ERIC Identifier: ED405139
Publication Date: 1997-03-00
Author: Ramsburg, Dawn
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
The Debate over Spanking. ERIC Digest.
Spanking is one of the most controversial discipline methods. On one side of
the debate are parents who believe it is all right to spank their children. On
the other side are those who think that children should never be spanked.
Somewhere in the middle are parents who believe that spanking should only be
used in particular instances (e.g., when the child runs into the street). Part
of the reason for the debate is that parents and experts often define spanking
differently. To some, spanking means "slapping a child on the buttocks" (Straus,
1995, p. 5), while others consider spanking a generic term for any corporal
punishment that does not cause an injury, such as slapping a child's hand for
touching something forbidden or dangerous.
The purpose of this digest is to explore some of the reasons for spanking
(using the general definition of any corporal punishment that does not cause an
injury), to examine the effectiveness of spanking, and to suggest alternative
REASONS FOR SPANKING
While many adults would argue that
hitting people is wrong, spanking children continues to be used as an acceptable
form of discipline because many parents think spanking will teach children not
to do things that are forbidden, stop them quickly when they are being
irritating, and encourage them to do what they should (Leach, 1996). Some
parents also believe that the nonphysical forms of discipline, like time-out, do
not work (Samalin & Whitney, 1995). Spanking is also a practice used more in
some areas of the country than others (primarily in the southern United States)
and in some cultures more than others (Flynn, 1996; Scarr, 1995).
EFFECTIVENESS OF SPANKING
While spanking may relieve a
parent's frustration and stop misbehavior briefly, according to the American
Academy of Pediatrics (1995), researchers suggest that spanking may be the least
effective discipline method. To test this hypothesis, researchers surveyed
parents, with the assumption that if spanking worked, children who were spanked
would learn to behave better over time so that they would need punishing less
frequently (Leach, 1996). However, the results showed that families who start
spanking before their children are a year old are just as likely to spank their
4-year-old children as often as families who do not start spanking until later.
Thus, children appear not to be learning the lessons parents are trying to teach
Spanking may be ineffective because it does not teach an alternative behavior
(American Academy of Pediatrics, 1995). In fact, children usually feel
resentful, humiliated, and helpless after being spanked (Samalin & Whitney,
1995). The primary lesson they learn appears to be that they should try harder
not to get caught.
Spanking also sends the wrong message to children (Samalin & Whitney,
1995). Spanking communicates that hitting is an acceptable way to solve
problems, and that it is all right for a big person to strike a smaller one. In
addition, when children are spanked, they may know that they have done something
wrong, but in many cases, they are too young to understand the lesson. It is a
very difficult message for any adult or child to understand: "I hurt you because
I don't want you hurt."
Finally, when spanking is the primary discipline method used, it may have
some potentially harmful long-term effects such as increasing the chances of
misbehavior, aggression, violent or criminal behavior; impaired learning; and
depression (Straus, 1995).
ALTERNATIVES TO SPANKING
One reason parents spank is that
they are not aware of other effective strategies for changing children's
undesirable behavior. To be effective, discipline that is appropriate for a
child's age should be used. Ineffective methods are often based on unrealistic
expectations about what children are capable of learning. Parents may find the
following age-appropriate discipline suggestions useful alternatives to
SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS OF INFANTS
impulsively to many situations without a real understanding of their
surroundings and abilities. Spanking will only cause fear and anxiety in
children who do not yet understand such concepts as consequences and danger.
1. When there is danger, grasp an infant's hand instead of slapping (Leach,
2. When the infant is holding something that you do not want him to have,
trade a toy instead of forcing the item from him (Leach, 1996). He will only
hold on tighter if you try to take something away.
3. Baby-proof your living space so that there is nothing dangerous or
breakable in reach (Ruben, 1996; Samalin & Whitney, 1995).
4. Leave the room if you feel your temper flaring, making sure that the baby
is in a safe place like a playpen (Leach, 1996).
SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS OF TODDLERS
requires a tremendous investment of time, energy, and patience, so it is
important to find effective and appropriate techniques (Ruben, 1996). For
example, it will not be effective to tell toddlers not to play with items that
are dangerous, such as the stove, because they do not understand the
consequences (Samalin & Whitney, 1995). Spanking, however, will not clarify
the consequences either. Instead, children may learn from spanking that "I'm a
bad person," rather than "I did a bad thing." You must use discipline methods
consistently or your child will learn that you are not serious.
