For generations, people believed that spanking children teaches them to behave. Today, based on research and the lived experiences of families and doctors, we know that isn’t the case. Spanking is counterproductive and potentially harmful, says UNC Health pediatrician Edward Pickens, MD.
“Discipline is not about punishment, it’s about setting expectations,” says. “The ultimate goal of discipline is to teach the child about appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior. Spanking teaches children that it is OK to hit others or to use physical force when you are angry.”
So, is a quick swat on the bottom really that bad? Can that even be considered a spanking?
Yes, Dr. Pickens says. “It still teaches a child that the way you solve problems is by hitting people. It’s hypocritical to say that a child cannot hit another child if that’s what the parent does to him. It reinforces the idea that we can solve problems by physical or violent means.”
Instead, Dr. Pickens suggests, pick the child up and remove them from the situation that is causing the misbehavior.
“If you’re close enough to swat them, then you’re close enough to pick them up,” he says.
Often, parents will spank a child out of anger or frustration.
“If you’re at that point,” he says, “take a breath and try to do something that isn’t impulsive.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics says corporal punishment such as spanking leads to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial and emotional outcomes for children.
Dr. Pickens offers four reasons why parents should not spank their children:
1. Spanking is not an effective form of discipline.
It leads to feelings of fear and confusion but does not prevent the child from repeating the behavior that led to the spanking in the first place.
2. Spanking teaches children that it is acceptable to use physical force when you are angry.
“Not surprisingly, children who have been spanked tend to be more aggressive than children who have not been spanked,” Dr. Pickens says. “Watching others act aggressively leads to aggressive behavior.”
3. Children who have been spanked have a greater likelihood of developing anxiety and depression than children who have not been spanked.
Research using MRI to study children’s brains found that children who have been spanked have neural (brain) responses to threatening stimuli similar to children who experienced more severe forms of abuse.
4. Children remember being spanked, and as adults these memories are very strong and lead to feelings of significant anger and betrayal.
It can make it hard for them to form strong emotional attachments as adults.
There are more effective ways to discipline a child, Dr. Pickens says, such as:
1. Reward positive behavior and remove rewards when behavior becomes negative.
For example, a parent may praise a child for helping a younger sibling who is frustrated about something. An example of removing rewards would be taking away a toy a child has just taken from another child.
2. Use timeouts to isolate a child from a desired activity for a time.
Make sure the child is safe and do not use tactics designed to cause embarrassment or discomfort, such as making the child face a wall. An alternative is a “time-in,” where the parent stays with the child to talk about his or her behavior.
3. Always be consistent about expectations for appropriate behavior and what is considered inappropriate behavior.
Follow through so that children learn the consequences of inappropriate behavior and start to learn about following rules.
4. Make sure you and the child’s other parent are on the same page about rules and consequences.
It’s important for both parents to be consistent.
“In the end, discipline is about teaching children the importance of following rules,” Dr. Pickens says. “It’s important to pair the discipline technique with an age-appropriate discussion about what the child did wrong and the behavior that you would like to see instead.”
And don’t forget positive reinforcement, which involves praising a child when they’ve done something good or helpful. All children will break the rules at some point, but a child who feels empowered to act in positive ways will be happier and less likely to misbehave.
If you want to know more about how to effectively discipline children without spanking, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, talk with your pediatrician or find one near you.