One of the most controversial issues in childrearing is that of spanking. I have spoken to many parents who tell me that they were spanked as children and that they learned from it and intend to use the same method with their own children. Other parents see spanking as a form of corporeal punishment that has a negative effect. Aggression they believe, begets aggression. Experts disagree as well, with some advocating spanking and others advising strongly against it. My own position is somewhere in the middle. I must admit that I once did lash out at my sons. I was driving down one of the Los Angeles six-lane freeways and trying to change lanes to get ready to exit. The boys were fighting and carrying on, and I couldn’t concentrate and was sure I would get in an accident. Yelling at them did no good, so a reached back and swung my arm at them, probably hurt myself more than them, but they got the message. Sometimes, dire circumstances require dire measures.
In general though, I don’t believe in spanking once children have reached the age of reason, six or seven. For young children spanking can sometimes serve the useful purpose of instilling healthy fears. If a child runs into the street with cars racing by, we communicate our fear and anxiety by a healthy smack on a usually well padded bottom. This should be accompanied with a verbal expression of the danger and our fear and anxiety over their being hurt. When the smack follows closely on the action, it is a learning experience. On the other hand, spanking a child, long after the event, particularly by the non-involved parent, makes it hard for the child to put the two things together. That kind of spanking is likely to do more harm than good.
When children are older we can communicate our anger in ways that do not attack the child’s personality or character. We have to restrain our tendency to over-generalize and to say things like, “you are such a slob,” or “can’t you do anything right.” It may be a one time lapse, but such words have lasting, life time effects.
With my own children, I found that expressing my anger with humor allowed me get the feeling out of my system, without attacking our child’s personality, “The next time you do something like that I am going send you to the moon!” “The next time you say something like that I am going to tie your tongue into knots!” Our feelings as parents are appropriate and need to be communicated. But it is best if we can get our message across without character assassination.
In general then, I don’t think spanking is an either or, issue. Even with older children, a physical expression of our fear and anxiety may be called for and usually has no lasting consequences. But corporeal punishment should be reserved for rare and compelling circumstances. With young children a swat on a well padded rear end in circumstances in which we want to instill learned fears, of cars, fire, sharp instruments, serves a useful purpose. Outside of such situations, other tactics such as distraction, rewards and withholding rewards, get the job done without damaging our relationship with our children.
So spanking, or corporeal punishment, should have a place in our disciplinary tool chest. But it should be used only in those circumstances where it is either necessary for the safety of all involved, or is required to instill healthy fears in young children. In most cases, other disciplinary techniques will be more effective and give our children healthy strategies for rearing their own children.
By Professor David Elkind