Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child? The Negative
Effects of Spanking--and Some Healthy Alternatives By Kimberly
Blaker Web Exclusive
national survey, released in October 2000, revealed that 61 percent of
adults condone regularly spanking children for inappropriate behavior.1
Sponsored by the nonprofit groups Zero to Three and Civitas and the toy
maker Brio, the survey also found that parents' expectations of their
children's behavior far exceeded the reality of age-appropriate behavior.
According to 57 percent of the 3,000 adults surveyed, children as young as
six months old could be spoiled, a fact that has been disputed by many
child experts and psychologists.
Adults condone spanking for many reasons in addition to unrealistic
expectations. One stems from a small number of studies that have indicated
that spanking is an effective disciplinary method; however, those studies
failed to compare spanking with nonphysical forms of discipline that are
equally effective, if not more so. Another reason for continued spanking
is that many adults believe that nonabusive spanking by loving parents is
not harmful. While some studies have shown this form of spanking to be
less harmful, the act hasn't been proven harmless.
Over the last couple of decades, a number of studies have revealed a
wide range of negative effects of spanking. One three-year study,
conducted by Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire, found
evidence that this traditional practice leads to more antisocial
behaviors.2 The study found that mothers who had spanked even once during
a test week reported higher rates of antisocial behavior by their children
two years following the spankings.
Other studies have revealed similar effects. Three separate studies of
children with serious conduct problems, conducted by Grozier and Katz
(1979), Patterson (1982), and Webster-Stratton et al. (1988, 1990), found
that when spanking was discontinued and other forms of discipline and
behavior management were used instead, the children's behavior improved. A
study conducted by researchers at McMasters University found that anxiety
disorders, drug and alcohol problems, antisocial behavior, and depression
were more prevalent among adults who had been spanked as children.3
Because of this vast amount of research, the American Academy of
Pediatrics has called for a ban on school spanking.
Another serious problem with spanking is that while most parents mean
well, it's easy to lose patience, especially with our often-unrealistic
expectations. Light swats to the bottom can escalate after repeated
failure at curtailing inappropriate behavior. More alarming, in 1991,
Harold Grasmick, Robert Bursik, Jr., and M'lou Kimpel of the University of
Oklahoma wrote, "The child abuse rate for parents who approve of corporal
punishment is four times the rate of child abuse for parents who do not
approve of corporal punishment."4
Finding alternatives to spanking and making them work requires time,
energy, and patience as well as careful planning and implementation, but
the rewards are immense. Furthermore, with regular praise, positive
behavior is reinforced, reducing the need to discipline. While results may
not always be immediate, positive long-term effects will be evident.
Healthy Methods for Disciplining Your Child
Prevention is the first step in dealing with problem behavior. When
you childproof your home, protect it as well as your child by placing
breakables and untouchables out of reach.
For infants and toddlers, distraction often works best. Offer a toy
or something to distract your child from what she can't have or a
tantrum that's under way.
Time out (at the rate of one minute for each year of age) works well
with preschool and early elementary children. A lengthy time out often
isn't feasible for young children and can defeat the purpose. If a small
child refuses his time out, calmly place him there. If he repeatedly
leaves, sit with him or hold him until he learns that time outs will be
Use natural consequences. If your child leaves without a jacket,
providing the weather isn't dangerously cold, allow him to learn from
his mistake. Being uncomfortable or missing school recess will be strong
motivators to wear a jacket in the future.
When you make rules, choose logical consequences that relate to
them. If your child destroys something, make her pay for it. If your
child ignores a request, take the toy or activity that she's involved
with. Television and video games are often culprits, and the loss of
these activities can do wonders. If older children overuse the telephone
or don't come home on time, put a temporary halt to social privileges.
Give yourself a time out if you lose your cool. If another adult is
around, ask him to take charge; if not, make sure your child is safe,
then step out of the room. Take plenty of deep breaths. When you're
thinking clearly again, determine the best course of action before
confronting your child.
For children with AD/HD, special needs, or behavior problems, use a
token economy to reinforce positive behavior and reduce the negative.
Reward and penalize your child with tokens for various behaviors, which
can later be exchanged for rewards. For tips on introducing such a
program, see Harvey C. Parker's Behavior Management at Home: A Token
Economy Program for Children and Teens (Specialty Press, 1996).
Finally, choose your battles wisely. Parents are often caught up in
unnecessary power struggles with their kids. If you ask Johnny to drink
all his milk and he refuses to take the last two swallows, what would be
the outcome? If you don't have a good answer, drop the debate.
NOTES 1. "Most Adults Approve of Spanking Children,
Despite Experts' Recommendations," October 5, 2000 ; see
www.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/10/05/raising.kids/. 2. "Study: Spanking Kids
Leads to Long-term Bad Behavior," August 14, 1997 ; see
www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9708/14/nfm.spanking/. 3. Harriet L. MacMillan et
al. "Slapping and Spanking in Childhood and Its Association with Lifetime
Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders," Canadian Medical Association Journal
(October 5, 1999). 4. Harold Grasmick et al., cited in Michael
Franklin and Marian Hetherly, "How Fundamentalism Affects Society," The
Humanist (September 1997): 25-26.
Kimberly Blaker of New Boston,
Michigan, is a mother of two. She writes for parenting and women's
magazines across the United States .