1. Parenting

Child Discipline - Is Spanking a Child Ever Okay?

Views Vary Sharply on Spanking, With Very Little Common Ground

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Father disciplining toddler
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To spank or not to spank? That continues to be the question when it comes to child discipline, and just about everyone has a strong and often emotional opinion.

While most people (at least publicly) decry the use of spanking as a form of child discipline, more people do spank their kids than they let on. Instead, many spanking opponents still justify "swats" or "smacks" or even "popping of the hands or head" as different than spanking. But spanking doesn't literally just mean the kind where a child is bent over your knees and whose bottom is struck with a hand (or even belt). Most define spanking as any physical contact that involves striking a child for the purpose of stopping a behavior or action or getting their attention.

With all that said, most child psychologists, pediatricians, so-called parenting experts, educators and middle-class parents oppose spanking. The reasoning is that spanking can cause life-long emotional damage to a child (and sometimes even physical damage as well). Plus, spanking opponents argue, there are plenty of other alternative ways to discipline a child who is acting inappropriately.

Proponents of spanking are often religious conservatives, who reference corporal punishment (spanking) as being the preferred way to discipline children in accordance with the Bible. Who hasn't heard the reference, "Spare the rod and spoil the child?" Proponents say that spanking, when used appropriately, creates a better sense of discipline and doing the right thing in children. They strongly argue against opponents' claims that spanking a child teaches them to become violent adults.

Proponents also argue that occasionally spanking a child who is acting unsafely or terribly does not make them child abusers or parents with anger problems. They also point to how well-behaved their child is, especially compared with out-of-control, disrespectful and tantrum-prone youngsters whose parents keep threatening them with "time-outs" or "going to bed early" without changing the behavior.

So who uses spanking as a form of child discipline today?
It's hard to know exactly what percentage of parents or caregivers (like grandparents) actually spank a child, because many who do don't admit to it. But essentially, people who spank, at least occasionally, include:
  • Caregivers from older generations, who were spanked as children and believe that they turned out to be absolutely fine. Grandparents and even older parents whose parents spanked them appropriately indicate they remember the experience, and as a result, effectively learned to not repeat the same inappropriate child action again.


  • Harried parents, often of multiple young children, who spank (but usually refer to it as an occasional "smack" or "slap" rather than spanking). These parents indicate that they only correct their children this way only when it involves an inherent danger to a child (themselves or to others). An example of this is a parent who smacks a child's hand who is about to touch a hot stove.


  • Caregivers (parents or any adults) may also spank a child when, after being disciplined using another method, deliberately repeat the same behavior, as if to antagonize the parent. An example is a child who runs through a store (yes, it happens) and pulls things down from shelves, after being told not too repeatedly. You see this too with kids stepping into the street after they have told to stay on the curb. Swatting a child gets their attention and may stop the behavior, and possible tragedy, from occurring.
Why is this such an emotional issue?
Child Protective Services or even the police have been called to investigate situations where an adult spanks a child in public. Well-meaning adults may intervene when the situation may or may not call for it. There is a fine line and considerable judgment involved when a spanking becomes abuse. Parental rage, brought on by an out-of-control child, can result in horrible and tragic results. At the same time, a swat on the backside to stop a really bad behavior isn't abuse, although some may still insist it is.

Until the last 10 to 20 years (depending on the school), corporal punishment was routinely used in the classroom to put an immediate halt to inappropriate behaviors. Parents were typically notified after the fact. If you disagreed with the use of spanking, you were to sign a form attesting to that at the beginning of each school year, and then were typically required to meet with the school administrators to determine an alternative discipline. Now, most, if not all, schools ban the use of corporal punishment and even designate their stance opposing it in their informational handbooks. But some educators lament that not being able to dispense immediate punishment means kids may escape any disciplinary action at all, or have it be so lame (such as missing recess) that they laugh about it later.

Whether or not you overtly oppose any type of spanking, support it in very limited cases, or like many parents, publicly decry its use but privately have used it at least once on a defiant or out-of-control child, the controversy surrounding it isn't likely to end for generations to come.

If you have a strong opinion about spanking of any type and under any circumstance with a child, be sure to convey that to your child's caregivers (family providers, day care workers or babysitters, or friends). At the same time, be prepared to offer up what alternative measures you do permit.

Too many previously-successful child care arrangements have ended because of a lack of communication about permissable child care discipline strategies. And, if your parents spanked you on occasion but you adamantly oppose it with your child, don't just assume the child's grandparents will just know your position. Get it out in the open before they take on child care duties.
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