The End of Spanking?

From Steve Hendrix:

George Holden envisions a world without spanking. No more paddling in the principal’s office. No more swats on little rear ends, not even — and here is where Holden knows he is staring up at a towering cliff of parental rights resistance — not even in the privacy of the home. When it comes to disciplining a child, Holden’s view is absolute: No hitting.

“We don’t like to call it spanking,” said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and head of a newly formed organization aimed at eliminating corporal punishment in the United States. “Spanking is a euphemism that makes it sound like hitting is a normal part of parenting. If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is, people step back and ask themselves, ‘Should I be hitting my child?’ ”…

And surveys that measure actual behavior reveal even higher rates of moms and dads willing to whack. Depending on how you ask the question, most surveys show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of parents in this country spank their kids at least once during childhood. In 2013 America, spanking a child is about as common as vaccinating one.

But Holden and a growing number of children’s advocates still believe the time is right for a serious effort to end corporal punishment. For some in the burgeoning stop-hitting movement, the goal is nothing less than a total legal ban on spanking in all settings, as has been passed by 33 nations in Europe, Latin America and Africa (soon to be 34 when Brazil becomes the largest country to outlaw spanking in final action expected this year).

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  • LT

    If we rename it painting, we can ask if we should be painting our child. Or if we rename it riding, we could ask if we should be riding our child. In fact, if we rename it anything we could ask if we should do anything to our child.

    But renaming something is never a good tactic. It works only on an emotional level. After all, a rose by any other name is still a rose and smells just the same. So whatever it might be, we need to judge it on its own merits, not on the merits of another things that bears another label.

    Whether spanking is right or wrong, it is so irregardless of what we call it. To determine that we need a different type of evaluation.

  • I’m all for not spanking… but it would be helpful for any childhood development expert who is advocating not spanking to help by presenting other alternative means of discipline… what to do when that child just… won’t… listen?

  • Joe

    I have found other forms of discipline more effective then spanking, but not sure it should be made illegal.

  • janieh

    My children are grown (one is in his early 40s). I did spank them when they were young (although not often at all). It was the norm in the evangelical groups we were in and in the midwest and southern cultures we lived in, too.

    Over the years, though, I’ve decided that I would not spank if I had it to do again. I have seen too much misuse, I have come to see our culture as too violent and I’ve come to see that it is often a “short cut” for parents.

    That being said, I don’t think it is fair to call spanking and hitting the same thing. They are the same action, but there is (or should be) a different purpose behind them. HItting is something you do because you are upset and the only purpose is to hurt the other person. Spanking is something you do because you need to convey to a child that a behavior must stop. Yes, it hurts, but that isn’t its end purpose. Yes, some parents may hit their children because they are angry with them but that isn’t spanking, that is abuse.

    Again, I am not defending spanking – I would do it differently if I had it to do again – but most parents who spank believe they are doing the best thing for their children. And I don’t think that law would fly i the US, at least not yet.

  • Kaleb

    As a semi-new parent I will give a little input. I have heard and seen parents that threaten, and give spankings, for the most menial missteps. Whether it be one time not listening, or it be hitting another child…which does seem a little ironic doesn’t it… you hit them so now bend over. Anyhow my wife and I saw these behaviors in others and decided no spanking….

    Well that was going great until about 2 years of age. We are not lazy parents and I have some background in psychology to help in the process. We counted to 3, gave time outs and enforced them, and used positive reinforcement. I thought these things would make it possible to never ‘spank’ or ‘hit’, (or should we rename it ‘torture’ or terrorism to children?) Well the time came eventually were I child would not listen. Now not listening does not seem like a big deal, but it is. When you tell your kid not to touch the stove and they do that is serious injury. Or when you tell them to not put things in the electrical switch. These are only a couple examples of the infinite things kids find fun to play with. If children do not respond to warnings, time outs, stern warnings, ect… what other options are there. We have decided that a ‘pat’ on the butt is a much better option that a much worse injury incurred by the dangers of stove. You might say ‘no’, but when your child is reaching out for the stove after multiple time outs and stern warnings should we just say go for it to learn their lesson with third degree burns??? You might not have spanked your kid, but you would have been a much more terrible of a parent. I think I agree with the ‘heart’ behind the article, but it is wayyy to idealistic in the sense that a toddler could comprehend the dangers of something through other means than the most basic instinct that if it hurts or is uncomfortable STOP DOING THE THING THAT CAUSES IT; That is what I suspect many parents use spanking for hoping to save the child from much bigger dangers.

