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 suggestions.
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 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.
Do you 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.”
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.
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 to him.
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.”
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 increasing.
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.
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.