Is Spanking an Appropriate Form of Child Discipline?

Is Spanking an Appropriate Form of Discipline? - Photo Illustration by Amelia Manley

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Parents of past generations commonly spanked their kids—and some tout the practice as a cure-all discipline technique. Moreover, plenty of today's parents of young kids were spanked when they were children. So, many wonder whether spanking is an effective, appropriate option for managing children's behavior.

The answer from experts is a resounding no. "Spanking is not a recommended form of discipline," says Aliza Pressman, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a psychologist at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City.

In the past, spanking was a common discipline practice. Today, in many circles, it is less acceptable. In fact, many experts consider it to be harmful to children—not to mention ineffective.

If you are a parent, you know that just about every decision you make is up for debate. But no parenting method seems to come under fire more than spanking children as a form of discipline. Ultimately, every parent needs to decide what's right for their family. But whatever you think of spanking, it's important to know what the research says in terms of its effects on kids.

Why Some Parents Use Spanking as Discipline

Research is clear about the potential harm that spanking can cause. However, in some families and cultures, it is an ingrained, accepted practice. That said, while spanking has decreased over the past few decades, it continues to be quite prevalent. In fact, a 2021 study found that in 1993, 50% of parents acknowledged spanking their children. By 2017, that rate had dropped significantly but was still at 35%.

Advocates say that giving a child a smack on the bottom sends a strong message and will curtail any future infractions on the part of the child. Opponents say that it borders on child abuse and that it really doesn't work. Research lands squarely on the side of not spanking. While it is a personal decision and one that should be made depending on what feels right for your family, there are important factors to consider.

For some parents, spanking is a natural form of discipline that exerts the parent's authority. Perhaps they were spanked as a child themselves. Others see it as a good punishment that delivers a potent deterrent when a child is about to get hurt, acts out rudely, or finds themselves in a dangerous situation (running across a parking lot or into a street perhaps). Still, others use spanking as a last resort when no other discipline methods have worked.

Sometimes, spanking happens when a parent simply gets angry, overwhelmed, or frustrated. They may react to what a child has just done without thinking through the lesson they send by spanking. They also might spank them simply in an effort to send a strong message in the hopes that the child will not engage in that behavior again.

Potential Problems With Spanking

While spanking supporters say the method works well, the reality is that it teaches the child to behave and "be good" at all costs out of fear of physical retribution. It also sends the message that physical aggression is an acceptable way to get what you want. Plus, they are not necessarily learning why they should conduct themselves in a certain way.

For example, if a child moves to touch a hot stove and is spanked, the child will most likely learn not to touch the stove anymore. However, what they won't learn from spanking alone is ​why they shouldn't touch a hot stove. When a child is spanked in that situation, a teaching opportunity to review kitchen safety is lost.

Spanking puts a stop to behavior but it doesn't encourage a child to make decisions or wonder why a certain decision isn't a good one. It also doesn't provide support for developing autonomy, emotional regulation, impulse control, self-awareness, and responsibility.

Authoritarian parenting, which often includes strict rules and spanking, doesn't tend to consider the child's perspective or feelings. This approach can be experienced as isolating, cold, and disrespectful to the child, says Jacob Sheff, DO, a pediatrician with Providence Health in Portland, Oregon.

Spanking also models aggressive behavior. Even though the child is being hit in the context of being disciplined, it is still happening while the grown-up is angry, so it demonstrates to a young child that it's acceptable to hit someone when you are mad or unhappy with someone's behavior.

As a parent, you are your child's best role model, says Dr. Pressman. "Kids are always watching what you do." Even if you tell your child that they shouldn't hit someone, by hitting your child, you are demonstrating that that action is acceptable.

It's also important to consider that as a child gets older, they are likely to get angry at their parent for spanking them. Instead of thinking about what they have done to warrant a spanking, the child focuses on the punishment and feeling bad about themself, rather than on their behavior. They may also feel afraid of their parent if they use physical discipline to control them. They may also think that if it's acceptable for their parent to hit them, then it's fine for them to hit others.

In its 2018 policy statement against corporal punishment, the AAP cited research showing that repeated spanking is linked to aggressive behavior in young children at home and at school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a very strong opinion on spanking children. They are against it and believe it causes harm, physically and emotionally. In the seventh edition of Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, the AAP states:

"The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. If a spanking is spontaneous, parents should later explain calmly why they did it, the specific behavior that provoked it, and how angry they felt. They also might apologize to their child for their loss of control. This usually helps the youngster to understand and accept the spanking, and it models for the child how to remediate a wrong."

Alternative Discipline Strategies to Spanking

Choosing to not spank your child doesn't mean you give up on managing your child's behavior. It's quite the opposite actually. There are many other ways to discipline a child other than spanking them. Dr. Sheff recommends using an authoritative parenting approach, which focuses on providing kind yet firm rules and guidance.

"This shows respect for the [child's] judgment and interest in their unique perspective, but at the same time, remains protective and caring as represented by the limitations placed on their behavior; the guardrails, so to speak," explains Dr. Sheff.

Setting up clear limits and expectations lets kids know what behavior you want to see, which can head off many discipline issues, says Dr. Sheff. When misbehavior occurs, strategies like time-outs, consequences, and taking away privileges are effective in teaching a child the difference between right and wrong and motivating them to comply.

Aliza Pressman, PhD

"Following through on rules, limits, and consequences is a great way to guide your child's behavior."

— Aliza Pressman, PhD

Natural or logical consequences let your child experience what happens when they don't listen. For example, when they don't bring a jacket, they will get cold. If they don't pick up their toys, you might take away the toys. If they fight with their siblings over the remote, the TV might be turned off. Another technique is redirection, which lets your child know that the way they're acting is not acceptable, while also providing a positive alternative.

The key to disciplining a child isn't just to get them to stop doing something (although that is certainly important). Discipline should also be viewed as a learning opportunity, says Dr. Pressman. "You need to be consistent and not permissive but also sensitive and open and ready for conversations," says Dr. Pressman. Look at their missteps as a chance to reflect and develop good decision-making skills that they can utilize in the future.

When a child is misbehaving or breaking rules, take that as your cue to bolster up any lagging skills or knowledge that may be at the root of the problem. They may also need more limits or supervision. "When they make mistakes, it's not about shaming or blaming, it is about them not being ready for that freedom or skill," says Dr. Pressman. The parent can then provide the scaffolding their child needs to succeed and be safe until they mature a bit more.

Additionally, tune into your child's emotions, which might also be contributing to their misbehavior, says Dr. Pressman. Help them learn to share their feelings in safe, respectful, and productive ways. Often, children act out when they have big feelings that they don't know what to do with. Teaching them to name and process their feelings can help them cope and feel heard—and lessen their need to break rules and act out.

A Word From Verywell

Spanking is one of the most controversial forms of discipline parents can use. While some people believe spanking is an acceptable option, most child health experts disagree. Furthermore, research shows that spanking creates fear rather than well-being for the child. Plus, this tactic may be likely to result in more misbehavior than parents may assume. Other forms of discipline, such as using clear expectations and consequences, typically yield more positive results.

Originally written by
Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.
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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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