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September 27, 2017

Stop spanking your child: The case for ending legal forms of corporal punishment

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Parenting Spanking
Boy Cries 08032019 Photo by Kat J /on Unsplash


We were a precocious bunch. Seven children packed into a large brown station wagon lumbering down the highway. We were loud. And while we laughed, sang and talked a lot – we argued, too. Sometimes we hit each other. Inevitably, on long car rides, one of us ended up crying.

“If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Even as a girl, that statement didn’t make any sense. If my father wanted us to stop crying, why would he threaten to make us cry more?

“Dad, so-and-so hit me!”

“Stop hitting your sister or you’ll get a spanking.”

Again, the logic didn’t fit. If you don’t want us to hit each other, if hitting each other is wrong – why threaten more hitting? Why is “spanking” all right?

Threats presented while driving aside, to his everlasting credit, my father shielded us from the intensity of corporal punishment that he suffered as a boy. My father didn’t pass on the rage, the frightening yelling or the hard fists that he knew as a child. He intentionally struggled to “give us better than he got.” And he did meet his stated goal. While I was spanked and hit on more than one occasion, I didn’t live through the dark shadows he knew. He successfully uprooted a good deal of his own family’s heartache and didn’t pass it on.

Today, I am committed to continuing the work of building a healthier childhood for my son than I had. Sure, at times I struggle with anger and frustration,  but hitting and spanking have no place in our home. I strive to acknowledge the feelings of anger mindfully and choose to express myself in non-violent ways. I speak openly, as my father did, about the joys and sorrows of my childhood. I want my son to know I’m committed, as my father was, to ending cycles of family violence.

But is spanking really a form of violence? If spanking is so wrong, why is it legal in the United States?

(Of course, things can be legal and still be wrong. Consider acts like adultery or lying to friends, etc.)

Compared to being thrown into a wall or hit with a fist, an open-handed, calmly rendered smack on a clothed bottom seems like a reasonable act of parenting. Right? How else to discipline a rebellious child? Parents certainly have the right to discipline their children, within the bounds of reason, as they see fit. And according to an ABCNEWS poll, 50 percent of American parents admit to spanking their children and 65 percent of American parents deem legal forms of corporal punishment as permissible in theory.

Certainly, spanking causes less harm than overt and illegal abuse. But what if “a good-old-fashioned spanking” – illegal in a growing number of countries – impacts children far more negatively than prior generations understood? What if legal forms of corporal punishment fail to live up to the basic criteria of what constitutes reasonable or morally justifiable forms of discipline?

Simply put, it’s wrong to spank a child. And in honor of my father, who uprooted much of the family violence he inherited, I share three reasons why.

1. It hurts.

Spanking or hitting a child hurts. That’s the point. We want to make the intended lesson count, and associating it with pain will drive the point home. Right? But the pain overshadows the intended lesson and children soon learn that harming others is a way to solve problems. Furthermore, choosing to cause harm when other options are possible constitutes an act of violence. And, unless one is committed to the work of introspection and healing, violence begets violence. (Other options are always possible.)

2. The hurt of spanking isn’t harmless.

More than 50 years of peer-reviewed research on the subject reveals that spanking a child does more harm than good – yes, 50 years of research confirms this reality.

Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, summarized the research by stating: “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents' intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”

3. It is irrational (and wrong) to knowingly engage in forms of discipline that increase a child’s risk of anti-social/criminal behavior, anxiety and/or depression.

Spanking increases your child’s risk for a wide range of unintended and harmful struggles – including depression and anxiety or engaging in criminal behavior. Parents who spank think they are safeguarding their children from acting out negatively. Actually, they are increasing the odds that their children will engage in such behavior. Once this is known and acknowledged, it makes absolutely no sense to purposefully set a child up for these struggles. In fact, it is unethical to knowingly do so.

•  •  •

If the goal of parenting is to nurture the well-being and health of future generations, spanking a child, while currently legal in the United States, is an irrational and immoral act. While justified by “tradition” or “I was spanked and turned out fine” or various interpretations of religion, it remains irrational and wrong nonetheless. Its harm outweighs any short-term benefit – immediate compliance lasting about 10 minutes is the only “benefit” some researchers note. While American parents currently have a legal “right” to lift an open hand and strike a child’s bottom – the action, based upon a plethora of studies on the subject, is no longer justifiable. 

My father’s example taught me a great deal. I continue to be inspired by his courage to pass on something better to my siblings and myself than what was given to him. We should strive to give our children the best of ourselves and improve the lot of generations to come. We fulfill this duty of parenting best when we engage in the hard work of self-inquiry and study/employ evidence-based parenting practices.

Once American parents collectively take the time to honestly access and study the weight of evidence against legal forms of corporal punishment, the spanking of children (like the once legal “physical correction” of wives) will be gratefully relegated to the dustbin of history.

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