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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Spanking in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Parents who have been read this article may ask, "Where does an old-fashioned corporal punishment like spanking come in?" The question is entirely legitimate as many families continue to choose to use spanking, or other forms of corporal punishment as a means to get their children to listen.

Spanking and similar corporal punishments are often effective in the short-term. Because of the fear of a sore bottom (or after feeling the effects of the spanking), children will typically stop engaging in the behavior that got them in trouble. One problem is, however, that spanking tends to lose its effectiveness as time goes by and children become more experienced. Over time, children can become immune to the discomfort of spanking, or will engage in other unwanted behaviors, such as lying or sneaking around, in order to avoid the punishment. Spanking may also increase the level of emotion involved in the discipline process and escalate the situation rather than calming everyone down.

There is the violence issue to contend with as well. At its core, spanking is a form of violence, and no matter how parents try to dress it up or excuse it, children know this. By spanking children, parents are modeling violent behavior for their children, teaching them in some sense that "might makes right". This equation works in parents favor while children are small, but as children grow older and larger, the tables can turn as some children physically retaliate against spanking. Children who are spanked may also grow up thinking that violence is an acceptable way to relate to others when they don't do as you want them to. This attitude, taken to an extreme, can produce an abusive adult.

It would be one thing if adults who spank children were conscious of teaching the "might makes right" lesson, but many are not aware they are conveying this message with every blow. Indeed, some parents will spank children for hitting other children, creating a situation where children are punished for acting violently by being treated violently, leaving children to ponder the double standard of how it can be okay for parents to use force, but not children. Parents who tell children not to hit other children, and then spank their own children when they are misbehaving send confusing messages and ultimately reveal themselves to be, in this aspect, hypocritical.

Most spanking is safe, non-abusive discipline (even if it is not particularly effective discipline). However, unlike other discipline methods we've described, spanking has the potential to become abusive, even dangerous behavior should the parents who is doing the spanking become overwhelmed. All parents lose their temper from time to time; no one is perfect. However, if parents lose their temper while spanking (or spank when they've already lost their temper), they will not be able to objectively judge their strength, or how much they're hurting their child. A corrective spanking can quickly change into an angry, physically bruising experience for a child.

Parents whose primary means of disciplining their children is spanking or some other form of corporal punishment should read this full article from start to finish and practice using the non-violent discipline ideas described herein so as to develop alternative means of disciplining their children. Spanking should not be a primary means of discipline.

Parents who do choose to spank their children should only use a flat, open hand applied to a fleshy part of the body, like the bottom. Spanking should never be done with a fist or an object (e.g., a tree branch, belt, or paddle). As well, parents should count to 10, or otherwise take a moment to calm down before they start spanking in order to make sure that this is truly the best approach for correcting their children's misbehavior. Furthermore, parents who spank need to be communicating love to their children, as described in the other sections of this article if their discipline message is to be ultimately effective. It is possible to bring children's behavior into line by means of force or violence alone, but to do so is essentially to engage in child abuse.

Even parents who don't routinely spank their children may still need to use a physical method of discipline during an emergency or unsafe situation. For example, grabbing a young child's hand (or gently slapping it away) if they're about to touch a red-hot stove burner would be appropriate. Not only does this prevent the child from the real danger of severely burning themselves in that instant, but the sting of the slap will remind the child that grabbing at the stove burner will only bring pain. The effectiveness of such slapping as a teaching device is much amplified if slapping happens only very infrequently and is reserved for emergency or dangerous situations.