  • Kaleb

    sorry for all the typos

  • Sherman Nobles

    I believe in reality discipline. And reality is that if a person is selfish, disrespectful, and/or mean towards others, especially those in authority over them, they will suffer some form of pain, whether that be physical, emotional, social, or financial. I love my children and thus I do my best to prepare them for life, to enable them to have a life filled with the love, joy, and wholeness that is a fruit of the rule and reign of God in one. And corporal punishment is one of the tools that I use to help my children learn to live respecting others. Frankly, if I don’t teach my sons to respect others, then some other boy will teach them that lesson and will do so with no grace or mercy.

  • Tom F.

    I have mixed feelings about an outright ban. One, I think the most damaging forms of abuse are already illegal. Two, I can think of half a dozen things the government could do that would be more beneficial to kids (extend parental leave after birth, provide more free parenting classes in low income areas, ban advertising unhealthy foods directly to kids, ect.) rather than attempt a ban on spanking that is almost sure to become a culture war issue.

    I believe that (infrequent) spanking is likely harmful, but I would estimate it is about as harmful as violent video games, something else that has been shown to modestly but not dramatically raise aggression in children.

  • MatthewS

    Spanking is a euphemism that makes it sound like hitting is a normal part of parenting. If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is…

    Circular. Define spanking as nothing other than hitting, then pull the rug out from under the supposed euphemism of spanking. It’s a cheap shot (and one often used) to show ugly people acting ugly and showing no meaningful distinction between hitting and spanking. However, many people do see differences, including those who use “3 smacks max” and only on the buttocks, and not in anger, and intentionally offer condolences and assurances of love afterwards…

    I was spanked harshly. I suspect it would have been better I had never been spanked at all than what I received. I know others who received far worse. (The reprehensible teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl have convinced some parents to use 50, 60, or more swats, sometimes resulting in death.)

    Move forward in time – there were a few times when my son defied me. Solutions such as time-out would have played into his hand of playing the waiting game until the moment was past and he would no longer need to comply with my wishes as a parent. I made a point of not spanking in anger, and he was only spanked a few times.

    The worst behaved kids I have had to deal with were the ones who knew there was no chance of ever being spanked.

    I have mixed feelings about spanking. It always made me sick to my stomach to do it. But there were a few specific times I felt it was best, and I would think it unfair to be made a criminal for making that choice.

    Regardless of what happens legally, churches which implicitly or explicitly encourage spanking really must articulate to their people that it is indeed possible and damaging to cross the line into abuse, and they need to be willing to stand up for victims of abuse.

  • metanoia

    We didn’t spank. We would just look into our children’s eyes with sadness and tell them, “Every time you behave like that a puppy dies.”

    Seriously though. We had a few rules my wife and I worked out well in advance that worked for us. As the adults in the equation, think this through way before misbehavior starts revealing itself.

    1. Spanking was an absolute last resort.
    2. Angry parents should never spank. That is hitting and can certainly be abusive.
    3. Figure out what is a better alternative to spanking and use that method. We had one child who preferred a spanking over a “time out” corner. He rarely got spanked. But he does have a pointed forehead. 😉
    4. The punishment needs to fit the infraction. Figure out in advance what that will be and inform/instruct the child. You don’t kill a mosquito with a cannon.
    5. Assure the child that you are delivering your discipline to the infraction, not because they are being “bad.”
    6. After the discipline has been administered, allow sufficient time for the child to calm down. Have a conversation about what happened, why the consequences had to be meted out, and suggest some ways to insure the child knows what the alternatives are to improper behavior.
    7. Most importantly, as the adult, ask yourself the question, “Is it rebellion, or is it boy (girl)? In other words, children do things for a variety of reason (testing boundaries, curiosity, experimentation, confusion), just because they are immature. The “rod of correction” should be reserved for clear cut rebellion. See rule #1

    Instruction is at the heart of discipline. We can count, literally on both hands, the number of times our children were spanked. Neither of their parents were visited by DCFS and none of them have had to go to psychotherapy.


  • I for one am certainly glad that my parents spanked me.

  • TJJ

    I spanned my children. Not all the time, not as the first or only discipline tool. But when they were defiant, disrespectful, or mean and physically hurtful to others, yes, I did.

    My oldest daughter is a MD Doctor, pediatrician no less. My other daughter is in Law School, and my other grown child, a son, is in church ministry.

    They now have children of their own. Toddlers. They ask me for advise when they are at wits end, and their children are defiant or over the top disrespectful, as all young children can sometimes be. And I remind them sometimes you just spanking them, as well as all the other discipline tools in the box. And I sleep very well at night with that.

  • NBeerline

    I think what’s being overlooked here is the very practical issue of how overburdened Children’s Services already is. My brother and some close friends both adopted children through the foster care program, and I have witnessed first-hand how positively determined Children Services is to reunite children with parents whose abuse goes far beyond anyone’s definition of “spanking.” If a law like this were to pass, how is an already stretched Children’s Services supposed to handle this AND the issues of real abuse that they encounter on a daily basis?

