Here is April’s installment of “Ask Shelby” with Chester County’s own Marriage and Family Therapist Shelby Riley:
Do you recommend spanking? It seems like sometimes it’s the only thing that works. I don’t like doing it, but I was spanked as a child, and it seems to have worked for my parents!
Signed, Undecided on Discipline
Dear Undecided on Discipline,
I have a tremendous amount of respect for your question. A lot of people parenting little kids now were spanked as children, and we remember the impression (no pun intended) it made on us. And sometimes, it seems our children are so out of control, no amount of asking, coaching, begging or bribing will work. Spanking is a swift, immediate consequence that usually gets an immediate positive result (at least from the parent’s perspective).
But it doesn’t yield a positive long-term result. A lot of research has been done on physical discipline, with a big focus on spanking. And the studies show that, long-term, it doesn’t work. It actually results in more behavior problems in the long run. It sends a very confusing message to children. And it is not a natural consequence for their actions.
Discipline works best if it mimics a natural consequence so children can easily understand the related cause and effect of their behavior. If the child isn’t treating his sibling nicely, he has to spend time in time-out because “people don’t want to be around someone who is behaving in a cruel way.” If a child is mistreating a toy, she loses the toy because “she can’t be trusted to treat it respectfully.” If a child doesn’t listen while watching TV, they lose the privilege of watching TV for a time because they have taught you “they can’t focus on following directions when the TV is on.”
Spanking also sends a strange message about power and violence. We teach our kids to treat others kindly, but then when they don’t do as they are told, they get hit. So hitting is okay. Sometimes. If you’re in charge. And you want someone to do something your way. (?!) Think about it from a child’s perspective. It’s pretty messed up thinking. And discipline should not be about stopping behavior. It should be about teaching our children how to make good choices, whether we’re around or not. It should be about teaching values, character development, and social skills. What does physical violence have to do with any of these things? (And yes—spanking is physical violence. That’s why it works short term. Kids are usually afraid of it and don’t want to feel the pain.)
My last point will be that it’s not okay to hit anyone else in our society if we don’t like what they’re doing. If we tried to teach our partner by hitting them, we’d be arrested for domestic violence. If we tried to teach a store clerk by hitting them, we’d be arrested for assault. I heard someone say one time that the reason we still spank children is because we can. Because they are small and powerless. I believe children have the same rights as the rest of us not to be physically harmed.
So that is a very long response to say, No, I don’t recommend spanking. I understand that all parents have the right to choose how to parent their children, and that there is no one right way to raise healthy kids. Some of my clients choose to continue to spank their children, and I can respect their right to do so. What I recommend to people who do choose to spank is to only use your hand so that you can feel and control the amount of force you use. If you use a spoon or a belt or any other item it can cause a lot more damage than you intend. Also, never spank when angry. You want to be calmly implementing a consequence, not releasing your aggression and anger on your child.
There are a lot of great parenting books out there that have non-spanking techniques for disciplining your kids. And if you are still struggling to find what works for your family, a few sessions with a family therapist can be incredibly helpful. Use www.therapistlocator.net to find a licensed family therapist near you.
P.S. I’d love to hear what readers think about spanking—please post a comment to weigh in!