The Spanking Debate

Is spanking ever justified?

Many current experts wonder why it isn’t illegal when study after study links spanking and corporal punishment in general with bad outcomes, notably aggressive tendencies later in life and even lower IQ.  A recent article in the popular press relating to a Canadian study on spanking is illustrative of all of the negative impacts of spanking (news article). The AAP has long disapproved of spanking (AAP Policy Statement).

Despite all the negative data, there is still a great debate on the subject of spanking and I think that’s because it touches a certain American nerve. The idea being that no one has the right to come into your home and tell you how to raise your own children.

When I see a parent lash out at a child, either verbally or physically, what I see is a person who has lost composure and given in to anger and irritation.  The spanking is no different from yelling or taunting, or bribing, or any other sign of an irritated adult who has lost control of the situation.

Some people argue that there is ‘good’ spanking and ‘bad’ spanking. Good spanking is done when a child is clearly told the negative outcome of a certain action and in a controlled, non-emotional way, a spanking is administered as punishment for the transgression.  Bad spanking is done impulsively under the cloud of anger.  I think there is a grain of truth in this idea but, overall, I think it is missing the point. It isn’t the spanking or the lack thereof that imprints itself on the child. It is the way the parent conducts him or herself.

To raise a child properly takes focus, patience and consistency.  Toddlers aren’t supposed to understand the rules. They are supposed to be wild and attempt deceit.  They are supposed to throw tantrums when, one tiny revelation at a time, they begin to realize that they are not the center of the universe.  This is how we start out: little selfish animals.

All children require training and example to be transformed into polite and thoughtful children. As a pediatrician, every day I see the results of overindulged and poorly disciplined children who literally walk all over their parents.  We expect toddlers to test the limits of their environment and we expect them to try hitting and biting and screaming. It is how we react to these things which determines whether or not children are still doing them as they leave toddlerhood behind.

A child can be taught to ape good graces out of fear. Corporal punishment and physical fear can create superficially well behaved children.  A child learns not to grab or hit or throw a tantrum in order to avoid being hit afterwards. In the best of circumstances, parents who spank are not doing it out of anger, are careful to set a consistent example and are also teaching the child why what they did was wrong. The irony here is that all of those things alone would have been enough without the spanking. An alternate symbolic gesture of punishment and parental authority would work just as well. It is the emotional disapproval, the way the parent conveys that the action was wrong, that really counts.

As much as I don’t agree with it, I don’t think spanking should be illegal. A certain amount of physical restraint and sternness is warranted for some very rambunctious children.  While children should not be raised in fear, they should have respect for parental authority. I don’t think parents should be afraid to be stern with or restrain an unruly child.  By hyper-focusing on whether or not a controlled spank is ever warranted, I think we are really missing the point. I would wager all of these studies show bad outcomes from spanking because of an overall environment of bad parenting. If you simply made spanking illegal, it would not make people magically become better parents. It would not force them to show more self control or be more consistent with their children.

What creates a truly well behaved and thoughtful child is a thoughtful and well behaved adult. The consistent example of good behavior and control by a caregiver is the best discipline for a child and it is also the most challenging thing for a parent to do.