Thursday, September 9, 2010

Spanking: Effective Discipline or Harmful Abuse?

It's a hot debate among parents around the globe: to spank, or not to spank. Both sides rigorously defend their positions, but it's a complicated issue. Spanking children is a widely used method with the intention of attaining prompt compliance of parental wishes. Indeed, that is one of the strongest arguments for using a corporal punishment method. If used with consistency, a child's reaction to comply to avoid being struck becomes a learned behavior: little effort from the parent resulting in the expiditious attainment of the desired reaction. However, critics claim that while an initial obedient response may occur, spanking does not lead to long-term compliance, and is not even necessary; in fact, it is detrimental, both physically, psychologically and emotionally.  In order to debunk particular spanking myths which support this violent and barbaric practice, an thorough set of facts must be examined. 

There was not ever a time in history when spanking of children was not employed as a disciplinary tactic, and has been recorded as a practice as early as the 10th Century BC (Solomon's Proverbs). Violence and corporal punishment were used for children by caretakers, parents and educators; for women by their husbands; for men and women as a form of legal punishment. In some places in the world, there were spanking rituals customary to a given culture, and in some places, there still are, such as in China: for over a hundred years, thousands of citizens visit the Dong Lung Gong temple on an important new year holiday where men are spanked and women are whipped by Taoist priests in the belief that it will bring them good luck. Corporal punishment has been used in different militaries around the world, and in public community examples of humiliation. Slaves and servents were often treated with various methods of corporal punishment, not excluding spanking. However, in today's times, most of the "modern" world has banned or outlawed methods of corporal punishment for adults as a judicial method; for students as a means of educational discipline; and even in 25 countries, beginning with Switzerland in 1979, and including Germany, Latvia, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Croatia, Norway, Holland, Israel and others, banned as a practice even privately in the home, cited as unnecessary and harmful to the children who it was/had been administered to. Other countries have put limits on what is acceptable as far as striking a child, such as Canada, where it is only legally acceptable to spank between the ages of 3 and 12, and it is to be only with an open hand, and no objects are acceptable, such as switches, belts, or paddles. In countries where spanking has been abolished, such as Sweden, the no-spank policy has shown great progress in the way of familial violence and the death rate of children; in 1970, the rate was at 18%; in more recent years, the rate is less than 1%, according to the University of Manitoba Family Studies professor, Joan Durrant. There is a miscontstrued notion that parents who are found guilty of using spanking on their children can risk jail time, but that is not so: they are not tried criminally, but instead, in a civil court, and are referred to resources which are made available to them: i.e., counseling, parenting courses, court observation, etc.

There are multiple negative mental, behavioral and emotional detriments as after-effects of using spanking as a method of discipline on children. The 14th International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma included research results to the credit of Murray Straus, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, including this quote: "The higher the percentage of parents in a nation who used corporal punishment. . . . the lower the national IQ." In a study, 806 children ages 2, 3, and 4 were tested; and 704 children ages 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 were tested, and both groups were again tested 4 years later. The IQs of children who were not spanked were between 2.8 and 5 points higher than those who were spanked. The more frequently a child was spanked, the lower the IQ would drop. Straus and his contributers studied over 17,000 children in 32 countries and another result was unfortunately that the more a child was spanked, the greater was the evidence of post traumatic stress syndrome. In 1950, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to chemist Edward Kendall for discovering effects of cortisol. In multiple studies, cortisol and adrenaline are released in the brain when one encounters stress, including being spanked as a child. Too much cortisol and adrenaline being released has, among other effects, the suppression of the immune system and the elevation of blood pressure. Many links are found between these triggers and a future problem with alcohol abuse, anti-social behavior and anxiety disorders, as cited by the Canadian Medical Association Journal. These studies are just the tip of the iceberg.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is widely respected and counted on for their stances on multiple child-rearing situations. They have a firm policy statement on spanking: ". . . . corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects." Older infants, toddlers and preschool age children may be best disciplined by time-outs as they are too young to understand logical consequences. Mirroring their unacceptable aggressive or irrational behavior by striking them is confusing and frightening and only sends the idea that the stronger person who can inflict the most pain is the one who "wins" in a disagreement. It damages the bond of trust and comfort that should always exist between a child and parent. Distraction is a positive tool that is not thoroughly employed as it should be; it can truly work wonders. If a parent is in tune with their own child's cues and attitudes, it is not difficult to surmise when a child is becoming upset, or what will upset them, and little ones have a very short attention span. Often times, they can be distracted with a change of subject or a simple choice which makes them feel that they have some control in the situation: if a child is having a tantrum over not wanting to take a bath, you can give them the option of which bath toys they'd like to use or whether they'd like bubbles in their bath. Another underused method is positive reinforcement when a desired result or behavior is displayed. Children begin to develop a learned, subconscious understanding that certain actions will please their parent, and if they are rewarded for those actions with praise, cuddling, and small rewards, they will want to please their parent by following rules. The American Medical Association agrees that peaceful methods such as these, along with in-depth talking, removal of privelages and constant stated expectations for older children/teenagers have a higher rate of success than spanking without the detrimental side effects of a violent method.

