Five Reasons Why I Think Spanking Your Kids is Usually a Bad Idea
There’s still quite a controversy about whether parents should spank their kids or not. Most psychologists have weighed in on the side of not spanking, but there are still many who seem to think it’s not that big a deal. The rhetoric among lay people, however, can get pretty heated. The pro-spanking crowd tends to look down on parents who don’t spank as milquetoasts whose wimpy, undisciplined kids will be in for a rude awakening when they go out into the real world. The anti-spanking crowd tends to look down on parents who do spank as thoughtless Neanderthals whose kids are destined to become violent criminals or animal abusers or worse. Neither of these extreme views is worth anything, of course. But while I don’t think occasionally spanking your child when he really messes up is going to do any lasting harm, it’s usually not a great idea. Here’s why.
It’s Often Hypocritical
When you’re eight years old, you might not really understand what hypocrisy is, but when your father catches you fighting with your little brother, says “Pick on someone your own size,” and turns you over his knee for a few good swats, you’re probably going to notice a bit of a disconnect between what your 200-pound dad is saying, and what he’s doing to your 80-pound self. Pro-spanking parents will point out that there’s a difference between a big kid beating up a smaller kid in anger and a parent using a spanking to correct his child’s behavior. And they’re absolutely correct! But there’s also a problem with this argument. Just like an 8-year-old might not fully understand what hypocrisy is, he’s also probably not going to see the distinction between him hitting his little brother and his much larger father hitting him. The verbal lesson is that bigger people shouldn’t hit smaller people, but the physical lesson is that it’s okay for a bigger person to hit a smaller person. The 8-year-old will instinctively feel that there’s an injustice there, somewhere, and this injustice will probably rankle. You don’t have to know what hypocrisy is to instinctively feel there’s something wrong with, “Don’t hit your brother!” >smack!<
There’s a Difference Between “Discipline” and “Punishment”
A lot of people decry the trend away from spanking, saying that terrible things will happen to the world if we refuse to discipline our children. Well, they’re half-right and mostly wrong.
They’re right that children need to be disciplined. In fact, children want to be disciplined. They instinctively want to know what their limits are—that’s why they’re constantly testing those limits. Parents who instill discipline start by teaching their kids what their limits are, and why those limits exist. If parents stopped disciplining their children, their children would grow up very confused, and unable to succeed in the world.
They’re mostly wrong in that they confuse “discipline “ with “punishment,” and in assuming that “punishment” necessarily means “spanking.”
There are ways parents can correct their children’s behavior that do not involve a punishment of any kind. Sometimes, all you need to do is remind your kids that they should be polite, and they’ll remember to say please and thank you and stop chewing with their mouths open. Sometimes, though, the kids need an unpleasant consequence to make the lesson stick. It can be anything from no dessert (You said the dinner I made you was yucky, and that was rude, so you won’t get any ice cream tonight.) to loss of a privilege (I told you to be back in an hour, and you stayed out for two hours, made us worry, and were late for dinner. You won’t get to go riding your bike for the rest of the week.) to confiscation of a favorite toy (I asked you to get ready for bed, but you ignored me and kept playing with your Legos. So I’m taking your Legos away for a while. Now go brush your teeth.) Note that the consequences in these examples have something to do with what the child did that was wrong. It wouldn’t make sense to take the child’s Legos away because she stayed out riding her bike too long, would it? Note also that the parent told the kid what it was that they did wrong. Parents should also tell their kids why the behavior was wrong, preferably when everybody has had a chance to calm down.
In the examples above, if the parent had simply said “No dessert for you,” or “You’re grounded for a week,” or “I’m taking away your Legos; go brush your teeth,” the child would probably have asked, “What did I do?” Punishments of one kind or another (including spanking) can be used to instill discipline, but punishment alone won’t do the job. Parents also need to let their children know that there are reasons to do the right thing that have nothing to do with getting caught doing the wrong thing and being punished for it. A child who is well-disciplined will make good choices even when there is no risk of punishment.
It’s Often Only Done in Private
Many—not all, but many—parents who do spank their kids only do it behind closed doors. There are many possible reasons for this. One of them might be that most people seem to think spanking isn’t such a good idea. Whatever the reason, parents who do spank their kids often don’t want to do it in front of others. This by itself is not necessarily a problem. There are a lot of things that we do in private even though there’s no reason to be ashamed of them. We don’t usually change our underwear in front of others, for example. The problem comes when a parent is willing to spank his or her child at home when only the family is present, but not in public or at home in front of guests. Young children probably won’t be able to put their thoughts about this into words, but they’ll notice. They’ll see that when only the family is present, a given misbehavior is worth a spanking, but when others are present, the same bad behavior only gets a verbal rebuke, or maybe a whispered warning about how the kid is going to “get it” later (and the promised “it” may never come if it slips the parent’s mind). The inconsistency will be confusing. Further, the more time that passes between the kid’s bad behavior and the punishment, the less of a connection the kid will make between them. The kid, if only subconsciously, will learn that there’s something about spanking that must be kept secret from others—that his parents are not proud of the fact that they use spanking as a punishment. This will be confusing for the child. He may wonder, “If it’s okay to punish me for doing something bad when nobody’s around, why isn’t it okay to punish me for doing something bad when people are watching?” There’s really no good answer to this question. This is why, if you’re going to use spanking to correct your kids’ behavior at home, you’d better be willing to spank your kids in front of the neighbors. By the same token, if you’re not willing to spank your kids in front of the neighbors, you probably shouldn’t be spanking your kids at home.
