April 30th Is National Spank Out Day: Does Spanking Even Work?

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April 30th is National Spank Out Day. It’s hard to forget about it when the old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” gets revisited in the news so frequently. It seems that, every week, there is a news story of parents or caregivers being arrested for taking disciplining a child too far. For all the adamant opponents of spanking, there are still just as many supporters of this purportedly mild form of corporal punishment, following the idiom to the letter.

Why? It’s very simple: It works, especially to stop tantrums… at least temporarily. But there’s much more to spanking than its immediate effect.

Many parents proudly proclaim that they were spanked as children and they turned out just fine, therefore it is an acceptable form of discipline to use with their own children. Others believe it to be their duty to instill fear in their children, to teach them to behave. Overwhelmingly though, spanking continues because 1) it often goes undetected, with scars and scabs hidden underneath clothing, and 2) at least temporarily, the spanked child seems to have “learned the lesson.”

Let me make this clear on the onset: spanking doesn’t work. This is not just my personal opinion, though I want to stress that I find it absolutely reprehensible for an adult to raise a hand on a small child. To me, it is akin to criminal assault. I think that there is always another way to teach a child, a better way, one that does not involve scarring him or her physically and psychologically. But my personal opinion aside, studies have been conclusive that though spanking may induce a short-term (limited) submissive reaction from the child, it is not effective as a long-term disciplining tool and here are a few reasons why:

 

1. SPANKING TEACHES WHAT NOT TO DO: IT IS NOT CONSTRUCTIVE

 

Most parents who spank reach for the proverbial rod from a place of love, because they want the best for their children. No loving parent would want to deliberately hurt his or her children. But the main point of contention with spanking, and punishment in general, is that it only teaches what not to do, at best. Spanking often fails to stop, and can even increase, the occurrence of the unwanted behavior.

Until shown and encouraged (reinforced) to emit the appropriate behavior, children will not learn what to do. They will maybe stop repeating the offending behavior, at least when the parent is around, but they will not necessarily understand why it got them the spanking in the first place. Small children, especially, will not magically learn the correct appropriate behaviors. Only through modeling, repetition, and reinforcement do children learn appropriate behaviors.

 

2. SPANKING REQUIRES AN INCREASE IN INTENSITY TO BE EFFECTIVE

 

For the spanking to be effective, the same dose cannot be applied for too long. Intense aversive stimuli lose their aversiveness after a while. Habituation to pain and humiliation is developed and thus the same level of spanking does not produce the same effect for long. Eventually, parents will need to increase the intensity of the punishment to shock the child into submission. I don’t think I need to draw a map for you to see the potential for abuse in this scenario.

 

3. SPANKING PROVOKES ESCAPE AND AGRESSION

 

When and if possible, victims of spanking will try to escape the circumstances resulting in the punishment. For example, if spanking occurs during the course of a meal, children will tend to avoid eating all together. When escape is not possible, or is blocked, children tend to become more aggressive in response to the aversive stimulation.


Using the above example, instead of eating, children will then throw things, claw at and bite the person who inflicted the spanking. If they are incapable of attacking the adult, they will turn their aggression towards harming others, perhaps smaller targets, like a pet, or a sibling. Spanking delivered by an adult signals to children that it is an acceptable form of behavior and therefore teaches them to act out their aggression, without forethought or remorse, towards others. Children learn vicariously through our actions, and it is therefore imperative that we only model appropriate behaviors.

 

4. SPANKING PROMOTES NEGATIVE SELF-ESTEEM

 

Being frequently spanked may negatively influence the children’s view of themselves or of their surroundings. The things children feel and say about themselves or about their environments after they have been spanked are more likely to be negative, particularly if the punishment was directed at themselves as people, rather than at the behavior (“you have been a bad boy” versus “breaking mommy’s computer was a bad thing to do”). Negative self-esteem is one of the hardest self-concept to overcome. Which begs the question, why would anyone do this to someone they hold so dear?

 

5. SPANKING SUPPRESSES OTHER BEHAVIORS (LEARNED HELPLESSNESS)

 

Suppressing unwanted behavior generally has the undesired side effect of suppressing other, perhaps even appropriate behavior. Psychologists refer to this as “learned helplessness.” When the child who is frequently spanked cannot escape or avoid the punishment, he or she starts to develop a perception of absence of control over the outcome or a situation, resulting in a depression and helplessness. Often, children who are spanked are incapable of returning to their normal routine, and instead are immobilized by the aversiveness of punishment, therefore simply give up. I doubt anyone who spanks their children intend to turn them into zombies. One of the hallmarks of childhood is exploring and learning new things. Stifling their creativity and exploration is a surefire way to ensure that children become uninspired and apathetic adults.

Let’s face it: punishment may change undesired behavior rapidly.

But spanking children has insidious, far-reaching, and long-lasting negative effects that will not easily be reversed, if at all.

Period.

On a personal note: I’m one of those parents who was spanked as a child, and I did not turn out “just fine.” The physical scars faded fast, but the psychological ones took years to heal (and some never did). My immediate instinct, as a parent, was to resort to what I was taught growing up, perpetrating the cycle of violence. That, more than anything else, is why I find the act of spanking unforgivable.

 

What about you? What’s your experience with spanking?

 

 

Crossposted at The Behavioral Child.

* Photo credit: my sister's magnificent genes :)

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