is pretty difficult to do.

So, what kind of parents are most likely to be spanking? First, spanking is most common among young, uneducated, stressed, low-income or single parents. Second, it is more common in the South, in conservative Christian homes, and among parents who were spanked themselves as children. Finally, African American parents were the most likely to spank, more than Caucasian or Hispanic parents.

Further, what are the long-term effects of spanking on children, according to the research? Children who were spanked at age three were 50 percent more likely to be aggressive at age five. Also, studies indicate that spanking can be as far reaching as marital aggression in adulthood. The study showed that among adults who were not spanked as kids, 6 or 7 percent had hit their partner in the past 12 months. Among those who were spanked the most, it went up to 25 percent.

Interestingly, The American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement on corporal punishment in 1998. Among other things, it says you should not hit kids under a certain age or over age 6 or 7. Implicitly, it’s free rein on kids between 2 and 6. Sadly, this is a stage of development most would agree requires trust, attachment, love, support and encouragement. Spanking could arguably break all of those needs in a child during that time, creating lasting impact on emotional, social and psychological development.

For those parents who choose to spank, there are certain things that should be kept in mind. First, spanking should never occur in anger. If you spank when you are angry, it teaches your child that it is okay to act out aggressively when they are mad. That breeds violence at the first sign of frustration. Second, a child under the age of three does not have the cognitive capacity to understand how being spanked correlates with doing something inappropriate. Their brains work in a “here and now” manner, and an action five minutes ago does not relate to this very moment. Finally, a child needs to clearly understand why they are being spanked. Hitting a child in discipline is NOT effective if they do not connect the behavior to the consequence. So, you will need to actually say the words, “I spanked you because…” after you do so. It is not enough to think that they “know why they are getting punished”.

For those who choose not to spank, or for those deciding they no longer want to spank, there are many other effective approaches to discipline. First, you need to clearly communicate expectations and rules to children. That may mean writing the rules down on a board, having a weekly family meeting, reminding them gently throughout the day, etc. It is unreasonable to punish a child if they have not fully grasped what is expected of them in a calm and loving way. Second, you can approach your discipline in a very specific manner. I have written past articles on Limit Setting or Discipline Techniques that you can read. Finally, positive reinforcement is the most effective behavior modification tool, even though punishment is the most widely used. So, acknowledge when your child behaves appropriately more frequently than you catch them breaking the rules and they will naturally strive to make appropriate decisions.

  • Eileen Geiger

    This is a really interesting post- I wish I’d found it before posting a discipline post on my website! I am a teacher in Australia and come across parents with very different views on parenting and discipline all the time. I decided to create a blog where parents can go to get information. I have now subscribed to your site so I can get any updates and gain insight and ideas from someone with your experience. My discipline post was sparked by a child talking to me about how her mother hits her “all the time.” My thoughts on this were- how sad is it if that’s what a 7 year old remembers about living with her mum.

  • Jane

    I have five children and when I had my first, I made a firm decision NEVER to spank. My first two children made it really easy. All of the parenting skills I had learned worked just fine with them. Then my third came along (and fourth and fifth). My husband was away very often (around 6mths a year) and Sean, the third child was and is so very different from the others. He was unable to control his emotions and he would do the most terrible nasty things, and hit and scream, more than “normal”. None of the skills I had seemed to work. When it got really bad, I spanked. And that always worked. It was like the shock of it worked on his system and he calmed down quickly after that. I hate spanking and I don’t use it as a regular parenting tool. But it has happened. I would LOVE to know what goes on in his mind. I KNOW it is because his dad isn’t there. When dad is home he becomes another child. When he starts to go a bit nutty, all his dad has to say it stop and it’s over. When he is gone it’s like Sean takes it out on me. He talks back, has tantrums, says swear words, hits, etc. Very strange. But no books or sites have been able to give me tips on what to do! He is six now and growing up in to a very smart, nice person. But I would love to figure out this problem.

