Parenting with a PhD: Spanking

By Kristen Berthiaume:

If you try to research how often spanking is used as a form of discipline, you’ll get 59 million different answers. It depends on the study, the ethnicity of the parents, the region where they live, religious  beliefs, etc., etc., etc. From what I can tell, spanking is used here in the south. A. Lot. Estimates of percentage of parents who spank or have spanked range from 60% to 90%. Despite the fact that spanking is used to deal with problematic behavior at least as much as, if not more than, other methods, there have been numerous research studies indicating that it doesn’t work to teach children how to behave and very well may be making behavioral problems more likely to occur in the future. A larger scale study by Gershoff (2002) reviewed 88 other studies (called a “meta-analysis”) about the effects of spanking and found numerous harmful side effects, including increased aggression and delinquency in childhood, crime and antisocial behavior in adulthood, low empathy or conscience, poor parent-child relations, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Research consistently shows that spanking isn’t even effective in managing short-term behavior problems for many children. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association recommend that parents not use spanking at all. Of course, you will find research studies concluding that occasional, “appropriate” (Read: non-abusive) spanking isn’t harmful but the vast majority of research in this area indicates otherwise. Anecdotally, I’ve worked with countless families who tell me that they spank regularly but that it doesn’t work (of course, most families don’t come to see me because the discipline they’re trying works for their child) – there may well be a group of parents out there who use spanking with successful results and have no need for help with behavior management).

Full disclosure: my children have never been spanked and won’t be. My husband and I do discipline them and (most days but please don’t ask about this particular week…) have success. In this article, I’ve tried to summarize some of the reasons that so many parents continue to use spanking, despite evidence that it’s ineffective for many children (and may actually be making behavioral problems worse). Do any of these reasons apply to you?

Reason #1: “It works for my kids.” For some percentage of you, occasional, well-controlled spanking may works just fine. Your kids understand that spanking is a likely consequence of having broken a rule and don’t seem overly angry at you when you administer it. Chances are, you’re also using other forms of discipline (e.g., time outs, loss of privileges, earning rewards, etc.) as the situation warrants. If things are going this well, you could probably avoid spanking altogether if you wanted to. In this case, do what you feel is best but do be aware that some research shows that negative effects of spanking aren’t apparent until later in life.

Reason #2: “My parents spanked me and I turned out fine.” That may well be and, as long as Reason #1 applies to your situation also, do what you feel is working. However, if you’re spanking because you were spanked but it doesn’t actually seem to be helping improve your child’s behavior, consider whether you’re limiting yourself too much. As parents, we need a full tool belt – (millions of) different strategies that can be applied in (millions of) different situations. And keep in mind that the tools that work with one child may be useless for another. Maybe your daughter accepts her spankings like a trooper but your son has a two-hour emotional meltdown when physical punishment is even mentioned. He might respond better to a time out or discussion about his behavior (trust me, this is punishment enough for many kids). If we want our kids to learn how to regulate their own behavior and emotions, we’d do best to use the minimal amount of intervention needed to get the point across. If your child can learn from a stern look or gentle reminder, do this. Don’t feel like you have to go through the entire spanking process just because that’s how you were parented. Remember, you want your child to make good choices even when you’re not there to provide a threat or spanking. Helping him develop awareness of his behavior and the likely natural consequences of it works best for this.

Reason #3: “My parents/pastor/spouse/child’s teacher/neighbor/best friend told me to.” Well, if your parents/pastor/spouse/child’s teacher/neighbor/best friend told you to jump off a bridge… If you’re spanking because someone else has told you that you should, reconsider this approach. You know your kids better than anyone else, with the possible exception of your spouse, and shouldn’t base important parenting decisions like this on what someone else tells you to do. First, ask yourself if you feel O.K. about spanking. If the answer is “No,” find another method to use for disciplining your kids – life is too short to spend feeling guilty. Second, think about how spanking is affecting your kids. Are they better behaved for having been spanked? If yes, Reason #1 might apply to you. If no, why are you continuing to use discipline that’s ineffective for your child? Talk to your kid’s pediatrician about help coming up with new things to try. Third, does your child seem to have anger, anxiety, or depression? Do those issues get worse after she has been spanked? If this describes your child, the spanking may actually be causing or worsening significant mood or behavioral problems. Talk to your child’s doctor about getting some help for her and stop spanking right away – it’s not having the desired effect and may be harming your child emotionally. Now, if you spank because you’re following the Bible, consider this: “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 and many interpret it to mean that parents should spank to avoid raising bratty kids. First, peruse Exodus (specifically, 35:2) and Leviticus (specifically, 11:8; 19:19; 19:27; 24:16; 25:44) for a bunch of advice from the Bible that I can pretty much guarantee most of us aren’t currently following (We can’t touch pigskin? That’s pretty much all we do around here come football season…). As you can see, not everything that applied to society then is directly relevant today. Second, choosing not to spank doesn’t mean you won’t discipline your child in any way. There are countless other methods that don’t involve corporal punishment and haven’t been shown to have any harmful effects.

Reason #4: “I don’t really know what else to do.” If spanking doesn’t seem to be helping or is making your child’s behavior worse, don’t worry – there are other options out there and something will eventually work for your child. If you feel clueless as to what to try, talk with your child’s doctor and ask for a referral for a psychologist or therapist who helps parents manage their kids’ behavior. It may not even be necessary to directly involve your child in sessions. After taking a history and finding out more about the current problem, your therapist will help guide you through trying different discipline strategies until you find a few that help your child. Trust that something will work and attempt the techniques, even if you’ve tried them before and they didn’t seem effective. Sometimes we expect our behavioral management to work magically and overnight but discipline is a learning process. In fact, the word “discipline” comes from “disciple” (now we’re in the New Testament…) and means “to train or develop by instruction.” No one trains for anything overnight! Another benefit of working with a therapist instead of doing this by yourself is that it helps you step back and see how your child’s behavior is improving a little at a time. Once you find techniques that have some benefit and that you feel good about, you stick to them and have faith that, although your child will backslide (and so will you), over time you are not “spoiling” but guiding him to successfully walk the path toward adulthood, first with you and, later, alone.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her six-year-old and newborn daughters and three-year-old son.

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