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The Sobering Truth: What Spanking Really Does to Kids

by Vannessa Rhoades 13 Mar 2023
The Sobering Truth: What Spanking Really Does to Kids

Spanking is a controversial issue. Most experts recommend avoiding the use of physical discipline, yet some parents still feel spanking is a useful form of punishment. Other parents acknowledge doling out an occasional spanking when feeling particularly upset. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s important to understand the possible consequences of using corporal punishment.

Reasons Why Parents Spank

Parents frequently spank a child because they are feeling distressed, out of options, and unsure of what else to do. They may feel it’s the “only thing that works.” In the absence of a consistent discipline strategy, it may feel like physical punishment is the best choice. While spanking can change behavior temporarily, it seldom has favorable consequences in the long run. Research has demonstrated that spanking is unproductive and harmful to children’s development.

Some caregivers use spanking to correct behavioral issues without attempting other discipline techniques or without allowing enough time for those alternatives to work. Other parents are simply reactive and spank out of anger, impulse, or frustration. Still, others just don’t know any other way to redirect their child and use spanking as their primary form of punishment. While it may feel effective in the moment, it won’t teach your child to improve their behavior nor will it solve the issue. Many parents end up feeling regretful about using physical discipline, and studies have shown that spanking causes permanent damage to the parent-child relationship.

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What Happens When Parents Spank Kids

Besides being ineffective at actually solving behavioral issues, corporal punishment is actually counterproductive. Research has demonstrated that spanking can usher in a multitude of potential problems. These issues include physical injury, antisocial behavior, increased aggression, and mental health issues. Let’s take a look at why spanking doesn’t work in the long term.

It sets a bad example.

Research has shown a correlation between getting spankings and more mental health issues, more aggressive behavior, and other damaging outcomes for a child (comparable to the impact of being physically abused). Children pay attention to your actions more than your words. If you spank them as a punishment for hitting, you’re setting a very confusing example.

It doesn’t teach them better, alternative choices.

A kid who’s spanked for fighting with their brothers or sisters isn’t going to learn how to cooperate and behave better down the road. A more useful discipline strategy involves teaching that child new coping and social skills while building their self-confidence. Physical punishment erodes trust and undermines their inner strength while only teaching them what not to do.

Children begin to resent their parents instead of focusing on their own behavior.

Rather than helping your child think about what they could do differently to improve their behavior, spanking tends to spark feelings of anger and resentment toward the parent. Children who experience spanking start to wonder “How can I avoid a spanking?” instead of considering “What’s a better choice to make?” Trying to avoid spankings can also lead children to start lying about their behavior.

It fosters shame.

If a child has been hit by a caregiver, they may struggle with trust, self-esteem, and mental health issues. Studies show that children experiencing shame are not inspired to modify their behavior and instead start to feel worthless and as though they can never improve. Physical punishment sends the message that the child is incapable of learning to use a more positive method and that they are unworthy of respect. Gentler discipline techniques are more effective, providing respectful negative consequences that deter future behavior.

It doesn’t work on teenagers.

Spanking isn’t an effective long-term discipline strategy for a number of reasons – one being that it no longer works once your child is bigger and stronger than you. Corporal punishment simply uses shame and pain to punish and deter unwanted behavior instead of dealing with the root cause.

It becomes less useful over time.

Sometimes children simply get acclimated to spankings or decide whatever they’re doing is “worth it.” In those cases, spanking ceases to be a preventative measure. A more useful discipline approach involves learning the reason for the child’s conduct and then talking with them about it in an open, honest way. The aim of punishment is to impose pain or discomfort, whereas the goal of discipline is guidance and education.

Physicians don’t recommend it.

A 2018 survey of pediatricians in the medical journal Pediatrics found that a mere 6% of the doctors surveyed supported the use of spanking. Only 2.5% expected positive outcomes from the use of corporal punishment. 

Other Alternatives to Spanking

There are numerous effective age-appropriate discipline strategies to use instead of spanking throughout your child’s life. Consider strategies that implement negative consequences which support your rules without inflicting pain on your child, like time-outs or revoking privileges.

For instance, if your child makes a mess, a logical consequence is to have them clean it up. This teaches them that their behavior has consequences and sends the message that they need to be respectful of the space. Praising your child when you “catch them” doing something good is an excellent way to encourage positive behavior.

The Bottom Line

The goal of any discipline strategy should be to teach your child new skills that will help them become a reliable, trustworthy adult. Research demonstrates that spanking is not a useful discipline strategy and has numerous (lasting) negative consequences. When deciding which discipline techniques to use, consider what you want your child to learn from you. Techniques like praise reward your child's positive behavior and improve their self-confidence.

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