Respecting My Kids: The Case Against Spanking Children

Posted by on Apr 16, 2015 in "Respecting My Kids" series, Parenting

Respecting My Kids: The Case Against Spanking Children

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”   Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who!

“Elizabeth Gershoff… has been studying corporal punishment for 15 years, and is known as the leading researcher on spanking in the United States today… ‘There’s no study that I’ve ever done that’s found a positive consequence of spanking,’ Gershoff said.”   Sarah Kovac, CNN

When my daughter was three years old, I smacked her hand.  I recall being in the doorway of the master bathroom, lit with morning sunlight, but I have no idea now what circumstances led to this incident.  I remember grabbing Clara’s wrist so she could not pull away and slapping her little fingers with some force,– with the intent to cause pain.  But more than any other detail, the look in her eyes after the slap is the sharpest image in my memory.  She gazed at me, stunned, utterly confused, as though she didn’t recognize me.  Suddenly, I wasn’t the Mommy she knew.  I was a bigger, stronger grown-up who had the power to hurt her and who chose to hurt her.  In that moment, I was a stranger.

Extensive research has shown that hitting and spanking children not only proves ineffective in teaching them how to behave, but also causes significant long-term harm: real and measurable changes in brain development; higher levels of aggression; poor insight and self-control; and greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems (see links at the end of this post to read details of scientific research).

So why, despite the evidence, do parents continue to spank?  Some talk about asserting authority and teaching respect.  To me, respect and fear are two very different things.  Respect cannot be forced; it is earned over time, and develops in an atmosphere of security, openness, and meaningful connection.  Respect, in my opinion, can only exist when it goes in both directions,– when both people in a relationship, no matter their age or size, are treated with dignity.

Spanking (or hitting and slapping of any kind) uses physical force over a smaller, weaker person who is both helpless and dependent.  Spanking elicits feelings of fear and humiliation, and may lead to short-term compliance, but does not build security, trust, or respect.  Researcher Stacey Patton writes, “Children who are spanked don’t have the option to flee or fight – they must submit to the pain and violence without grabbing, blocking, or defending against the assault to their body.”  Some parents come back to a child after a spanking to talk calmly and to explain a motive of love; but a cognitive discussion with a child cannot undo the physical (body and brain) and psychological experience of threat, stress, and fight/flight the child has experienced.  In fact, a message of love can seem disconnected and meaningless, not to mention profoundly confusing.

A couple of weeks ago, my younger daughter, Rachel, was drawing with her big sister at the dining room table, and she asked, “What is spanking?” Clara replied, “It’s when a parent hits a child on the bum.”  Rachel turned to me to see if this was true.  She thought Clara was making it up.  I told her that, yes, some parents hit their children when they’ve done something wrong.  Rachel asked, “Why?”  Even as I tried to explain spanking to Rachel, after each part of what I said, she continued to ask “Why?”  It was as though she was shifting something deep inside– an accepted sense of how the world works.  The idea that spanking could be used to teach a child how to behave made no sense to her.  When I asked both girls what they thought and felt about the idea of spanking, each said that it sounded scary.  And Rachel asked, “How can you have a rule of no hitting and then hit?”  Good point.  Quite literally, spanking children teaches them that hitting is an acceptable way to work through a conflict or to solve a problem.

When I talk with parents who spank, I am most struck by how overwhelmed many of them feel.  I really believe that they love their children and that, more often than not, they are deeply bothered by their experience with spanking and simply don’t know what else to do.  Intuitively, it feels wrong to them.  It goes against how they are wired, and in many cases, they are forcing themselves to go through with it because they think (or have been told) that spanking is what’s best for their children.  To these parents, I say: You can trust your intuition.  Trust yourself.  Read the research.  Find some help so that you can learn alternatives that will protect your child’s mind and body and will strengthen the bond between you.

More Resources about Spanking Children

Below are links to some excellent articles that summarize the scientific research about the damage of spanking:

Respecting My Kids Series

This post is part of a series called “Respecting My Kids.”  The following are links to other articles in the series:

Group Therapy Opportunity

If you or someone you know would be interested in joining a weekly therapy group for parents, please contact me.  Day, evening, and weekend times are available.  Groups are kept small and provide a safe place to share your experiences, as well as to explore new possibilities.  I offer a free brief phone consultation to determine whether or not this group would be a good fit for you.  You may reach me with questions at lynndaviesknaub@gmail.com or 443-286-3432.

About Lynn Davies

I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. I have been in private practice for over fourteen years and have experience working with adults and adolescents, addressing a variety of issues: anxiety, depression, relationship problems, past or current trauma, eating disorders, self-mutilation, bereavement, parenting concerns, boundaries, and self-care.

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