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To Spank Or Not To Spank Your Child?

By David A. Peters, MFT


   We've heard the debate since we were children ourselves - is it OK for a parent to spank their child?  So much is being said about this topic, and so much is unhelpful argument.  Let's see if we can clarify the issue.

    First, let's define what we mean by "spanking".  Spanking, for our discussion, will mean an open-handed swat to the buttocks, hard enough to get a child's attention, but not hard enough to leave a bruise, damage the body, or cause pain lasting more than a few seconds.  Spanking is not: a) a smack across the face, b) use of a whip, paddle, or other weapon, or c) shaking, shoving, or causing a fall.

    Many parents feel that they need to spank their child in order to be good disciplinarians.  Some parents feel the need to hit their child hard enough to inflict severe pain and fear in their child to "show them who is the boss".  Still others consider any form of hitting to be an unacceptable act of violence and child abuse.  Where shall we draw the line?  And what is really necessary to discipline a child?

    Spanking your child, as define above, is not against the law in the State of California where this article is written.  Spanking can definitely get your child's attention in a very swift move, and give the message that you are firmly in control.  Will it cause psychological damage, or teach your child to be violent?  No, that's really not true.  Spanking is not the same as beating your child.  But I would suggest that if you find you absolutely need to spank your child because you have no other alternative, then most certainly you should invest some time in reading a book on parenting and discipline.  There are many good methods of showing a child that you are fully in charge.  And you need to have a variety of methods to choose from.

    If spanking is your only method of discipline, then you will have to continue it year after year, as your child gets older and larger.  That means you will have to spank him harder and harder!  How hard would you have to spank a 15 year old to teach him who is in charge?  This could get downright dangerous.  Parents who have spanking as their only tool of discipline inevitably begin smacking across the face, beating with a paddle or belt, or escalate to other forms of violence.  No, we need some other choices to effectively discipline.

    It's important to remember that the word "discipline" means "teaching".  And "teaching him a lesson" should mean to teach with words of guidance.  A parent must be giving clear, calm explanations of right and wrong, and enforce rules with firm consequences.  But as any parent knows, sometimes talking just doesn't get a child back into our control.  And as a parent, you must be in control of your child.  If not, you contribute to the dangerous chaos we see in our society.  How do you gain control of a child who won't listen to your words?  Yes, you sometimes must get physical.  In my practice, I teach parents to plan a long-term strategy of intervention that changes as a child gets older.  When a small child is throwing toys, hitting peers, or otherwise acting out, it's best to pick the child up, remove them from the scene, and explain in firm voice what is expected of them.  For example, "No!  You will not hit your sister!  That's bad.  Play nice with your sister."  And as they mature, you will need to teach expected behavior, such as, "If she won't share with you, then come to me.  But you must not hit her."

        Get your child's attention for this lesson by holding the child by both forearms, and making the child look you in the eyes.  I call this method the "Two Arm Hold".  While holding by the forearms, direct the child to "look at me when I'm speaking."  And then tell them what they did wrong, and what is expected of them.  If you child has been in open rebellion to you (overtly refusing to mind your directions) it's good to insist that they admit you are in charge.  You continue holding them by the forearms, and ask, "Now who is in charge?".  Your child must answer, "You are" in order to end the lesson.  If he refuses, the lesson continues, while you continue to hold.  After this sort of challenge, it's best to send a child into "time out" for a few minutes in order to allow them to calm themselves and regain their self-control.  I like standing them in the corner of the room, facing the corner.  But sometimes their bedroom is better for time out.  Once a child learns that you are so firmly in control of them, you can then use strong words to verbally direct them to their time out place, without even touching them.

    And this brings us to an important point.  If your child will follow your directions to go into time out, or go to their room without you touching them, there is clearly no need to get physical in any way!  Your words have the power.  And this is your goal when using the "Two Arm Hold" - to get your child to experience that they must follow your words.  Once a child has learned that you will intervene this way, they will more quickly follow your words in the future, and you will need no physical intervention such as spanking.  But you must add on more powerful consequences to bad behavior as a child gets older.

    In general, if you find your child is out of your ability to physically control them, you should quickly consult a family counselor with experience in discipline techniques.  There just isn't time to waste when your child's safety is at risk.  And your child's safety is indeed at risk if you aren't able to physically control your him or her.  You can find some good books on parenting on the Resources page of this website.  A little reading from the experts can save you many hours of stress and disappointment. 

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