Posted by: philosodad | August 24, 2009

Discipline, Corporal

So the other day I got into a rather heated debate with my brother about spanking. We were both spanked as children, and as parents ourselves, the question of appropriate discipline and the related issue of not becoming our parents comes up occasionally.

My fallback position is always to go to the literature, but in this case the literature is somewhat ambiguous at best. Some researchers have found that spanking, as a form of correction, is ineffective and may lead to greater violence later in life. Others criticize this research on the grounds that abusive and non-abusive spanking are not distinguished, or that if over-utilized, all forms of discipline lose effectiveness. (cite).

What surprised me the most when I further researched this question was the definition of non-abusive spanking, as opposed to abuse. One article in opposing views, non-abusive spanking is defined as “one or two swats” to the buttocks, and abusive behavior as “physical assault”, that is, kicking, punching, or slapping the face and body.

This completely excludes spanking as I experienced it as a child. I suspect that it excludes most thirty-something’s experience of spanking as children. And what bothers me about that is that when the word “spanking” is invoked, we go to what we know, not to what the literature refers to. It would never occur to me that a single swat on the butt would be classified as a “spanking”, simply because it is so far removed from my experience. Similarly, I wouldn’t consider a slap or a punch to the face to be a form of spanking or even corporal punishment, again because of the separation from my own childhood experience.

So what do you all think? Should skeptical parents spank their children as a form of discipline? Is this an empirical question or a matter of opinion? What do you consider spanking? What role do studies and research play in your position?



  1. I distinquish between swats (one or two, not too forceful, to the butt, with the hand only), spanking (generally but not always more than one or two, more forceful but with no intention to mark, to the butt, also with the hand only) and beating (anything involving striking with a foreign object, generally quite hard, with or without intent to mark, striking anywhere on the body). Slapping and pinching are not included in these categories; I guess neither would smacks to the palm with a ruler, but does anybody even do that anymore? I have no problem with swats or spanking, but object strongly to beating. However, there’s the seperate question of when they are appropriate. They shouldn’t be used for all correction, IMO.

    It’s complicated by the fact that kids are not cookie-cutter, assembly-line products; one kid may be devastated into more desirable by a harsh critique that another would just blow off, some do well with “time outs” or restrictions or being deprived of playthings. And some kids need a nuclear explosion just to get their semi-undivided attention. I think there’s never going to be one set of criteria that everyone will agree on, if only because different kids respond differently to different things.

    My reading in this area is not up-to-date (my kid is grown, and graduated into Free Agency), but when I did read it, the studies seemed to be conflicting. I’ve just operated off of my own, not-terribly-scientific observations “in the field”, and what I’ve dredged up out of memory. I spanked infrequently, and then pretty much only when he was too young to understand an explanation of what he had done wrong, followed up with non-corporal punishments. It seems to have worked, for me, with this particular kid. He’s always been reasonably well-behaved (not just in my opinion, though I admit to possible bias), well-adjusted and sensible, and is neither timid nor foolhardy. I got lucky.

    Of course, education in general is a help. My concern was more for reading up on what was known about ADD, since a quick look at my family’s history suggested that ADD or ADHD was a strong possibility. The characteristics were spotted, confirmed (and not in a snap judgement) by a doctor who specialized in that area, action taken, and we got him through school successfully. If I had been caught flat-footed on it, I might have thought there was “something wrong” with my kid, or that he just wasn’t trying, or was defying me, or who knows what.

  2. this may be an odd approach, but I reserve spanking for times when I’m deliberately & repeatedly being disobeyed to test me. I give two warnings & then a few sharp smacks to the butt. I feel like heading off disobedience at its source will prevent potential rebellion that may be more life threatening.

    In general, I agree with the philosophy that kids should be punished in a way that doesn’t harm them, but makes them hate you and cry tears of perceived suffering. Find something that’s a big deal in their world and take it away… Like a nightlight or tv priveleges.

  3. If we expect our child’s teachers to have enough self control to keep not one but twenty or thirty children ‘in check’ without resorting to physical violence, we should be able to do the same ourselves.

  4. It depends a lot on your personality, whether you are consistent, and whether you’d be tempted to go overboard in case of anger.

    Personally, I have two problems with spanking: I was spanked too much as a child, and harmed by it (although my parents dearly love me and did not mean to cause lasting harm), so I know the dangers.

    More generally, I believe that you should educate your children into functioning members of society, and in our society, people in positions of power don’t hit people with less power. I’m a big fan of consequences (loss of TV, loss of night time books, loss of privileges), ideally consequences that are related to the misdemeanour. At the end of the day, you want them to understand why the rules are the way they are. You don’t want your kids to be slavishly obedient – especially not as skeptical parents. I think it’s misguided to choose punishment that will “make them hate you” (although it may well make them hate you in the end). I would much rather choose a punishment that illustrates the consequences of their behaviour.

