To Hit or Not to Hit: Why Spanking Children Isn’t a Good Disciplinary Strategy

07/20/2014

As a family psychologist, I frequently am asked for my opinion on corporal punishment (i.e., spanking). One reason for the inquiry is that a lot of people question whether or not spanking has long-term negative effects on children. Actually, it does. The overall conclusions of the hundreds of studies on spanking done over the last eight decades is that not only does physical punishment fail to improve children’s behavior in the long-term but spanking makes it more likely that children will be more defiant and aggressive, that they’ll be at risk for negative outcomes including mental health troubles and that they’re at greater risk for serious injury and physical abuse.

Other research has consistently found that punishment is a vastly inferior method of behavior correction and that, put simply, violence begets violence. Per social learning theory, if you see someone use violence as a way to control another’s behavior, chances are you will too. That’s one reason why it’s always astonished me when people use spanking as a way to teach children that they shouldn’t hit. The logical conclusion to that technique is: only hit those who are less powerful than you.

A number of parents still rely on spanking to correct their children’s behavior and it is true that many of these children grow up to be fine young women and men. However, I would argue that the fact that they are fine young women and men are in spite of being spanked and not because of it. The reason I say this is that, in addition to the negative effects associated with spanking, the research on physical punishment also concludes that the corrective outcome of spanking is short-term at best. In essence, children who are spanked do not tend to internalize the value their parents want them to get (via the spanking) but instead are more likely to understand that they should not get caught. As such, spanking is not even an effective disciplinary strategy.

One of the arguments given for spanking children is that it has been used as a disciplinary strategy for years. However, that rationale doesn’t hold water with me. Just because parents have relied on a certain method of discipline doesn’t mean that it is the best way to go. Thus, spanking is not a strategy I recommend, especially if people want to be the best parent they can be. Instead, I suggest using a variety of disciplinary strategies that are more caring and effective. Two that I especially recommend are Love and Logic and Positive Discipline. Both offer gentle, respectful and effective strategies that anyone can use. There are other approaches out there as well, so if these aren’t a good fit, I suggest doing additional research to see if another strategy works better.

We have come a long way toward a more humane way of treating children in this country and getting rid of spanking as a disciplinary strategy is the next hurdle we need to jump. Our society and our children will be the better for it.

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