Another downfall of choosing to punish a child with force is that in countless studies by respected establishments, spanking escalates. It may start out as a practice used as a last resort with a fairly even temper, good intentions and no implements, or objects, included in the ritual. That very rarely continues to be true as a child's behavior escalates-- it's human nature for them to test boundaries and limits. If lighter spanking ceases to yield the desired compliance with the parent's wishes, more aggressive force is used; if it starts to hurt the parent's hand, they often turn to using a paddle or a wooden spoon or a belt. They often begin to spank other places besides the buttocks, in too many situations, including the face or head. Just as the child is developing a sense of spanking being, while terrifying, "normal", so does the parent. Most children who are spanked- with or without an implement- go on to bully other children or siblings or animals- and most children grow up to parent the way that they were parented, and to discipline the way that they were disciplined. In general, as humans, we do what we learn. Striking a child, or using force through any other, less mainstream, type of corporal punishment reduces the shock value of child abuse; indeed, the two go hand in hand. It is easier to accept or to sugarcoat if a neighbor to child abuse is already being accepted and the dangers and ill effects are set aside by looking the other way. Spanking does not work; it does not teach a child how to learn to understand the differences between right and wrong; it instills anger that they are being treated unjustly, a fear of their punisher, lower self esteem and produced aggression. Dr. Caron Goode founded the Academy for Coaching Parents International and stands by all of these points as well as maintaining that spanking is a traumatic event for both the parent and the child (parents often feel guilty later) and good memories are replaced by bad ones, which alters the entire relationship between the parent and child and a child's entire overall impression of parenting and being parented.

