Were you spanked as a kid? I was.
And for the most part, we think we turned out okay.
So, why has the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its stance on discipline? New research shows lifelong consequences:
“Research has shown that striking a child, yelling at or shaming them can elevate stress hormones and lead to changes in the brain's architecture.”
Let’s think about spanking as a correction for misbehavior by age groups.
Numerous research studies show that a responsive, safe, and consistent parent-child relationship enables a baby to build positive relationships with others. Securely attached children show better-developed self-regulation and enjoy learning about the world. Almost everything from bedtime to reading a book is a first time activity for a baby. Repetition, including consistency in caregiving, helps babies know what is most important and what to expect.
Being spanked, yelled at, or ignored by a loving caregiver is most unsettling and extraordinarily challenging for a baby. A baby is wired to seek care from adults. When that adult also is frightened, frightening, or hurtful to the baby, confusion sets in.
Wanting and fearing a caring adult is an unsolvable situation for a baby. In response, a baby may freeze or stare blankly. Sometimes, a baby will move towards a parent with a terrified expression. Learning can't happen. Joy can’t happen. Play can’t happen. In fact, research shows that these experiences as a very young child may have subtle or significant life-long neuro-biological and relational consequences.
If you feel sudden rage, give yourself a time-out. Intense emotions last about 90 seconds. Count backwards. Take deep breaths. Bring your shoulders to your ears and let them drop. Take the time to recalibrate your body before making a regretful move.
Keys to infant discipline:
A warm, consistent, responsive, safe, and loving relationship with your child sets the foundation for positive and effective parenting.
Soothe crying baby. You can’t spoil an infant.
Create a baby safe environment. This nurtures both your and your baby’s experience.
Remove breakable items like the TV controller or glass figurines.
Use safety gates and cover electrical outlets.
Tape cords to the floor or place behind furniture.
Some parents reserve a quick swat on the butt for the most dangerous of situations, for example, when a toddler runs into the street. Does using the reasoning of hurting the child to make a strong point work?
Spanking or physically hurting a child does get their attention. However, the child’s focus is on their experience of physical sensations. The toddler is incapable of putting the two experiences together —"I ran into street = spanking." The toddler now focuses on the hurt; not the intended lesson.
If spanking is used as a means of instruction, the only way to make this connection is to threaten the child with being hurt as a consequence. "You run into the street, I spank you." The problem with this logic though is now the toddler's attention is on being spanked, not on the street.
In order 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.” This type of if-then logic, however, is cognitively beyond a toddler’s capability.
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 preemptive stern face warning) as a reminder the next time. I also find adding the American Sign Language gesture for "no" or "stop" to be a useful addition.
For three-year-olds, spanking isn’t just a consequence: it’s the ultimate power differential (“Do what I say, or I will spank.”) At the moment when we are angry or scared, the act of spanking may feel satisfying and even appropriate. But does it match your long-range goals for your child?
Three-year-old parenting is a lot like parenting a teen. Much like teenagers, three-year-olds do things that they know are wrong for many reasons.
They want to know the limits. "Can I color on the wall?" "What about on my shoe?" Children are learning and relearning boundaries for appropriate behaviors.
Three-year-olds and teens are interested in knowing if there is always the same consequence. Are rules consistent each time? Do mom and grandma have the same standard?
Threes and teens are learning about emotional regulation. What happens when I get upset? Do I get what I want?
Discipline and positive parenting are about setting a firm foundation for future self-regulation—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; and, it is harmful.
If you were spanked as a child, it might take extra effort to overcome hurtful and negative patterns of parenting. While it doesn’t require getting a Ph.D., parent coaching and personal development are helpful ways to overcome generational histories of spanking, yelling, and belittling. Become aware of your experiences. There are ways to surface boiling anger, deep regret, or unwholesome shame with kindness and attention. Despite our parents’ best intention, trauma lives in our neuro-biology and can kick into action when we least expect it.