Why Parents Spank Their Children and Why They Should Stop


John hair and rylee at one

Let’s start with some numbers. About 30% of children have been hit/spanked by their caretakers or parents before turning 1 year old. About 85% of parents use hitting/spanking at some point to “discipline” their children. Spanking and hitting children is common among American parents.

Many parents who spank their children do so for religious, cultural, or other reasons. Many parents who spank or use corporal punishment are, in many ways, wonderful parents. The purpose of this blog—and the accompanying podcast—is not to villainize parents who spank. Instead, the purpose is to explore the positive and the negatives of spanking and guide readers (or listeners) toward the possibility that there are better alternatives to teaching children. If you want to listen now, here’s the podcast link: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/ or https://itunes.apple.com/fr/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting/id1170841304?l=en

The next part of this blog is excerpted from the classic and popular book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” Just kidding. The book is neither classic nor popular. It also didn’t win any awards. But since I wrote the book, and I like it, I was briefly tempted to exaggerate its beauty and wonder. Now I’m back to reality. It’s a book. Some people find it helpful. But it didn’t make the New York Times bestseller list (yet).

Physical or Corporal Punishment (from Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan, 2011)

Physical or corporal punishment can involve hitting, pushing, slapping, washing children’s mouths out with soap, holding children down, and other physical encounters designed to obtain behavioral compliance. Corporal punishment always involves using direct power to reduce undesirable behavior.

Spanking is a particularly controversial topic with parents and when entering into a discussion about spanking practitioners are warned to use substantial sensitivity and tact (which we will discuss later). For now, we want to emphasize that our professional position on spanking and physical or corporal punishment is straightforward and based on psychological research and common sense. Kazdin (2008) provides an excellent description of what the research says about using punishment (including spanking):

. . . study after study has proven that punishment all by itself, as it is usually practiced in the home, is relatively ineffective in changing behavior. . . .

Each time, punishing your child stops the behavior for a moment. Maybe your child cries, too, and shows remorse. In our studies, parents often mistakenly interpret such crying and wails of I’m sorry! as signs that punishment has worked. It hasn’t. Your child’s resistance to punishment escalates as fast as the severity of the punishment does, or even faster. So you penalize more and more to get the same result: a brief stop, then the unwanted behavior returns, often worse than before. . . .

Bear in mind that about 35% of parents who start out with relatively mild punishments end up crossing the line drawn by the state to define child abuse: hitting with an object, harsh and cruel hitting, and so on. The surprisingly high percentage of line-crossers, and their general failure to improve their children’s behavior, points to a larger truth: punishment changes parents’ behavior for the worse more effectively than it changes children’s behavior for the better. And, as anyone knows who has physically punished a child more harshly than they meant to—and that would include most of us—it feels just terrible. (pp. 15, 16, 17)

For those of you who work with children and are familiar with the behavioral literature on punishment, Kazdin’s position on punishment is probably not new information. Virtually all child development and child behavior experts agree that punishment is ill-advised (Aucoin, Frick, & Bodin, 2006; Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Eggum, 2010; Gershoff, 2002). And if you’ve tracked the rationale for avoiding punishment closely, you may have noticed that we—and Kazdin—haven’t even mentioned two of the main reasons why punishment is inadvisable: (1) Punishment generally models aggression and (2) punishment involves paying substantial attention to negative behavior—which is why it often backfires and becomes positively reinforcing.

In the end, however, Kazdin’s position and all the research data in the world probably won’t convince many parents to stop using punishment. This is no big surprise: Using too much punishment can be habitual, irrational, and cultural—which is why we almost always avoid trying to engage parents in a rational argument regarding the merits and disadvantages of spanking.

We have additional resources on how to talk with parents in ways to help them see alternatives to spanking. These include:

The Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Episode 19 (10/23/17) on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/fr/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting/id1170841304?l=en

Or via Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Appendix B, Tip Sheet 1: The Rules of Spanking, from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118012968.html

You can also check out Dr. Kazdin’s website and book at: http://alankazdin.com/

And here’s the description of the podcast:

Why Parents Spank Their Children and Why They Should Stop

What do you feel when your lovely child misbehaves and then the misbehavior continues or repeats? What happens when you feel terribly angry and just want to make your child’s behavior stop? What happens if you spank your child . . . and then . . . much to your relief, your child’s annoying behavior stops! In this episode, not only do Dr. Sara and Dr. John discuss the negative outcomes linked to spanking, John also annoys Sara so much that she takes the impressive step of turning off his microphone. Will John ever get to speak again? How long does his microphone time-out last? This episode includes a clip of what Cris Carter, former Minnesota Viking and Hall of Fame wide receiver, thinks about physical discipline. You also get to hear what Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff discovered in her meta-analysis of corporal punishment research.

When talking about B.F. Skinner and the science of negative reinforcement, for the first time in history, John says something that’s technically incorrect. If you’re the first person to correctly identify what John says that’s wrong, you will receive a copy of his book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” You can enter by posting your idea on the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast Facebook page or on John’s blog, at johnsommersflanagan.com.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Why Parents Spank Their Children and Why They Should Stop”

  1. Hello, Dr. John SommersFlannagan: I am chuckling at the similarity in title of your book and the one by Adele Faber/ Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. And while we’re chuckling let’s add another good read title to your “Practically Perfect Parenting Blog” Playful Parenting by L. J. Cohen. Another really helpful blog on parenting can be found on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks web site. “Practically Perfect Parenting” reminds me of Mary Poppins. She was a “practically perfect nanny.” I think I am more in favour of the phrase “good enough parents”. Trying too hard to be “practically perfect” makes me feel a little badly about the times I have lost it with my kids and myself. Hmmm? Thanks for the post. Elizabeth Sherk.

    1. Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for your comment! Titles can be fun and interesting, but never perfect . . . or even practically perfect. Our “Practically Perfect” title is supposed to be a spoof, in that many parents try so hard, but fall short, so we try to model and share our own imperfections, while we talk about being good enough, or at least consistently trying to do better. Thanks for resource tips. We’ll check out Cohen and Sacks. Have a great rest of the weekend. Best, John SF

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