Schaquana Evita Spears, a mother of six from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made national news recently when she was jailed for spanking three of her kids with a belt after she found out they broke into a neighbor’s house and stole property.
She defended her actions by arguing this kind of physical discipline was in the best interest of her children. Worried her children might end up incarcerated like their father, Spears believed increasing the punishment’s severity would deter bad behavior. She is a hard-working single mother who is trying to make a better life for her kids.
The local authorities, however, felt her punishment was too extreme (the kids apparently had cuts and bruises) and arrested Spears. Her six children were removed from her home and placed with their grandmother until she’s able to regain custody. Spears was understandably devastated, and a little confused about how she could be arrested for spanking her kids—a parental practice since time immemorial.
She’s not alone in that confusion. Many across the country have vocally supported her decision to use physical punishment, and why shouldn’t they? The majority of Americans still support the use of spanking as a way to modify disobedient behavior. But as sad as Spears’ circumstances are (I am giving her the benefit of the doubt, and assuming she was not trying to abuse her kids), she and the majority of Americans are wrong about spanking. The only real advantage parents have with spanking is that it’s expedient; it’s a one-size-fits-all quick fix.
Don’t get me wrong: I have a tremendous amount of compassion for parents, and I understand why parents spank. My intention is not condemn those who choose to spank their kids. Rather, I want to propose an alternative way of thinking about discipline by arguing that the downsides of using spanking as teaching tool are so compelling they vacate any gains parents think we get from this kind of physical discipline.
Let’s Look at 50 Years of Studies on Spanking
A recent study by researchers Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor at the University of Texas at Austin and University of Michigan used meta-analysis to look at more than 50 years of studies on spanking. They found spanking children is detrimental to their overall well-being. A unique feature of this study was the control for abusive behaviors (e.g., hitting a child with a fist or an object). They excluded studies where spanking contained behaviors that would result in physical injury, or where there was extreme parental aggressiveness (e.g. pulling hair, shaking, shoving).
They also sought to tighten up data analysis by asking “Are the associations between spanking and child outcomes only found in methodologically weak studies?” Clearly, there are ethical issues with an experimental design in which children are randomly assigned to one group that gets spanked, and one group that doesn’t (this isn’t 1950), so Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor wanted to confirm that the outcomes of previous studies were actually the result of spanking rather than shoddy methodology.
The findings conclusively support results from earlier meta-analyses: even non-abusive parental spanking harms children. Furthermore, kids who are non-abusively spanked remain at a greater risk for aggression, anti-social behavior, internalizing problems, low self-esteem, mental health issues, parent-child relational issues, lower cognitive abilities, and parental abuse. Also, the corrective effect is largely temporary. You may get compliance initially, but in the long run the child becomes more resistant to the punishment, which risks more severe parent action.
That said, the authors never argue the results of the study indict parents who spank. Parents who choose to spank their kids aren’t bad people. This isn’t about making value judgments. It’s also not a conservative Christian versus liberal thing. Rather, it’s simply information parents can use to help them more effectively discipline their kids.
I understand and appreciate why we as a culture support physical discipline. Whether it’s a child who is just having a bad day or a child with oppositional defiant disorder, spanking sometimes feels appropriate and necessary. Regardless of the antecedent behavior, however, the research does not support this kind of discipline, and remains squarely in the “do not spank” camp.
While there are no guarantees that specific parenting styles will always work for you and your children, it’s also not all guesswork, either. There are definite things we can do as parents to help our children grow into healthy adults, and rethinking the “rod to help the child” is one of them. Through parenting and professional training to be a counselor, I have come to the conclusion: spanking is a bad way to change behavior, and its long-term damage was more important than any short-term benefits I thought I was getting.
As Gersoff and Grogan-Kaylor point out, with 80 percent of U.S. kids being spanked, it can also mean a worse-off society when those kids grow up. So if you are part of the majority of Americans who believe spanking is okay, I want to challenge your thinking a bit and offer four things to consider before you spank.
1. Spanking Is More about You Than About Your Child
We often spank our kids because it’s easier than trying to think of a better punishment on the fly. Sometimes we’re just too tired to come up with a clever new research-driven time-out program rooted in social learning theory using a token economy whose monetary system is unicorn bucks. Spanking is easier.
That’s not the point, though. It’s about the end game. What is your ultimate goal of discipline? It’s to teach a child not to do something. There are better ways to address an unwanted behavior in a child, but they require more parent effort (not “unicorn bucks” effort, but more than an afterthought). I don’t say this flippantly; I say this as someone who really believed spanking was just one more parenting tool available to correct bad behavior.