    • brenna

      I have a few thoughts that I wanted to share. First, temperament does play a factor in finding what disciplines will work for different children. Sometimes what has worked with other children does not anymore. It is smart to recognize that early. Also, when one parent is gone for extended periods, children tend to react just as you describe. They are very mean to the other parent, as you are the only one there at whom they can lash out. Also, when the parent does return, children tend to view them with more reverence as they want to please them since they don’t get to be with them very often. This usually means very well behaved and respectful of their authority. Finally, I think what you may find successful is acknowledging that Sean misses his Dad when he is acting belligerently with you. You might say, “Sean, I know you must wish Dad was here, so you are angry that I am not him”. You can modify that to acknowledge different feelings (I don’t say the same things as him, I don’t play the same way, I don’t have the same rules, etc.). The bottom line is that you have recognized that he is trying to express his frustration that Dad is gone, but you may not have told him that you understand. With continual acknowledgment, he will not need to act out as much to get his emotions across to you.
      As a final thought, can you implement a better communication policy, such as a phone call or Skype every night to give him more opportunity to interact with Dad when he is gone?

      • Jane

        Your question is very pertinent! Last year he was gone 9.5 mths (in total, not all at once) and when he goes, he’s gone… no skype, no letters, no calls, no nothing (yah I know, a bit weird, but that’s how it goes!) Fortunately he shouldn’t have to leave much anymore or at all. His next trip is canceled. Yippee! You’re absolutely right, I should be more clear about acknowledging his feelings and recognizing that he misses his dad. I tend to focus on the behavior at hand but not on the underlying reason why he acts out. It goes beyond the bad behavior. But as a very busy mom, I tend to forget to see that. Thanks very much for answering!

  • Jamie

    Interesting article about spanking. I personally don’t like spanking, but I do use it when its necessary. I am a single, stay-at-home, disabled mother of a 7 yr old son with special needs. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder). The last one was done by his Occupational Therapist, as she felt the ADHD diagnosis was incorrect and that much of his behavior issues stem from sensory issues. The first 2 were diagnosed by a psychologist and the school evaluated him and agreed with the psychologist. In either case, whichever the correct diagnosis is, I just wish there was something that can make it easier. First, you should know he’s has had a history of fine and gross motor delays since he was an infant with torticollis, which was corrected with therapy. However, the delays remained despite the therapies off and on over the years. The delays aren’t serious, but does impact him. He has never met his father and his father has never been involved. Long story with that one. Anyway, the behaviors I deal with constantly on a daily basis, is disrespect, argumentative, bossy, violent, temper tantrums, ignores and refuses to listen to direction, defiant, and taking off. I’ve had to call “code adam” in Walmart several times over the last couple years. He’s been brought home by the police once. He’s already had a police office visit him after an incident with the neighbor. I am so scared of him hurting a teacher or other students that I homeschool him. I refuse to medicate after seeing my sister suffer on medication for her ADHD for years. He has other health issues, including allergies (artificial colors) and Anhidrosis (doesn’t sweat). So, certain activities and his diet has to be carefully monitored. I know one area that he is frustrated about and have had difficulties correcting due to his behaviors. He has no friends and being an only child is very hard on him. The neighbors are even not allowing him to play with their kids anymore. I have tried playdates and even playing with his cousins have to be carefully supervised since he is easy to anger and has low frustration levels. He has sent his cousin to the hospital due to him not able to deal with smothering behavior of his cousin. He is very vocal and outgoing, but has difficulties using his words to tell others how he feels, and so he is diagnosed with a social delay. Which I have been working with him on, but with him going on 7 yrs old, I want him to be able to play with other kids without constant monitoring. I am at a road block, thinking maybe he should try to go to school, but so scared what could happen. Especially, with the numerous reports of children like him being arrested and taken to JV for the same behavior. Also, I know they will force me to medicate my son. Which the school did to my sister and numerous other kids. I’ve tried numerous discipline routes, but the one I keep coming back to with the most response is spanking and sometimes taking away priveleges. But, I still rarely spank him. He is a smart kid and I know he can learn to control his behaviors without medication, just finding something that will work. Yes, he has also been to counseling too. However, when he first meets someone he just appears to be fidgety and often a sweet child. We had to stop his OT/PT last year due to a major meltdown during a session, so after he gets to know the person he will have more problems and starts to treat them the same. However, with the couselor, she felt his problem was so mild that she discharged him.

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  • TBD TherapistByDay

    In every developmental psych class I took, Piaget, Erikson, etc… define ages 2-6 as corporal. If a child interprets the world through their bodies, then it seems sensical to also communicate consequences in the same way. Isn’t speaking their language the most loving thing to do? Reasoning with a pre-schooler is not only ineffective but cruel if they cannot process and respond to it.

  • Melissa Benko

    I am very opposed to spanking, I was hit as a child by hand, switches, and belts. It taught me nothing but fear. When I have children, I will never lay a hand on them in that way, my brother and sister feel the same.