1. Make sure the environment is safe by removing any harmful dangerous
objects (Samalin & Whitney, 1995). It is natural for toddlers to want to
explore their environment. Always supervise toddlers; it is unrealistic to
expect a toddler to play safely without adult supervision for more than a few
minutes (Leach, 1996).
2. Avoid direct clashes with toddlers, which will only make both of you angry
and frustrated. Instead, try a diversion or distraction (Leach, 1996). Many
problem situations can be eased with something funny or unexpected, such as
tickling a mildly upset child (Ruben, 1996).
3. Use your size and strength to eliminate situations (Leach, 1996). Simply
lift a child out of the bath or carry a child who refuses to walk.
4. If you start to deliver a slap, divert it to your knee or a table (Leach,
1996). This sound will interrupt the behavior without hitting the child.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS OF OLDER CHILDREN
1. When you start
to feel angry with your children, clap your hands loudly (Leach, 1996). The
sound will interrupt their behavior.
2. If your child refuses to listen to you, crouch down to his level, grasp
his arms firmly so he cannot avoid looking at you, and then talk calmly (Leach,
3. Since spanking does not occur in calm, rational moments (Samalin &
Whitney, 1995), it is especially important to control your anger to prevent
"losing it." You can walk away, hit a pillow, call a friend, or write a note.
Once you have cooled down, you will probably feel less inclined to spank.
4. If you feel you must punish your children, make sure the punishment is
logically related to the incident so that they can learn the lesson you want to
teach (Leach, 1996). For example, if your child rides her bike onto a road that
is forbidden, take the bike away for the afternoon. This punishment teaches her
that roads can be dangerous, that you are concerned for her safety, and that you
will enforce safety rules as long as they are needed. Taking away TV, dessert,
or spanking will not teach bike safety.
5. Introduce the appropriate use of time-out (Ruben, 1996). Time-out used as
a punishment is controversial. When used to allow a few minutes for a child--and
a parent--to regain control of their emotions, it can be effective in stopping a
cycle of inappropriate behavior.
SUGGESTIONS FOR ALL AGES
1. Support good behavior. Hugs and
praise will go a long way (Ruben, 1996).
2. Try an ounce of prevention (Ruben, 1996). Effective discipline means
announcing clear, simple family rules (the fewer, the better) at a time when
children are calm and listening.
3. Try to understand the feelings behind your child's actions (Ruben, 1996).
Ask older children why they are angry. When an infant cries, ask yourself: Does
she want to be held? Is her diaper wet? Is she hungry?
4. Share your change of heart (Ruben, 1996). If you have spanked your
children in the past, but have decided that you will stop, talk to your children
about your decision. This lesson can be valuable for your whole family.
The question of whether or not parents should
spank their children is not easy to answer. However, spanking is only one of the
factors that needs to be considered in the overall discipline process. In
deciding how to discipline their children, parents should first ask, "what do I
want to accomplish?" If the answer is "teach my children how to make good
choices on their own," spanking may not be an issue.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Academy of Pediatrics.
(1995). CARING FOR YOUR SCHOOL-AGE CHILD: AGES 5-12. New York: Bantam Books.
Flynn, Clifton. (1996). Regional differences in spanking experiences and
attitudes: A comparison of northeastern and southern college students. JOURNAL
OF FAMILY VIOLENCE, 11 (1), 59-80. EJ 523 518.
Leach, Penelope. (1996, July 9). SPANKING: A SHORTCUT TO NOWHERE
NoSpan King Page. URL http://www.cei.net/~rcox/nospan.html
Ruben, David. (1996, September). Should you spank? PARENTING, 136-141.
Samalin, Nancy, & Whitney, Catherine. (1995, May). What's wrong with
spanking? PARENTS, 70 (5), 35-36.
Scarr, Sandra. (1995, February 8). SOUTHERN PARENTS SPANK CHILDREN MORE THAN
NORTHERN PARENTS, STUDY FINDS. [WWW document]. URL
Straus, Murray. (1995). BEATING THE DEVIL OUT OF THEM: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN
AMERICAN FAMILIES. New York: Lexington Books.