By now you should realize that our position on spanking is simple: don't. But we are also experienced enough to realize that some loving, nurturing,
committed parents believe in spanking as part of their overall discipline
package. As a pediatrician with thirty years in practice, I am also quite aware
that regardless of our advice against spanking, some parents are going to spank
their children. For these parents, the best we can hope for is to help them
spank in a way that is less likely to become abusive. Consider these
1. Examine your overall parenting style
If you are generally a nurturing
parent practicing the attachment style of parenting, an occasional spanking is
unlikely to damage your child or relationship—but it's unlikely to help it
either. If, on the other hand, you are practicing a more restrained style of
parenting, spanking will be another obstacle that prevents you from knowing your
2. Examine your relationship with your child
Do you generally feel
connected to your child? Do you feel that you have a handle on why your child
behaves the way he or she does and can anticipate the undesirable behaviors
before they begin? Do you know what triggers undesirable behaviors and what
fosters desirable ones? Do you see signs that your child feels close to you:
eye contact, approaching you, putting his arms around you, wanting to be picked
up, enjoying being with you, and being able to communicate with you? If this is
true, then an occasional spanking is unlikely to harm your relationship. If,
however, you have a distant relationship and don't feel connected to your child,
physical punishment is likely to increase the distance between you.
Here is a story from a mother of two of my patients. She is an intuitive,
loving parent with a strong connection to her children, and she has a huge
repertoire of alternatives to spanking.
"There have been a few times when we have had to spank our kids, and it was
when they were between three and five years old. It was three or four times for
our daughter, maybe once or twice for our son. I don't like to see tantruming
children flailing out of control. They need something to help them get control
back. So on the few occasions that they were literally out of control we've
used spanking. I can remember when one of them was throwing a tantrum, my
husband said, 'I have to swat your bottom to help you stop.' It shocked him and
he was able to regain his control."
Other parents would handle this differently and would not respond this way to
tantrums. Yet these parents know their children and know their own tolerances
for "out of control" behavior. One comment I do have is that the reason the
swat worked is that it had shock value, meaning it was the first (and rare)
occurrence. It got the child's attention because these parents saved it for the
one situation they personally could not tolerate.
3. Determine where spanking fits in your overall discipline package
raise your hand in the swatting position or grab the wooden spoon as a knee-jerk
response the moment your child misbehaves? One way to tell if you are a reflex
hitter is if your child flinches anytime you move your hand suddenly upward in
his vicinity. Reflex spanking is rarely helpful for several reasons: It's done
out of anger, you may spank harder than intended, and you don't allow yourself
time to try alternatives. If you resolve to put spanking way down on the list
of correction techniques, you will have to try alternatives first rather than
immediately click into "hit mode."
4. Don't spank in anger
If you are an angry
person given to impulsive hitting, realize you are at risk for spanking
abusively and dangerously. Some children have a way of pushing "hot buttons" in
adults, and some adults have very sensitive buttons. Examine your feelings
during and after spanking. Do you spank to punish your child, or to vent your
anger? Who's the spanking for, you or your child? Says Martha: Martha's
Comments: "Previously, when I did spank our children, I never felt right about
it. I didn't spank because the behavior was so bad, but because I had been
inconvenienced, and I was taking it out on the child. I used to slap our first
two children in anger, and as I slapped I could see in my mind's eye how I had
been slapped by angry adults as a child. It was those flashbacks that made me
realize how wrong I was for me to hit our child."
When you are angry, you are likely to spank too hard because you are out of
control. (Seeing you out of control traumatizes them as much as the spanking.)
Spanking in anger leaves the wrong impression on children's minds. They may be
so bothered by the anger in your eyes and face that they don't realize the
reason or the justification for the spanking. As a result, the punishment has
no teaching value. A proper disciplinary action should improve the relationship
with your child by creating a feeling that the parents are fair and consistent
boundary setters; the child can depend on them to be in charge when he himself
is out of control. Spanking, especially in anger, disturbs the trust between
caregiver and child. In our family, we have found the best way to avoid
spanking in anger is to mentally program ourselves against spanking. We have
resolved never to spank. This preprogramming against spanking will override the
reflex to smack a child, and give us time to think about what type of correction
is best in this situation. Programming against spanking is a sort of safety
valve that keeps you from possibly hurting your child.