One of the most disturbing reasons why spanking parents champion the method is for Biblical reasons. Depending on which of the numerous versions of even just Christian bibles one would choose from, verses are interpreted in so many different ways. The old addage "spare the rod, spoil the child" can be interpreted as saying that you should spare the rod and spoil the child, or that if you spare the rod you will spoil the child. If you go with the latter meaning, there is debate still. The "rod" was used by a shephard to herd the sheep and gently guide them, as well as protect them. The animals were valued and were not ever struck or beaten. Even if one was to throw that aside and stick with the Bible saying a child should be beaten by a literal rod or other device or even the hand, consider other things in Biblical times which were acceptable and widely practiced: the beating of women; slavery; public stoning; flaggelation. . . . the list goes on and on. We do not live in Biblical times now. Would Jesus strike a child? Of course, many Christians oppose the use of physical force as they understand this concept. Parents mainly spank because it is easy, requires little effort, and it is mostly learned behavior: i.e., they were spanked. Spankers love to claim, "I was spanked, and I turned out okay." In "Plain Talk About Spanking", by Jordan Riak, a good argument is posed about that particular claim. There are so many things we grew up with in past generations, such as smoking around children (even in hospitals!), not using carseats or even seatbelts, use of lead-based paint, etc. Maybe those of us who are "okay" were really just lucky; or maybe we would have been far improved individuals if not having been struck. It can be said that if a child was spanked and grew into a healthy, functioning adult who does not continue the cycle of abuse, it is in spite of the abuse, not because of it, and only reflects the strength of the child, not the advocacy of the method. Parents who spank on the buttocks claim that it's the safest place to spank, and cannot inflict damage, but that also is untrue. The largest nerve in the body is the sciatic nerve, running through just that area. Heavy and repeated blows to that part of the body can cause bleeding in the muscles in that area, which can cause tissue and nerve damage. It's only made worse if an instument is included. The tailbone can be damaged because spanking the buttocks "sends force waves upward through the spinal column possibly causing disc compression or compression fractures of vertebral bones". This does not even include the sexual side effects. In 1971, author and professor at York University, David Bakan wrote, ". . . We are familiar with the argument that it is a safe 'locus' for spanking. However, the anal region is also the major erotic region at precisely the time the child is likely to be beaten there. This is aptly chosen to achieve the result of deranged sexuality in adulthood. . . . " There are links between sexual spanking fetish addictions in adults and the spanking and physical abuse they endured in their childhoods. Another argument is that if a child were to run into traffic, any parent would grab a child or would yank their hand back if they were to reach toward a hot stove. This is faulty as an argument for spanking for more than one reason. First of all, the spanking is administered as a punishment for intentional, unfavorable behavior; intervening to stop a life-threatening situation is not the same as intended discipline. Secondly, it does not take many admonishments or close calls for a child to learn not to dart into the street or run with scissors. If a parallel could be drawn to spanking as a punishment, then by that token, children would only back-talk a handful of times in their lives, or would only have a tantrum or break a rule a couple of times, and then spanking would never be warranted again.

In summation, spanking is the cause of an untold number of negative effects. It is not a necessary tool for achieving obedience, and the problems caused by corporal discipline are so negative that the behaviors which the spankings stemmed from pale in comparison. There is no place in a child's life for violence, and the effects of spanking a child are long-term and in-depth. Until there is legal intervention in our country which prohibits the use of any form of violence against a defenseless child, the best way to contribute is to spread awareness of the dangers of spanking and the peaceful, effective alternatives available. Spanking as the cause of so many horrific results should show us that we now know better. If it is unnecessary, ineffective, cruel and harmful, and there are so many other effective options, then why do it? A researcher for Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, Elizabeth Gershoff, was responsible for a study based on an analysis of 88 studies over 62 years interpreting the effects of corporal punishments on 11 specific child behaviors, including the hinderance of learning right from wrong, delinquincy, and contribution to the escalation of child abuse. Gershoff stated, "The bottom line is that corporal punishment is associated with numerous risks for children. . . . parents should. . . avoid using corporal punishment and instead use nonphysical and more positive types of discipline that we know are effective." ( My hope is that this paper has shown a different perspective on the true effects caused by spanking and that even one person might interact differently with regards to punishment of children. If it is punishable by law to strike another adult, someone else's child, and even animals, those same basic human rights should be extended to a child by their parents.


Caron Goode research (

Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty's study by Elizabeth Gershoff (

"Slaughter of the Innocents" by David Bakan, Beacon paperbacks (1971)