    As parents, my husband and I rarely spanked our children and never more than two smacks on the rear. We decided to quit spanking entirely after age five, because we felt it was no longer effective. I agree that over zealous parents can cross the line into abuse, but criminalizing spanking will only alienate well-intentioned parents, while adding exponentially to the already over-taxed Children’s Services.

  • The fact that I never experienced corporal discipline as a child that was not abusive (not intended that way, but in fact so) nor that I ever – to my shame – corporally disciplined my children in a non-abusive way (i.e. without being angry) certainly colors my judgment. But my psychological training tells me that punishment is ineffective as a deterrent or a behavior changer. That surely does not mean no discipline, but rather the types of discipline that my children have predominately used, which are largely non-violent and in many cases use rewards more than deprivation (although a time-out is a deprivation). This fits the experimental findings better. And, of course, we mean in private as well as in public. If a parent shakes a baby in private, it is just as bad as in public in terms of their brains. Likewise violence in private in just as bad as violence in public.

  • Elizabby

    Legal bans on spanking will fail – they would never be enforced even in the unlikely event they get passed. IMO, the key is to give parents alternatives. I don’t think any parent gets up in the morning thinking “I hope I get to spank my child today.” It happens because people don’t feel they have alternatives. Just like any other undesirable parenting behaviour – letting children cry at night, giving them junk food, TV as a babysitter, etc. It happens because parents are exhausted and run out of energy/ideas and don’t have anywhere else to turn. Using the law to try to punish them for being exhausted would be counterproductive. The key is not only more education, but more actual support and help in the massive task that is parenting 24 hours most days, 7 days per week.

  • RDH

    Can we also find a psychologist who will tell us it is wrong:

    1. To force a child to do chores around the house or property? I grew up in the country, and my dad made me get out in the damn hot sun and pick rocks. It hurt me deeply knowing the town kids were going to the swimming pool, riding their bikes with one another, playing Little League baseball, etc. while I was my dad’s slave. He wanted to clear the property of rocks so the grass would grow better for the cows to graze. And not only did I have to pick rocks, I had to hoe the garden. Those rows of vegetables stretched for hundreds of miles, I think. And it was hot.
    2. To force a child to practice a musical instrument every day? My mother, who played piano at church, thought I should have an appreciation of music and learn to play songs by dead people like Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, Debussy. I took piano lessons for about three years, but I hated to practice. Instead of being allowed to go outside and play, I had to practice the piano.
    3. To keep a child from watching television? Our television picture tube went out of business when I was in kindergarten and we did not get another television until I was in eighth grade. While other children were watching Leave it to Beaver and such shows, I had to read books for entertainment. This harmed my social skills; the other children thought it odd that I did not have a television. It very likely I was harmed socially and emotionally because I grew up without television and had to resort to books.

    And if I backtalked my dad and mom about picking up rocks, weeding the garden, practicing the piano or watching television, they spanked my ass.
    They were active in church, but were people who treated their children like that really Christians?
    Hell, yes, they were! And I love them for everything they did.

  • Mike Horn

    I still think the best way to influence cultural change is through persuasion instead of coercion by passing laws that threaten parental rights. Education and modeling have had a profound impact over time on the attitudes of parents who are doing their best raise healthy and responsible children. And I’m not sure that all the research supports the need for a complete ban on a mild swat on the fanny of a kindergartner who wont stay out of the street. Safe, physical restraint is a neessary

  • Patrick

    Instead of correction, we give our kid’s sin natures steroids and the results are easily observable in our society. I think this author and the author of the Proverbs are in disagreement on this one and I side with Proverbs.

    Kids 3000 years ago had no different natures than we do today, I still think it’s wise to spank a kid very early on myself. My father whipped me in diapers(my mother informs me), I did my 2 this way. I don’t regret it.

  • Mike Horn

    Whoops! Safe physical restraint must still be a legal and viable option when children exhibit out of control and dangerous behavior. Of course this is considerably different than losing your temper and then justifying the use of corporal punishment.

  • Lindsay

    We have 3 children, and 8 grandchildren. From memory I think that we only spanked one of them once and that was a reaction of fear. We had just moved into our new home, on a fairly busy road and our (at the time) only child was heading towards this road. (at this point fences had not been built yet) A couple of quite hard smacks to the bum and he never went outside the property again. It is impossible to explain to a toddler the dangers that surround them, and it is equally difficult to keep a close eye on them at all times. They need to learn that when a guardian (parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle etc) gives an instruction it needs to be obeyed. We were fortunate, my mother’s curse (I hope you have a child like you) skipped a generation and landed on grandchild number 7, unfortunately his parents are in the “no spanking” camp and I believe that he is going to be seriously injured sometime. As an example, for a short period, his family moved into a cottage on our daughter-in-law’s parents property. They have a donkey, grandson was told “do not stand behind the donkey”, grandson deliberately stands behind the donkey!!!
    On a different note, I remember when corporal punishment was banned from our schools (Australia) there was a comment by a seniour teacher of a boy’s school. “On average in any group of 10 boys, 1 will never do wrong no matter what; 1 will never do right no matter what; the other 8 are in the middle. The purpose of corporal punishment is to direct the 8 in the direction of right.”
    I do not believe that spanking is the be all and end all and I have seen instances where it could only be called abuse, but it is one necessary tool in ensuring that our children survive to be self disciplining adults.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I spanked my 5 year old in the past, but have vowed to not spank him anymore as it seems that more and more evidence points to spanking being harmful. Luckily, my son is generally well behaved and mostly doesn’t even require any discipline at all.

