A few nights ago, I was talking to a friend when the subject of spanking came up. I could not have been more surprised when her first response was, “I can’t say I’m totally against it. What if a two year old is crawling for a hot stove?”
This is not an uninformed woman. She and I both cut our clinical teeth working with victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. We have seen over and over the harm and damage caused by interpersonal violence.
Yet for some reason, she is still not able to set aside the old wives’ tale which holds that spanking, unlike any other form of hitting, is a benign practice.
I’m sorry to say my response to my friend wasn’t a particularly enlightening one. I managed to gasp out one or two rebuttals, but mostly, I just stammered in shock.
The confrontation, and my response to it, got me thinking about the most common myths people use to justify hitting children. In this article, I’ve examined eight of those myths and I’ve provided the researched, reasoned responses I wish I’d had ready for my friend.
Myth One: Being spanked never hurt anybody
This makes little sense for many reasons. First, the whole idea of spanking is to inflict at least temporary pain. People who advocate spanking are well aware of this. For instance, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and unapologetic advocate of spanking, has noted that “pain is a marvelous purifier” (qtd. in Greven, 1991, p. 68). Other spanking advocates have recommended corporal punishment severe enough to leave redness, welts, and even bruises on the child’s skin (Greven, 1991, pp. 79-80).
Since most children are spanked on the buttocks — a part of the body they have been told is “private” — they feel shame and humiliation as well, along with an uncertainty about how “private” that part of their body truly is (Johnson, 2001).
But even beyond the mortification and the physical hurt, there is a longer-lasting emotional pain. Among many other negative outcomes, being spanked has been linked to:
- Low self esteem (Bryan & Freed, 1982)
- Depression (Straus, 1994)
- Masochism (Straus & Donnelly, 1994)
- Psychological Distress (Turner & Finkelhor, 1996)
Myth Two: I was spanked, and I’m okay
Most smokers never develop cancer, most drunk drivers don’t get into wrecks, and most children who grow up in homes with lead paint do not suffer brain damage. But no intelligent adult would seriously advocate smoking, driving drunk, or using lead-based paint to decorate their walls. There’s also one more thing to consider. Most people who were spanked are “okay” in the sense that they aren’t in prisons or psychiatric facilities. However, corporal punishment is handed down from one generation to the next. Compared to people who were not spanked, people who were spanked as children are more likely to spank their own kids (Muller, Hunter, & Stollak, 1995). Let’s put that in plain English: People who were hit when they were vulnerable children are more likely to think it is acceptable — even desirable — for a fully grown adult to use painful physical force against a small child. How okay is that?
Myth Three: Some children need a good, hard spanking
Let’s look at who really benefits from the spanking. The child? No. Other interventions work just as well in the short term and better in the long term. Furthermore, the spanked child is put at risk for many negative consequences (see Myths One, Five and Eight).
Rather, it’s the parent who benefits, in two ways. First, the parent achieves immediate results — results which could also be gotten through non-violent methods. Second, the physical punishment gives the parent a release of anger and tension — a kind of catharsis. Using a non-violent form of discipline such as time out or even a verbal command (“Don’t touch!”) will alter the child’s behaviour just as effectively, but it won’t provide the parent with the same degree of emotional release (Carey, 1994).
In other words, parents continue to spank because spanking meets some of their own misguided needs. It does not benefit the child.
Myth Four: Spanking is the best way to stop dangerous behaviour in toddlers
Small children have short attention spans when it comes to long lists of rules. Spanking may stop the behaviour in the moment, but not any more effectively than non-violent discipline (for example, time-out, saying “no,” etcetera). With toddlers no method of discipline, including spanking, works reliably for more than a couple of hours (Larzelere, Schneider, Larson, & Pike, 1996).
There are only two ways to keep toddlers safe. The first is adjusting the environment (for instance, keeping sharp objects locked away or out of the child’s reach, or building a fence around the back yard to provide a safe play area). The second is providing careful, loving, and nonviolent supervision.
Myth Five: Being spanked keeps children out of trouble
Being spanked has consistently been linked with aggressive behaviour (Frick, Christian, & Wootton, 1999), including domestic violence (Simons, Lin, & Gordon, 1998) and cruelty to animals (Flynn, 1999). Jordan Riak, who works with convicted felons, has noted that close to ninety-nine percent of the men in his groups report being spanked as children (personal communication, 1/9/02). If the goal is keeping children out of trouble, spanking is clearly not the way to go.
There is another problem as well. While spanking may teach some children to avoid certain behaviours out of fear of punishment, it does not teach the child to think about what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it teaches the child to ask, “Will I get caught?” and “Will I be punished?” Spanked children do not learn to measure their behaviours against their own moral beliefs. Rather, they rely blindly on the judgment of those in authority — those who have the power to punish. If the person in authority gives unethical orders, the results can be tragic. It is no coincidence that a society where physical punishment was the norm gave rise to the most shameful words of the twentieth century: “I was only following orders.”
Myth Six: Nothing but spanking works on some children
First, let’s look at the child’s age. If the child is a toddler, for instance, no method of discipline, including spanking, is going to reliably curb certain behaviours for more than an hour or two at a time. The frustrated parent may get some emotional payoff from the spanking. The child will only be harmed.
