Posted on: May 14, 2020 at 4:16 pm
Last updated: July 7, 2020 at 11:16 am

In a 2012 survey, seventy percent of Americans agreed that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking” [1]. But spanking children may have undesired results.

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Adults sometimes hit their children to punish bad behavior, and while it might appear to be effective in the short-term, there is evidence to suggest that corporal punishment is not effective in the long-term and that it produces negative consequences for not only your child’s physical and emotional well-being but might actually make their behavior worse.

The Negative Effects of Spanking Children

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan have found that kids who are spanked more often are more likely to defy their parents and experience an increase in anti-social behavior. They are also at an increased risk for developing aggression, mental health problems, and cognitive difficulties [2].

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The study, which was published in the Journal of Family Psychology, analyzed fifty years of research that included over 160 thousand children. 

“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin [2].

She and her colleagues found that spanking children was not only associated with detrimental outcomes, but it was largely ineffective at changing a child’s behavior, both in the immediate situation and in the future.

Gershoff and co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, defined spanking as an open-handed on the behind or the extremities. They studied the effects among adults who were spanked as children and determined that they experienced more mental health problems, and were more likely to spank their own children [2].

Children who frequently receive spankings learn to associate violence with power and getting one’s own way, which is why they may become more aggressive as they get older. This might make them more likely to bully other children, and could even lead them to be more abusive in relationships when they become adults [1].

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These behavior changes may not be immediately apparent, however.

“A child doesn’t get spanked and then run out and rob a store,” Gershoff says. “There are indirect changes in how the child thinks about things and feels about things.” [3]

Spanking Vs. Physical Abuse

There is some disagreement among parents and experts alike as to what constitutes spanking, and what is considered physical abuse. What Gershoff has determined, however, that both forms of punishment are associated with the same outcomes.

“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” she says. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.” [2]

The CDC has also released a report discussing the consequences of child physical abuse and neglect, which argues that social norms that accept or allow indifference to violence need to be changed in order to prevent child abuse. Societal norms regarding how parents should discipline their children are of particular importance here [4].

Read: Physician: American Children ‘Immersed in a Culture of Disrespect

Alternatives to Spanking Children

All of the research over the last fifty years indicated that spanking children is a largely ineffective form of punishment, and in actuality, it does more harm than good. Instead, there are many other strategies that parents can employ to punish their children’s bad behavior, without inflicting lasting emotional damage.

Effective discipline begins before bad behavior even takes place. Every household needs reasonable rules and reasonable punishments, and it is important that every member of the household knows what they are. Consider making a list of “house rules”, each with their corresponding punishment, and posting them somewhere where everyone can see them. This will ensure consistency in terms of how punishment is given out [5].

Consistency in rule enforcement is just as important as consistency in punishment. Whatever rules you put in place in your home, make sure that they are always enforced. Selective enforcement will only confuse your children and lead to problematic behavior.

With small children, sometimes ignoring them when they are behaving poorly is an effective strategy. It is not uncommon for a child to throw a hissy fit or temper tantrum in a bid for attention, and as long as they are not doing anything dangerous, selective deafness can send them the message that behavior like that will not get them what they want. Once they have calmed down, you can take the opportunity to talk with them about why throwing a fit is inappropriate.

Time-outs are also a tried-and-true method of punishment, especially for younger kids. The typical rule of thumb is one minute for every year of the child’s age. It is also important that you do not interact with them while they are in a time-out, and once their time is done, you don’t bring it up again. This strategy does not work for every child, but it can be effective for some.

You can also give yourself a time-out. If you feel as though you are about to lose your temper, and that you may hit your child or scream at them, try leaving the room for a minute to cool off, or take a few deep breaths, or hand the situation off to another adult if you can. When you give yourself time, you will be better able to handle the situation with a clear head.

When your child is misbehaving, it is much more effective to talk to them calmly and clearly, explaining to them why their behavior is inappropriate and asking that they stop. This is a good opportunity to give them a warning that there will be other consequences if the behavior continues [5].

Read: 2-year-olds aren’t terrible—they’re just learning how to be human

Your Toddler is a Primitive Being

Toddlers and preschool-aged children don’t have a large capacity to manage impulses, so lecturing them may not work. 

“A toddler is not developmentally equipped to take all that information in and apply it the next time,” says Parent Coach Susan Stiffelman [6].

Instead, she recommends showing your child what you want them to do, as opposed to telling them what not to do. (for example, saying “eat your spinach” as opposed to “don’t play with your spinach”) [6].

Focus on the Positive

We tend to focus on how to discipline effectively, but reinforcing good behavior is equally as important, as it can reduce the need for discipline in the future. As a parent, it is important that you are always paying attention to the times when your child does the right thing or is exhibiting good behavior. When you see this happening, thank them, and tell them they’re doing a good job. Praise works better than punishment [6].

You are a Model of Good Behaviour

Remember that your children are always watching you, and will model their behavior off of the things you say and do, and how you say and do them. If you are constantly reacting in anger, yelling, and hitting, they will internalize this as being normal, and in turn, will behave that way too.

Parenting is hard, and it can often be difficult not to lose your temper, but the more you are able to keep your cool, the better the long-term outcomes for your children will be.

Keep Reading: How a parent’s affection shapes a child’s happiness for life

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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