Growing up in the early ’80s, I was spanked by my parents now and again. I’ve never considered this to be that much of a big deal — every kid I knew got the same treatment if they pushed their parents too far — and I doubt that infrequent spanking had any long-lasting effect on me. I have a healthy relationship with my parents. I’ve never been in an abusive relationship, or suffered from hyperactivity, aggression, cognitive difficulties or oppositional behavior, which are some of the many adverse effects research has linked to being spanked as a child. But spanking should be left in the past.
However, it seems to still be very much part of modern parenting culture. According to the 2016 General Social Survey (2002–2016), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 76 percent of men and 66 percent of women ages 18 to 65 agreed that a child sometimes should be spanked.
I live in Scotland, which will become the first U.K. nation to ban all physical punishment of children in 2019, when a bill removing the “reasonable punishment” defense becomes law. After that, there will be no legal justification for smacking your child. I’ve never spanked my own kids, but I’ve heard plenty of my fellow parents either justify doing it — or grumble about the fact that it’s generally not a socially acceptable thing to do — by declaring, “It didn’t do me any harm.”
No such legislation exists in the United States. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement confirming its opposition to corporal punishment (any form of physical punishment, including spanking), stating that it’s harmful and ineffective. That conclusion is backed up by health professionals and extensive research.
According to Catherine A. Taylor, associate professor of global community health and behavioral sciences at Tulane University School of Tropical Medicine, whose research was heavily cited in the AAP policy statement, “corporal punishment increases risk for all kinds of health problems.”
Research published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2016 found that despite the wide use of spanking, there was no evidence linking spanking to improved child behavior. On the contrary; spanking was found to be associated with increased risk of 13 detrimental outcomes, including aggression, antisocial behavior, impaired cognitive ability, mental health problems and physical injury.
“Corporal punishment teaches children that aggression and violence are acceptable ways to manage anger and difficult emotions,” says Taylor, whose own research, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2010, found that children who were spanked more frequently at age 3 acted more aggressively at age 5 than those who were spanked less or not at all.
Spanking can also have a detrimental effect on the parent-child relationship, as well as the child’s future relationships, says clinical social worker and founder of the Critical Therapy Center, Silvia M. Dutchevici. “For children to see one’s parents in such a state of rage is frightening,” she says. “Further, it teaches them in a very experiential way that when people lose control of their emotions, anything can happen.”
Dutchevici has worked with victims of domestic violence for many years, and knows firsthand that there is a direct psychological link between hitting a child and the chances of that child ending up in abusive relationships — which is backed up by research. “In simple terms, if the people who you know are there to love and support you — your parents — hit and hurt you, then love and violence become intertwined in a very unhealthy way,” she explains.
If research and expert opinion isn’t enough to stop parents spanking their kids, then there’s also the simple fact that it doesn’t work.
“The negative effects of spanking outweigh any momentary payoff that might be apparent when a behavior stops,” says Dave Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “You can find alternate punishments that are less psychologically injurious and can still reduce the behaviors in question, such as the removal of privileges. If you want to teach a child how to navigate situations with better interpersonal skills or with more respect, the only way to do that is to work with the child in those situations to teach, promote, and reinforce the skills you’d like them to practice.”
So why do parents still spank their kids? According to psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz, it happens when parents are emotionally overwhelmed. “In 2018, if you’re still spanking your kids, it’s because you’ve been triggered, you are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and you’re trying to get kids ‘in order’ and make the feeling go away,” she says.
“Spanking is often borne of parents who either were spanked themselves, or of a moment when a parent is stressed to their limit and can see no other way to discipline their child," Anderson says.
So what’s the answer for parents who feel as if their kids are running rings around them? What’s the alternative to spanking?
First, recognize that spanking is not the only way to restore order. “Condoning continued spanking is a way not to feel ashamed of the fact that you’ve reached the end of your rope,” Luiz says. “Don’t be ashamed — this is not your fault — but don’t make excuses for the spanking, either. Spanking is not a good strategy, but you’ve just never learned a better one.”
What’s a better strategy? The key is to change how you think about discipline, Anderson says. Take punishment out of the equation and start by leading by example.
“Discipline starts with parents being clear about their expectations and the routines they would like their child to follow, and modeling how they’d like their child to deal with frustration and changes in routine,” he says. “Children take cues from their parents on how to regulate their own emotions in challenging situations.”
It’s also crucial that you make building a positive relationship with your child a priority. “You are better able to manage your child’s behavior if you’re spending daily or at least fairly frequent quality time with a child, following their lead and engaging in activities they enjoy,” Anderson says. “Do this, and your child is more likely to follow your directions when you need them to because you’ve shown them there are moments when they need to follow directions and moments where you’re going to let them play or have control over what they’re doing.”
Anderson is an advocate of reinforcing positive behaviors, either through verbal reinforcement, like praise or describing what the child is doing, or through privileges or rewards granted to the child. “Another major facet of effective discipline is ignoring minor misbehaviors that might be dependent on parent attention or where we inadvertently give fuel to a behavior that we are hoping to stop,” he adds.
And if you really can’t deal with your child’s behavior without resorting to spanking, Luiz suggests taking time to consider your own relationship to anger and how it affects your ability to communicate. Talking to a therapist can help.
Taylor hopes the AAP’s policy statement, which reflects the evidence against spanking that has been building over the past 20 years, will serve as a turning point in attitudes toward spanking. “Parents really trust pediatricians on this topic,” she says. “So I’m hopeful that this report will lead to a drop in both approval and use of spanking in the U.S."
Claire Gillespie is a writer living in Glasgow, Scotland. Find her online at clairegillespie.contently.com.