Why Parents Spank -- The Facts Behind Reasons for Corporal Punishment

Evaluating the reasons parents give for spanking their kids

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Parents who spank firmly believe corporal punishment works; what does the evidence say?. Getty Images

The topic of corporal punishment for kids is one that has generated much controversy and debate. While child health and development experts point to research that indicates that physical punishment is not effective and puts kids at risk for a number of negative outcomes, research shows that spanking is being practiced in many homes. As many as 83 percent of kids in America have been punished physically by their parents by the 5th grade, according to Liz Gershoff, Ph.D, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin.

But there are signs that many are moving away from corporal punishment of children, says Victor Vieth, Executive Director Emeritus at Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, in Winona, MN. "There is a clear trend away from corporal punishment," says Vieth. "Many faith-based communities are moving away from it."

For many parents, using corporal punishment on their kids is something they view as a personal decision. They see it as an important, effective, and useful tool in teaching kids how to behave, and many who believe that physical punishment has merits feel defensive when corporal punishment is labeled as ineffective and potentially harmful.

But for parents on both sides of the debate, putting emotion aside--along with any criticism or judgement--and looking at the research is perhaps the best approach. "There is a real need in this country to have a conversation about corporal punishment that is not emotional," says Vieth.

Why Parents Spank Children

Here are some of the arguments that have been made by those who support corporal punishment, and what child discipline experts say:

My own parents used corporal punishment on me and I'm fine.
Spanking kids and using other forms of physical punishment is a risk, not a guarantee that kids will develop problems.

It's much more accurate to look at corporal punishment as a safety issue, says Deborah Sendek, director for the Center for Effective Discipline, a program of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, which works to promote effective discipline of children and to end all corporal punishment of children. Today, we have made a lot of changes to keep children and adults safer. "There are a lot of things that happened ten or twenty years ago that we don't do today, like not use car seats or bike helmets," says Sendek. "People smoked and drank while pregnant--doctors even recommended it. But today, I would not put a child on a bike without a helmet. We've made changes."

Parents who were spanked as kids may want to take a hard look at their own experiences, suggests Sendek. "Ask yourself honestly if you felt like you were bonding with your own father or mother when you were hit," suggests Sendek. "Was it the hits that taught you a lesson or was it the discussions you had with your parents and the things you had to do to make up for the bad behavior?"

It's an effective way to get kids to listen.
Spanking may indeed stop kids in at that moment but research show that in the long run, pain and fear can prevent kids from learning the lessons the parents are trying to teach them. "Spanking doesn't teach kids to behave the way parents want them to, and can have the opposite effect," says Dr. Gershoff. "Kids who are hit are often compliant immediately, but they haven't been taught how to be better in the long term." Hitting doesn't teach them why what they did was wrong or what they should do next time, says Dr. Gershoff. And it teaches kids how to avoid being hit instead of helping them develop positive motivations for good behavior.

Sparing the rod spoils the child.
Some parents believe firmly that children who are not spanked will grow up to be spoiled. But simply looking at the millions of examples of well-behaved, kind, good, and well-mannered children who have never been spanked shows that this is simply not the case.

While failing to discipline kids can indeed lead to children becoming spoiled and unpleasant, punishment--corporal or otherwise--is not the alternative. A better approach is to take the middle ground, where there is a combination of firm and loving discipline without the pain or fear of spanking.

As for the argument that not using corporal punishment will lead to bad behavior, it's worth noting that people who are, say, in jail or kids who are delinquent are likely to have been spanked just as much if not more than kids who are obedient or adults who are not breaking the law. "If you look at our prison population or kids who are delinquents, they are generally not a population that didn't have corporal punishment," says Vieth.

Nothing else works.
"Nothing works every time," says Sendek. Hitting doesn't work every time either; otherwise, a parent would only have to hit once and never again, notes Sendek. Parenting is about consistency, and giving kids realistic consequences, like taking away TV or computer time or video games for a week or having kids do extra chores for misbehaving or breaking the rules.

And if your child has a behavioral or learning problem, it's all the more important for him to not be hit, says Sendek. "Some kids get hit more because they are aggressive or have trouble controlling their behavior," says Sendek. "It's even more important for these children to self-regulate and not learn to hit when there is a problem." "Kids with behavioral problems are more likely to get under your skin," says Vieth. "There are studies that say they are more likely to be hit."

Whichever side of the debate you are on, read about corporal punishment and its effect on kids, and learn about what experts say are the reasons why spanking children doesn't work. If you do use corporal punishment, ask yourself these key questions:

  • Is it effective?
  • Is it more effective than other methods?
  • What are the long-term consequences?

"We are not saying kids don't need discipline, says Vieth. "But it should be effective guidance."

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