Second, were the alternative methods of discipline being used correctly? I once spoke with a client who told me she “had” to spank her four-year-old daughter because the child wouldn’t stay in her time-out chair. The length of the time-out? Four hours! No child can be expected to sit still for four hours with no diversion — to demand it is abuse. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the vast number of successful non-violent methods of discipline and how to use them, many parenting websites and books do just that. A quick search of the internet or the local library will provide dozens of effective alternatives to spanking.
Finally, some parents misperceive the actual value of spanking. They may, for instance, spank their child repeatedly for the same misbehaviour, but declare time-out or some other non-violent means of discipline a failure when it does not stop the problem behaviour after only one trial. The research, meanwhile, is clear: Even in the very short term, spanking does not work any better than non-violent means of discipline such as explanation, time out, or verbal command (Larzelere, Sather, Schneider, Larson, & Pike, 1998; Roberts & Powers, 1990). There is no reason to strike a child. Ever.
Myth Seven: Spanking isn’t hitting or violence-it’s discipline
Imagine this scenario: An aide at a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients discovers an elderly woman poking at an electrical outlet. The aide immediately slaps the woman hard across the buttocks several times, reducing the woman to tears.
Has the woman been hit? Most of us would agree that she has. Has she been a victim of violence? Most of us would agree to that, also. Furthermore, even though there is no permanent injury to her physical being, every state in the United States would define what happened to the woman as abuse. The aide would certainly lose her job and might face criminal charges as well; the facility would be in danger of losing its license.
But substitute “two-year-old” for “elderly woman” and “parent” for “nursing home aide” and all of a sudden, our perceptions change. The hitting and the violence become a “spanking” and even some of the most dedicated child rights activists start referring to the incident as “sub-abusive.” Why? The two-year-old is equally hurt and humiliated by the blows; he or she is no better able to defend against them; and he or she is not more likely to get any benefit from them.
The fact that our society has arbitrarily decided to offer protection to one victim and withhold it from the other does not alter the truth: Spanking is hitting and it is violent.
Myth Eight: Spanking is not harmful if it’s done by loving, supportive parents
If anything, it may be even more distressing for a child to feel loved and supported by the very people who perpetrate violence against him or her. The child could learn to confuse love with violence, or to believe that it is okay to use force in the context of close, loving relationships. Or, the child could begin to feel worthless and believe he or she deserves physical violence.
Not surprisingly, the research shows that the negative effects of spanking persist, even among loving and supportive families. The negative effects that have been studied in the context of family support include antisocial behaviour and conduct problems (Frick, Christian, & Woottton, 1999; Gunnoe & Mariner, 1997), teen dating violence (Simons, Lin, & Gordon, 1998), masochism (Straus & Donnelly, 1994), and psychological distress (Turner & Finkelhor, 1996).
The research is clear and has been for some time: Spanking causes harm. No matter how or why it is administered, it is not benign or beneficial. It is physical violence. And, like any other type of physical violence, spanking scars its victims emotionally.
We have spent too many years ignoring the research and accepting the myths about spanking without bothering to investigate them fully. The time has come to confront these myths and stop finding excuses to hit children.
Bryan, J. W., & Freed, F. W. (1982). Corporal punishment: Normative data and sociological and psychological correlates in a community college population. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 11, 77-87.
Carey, T. A. (1994). Spare the rod and spoil the child: Is this a sensible justification for the use of punishment in child rearing? Child Abuse & Neglect, 18(12), 1005-1010.
Flynn, C. P. (1999). Exploring the link between corporal punishment and children’s cruelty to animals. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 971-981.
Frick, P. J., Christian, R. E., & Wootton, J. M. (1999). Age trends in the association between parenting practices and conduct problems. Behaviour Modification, 23(1), 106-128.
Gunnoe, M. L., & Mariner, C. L. (1997). Towards a developmental-contextual model of the effects of parental spanking on children’s aggression. Archives in Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 151, 768-775.
Johnson, T. (2001). The sexual dangers of spanking children (2nd ed.) [Booklet]. Alamo, CA: PTAVE.
Larzelere, R. E., Sather, P. R., Schneider, W. N., Larson, D. L., & Pike, P. L. (1998). Punishment enhances reasoning’s effectiveness as a disciplinary response to toddlers. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 388-403.
Larzelere, R. E., Schneider, W. N., Larson, D. B., & Pike, P. L. (1996). The effects of discipline responses in delaying toddler misbehaviour recurrences. Child and Family Therapy, 18, 35-37.
Muller, R. T., Hunter, J. E., & Stollak, G. (1995). The intergenerational transmission of corporal punishment: A comparison of social learning and temperament models. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19(11), 1323-1335.
Roberts, M. W., & Powers, S. W. (1990). Adjusting chair timeout enforcement procedures for oppositional children. Behaviour Therapy, 21, 257-271.
Simons, R. L., Lin, K., & Gordon, L. C. (1998). Socialisation in the family of origin and male dating violence: A prospective study. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 467-478.
Straus, M. A. (Ed.). (1994). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effect on children. Boston: Lexington.
Straus, M. A., & Donnelly, D. A. (1994). The fusion of sex and violence. In M. A. Straus (Ed.), Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families (pp. 121-136). Boston: Lexington.
Turner, H. A., & Finkelhor, D. (1996). Corporal punishment as a stressor among youth. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 155-166.