Child Discipline and Spanking: to Spank or Not to Spank

Father and sons walking on suburban street
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Andrew is a young father with two small children who decided, with his wife Katie to never spank his children. "My dad was a spanker, and more than once left a bruise on my backside when I misbehaved. It drove a wedge between me and my father, and I never want my kids to feel that way about me," Andrew wrote me.

Nathan is a father who had the opposite experience. "A little swat gets a child's attention and can be a good tool in a situation where you want your child to learn something quickly and seriously. Obviously, you can't let it turn into abuse, but why not use this long-effective tool to help teach discipline to our kids?"

The attitudes of fathers about spanking seem to run to either the sentiments of Nathan or of Andrew. They are representative of most dads I talk with who struggle with finding just the right way to discipline young children and make an impact on their behavior in effective ways.

Negatives About Spanking

  • If used to excess, spanking can be abusive. Even parenting experts cannot agree on the issue of spanking. Some parents and child development experts argue that spanking is hard to keep under control. No one wants to see a child abused, and no responsible father would carry spanking to that extreme. But when parents (and particularly fathers) are larger and stronger than their children, there can certainly be a risk factor here.
  • Spanking is not always effective. Most experts also argue that there are many effective discipline tools available to a capable father and that spanking should be used only sparingly if at all. Time outs, grounding, and removing the child from a situation often work at least as effectively as spanking and with fewer risks.
  • Spanking may lead to violent behavior later. The argument is that when children learn from their parents that a "violent reaction" like spanking is appropriate, they will tend to be desensitized to violence and more likely to hit or injure others later in life to get their way.

Positives About Spanking

  • Spanking is a tested and true discipline tool. Let's face it - spanking worked well for generations in the past and many children who were spanked (if not most) turned out to be fine adults. The vilification of spanking is a relatively recent phenomenon.
  • There is Biblical support for spanking. Related somewhat to the comparative success of spanking through the years, many advocates of spanking find themselves using scriptural references to support their claims. One father who identified himself as a fundamentalist Christian wrote me about a blog post once in which I suggested that fathers try to avoid spanking in favor of other discipline tools and reminded me that I was not respecting the scriptural injunction that one who spares the rod spoils the child.
  • Spanking works particularly well in urgent situations. For times when a child finds himself or herself or puts someone else in imminent danger, responding with a swift swat can be a very effective tool for getting attention in an urgent way.

Safe Spanking

For dads who choose to use spanking as a tool, child expert Linda Sonna offers some specific recommendations.

  • Limit spanking to three swats and a stern voice. As mentioned earlier, spanking a child repeatedly or in a way that leaves a mark could constitute child abuse and a father could find himself in serious legal trouble. Dr. Sonna recommends three swift swats and then a stern-voiced warning to the child about the inappropriate behavior.
  • Don't escalate the spanking. Often stubborn children will continue to act badly after a few swats and a father may be tempted to escalate the spanking to respond to escalating behavior. If the three swats don't work, move on to another tool rather than spanking more or harder.
  • No bare bottom spanking. Regardless of what parents used to do in earlier days, swatting a bare bottom will tend to cause more damage and more likely result in bruising than a swat over clothing. The most effective part of spanking is in the suddenness of it combined with a loud, stern correction, so delaying spanking or taking time to get to a bottom without clothing lessens the effectiveness anyway.
  • Never spank in anger. Staying in personal control when using spanking as a tool is critical. When we are angry and not seeing things rationally, we tend to over-discipline, and that can be really dangerous when using corporal punishment techniques.

Other Discipline Choices

Dads should have lots of discipline tools in their toolbags for working with children of all ages. While spanking to some of us may come almost as second nature because it was the tool of choice of our parents, there are other equally or more effective tools for fathers. Some of these tools include:

  • Redirecting - getting the child's attention focused on behavior choices that are acceptable
  • Offering two acceptable alternative choices - "No, you can't run around the pool. But we can walk over here to the slide or jump in the water here in the shallow end. Which would you like better?"
  • Time-out - removing the child from the situation and isolating them for a time until they are willing the behave better
  • Impose consequences - when a child violates your clear expectations, impose consequences that seem natural and a direct outgrowth of the behavior

Spanking can be an effective tool if it is used judiciously, but it tends to be the first tool we choose when we are under stress. There are often better and more effective tools available if we just learn how to use them effectively. Abraham Maslow wisely said many years ago that "he who is good with a hammer tends to see everything as a nail." Spanking is only one tool in our discipline toolbox and needs to be used sparingly and carefully (if at all) and in concert with all of our discipline tools.