    • Just to be clear, I rarely find that I have a reason to spank. I don’t think it should be an everyday activity.

      Nobody wants to feel hated (perhaps too strong a word), but it’s our job as parents to be benevolent dictators and to dish out punishments that are ultimately safe but also ultimately correct the behavior. If a child is repeatedly breaking the same rule, then the parent has failed to adequately punish. That doesn’t mean that discipline has to escalate physically or emotionally, but it does mean that you aren’t following up on threats or you haven’t found the best leverage. Parents try so hard to be their kids’ best friend that they forget their role to be the one who provides tough love. Obviously, there’s also behavior disorders, which should be treated accordingly.

      I disagree that skeptical parents need to guide children toward rebellion. That type of behavior happens naturally, so I’m not going to foster it. Parents should have an expectation of their reasonable demands being obeyed. My children are not at an age where they are exhibiting rebellious behavior out of a cultural or psychological choice, and when they do, I will treat that as something unworthy of punishment.

  5. We have two kids. I used to spank them when they were very disobedient, but as above, it was a couple of sharp smacks to the bottom.

    However, I found that I used spanking as a form of discipline not only because I was upset with my child’s behavior but because I was mentally tired, such that I couldn’t come up with a punishment that I felt was going to work and quite honestly, would be satisfying to me.

    That really was the biggest problem. I wanted to use the spanking as a means of retaliation. But it just didn’t work that way. In fact, it back-fired because when I did something that the kids didn’t like, they would run to me crying and try to hit me, saying “pow-pow” (our word for spanking).

    The spanking wasn’t harming them, but I was just teaching them a bad habit. I wasn’t disciplining them. It didn’t have the desired effect. So I stopped.

    Providing rewards for good behavior and time-outs seem to be more effective for us and our kids. Often, when our kids are misbehaving, they just want attention, so the goal is to give that attention in a constructive way, prior to some sort of punishment. It takes much more effort on our part, but I think it has had better outcomes.

  6. I’d love to respond with a longer explanation but I got tired too quickly with the responses above because I’m a lazy reader this morning so i won’t do that to you guys. I was spanked religiously growing up and by that i mean by regularly. I needed it. Nothing else worked for me. But what my father did that was excellent was make me go to my room for 15 minutes and wait. He’d cool off so he wasn’t spanking from anger and with the added anticipation I didn’t need to be spanked as hard. The limited spanking I’ve done with my 2.5 year old daughter amounts more to swatting and never in response to hitting. I feel that’s a confusing message.

    • I’m always confused by the assertion that spanking worked and that nothing else did. Did your father use every other possible means? Do you remember time-outs not working when you were two years old? Is this documented?

      That just seems like a very bold statement to make on what is almost certainly very sparse evidence.

      • Yeah, timeouts, washed out mouth with soap, taking all toys away for a week at a time. grounding. I’ve spoken with my parents about it at length and I remember my own motivations. I’m talking about getting spanked into my 5th grade year Colin. Not strictly as a young child. And my sister was just the opposite. She didn’t really require spanking. In my youth I personally hit her with a vacuum cleaner, chased a friend with a hatchet dangling over my head, etc. Children like me aren’t concerned with comments like patricia’s below, dignity wasn’t my problem. I was fully nurtured, loved and cared for. My parents relationship is/was healthy and they just celebrated 30 years of marriage. The home wasn’t the problem. just me 🙂

      • Just wanted to clear up that I’m actually Colin. I don’t have any problems with what you’ve said, Drew. Speaking as someone who knows you, I can vouch that you deserved to be spanked. 🙂

  7. I’m not a parent, but I’ve done a lot of baby-sitting (including in a professional setting) and I remember my own experiences as a child. Still, my opinion might not count as much. My mom spanked me occasionally, just one or tow swats on the butt, and it did nothing for me. Sometimes I would just hit her back. What taught me valuable lessons was when she would say “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” or something similar. If I had behaved or believed something was wrong simply because I would get hit for it, that would be failure, in my opinion.

    Obviously I would never hit someone else’s kids, but I have rarely even resorted to punishment in general. My first philosophy, which has been very effective, is to reward good behavior and ignore bad behavior. If the child doesn’t know they are doing something wrong, I will not only tell them to stop, but make my best attempt to explain why. I only use punishment (such as time-out) as a last resort, and I’ve rarely had to use it. I always make sure to ask the child to explain why their behavior wrong after the punishment is over.

    In general, I just don’t think that the threat of punishment is as effective as a deterrent as it seems like it should be. This applies to children, but also to adults and even pets. The threat of punishment will often make people (or children or pets) avoid getting caught rather than avoiding the behavior. It’s rare that people refrain from doing bad things only because they are afraid of the punishment (whether punishment is jail, Hell, or spanking). Obviously punishment is somewhat effective, but it’s generally more effective to show people why something is bad.