"Plain Talk About Spanking" by Jordan Riak


  1. I have several problems with your conclusions. Granted I cannot argue with the evidence you have procured and stated, but your conclusion that the government should step in and instill one more law over our heads is throwing away every sense of freedom. It is giving more control to people we don't know, and who don't know us. It is risking everything that we hold dear. Vaccinations, car seats, etc, are all good things, but instead of enforcing them, the government should be in the business of educating. Because the government has overstepped its boundaries, the people of our country are becoming more apathatic and uneducated. Which is exactly what happened to the Roman Empire, and that leads to my second point. Secondly, we should NEVER, never disregard our history. It is in our history that we can learn. It is only modern arrogance that states that "we know better than they did." And it is also foolishness. The effects of spanking in my house have only resulted in less spankings. Which was the goal. My children don't have "close-calls" with cars in the street because I taught them before any kind of event like that could happen. They know to stay close to me, and to come to me when I call because of a few corrective spankings. Different situations and different children require different disciplines. And I will end on that. I am not going to defend myself or offer other explanations. But maybe if people were less apathatic and more educated they would be able to make informed decisions about the discipline in their own home. So for that, I commend you for offering up the information.

  2. I very much enjoyed this.

    It's amazing isn't it? All the evidence of how harmful spanking is, emotionally, physically etc., yet there are still parents that believe spanking to be a positive discipline tool.

    Funny, the above comment states that "if people were more educated...they would be better able to make informed decisions", yet my understanding was that to be more educated, meant to see the truths in how harmful spanking is.

    I agree completely with your statement of "If it is punishable by law to strike another adult, someone else's child, and even animals, those same basic human rights should be extended to a child by their parents."

    But, unfortunately, some parents feel they have every right as their childs parent, to spank them if they so choose.

  3. I believe in spanking. So sue me. I also believe that as of a while ago, this country is doing absolutely nothing but raising children who do not realize the power of personal choice, who cannot face a single second of rejection because they were never told a simple "NO" growing up. We are creating a society that has been coddled to death, and suffocated by the fact that they know no failure.
    And where will this end? When we cease to be 'parents', and children cease to be 'children'? Where your rights as an individual to do, eat, speak, think what you wish are no longer there?
    There is research and a conclusion to prove every single theory out there. To criticize or condemn people who believe differently than you, is flat out wrong, and it defies the very freedom that this country stands for.
    Your entire blog is an attack on people of different beliefs...on people who believe they are doing the best thing FOR THEIR FAMILIES.
    Your posts (especially the one about co-sleeping) is almost offensive in its ignorance about how people (like me) choose to sleep-train our children.

  4. This is a very complicated issue. I was given the "Straight Talk About Spanking" article to critique, and I'm almost finished. But I skimmed this blog entry a week beforehand.

    It's very easy to be emotional when taking a stand like this, factoring in experiences and information.

    In short, I am hoping that on some level, this blog is meant to express feelings on what she wants to do with her family and why. But when it starts going into legal territory, people tend to get defensive.

    In Canada (where I'm from), the law states that a parent can spank their child legally in their own home if the child is from the ages of 2 and 12, but it must be with a hand only using reasonable force (this is vague to some opponents), and no implements.

    While there are numerous instances of research finding correlations of even mild spanking to many dire ills, one child development theorist who came up with the four parenting styles (authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and neglectful/rejecting), Diana Baumrind, asserts that while she does not endorse spanking, if it is in the context of an authoritative (which is to say loving, yet presents boundaries and reasonable expectations) parenting style, an occasional swat isn't likely to cause significant harm in the long term.

    I also found statistics about Sweden... Google "Sweden abolishing spanking statistics better or worse?” and the first document is a PDF from the University of Akron. I was born in 1979, the year the law was passed, and although I found information from ( that said there was information given on alternatives to spanking, it seems they abused their children in other ways and these children became more violent and committed more crimes as teens.

    That said, I don't have any children yet, I don't know that I won't change my mind, but as it stands now, I hope to co-sleep and not spank. My boyfriend believes in it because he was raised in by authoritative parents and he believes that he deserved it when he got it, which wasn't often. We're not quite on the same page about it, but he does consider it a last resort.

    Whereas my mother spanked me for no discernable reason to my recollection other than I may have been playing too loud, and it progressed to wooden spoons.

    In the end, my opinion is that one must do what they feel is right for their family, and only changed if abuse can be proven and substantiated.