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes situations will warrant swift punishment, such as when a child’s disobedience is about to harm another person. The vast majority of the time, however, situations that warrant discipline are escalating in nature. We make multiple attempts to stop our kid’s punishable offenses before going nuclear on them.
Here is an all-too-familiar scenario to illustrate my point. It’s bedtime. We’ve put our four-year-old child in his bed, tucked him in, prayed with him, kissed him good night, told him goodnight, and turned off the light. Four seconds after walking away from his door we hear him crawling out of his bed.
We turn around, slightly irritated but calm, and repeat an abbreviated version of the bedtime ritual with an added “Now don’t get out of your bed” as we walk away from his door. Making it as far as our bedroom door, we feel the irritation lift and think we might be in the clear. Three seconds after that, our child is in our bedroom because he (insert any reason on earth). We are tired. We take the child back to bed, the bedtime ritual now becomes a string of sternly worded threats, and we kiss our child goodnight, threaten once more, and leave. Seven seconds later, he’s back, we lose our (bleep), and spank the child.
Let’s autopsy what just happened here. Was the child disobeying? Yes. Was the four-year-old’s behavior atypical? No. Four-year-olds do things we’ve told them not to do even when we’ve explained the consequences 700 times. So do adults. The difference is that, developmentally, the part of a four-year-old’s brain that controls reason and logic hasn’t fully formed and his understanding of cause and effect is still developing.
In all probability he’s not thinking about the consequences at all because he is singularly focused on what he is doing at that exact moment—which is getting out of his bed and finding you. Four-year-olds don’t have the mental facility to extrapolate out the greater moral implications of disobeying parents, nor do they have the mental facility to plot elaborate, ingenious ways to push all our buttons at two hours past their bedtime.
I know what you’re thinking: “You don’t know my child.” You’re right, I don’t. Your child might be the exception, and really is cunning enough to engage in bedtime psychological warfare. Even so, it doesn’t abrogate your responsibility as the adult in the relationship. I give parents a lot of grace on this one; parenting is tough. If you don’t think it’s hard, you’re either doing it wrong or you just haven’t had a big-enough challenge yet. But there is a reason adults are parents (ideally), because we (ideally) have the maturity to raise children.
Refer back to my hypothetical situation. Did we really have to spank our four-year-old? No. We resorted to spanking because we got tired, ran out of patience, and for the love of all things holy just wanted to go to bed. We didn’t want to have to think about it, we just wanted compliance. Ultimately, that’s what spanking is designed for: compliance. Whether it’s disobeying a bedtime routine or telling a lie, we want the behavior stopped. While that might be the expedient thing to do, it’s not the adult thing to do. We are the adults in these situations; our behavior has to be at least more mature than that of our four-year-old.
2. Spanking Hurts Healthy Attachment
Attachment theory, originally developed by John Bowlby, says children will develop secure or insecure attachment based on the quality of nurture and comfort they receive during distressful events. Mothers who empathetically attend to their newborns and young children, providing them emotional support when they’re upset, are more likely to have securely attached children, who in turn become securely attached adults.
Secure attachment is another way of saying emotionally connected. How we attach as children informs how we will behave in relationships as adults, so we want to give our kids the best possible chance for secure attachment. Spanking a child negatively influences this process.
Here’s another hypothetical scenario: it’s time for the three-year-old to leave her playdate and go home. She is tired and hungry, and had a really fun time with her friend. She doesn’t want to leave. She protests and pitches a fit on the floor by the front door. Because her neural development is also three years old, she protests in the only way she knows how: throwing the mother of all tantrums in front of everyone.
Again, looking at this developmentally, the child simply doesn’t have the cognitive resources to petition the parent with any maturity. Since no one likes a temper tantrum, especially a full-blown, screaming-until-you-puke tantrum, the instinctive reaction might be to spank the child when she gets home. But if we see our child’s ugly tantrum as a distressing event rather than a gross violation of social norms, we might respond differently.
Distressing events aren’t just when a child hurts herself or is hurt by others. A distressing event is anything that causes a strong negative emotion, whether that’s getting hit in the face with a ball or not getting the toy a child wants at Target. We have to help our children navigate their way through those events in a way that helps them better regulate those emotions as they grow. This is done through nurture and comfort.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore bad behavior. We absolutely need to address disobedience, but punishment doesn’t automatically mean pain. We instinctively equate punishment with pain, but punishment can be any consequence that’s undesirable to your child. In the case of the three-year-old throwing a hard-core tantrum, you might want to reconsider punishment completely. Perhaps what she really needs is a little understanding, some Cheerios, and a nap.
Spanking a child in distress, regardless of the child’s motive, hurts our attachment with our kids. We may think we’re helping them get ahold of themselves, or teaching them immoral behavior is wrong, but they’re experiencing that event quite differently. In those moments where our kids are acting out, what they need is help safely containing their emotions and guidance about why we don’t behave that way, not a swift swat to the butt. Again, this may be why research doesn’t support the majority opinion that spanking is okay.
3. Spanking Models the Wrong Message
Our kids are watching us all the time, whether we like it or not. You may be familiar with the adage, “Kids catch more than they learn.” It’s true. Children also have a Jedi Master-level sense of justice. They know the second we parents run afoul of the rules.
My oldest son, since he first learned to communicate, has been the arbiter of consistency in our family. He wants a person’s actions to match her words, and like anyone with a well-developed sense of justice views doing otherwise extremely negatively. I have always tried to make my actions match my words, because that’s part of having and modeling good character. I want to raise well-adjusted, healthy adults.
But like any good battle plan, all bets are off after the first bullet is fired. Despite my best efforts to consistently model good behavior, I fell short when it came to discipline. When I’d been pushed beyond my tolerance, I would resort to spanking. None of my children responded well to being spanked. I didn’t do it often, but when I did, I felt awful and out of control. You might be able to relate. It made me feel guilty, and it was giving my kids very mixed signals. I was trying to promote good character and wise choices while not demonstrating good character and wise choices when I disciplined them.
It’s also counterintuitive to try to stop a child who is emotionally out of control by spanking him, an act in and of itself that is out of control. Think about that for a moment. What would it take for any one of us to hit someone? We’d probably have to be sufficiently enraged to be that aggressive with another human being. Now, what does it take for the average parent to spank her child? A lot less, I’d imagine.
But the action is no less out of control. Even if the intention is not to cause physical harm but just to get their attention with a little swat, hitting another human being indicates that on some level the parent is out of control. Your children also experience it as such—how can they not? They’re getting hit. Unless parents have Hannibal Lecter-like control (his heart rate never changed, even when committing murder) they’re probably experiencing some heightened adverse emotions while spanking.
Put another way, our role as parents is to protect and advocate for our kids, and physically striking a child is inconsistent with that goal. This may be one explanation for why children who are spanked are more likely to have lifelong emotional and relational challenges.
4. Spanking Doesn’t Address the Actual Problem
Something I appreciate about the thinking behind Spears’ discipline is that 1) she recognized there is such a thing as moral disobedience, and that her three children robbing the neighbors violated that morality (i.e., it was wrong) and 2) she recognized the need to discipline her children because their behavior was wrong. Anti-spanking is not anti-discipline. Parents should discipline kids for rebellious, disobedient behavior.
But we need to make sure we are addressing the root cause when we do so. For example, stealing is wrong. We don’t steal because it is against the law, and our laws are extracted from moral principles. But spanking a child for stealing doesn’t address the moral deficit underlying the behavior. Sure, it’s painful. The child may even think twice before stealing again. But don’t mistake compliance for understanding. If we haven’t addressed the underlying cause of why we don’t steal, then we may end up with a child who is skilled at not getting caught robbing her neighbor rather than a child who has internalized the moral reasons why she shouldn’t engage in the behavior to begin with.
I’m not arguing that spanking and moral instruction are mutually exclusive. You can spank your child and then explain why he shouldn’t do that. But spanking is harmful and less effective as a teaching tool, so an alternate form of discipline is preferable to accompany an explanation. The goal is not to make discipline hurt so much your child never repeats the unwanted behavior (that’s a slippery slope, as Spears can tell you), but to inculcate understanding so they never do it again.
The bottom line: there are other ways to discipline our children that don’t potentially leave them wounded adults.
An Alternative to Spanking
I didn’t intend for this article to be about alternatives to spanking, but I felt it would be slightly irresponsible to advocate for this kind of change without at least offering some guidance. What we see with Spears is common to millions of parents in America. They love their children; they are working full-time to provide for their families; and they just don’t have the time to find the best child therapist, or read the leading child-rearing expert to learn how to optimally raise their kids. They need a solution right now, and spanking feels like a good solution.
So here’s an alternative parents can implement right now that doesn’t harm the child and doesn’t involve reading a book or seeing an expensive therapist: stop before you spank. Take a long, intentional pause before you physically discipline your child. Count to ten slowly, and then think through how you’re going to respond. Give yourself the gift of time so you don’t do something you may really regret, causing lifelong damage to the child you love.
I know it sounds simple, but try pausing and counting to ten the next time you feel like spanking your child. That small, ten-second break may be the difference between successful discipline and ending up in jail.