Dear Dr. Michelle:
I would like information about how to discipline my children. I was spanked as a child and I have mixed feelings about it. I find that I am starting to spank my children and while it sometimes stops their behavior, they just do the same bad thing next time. My friends tell me that spanking doesn’t work, and they don’t think I should be doing it. My parents think it is important to be strict so that my children learn the right behavior. Is it okay to spank your child?
Thank you for being reflective about the use of spanking and for being so honest about your struggle. It is wise to have mixed feelings and to be questioning its use in helping children correct their behavior.
While our parents can offer wise advice based on knowledge and personal experience, it is important to also evaluate how their experiences fit with the current environment. Legal expectations, social norms, and societal learnings from research can often change from generation to generation, so it is best to take in multiple forms of information and educate yourself about what fits given the current climate.
We have learned through time that spanking is not an effective discipline technique. While it may stop the behavior in the immediacy, it is only because the use of spanking or any type of physical force is more than likely creating fear. It is fear that is stopping the behavior and it can create damage, particularly if it is being induced repeatedly over time. Ongoing and consistent fear for a child can have a direct negative impact on healthy brain, mental, emotional, and psychological development. Spanking can also encourage children to learn to use physical force to deal with conflict and can potentially carry that difficulty into adulthood.
If you want your child to learn right from wrong or if you have the desire to teach your child effective ways to control their behavior, spanking will not work and could instead lead to resentment or damaged trust.
Spanking vs Physical Abuse
It is also important to consider the blurry line that exists between spanking and physical abuse. Spanking can only be done with an open hand and should not result in marks or any physical harm or psychological harm to a child. Physical abuse is any touching with a closed fist, including punching, hitting, kicking, or throwing a child. Physical abuse leaves marks, bruises, and/or physical scars. While spanking is legal in most U.S. states, any form of physical abuse is illegal and can lead to serious consequences for both a parent and a child.
For a parent, the consequences of physical abuse can lead to arrest, the loss of a child, legal charges, loss of job opportunities, and ongoing child protection involvement. For a child it can lead to being removed from family and long-term psychological trauma, which can negatively impact brain development, resulting in ongoing challenges throughout life.
Children are not born with the ability to control their behavior and regulate their emotions. They need to be taught, supported, and coached by a trusted adult to develop these skills and it takes time. Skills cannot be developed beyond a child’s cognitive and physical ability to master such skills and practice is needed, meaning they may make mistakes repeatedly.
This means that parents have important skills to develop as well - to be patient and to manage expectations.
It is more effective to talk a child through their behavior. Explain what was inappropriate, what the positive behavior looks or what is expected. Set firm and consistent limits with children and pause privileges when behavior needs to be corrected.
Positive correction can include appropriate discipline or consequences. Consequences and discipline should not be confused with punishment – which is meant to inflict pain or fear to curb the behavior. The goal is to teach children about their behavior and how to act differently or to encourage positive choices. If consequences are necessary, they should be logical, meaning they should fit the situation at hand. For instance, if a child doesn’t put their toys away, then they should not be allowed to go outside until their toys are put away.
Appropriate consequences give a child the control and motivation to fix the behavior and end the consequence. For instance, a child refuses to do their homework, so they lose the privilege of meeting up with friends, watching TV or using electronics until they finish their homework. As soon as their homework is done their privileges are resumed.
There are many effective ways to teach children appropriate behavior and to issue discipline as needed. Please refer to these materials to help you identify techniques that will fit your child’s individual needs.
The Case Against Spanking: How to Discipline Your Child Without Hitting
Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking: Practical Solutions to the Most Common Preschool Behavior Problems
80 Ways to Discipline Your Child Without Spanking
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.