5. Do not violate your child
Removing underwear in order to spank bare skin
is a humiliating invasion of personal and private space and sexually threatening
and confusing to the child. So firmly resist the traditional image of the bare-
bottomed child stretched across your lap.
Should you use your open hand, paddle, or a switch to spank? Use of any one
of the above will not cause permanent physical harm if you avoid too much force.
The one tool we definitely advise against is a wooden spoon because we have seen
bodily injury result from this club-like instrument. Any spanking that leaves
black and blue marks (bruising) is wrong whether you use an object or your hand.
Keep your hand open and flat—a fisted hand will be too forceful and damaging. A
child old enough to spank (see number 6) will also understand that your loving
hand is holding the spanking tool. The hand-versus-object debate is meaningless
6. Explain the spank
Spanking without an explanation contributes little to
discipline. In fact, studies have shown that calm spanking preceded by a
rational explanation does less harm and more good than spanking without such
reasoning. Explaining the punishment can be therapeutic for both the spanker
and the spankee. It helps you decide whether or not your action is appropriate.
It makes it less likely that the child will repeat the misbehavior, gives your
child a chance to make a judgment about the fairness of the action, and
preserves the self-image of the child by treating him as a rational person. The
child will feel angry and humiliated about the spanking if he feels that there
is no reason for it.
Getting the child to understand why he is being spanked helps to clear the
air of angry feelings and contributes to his gaining self-control. If during
your explanation you either begin to realize that you have the facts wrong or
your heart is telling you there is a better way to deal with the situation, by
all means switch to another corrective action and make a mental note to give
this whole thing more thought.
A child under three will not be able to fully understand your explanation;
he'll just know he's being hit and it has something to do with his being bad.
He's probably also too young to separate his person from his action, so he'll
think he's bad even though you are telling him "that was a bad thing to do."
7. Ask yourself, "Is spanking working?"
Evaluate your discipline techniques
every month or two, especially physical punishment. Which ones are working? Is
your child misbehaving less? Is your relationship with your child getting
better? Is your child's self-worth increasing? If the answers to all the
questions are "yes" then you are on the right track. If any disciplinary
action is not working, drop it. If you are spanking harder and more often, this
technique is obviously not working and you need to consider alternatives. You
need to consider other modes of discipline if you find your child is misbehaving
more. Change what you're doing if the distance between you and your child is
8. Examine the time you spend with your child
Is much of your quality time
with your child spent punishing? If this is so, you are likely to have an angry
child and a weak parent-child relationship. The joys of parenting and the
stages of growing up are too precious to waste on such negative interaction.
Consider changing your approach; spend a lot of time with your child just having
fun. Let your child help you work around the house or run errands. Tell him
you enjoy his companionship. As your child realizes how much fun it is to be
with you, he will translate this into behaving well—which can be fun, too.
CORPORAL REDIRECTION VERSUS CORPORAL PUNISHMENT
Here is an example of an
alternative to spanking that physically corrects misbehavior without inflicting
pain. Lauren is our family monkey; she is always climbing on things. One day
Martha walked into the kitchen to see then twenty-two-month-old Lauren standing
on the countertop sorting through the spice rack. (Rarely had she gotten to
this level in her adventures without someone intervening.) In a rapid reflexive
move, Martha swung one hand under Lauren's bottom and the other arm around her
middle as she swooped her off the countertop with a firmness and swiftness that
surprised them both, while saying something like "Not safe! You stay down!"
Lauren happened to be bare-bottomed, so the swift, firm hand made a slightly
stinging sensation on her bare skin. This registered with Lauren. She looked
closely at Martha to detect anger or intent to hurt in her mother's body
language. Finding none, she interpreted her removal as protection and
correction rather than punishment, and she cut short her howl of protest.
Martha's physical action inflicted direction, not pain. The sureness and
swiftness of the movement certainly left its mark on Lauren's mind. Lauren
learned, once again, that Martha is the parent and she is the child. To Lauren,
Martha's bigness is not a threat but a security ("Mom can rescue me because she
is big"), even though the rescues are limits to freedom that are often
frustrating to Lauren. It is very important for children to get the clear
message that their parents are in charge. With young children most of this
impression will need to be made physically. Words alone won't work.