Why Some Parents Spank Their Kids

Father disciplining toddler
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Parents who spank their children tend to see it as an important, effective, and useful tool in teaching kids how to behave. For many parents, corporal punishment is viewed as a personal decision with merits. While child health and development experts point to research that indicates that physical punishment is not effective and puts kids at risk for a number of negative outcomes, research shows that spanking is practiced in many homes.

As many as 83 percent of kids in America have been punished physically by their parents by the fifth grade, according to Liz Gershoff, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here are some of the arguments that have been made by those who support corporal punishment, and what child discipline experts say about the practice.

They Feel It Is an Effective Way to Get Kids to Listen

"Spanking doesn't teach kids to behave the way parents want them to and can have the opposite effect," says Dr. Gershoff. "Kids who are hit are often compliant immediately, but they haven't been taught how to be better in the long term."

Hitting doesn't teach them why what they did was wrong or what they should do next time. It teaches kids how to avoid being hit instead of helping them develop positive motivations for good behavior.

They Experienced It and Don't View It Negatively

Spanking kids and using other forms of physical punishment is a risk, not a guarantee that kids will develop problems. It's much more accurate to look at corporal punishment as a safety issue, says Deborah Sendek, director for the Center for Effective Discipline, a program of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, MN that works to promote the effective discipline of children and to end all corporal punishment of children.

Today, we have made a lot of changes to keep children and adults safer. Sendek says, "There are a lot of things that happened 10 or 20 years ago that we don't do today, like not using car seats or bike helmets. But today, I would not put a child on a bike without a helmet. We've made changes."​

Sendek suggests that parents who were spanked as kids may want to take a hard look at their own experiences. "Ask yourself honestly if you felt like you were bonding with your own father or mother when you were hit," suggests Sendek. "Was it the hits that taught you a lesson or was it the discussions you had with your parents and the things you had to do to make up for the bad behavior?"

They Were Taught That "Sparing the Rod Spoils the Child"

Some parents believe firmly that children who are not spanked will grow up to be spoiled. However, simply looking at the millions of examples of well-behaved, kind, good, and well-mannered children who have never been spanked shows that this is simply not the case.

While failing to discipline kids in any way can indeed lead to them becoming spoiled and unpleasant, punishment (corporal or otherwise) is not the alternative. A better approach is to take the middle ground, where there is a combination of firm and loving discipline without the pain or fear of a spanking.

As for the argument that not using corporal punishment will lead to bad behavior, people who are in jail or kids who are delinquent are likely to have been spanked just as much, if not more than kids who are obedient or adults who don't break the law, notes Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus at the Gundersen Center.

Nothing Else Seems to Work

"Nothing works every time," says Sendek. Hitting doesn't work every time either; otherwise, a parent would only have to hit once and never again. Parenting is about consistency, and giving kids realistic consequences, like taking away TV, computer time, or video games for a week, or having kids do extra chores for misbehaving or breaking the rules.

If your child has a behavioral or learning problem, other forms of discipline may require extra effort.

It's critical that parents of children with behavioral or learning problems do not try and solve a discipline issue with hitting, says Sendek. "Some kids get hit more because they are aggressive or have trouble controlling their behavior," says Sendek. "It's even more important for these children to self-regulate and not learn to hit when there is a problem."

Opinion of the American Academy of Pediatrics

There is ample research on corporal punishment and its effect on kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stands firmly against spanking, as research has proved that corporal punishment increases aggression in children, is ineffective in teaching responsibility and self-control, and may affect normal brain development.

Is There Another Approach?

There are signs that many are moving away from corporal punishment of children. "There is a clear trend away from corporal punishment," says Vieth.

But for parents on both sides of the debate, putting emotion aside, along with any criticism or judgment, and looking at the research is perhaps the best approach. "There is a real need in this country to have a conversation about corporal punishment that is not emotional," says Vieth.

If you do use corporal punishment as a form of discipline, ask yourself these key questions:

  • Is it effective? Are you getting the results you're aiming for?
  • Is it more effective than other methods?
  • What are the long-term consequences?

"We are not saying kids don't need discipline, says Vieth. "But it should be effective guidance."

There are more effective ways to discipline a child, rather than spanking. Consider using logical consequences, negative consequences, and restitution as child discipline strategies to help change your child's negative behavior.

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