Is Spanking an Appropriate Form of Child Discipline?

Father getting ready to spank a toddler boy over his knee

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If you are a parent, you know that just about every decision you make is up for debate. And no parenting method seems to come under fire more than spanking children as a form of discipline. Whatever you think of spanking, whether you were spanked as a child or whether you spank your own kids, whenever you are deciding which discipline method to employ, it's important to make sure it is the most effective one to implement.

So, is spanking an effective way to discipline children? 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. Which is right? While it is a personal decision and one that should be made depending on what works best for your family, there are important factors to consider.

Why Parents Spank Their Children

For some parents, spanking is a natural form of discipline—perhaps they were spanked as a child themselves. Others see it as a good punishment when a child is about to get hurt 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, reacts to what a child has just done and spanks in order to send a strong message in the hopes that the child will not engage in that behavior again.

Problems With Spanking Children

While spanking supporters say the method works well, the reality is that all it teaches the child is to behave and "be good" – not necessarily to understand 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 is ​why they shouldn't touch a stove. When a child is spanked in that situation, a teaching opportunity is lost -- a chance to review kitchen safety.

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.

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 OK to hit someone when you are mad.

As a parent, you are your child's best role model. 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, rather than what they are being punished for.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a very strong opinion on spanking children—they are against it. 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."

A study published in Pediatrics journal found that three-year-olds who are spanked frequently are more likely to be aggressive when they’re five, and that spanking has been linked to mental health disorders later on in life.

Alternatives to Spanking

There are many other ways to discipline a child other than spanking them. Time-outs and taking away something that is valuable to the child are both really effective in teaching a child the difference between right and wrong. Another technique is redirection which allows you to let your child know that the way that they are 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 – a chance for a child to learn from her mistakes while developing good decision-making skills that she can utilize in the future.

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3 Sources
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 7th Edition: Birth to Age 5. Random House Publishing Group; 2019.

  2. Taylor CA, Manganello JA, Lee SJ, Rice JC. Mothers' spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children's aggressive behavior. Pediatrics. 2010;125(5):e1057-65. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-2678

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. What’s the Best Way to Discipline My Child?. Updated November 5, 2018.