  8. In general, I just don’t think that the threat of punishment is as effective as a deterrent as it seems like it should be. This applies to children, but also to adults and even pets. The threat of punishment will often make people (or children or pets) avoid getting caught rather than avoiding the behavior. It’s rare that people refrain from doing bad things only because they are afraid of the punishment (whether punishment is jail, Hell, or spanking). Obviously punishment is somewhat effective, but it’s generally more effective to show people why something is bad.

    I completely agree. I’ve got 2 rugrats, 7 and 3. We made the decision to not spank before we had kids. IMHO, the only thing that spanking teaches is that it’s ok to hit someone if you’re bigger than them and are in a position of authority. We don’t punish our children, we teach them that there are natural and reasonable consequences to their actions.

    Besides, the brain is quite effective at screening out the memories of physical pain. If it weren’t, no one would have more than one kid 😉

  9. Spanking is fine if you’re trying to teach a child that a good way to get someone to do what you want is to smack them. As far as I can tell that’s the only lesson most kids will take away from it.

    Every time I lost patience with my kids and gave them a smack bottom, I consider it my own personal failure.

    Discipline varies by individual. In the right context, a time out can be very effective, but it’s probably not the best way to keep a defiant child out of a busy street.

  10. @mark
    That seems to be an argument based on sanctimony and little else, which is how this debate usually plays out.

  11. It’s simple: NEVER HIT A CHILD. Parents who hit teach children that hitting is an approved way to get what you want and to express your anger. Parents who hit children are out of control and not thinking.
    Children want to be respected and treated with dignity. Children need emotional and physical safety and nurturing. Hitting them denies them both.
    Parents should getting training and get to know their children. NEVER HIT A CHILD.

    • But is that an evidence based position? What studies have you read, or what argument convinced you, that even a single swat on the butt was equivalent to denying your child emotional and physical safety?

  12. How could one do a study on light spanking anyways? The causation/correlations must be hard to separate.

    We don’t hit ever. I seem to be able to summon up other answers even when things are quite bad. I’ll add that if my kids are acting out, it’s usually my fault (they are hungry, tired, or being ignored.)

    It’s nice to see rational parents coming up with rational answers to negative behavior. Good responses above.

  13. Sorry, but this seems like a no-brainer to me. If you spank/hit/whatever your kids, how can you expect them not to hit their peers on the playground or, indeed, their sibs? I say to my kids that “we don’t solve our problems by hitting.” With two small boys, with equally small communication repertoires, they smack each other a lot. I know that we’re all science- and evidence-based here. But, as Vee suggests, there might not be good science out there on corporeal punishment. We have to use judgment.

    • @Svetlana

      If you give them time outs, how can you expect them not to give time outs to their peers? If you take away their xbox privileges, how can you expect them not to take away their friend’s xbox privileges?

      When a child is spanked for a specific broken rule, she knows it’s not a license to commit random violence. This is a consequence for breaking the rules. Spanking, when done properly and appropriately, does nothing more than sting for a brief second. It’s not like we’re talking about water boarding.

      And for the speculation that spanking inspires violence, ask Drew or myself whether we felt justified in routinely striking our peers. Of course not. The implication that children who are spanked responsibly trend toward violence is insulting to those of us who were spanked. You admit that, even in your non-spanking household, you deal with two boys that smack each other “a lot”. What if they were spanked? You would immediately attribute that behavior to their punishment.

  14. Ticktock,

    I should have made my premises clear.

    My first premise, which is my personal and philosophical preference, is that, except in self-defense or contact sport, one does not hit, push, pull, etc. You get my point – one does not aggress against another person’s body (though I realize that this is too strong a word for what we are discussing here).

    I do put physical violence in a special category precisely because (a) acting out physically comes so naturally to my boys and, indeed, to many humans (myself included), and (b) I think that this tendency is a bad thing.

    My second premise is that my behavior towards my kids must be, if at all possible, consistent with the behavior I expect of my kids towards others (myself included). Hey, it’s the golden rule! . . . I think that this approach is fair and I believe that it is more effective than “do as I say, not as I do.” When I find myself yelling at my kids to “be quiet” I believe that my message gets lost 😉

    Given these two premises, I think you will agree that I cannot accept the concept of “responsible spanking.”

    B/t/w, it’s an amusing image you paint of my kids giving time-outs to their friends. I think you help me make my case. Say, for example, the kids are playing a game and someone repeatedly breaks the rules. If my child gives a time-out to the “offending party,” I would be very pleased!

    Last but not least, I certainly meant no insult to your parents or Drew’s parents – “[t]he implication that children who are spanked responsibly trend toward violence is insulting to those of us who were spanked.” Parenting is a tough and we are all doing our considered and thought-through best.

  15. I say if the child does not listen show them who the boss is. simple as that. if your child doesnt respect you when he or she is young, how do you think the child will be when they get older.

    • As far as I can determine from the literature, showing your child who is boss is not in the best interests of the child and does not lead to better behavior in teenagers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: