As a family therapist, I have helped families work with benign issues, such as a teens refusing to clean their rooms, as well as extreme ones, such as revelations of sexual abuse. One of the more frequent issues brought to my attention is a parent’s lack of ability to “control” a child and the consequent use of spanking to garner this control.
Spanking as a Matter of Culture
Having been forced to respond to this issue time and again, I have done a lot of research and thought a lot about it. Aside from the obvious ethical issue—namely my role as a mandated reporter—I have had to struggle with a practice steeped in the history of American culture. Corporal punishment, or the deliberate infliction of physical pain, has been part of our culture since our early days as a nation, even being used today in some school systems in America (19 states allow it).
Fear vs. Respect
What I have seen throughout my time as a therapist is that fear doesn’t usually tend to lead to respect. In my work, often one or both parents believe they were kept in line as a child only through beating. When we examine this more closely, the parents openly recognize corporal punishment did not always promote adherence to the rules when they were kids; they simply became better at not being caught breaking the rules.
In my experience, corporal punishment (or spanking, whooping, hitting, beating, etc.) often promotes more aggressive behavior in the child at home and in school. The child who is punished with spanking is often left with few skills to cope when difficult situations and emotions arise, and they tend to repeat the modeled behavior of the parent by turning to physical aggression to solve problems.
An article in Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association, examined spanking research conducted over the years. Several recent peer-reviewed studies indicate children who had been disciplined with corporal punishment were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior toward friends and siblings. One study, published in 2011 in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, looked at 100 families with children ages 3 to 7 and found in households where children were spanked, the kids were more likely to use violence to resolve conflicts with their siblings and friends. The article in Monitor also shared evidence that physical punishment may increase the risk for mental health issues for kids, including anxiety and depression.
Perhaps the worst consequence I have seen from physically aggressive punishment is the damage it does to the parent-child relationship. Many children and teens I have worked with who have been parented with corporal punishment often express a desire to “grow up and get out.” These kids want to escape the relationship because they see the punishment as abuse.
How Can We Parent Our Kids Without Spanking?
The use of rewards and consequences can be one of the best ways to gain respect and control over children and teens’ behavior. Many caregivers try this and fail. In many cases, one parent didn’t maintain the rewards or consequences, or a partner undermined efforts. I often see parents who haven’t completely committed to the use of rewards and consequences, and instead of working on becoming more consistent, blame is put on the child.
To effectively administer a plan to discipline and encourage your children, there are a few steps to follow:
- Make two separate lists: one of behaviors you want to promote and one of behaviors you want to work on decreasing. Examples of behaviors to increase include taking out the trash, cleaning the bedroom, and completing homework. Behaviors to decrease could include being impolite, hitting, and fighting. Each child is different, and a plan has to be tailored to the needs of your family.
- Think about appropriate rewards and consequences for each behavior. Parents can come up with many rewards that don’t cost a thing and may improve relationships in the family. Examples of rewards are: playing a game with your child, taking your child to the park, and/or letting your child spend time with friends. Consequences can include taking away privileges (use of video games, phone, etc.) and grounding or time-out, depending on the age of your child.
- Share the plan with your child. Children must be aware of the possible consequences and rewards in order to give them the chance to make the appropriate choices. Parents can use this plan as a tool by reminding the child of the consequences of their choices before they make them.
If your child is not used to facing consequences, they will likely resist, and it may require some effort on your part to remain firm and maintain the consequence. Persevering through the first month or so will be necessary to see positive, long-term results in your parenting style and your relationship with your child.
Perhaps the worst consequence I have seen from physically aggressive punishment is the damage it does to the parent-child relationship. Many children and teens I have worked with who have been parented with corporal punishment often express a desire to “grow up and get out.”Some factors make maintaining a plan for rewards and consequences difficult. Guilt is probably the No. 1 reason I hear for a parent not being able to us this system to improve a child’s behavior. Lack of support is the second most common, and when there is support, often spouses and co-caregivers can’t agree on how to parent, and thus “splitting” occurs. In this scenario, the child gets away with whatever they want, and the parents end up angry at each other. For these three reasons, among others, many parents struggle with creating and maintaining boundaries and expectations for their kids.
A careful mix of executive authority and a nurturing stance is needed to earn respect from your kids. If you are struggling to implement such a plan, don’t resort to hitting. Working with a therapist can help you cope with feelings of guilt and can also help you and your spouse or co-caregiver work as a team and eliminate splitting. As this article suggests, you are not alone, and seeking help from a therapist in no way means you are a failure, but instead represents that you are a proactive parent.
- Rochman, B. (2012, July 02). Hitting your kids increases their risk of mental illness. Time. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2012/07/02/physical-punishment-increases-your-kids-risk-of-mental-illness
- Smith, B.L. (2012, April). The case against spanking. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx
- Strauss, V. (2014, September 18). 19 states still allow corporal punishment in school. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/18/19-states-still-allow-corporal-punishment-in-school/
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