Does Spanking Work?
I'm against all spanking, but at what age would you say a child is capable of understanding that the spanking is in response to the child’s behavior? I greatly appreciate any and all help in finding the right answers.
Because many parents were spanked as children, many of us consider spanking our own children. It sounds like you reached your own decision about spanking but your partner, siblings or friends may make different choices. It’s helpful to understand the pros and cons of spanking as a form of discipline.
Embedded in your question is one of the most important of all: when is a child capable of understanding that being struck is in response to an unacceptable behavior? Assuming that a parent is using spanking when she is in full control of herself, consider the following scenarios.
Some parents reserve a quick swat on the butt for the most dangerous of situations, like when a toddler runs into the street. This will certainly get his attention. But from the child’s perspective, he can only process one feeling at a time. While the parent is saying “don’t run into the street” the child’s attention is only on the physical discomfort. At that moment he can’t connect the two events. For spanking to work as a disincentive, the child would have to think ahead to next time: “if I run into the street then I will get spanked.” We know, however, that “if-then” logic is cognitively beyond a toddler.
An alternative strategy is to get down at eye level with your child. With your stern voice and face, say “No street!” Here, the focus stays on the behavior you are trying to prevent. It also allows you to offer a physical clue (a pre-emptive stern face warning) as a reminder the next time.
For many of us, spanking isn’t just a consequence: it’s the ultimate power differential (“Do what I say or I will spank.”) This may satisfy an angry and/or scared parent in the short term, but it doesn’t do a thing to develop the tools necessary for successful discipline in the teenage years. I think of toddler discipline as practice for the later parent-teen relationship: the same issues of boundaries, emotional regulation, and relationships re-emerge during adolescence. This is when you’ll want to have a firm foundation in place—not just a dramatic reaction. Clear communication, defined limits and consistent responses are the building blocks for raising healthy, productive kids. When you look at it this way, spanking just isn’t very useful.
Spanking often impacts the parent more than the child, especially if a parent spanks when s/he’s angry or if it results in a sense of relief or guilt. If this is the case, I encourage the parent to seek additional support (from a trusted friend or an early childhood professional). Parents’ lives can be overwhelming, with their multiple demands and disconnection from the joys of adulthood. Cycles of anger, punishment, and guilt often mask issues that fall outside of the parenting relationship.
Thanks so much for asking a thought-provoking and important question.