By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
“My parents used to hit me all the time and I turned out okay,” you may say. Maybe you’ve thought, “How am I going to teach him a lesson if I can’t hit him?” or “When I get angry, I can’t control myself and I just spank him. Then, although I have discharged my anger, I feel very guilty.” The truth is, clinical experience indicates that many parents hit their kids every once in a while.
However, there are a number of concerning problems with adopting spanking as a planned method of discipline, which may leave you wondering: to spank or not to spank?
Even according to the old traditional view of spanking – as it says in The Bible, “He who spares the rod, hates his child” – it was a rule to never spank a child when you’re angry. That means, even according to the traditionalists, spanking when you’re angry is prohibited. Traditionalists only allow hitting when you’re feeling completely cool, calm and levelheaded, and only have the purest intentions for the emotional and educational benefit of the child. In that frame of mind, a spanking could theoretically be beneficial for a child. It might wake him up that his behavior is inappropriate. Even I would admit that a sharp slap, administered calmly when, for example, a toddler is trying to stick things into an electric outlet or run into the street, may be necessary to shock the child into realizing that he should not do such dangerous things. But otherwise, who among us is so saintly that he can spank without being angry? For most of us, it would be a very difficult task indeed. And, unfortunately, spanking out of anger creates a host of difficulties.
Spanking can make kids aggressive. It is a psychological fact that those on the receiving end of physical violence in turn act out aggressively towards others. Spanking a child will make him more physically aggressive towards siblings and other children. Indeed, aggression in school is considered a sign that the child may be being mistreated at home.
Spanking teaches that the one who has power can inflict punishment on the ones who are weaker. Children learn to do the same to others. Spanking also makes children insensitive to physical pain. You need to hit them harder and harder to get a reaction, which unfortunately accustoms them the experience of violence. In addition, since the spanking hurts them less and less as time goes on, they begin to think maybe it's worth misbehaving, as they’ll just have to pay for it by getting a small spanking. In other words, it doesn't teach them to despise the bad behavior. Instead, it teaches them that the only thing wrong with misbehaving is that you get a spanking, and otherwise, it's perfectly fine.
Worst of all, spanking damages the parent-child relationship, which is absolutely the most important element in childrearing. Everything good we have to give to our children comes through that relationship, and it must be preciously guarded. Children cower in terror before a physically aggressive adult, and that fear destroys the bond with the child.
In brief, when considering the “to spank or not to spank” question, we must remember that most misbehavior that invites spanking is caused by the child’s unhappiness.
He is bored, frustrated or miserable and misbehaves in a desperate attempt to relieve that unhappiness. Therefore, being careful to keep our kids happy as much as we can will prevent most misbehaviors, and spanking will never be necessary! I know one parent who used to spank but, a few years after discovering the principles in this blog, got to the point where his children were so content and well-behaved that he never even had to resist the impulse to spank again. It had become a non-issue.
In addition to fostering your child’s happiness, another great tip is to get into the habit of reframing perceived misbehaviors as actions that are actually within the range of normalcy and acceptability. Therefore, they might not call for discipline in the first place. This is done by avoiding catastrophizing, or thinking that a particular behavior, if allowed to continue, will lead to an intolerable situation and delinquency. With most so-called misbehaviors, we can shrug our shoulders, sigh and say, “That’s kids.”
The bottom line is that spanking is advisable only in situations of serious danger, as otherwise the risks to the child’s emotional well-being far outweigh the possible benefits.
Please bear in mind that the above represents a parenting ideal. I do not expect anyone to fulfill it perfectly. Therefore, have patience with yourself and try to implement these principles gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on this website, or download my free report, “To Punish or Not to Punish,” for more information related to this topic.
If you are wrestling with the question of to spank or not to spank, and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,
you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!