    My wife just gave birth to our new born son 2 weeks ago today. I plan to never physically discipline him.

  • Mike M

    Maybe a voice of authority is needed. I have 6 kids. Each one was spanked less than than previous so by no. 6 there has been none. The first few lived under the rule that “if it was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for me” until I realized that maybe my dad was just plain wrong. Since Newtown, I’ve come to realize that we live in a culture of violence and that we can only change this one encounter at a time. Not by gun laws, not by more guns but by love at every level of our lives.

  • Derek

    I was spanked. I don’t spank. My parents spanking led directly to deceit. The threat of spanking didn’t stop me from doing things but I lied like crazy to cover my actions. I became accomplished at risk reward management, and not in a good way. Am I appreciative of my parents spanking me? Not at all. Explanation and conversation would have worked better. Anecdotal evidence from the “other” side.

  • Amanda B.

    I think there’s an inherent flaw in saying that it is *always* beneficial to spank your children, or else *always* harmful. Not all children are the same, and not all respond well to all forms of punishment.

    Growing up, my parents spanked my brother and I rarely, and as a last resort. They never spanked us while angry, and always had lengthy conversations with us on either side of it to make sure we understood what we had done, why we were being spanked, and that they loved us and didn’t take any pleasure in spanking us.

    I could probably count on one hand the number of times I was spanked as a kid. The sheer shame of having done something wrong, something I had known better than to do (we’d always have plenty of warning if further infractions would lead to a spanking), was *far* worse to me than the spank itself. I was so aggrieved by having done something wrong that direct punishment was often not necessary for me to change my behavior.

    My brother, on the other hand–he’s always been a bit feistier than me. He was a boundary-pusher, pretty determined to test what he could get away with on every front possible. My parents had to run the gamut of disciplinary measures available with him, from time-outs to revoking privileges to extra chores to spanks. He received quite a few more spankings than I did (though still always calmly and compassionately administered), as they were often the only thing that he would take as the clue: “No, you really, really can’t get away with this.”

    He and I stayed out of trouble through our teenage years and are good friends today.

    The fact that the two of us were raised in the same environment, by the same parents, with the same overall disciplinary structure, yet needed such different approaches, convinces me that trying to find a “one-size-fits-all” approach to discipline is simply not tenable. I agree that non-physical measures are preferable if at all possible, but I’m not so sure it’s viable to remove corporeal discipline from the picture entirely.

  • andrew

    for a professor at southern methodist uni, it’d be helpful if he’d put his case in terms of biblical justifications for changing behaviour. The misuse of physical discipline is not a reason to throw out the good with the bad. Deal with the bad. Educate parents in what their motivation and method should be, but we’d be fools if we seriously believed that the heart of children has changed since solomon such that his proverbs could be ignored, and his exhortations be said to be 180 degrees from wise counsel.

  • andrew

    in the entire comment thread i saw lots of deference to psychology, to experience, but not one citation of the bible in defending the decision not to smack. would be genuinely curious to hear of it.

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, have you read William Webb’s book on corporal punishment? Perhaps many of the commenters have.

  • andrew

    I haven’t. I didn’t read any references to Webb in the meta. Is there a simple line of reasoning that would allow you to go from “solomon said this in instructing people in how to raise children”, to something diametrically opposite? in a way that still held scripture to be authoritative.

  • Bill

    Sometimes force and pain are good behavior correction methods. Sometimes they aren’t. Talk to any law enforcement officer. None of them really want to get physical but sometimes it’s just necessary.

    When someone says spanking is harmful, I’d like to know what they mean by harmful. I was spanked as a child and it was a good corrective and no, I did not grow up being an ax murderer or abusive parent. I am kind to animals and I am a law abiding citizen.

    An abnormal parent or a parent with serious emotional problems will get off on spanking their children. The normal parent will probably use it as a last resort because there is a certain of amount of emotional stress for the normal parent to apply this type of corrective. The normal parent takes no joy in using force to gain compliance or to discipline. But sometimes I think it’s necessary.

    Spanking is not equivalent to abuse.