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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?
The Negative Effects of Spanking--and Some Healthy Alternatives

By Kimberly Blaker
Web Exclusive

A startling 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 enforced.
  • 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.

1. "Most Adults Approve of Spanking Children, Despite Experts' Recommendations," October 5, 2000 ; see
2. "Study: Spanking Kids Leads to Long-term Bad Behavior," August 14, 1997 ; see
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 .

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