It Often Becomes a Catch-All Punishment
Spanking can seem like an attractive disciplinary tool because it’s quick and convenient. A time-out takes, well, time. Taking away a possession or a privilege requires the presence of a possession or a privilege to take away. If you’re on a road trip and the kid is stuck in the car anyway, you can’t really ground her, and a time-out when the family is in a hurry can punish the parents as well as the child. A quick swat can seem like just the thing to let the kid know she messed up and shouldn’t do that again. But then, the quick swat might come a little quicker when you’re trying to get dinner on the table or change the baby’s diaper or are otherwise distracted and can’t be bothered to come up with a punishment that fits the crime. If you’re not careful, little misbehaviors that once only warranted a stern word can start to look spank-worthy. Pretty soon it will become harder to come up with fitting punishments that don’t involve spanking, and if you’re not willing to spank your children in front of company (see above), you will find yourself unable to meaningfully correct your kids’ behavior at all except in private. This will be confusing for the children and frustrating for you.
It Can Get Out of Hand
If spanking is the default punishment, how do you let the kid know when he really screwed up? More swats? Harder swats? How do you decide? If the kid makes a rude comment about his vegetables and refuses to eat them, is that worth two swats? Suppose she throws her vegetables across the room? Is that worth five swats? If a six-year-old throws her vegetables, does she get the same number of swats as a twelve-year-old who throws his? And how hard do you spank your kid if you find out he vandalized a public building? Bear in mind that all of these rhetorical questions assume you’re not losing your temper at all when you’re spanking your child.
Face it, fellow parents: sometimes our kids make us mad. It can be easy for us to lose our temper when dealing with a misbehaving child. Sometimes, we’re upset about other stuff—a bad day at work, lousy traffic coming home, an argument with our spouse, whatever—and the kid does something he knows he shouldn’t. It’s a little thing, but that’s the thing that makes us lose it. Sometimes we yell. Sometimes we give punishments that are way out of proportion to whatever the kid did wrong. Later, when we’ve calmed down, we’re faced with a choice: do we leave the unreasonable punishment in place, or do we substitute a more reasonable one? When the punishment is something like no more TV for a week, we can say, “You know what, Sweetie? I’ve thought about it, and no TV for a week is a bit too harsh for what you did. But what you did was still wrong. So instead, it’ll be no TV for the rest of the day.” If you lost your temper and gave your kid an over-the-top spanking, however, there’s no taking that back.
If you use spanking as your go-to punishment, and you also don’t spank in front of company, you are setting yourself up to be frustrated and angry with your kid when he misbehaves in front of company and you find yourself unable to correct his bad behavior. Further, if spanking is your only tool, and your kid just decides to be rebellious, you may find yourself hitting your kid more and more times, and harder, when he keeps acting out and you get more and more angry with him. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself crossing the line between a spanking and a beating. You won’t want to admit it if you do cross that line; nobody wants to see themselves as a child abuser. But understand this: just because you only use your bare hand and only smack your kid’s bottom, that doesn’t mean that what you’re doing can never become abuse. If, Heaven forbid, you ever do cross that line, you can decide to never cross it again, but you can never un-cross it.
Just because it's "traditional" doesn't mean it's a good idea.....
________________________"It's tradition; that makes it okay..."________________________
It Can Teach the Wrong Lesson
A quick swat on the bottom can tell a two-year-old that it’s not okay to run into the street. A few swats with the kid across your lap can tell a seven-year-old that he’s really messed up. But once your kid gets to be a little older, he’ll start wondering why it’s okay for you to hit him but it’s not okay for him to hit other people. If you aren’t careful to explain the difference between violence done in anger and a dispassionate spanking done to correct bad behavior—and if you don’t make darn sure that there really is a difference—you will teach your kid that if you have power, it’s okay to hit people who don’t, but if you don’t have power, people can hit you and there’s not much you can do about it. You might not teach the kid why he shouldn’t do things you don’t want him to do, but you will surely teach him what will happen if he gets caught.
Your goals as a parent should include teaching your kids the difference between right and wrong. This means that by the time they’re young adults, they should know that there’s a better reason for telling the truth than the punishment they’ll get if they (get caught in a) lie. They should know that there’s a better reason not to steal or cheat than the punishment that they’ll get if they get caught stealing or cheating. We can argue about the moral difference between someone who doesn’t steal because stealing is wrong and someone who doesn’t steal because he’s afraid of being punished for stealing, but that’s not what concerns me.
What concerns me is that in our imperfect world, sometimes people don’t get punished for their crimes, even if they do get caught. Sometimes popular people can get others to cover for them when they do wrong. Sometimes, powerful people can even get rewarded for doing wrong. If your kids learn that the main reason not to misbehave is that they’ll be punished if they do, then they’ll be much more likely to lie, cheat, or steal if they think they can get away with it. Without people who do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do, and who refuse to do wrong even if they probably won’t get caught, our society wouldn’t be a very nice place to live.
Thoughtless Not-Spanking Isn’t Much Better
Merely “not spanking” your kids won’t magically make them grow up into good adults. Any punishment, not just spanking, can be done badly. All you need to do is think about your short term goal (making the kids do what you want right now) and not the long term goal (raising your kids to be responsible, honest, independent adults). You can raise a confused, resentful, deceitful thief even if you never lay a hand on him. You can raise an honest upstanding citizen even if you do smack her bottom when she messes up. But it’s much, much easier for spanking to teach the wrong lessons, breed resentment or confusion, or transform from punishment into abuse, especially if it’s done in anger. Finally, parents are not perfect, and shouldn’t pretend to be. Sometimes we overreact. When we realize that we’ve overreacted, we can return our children’s favorite toys, restore our children’s privileges, or un-ground our children. But we can never un-spank them.