Why We Shouldn't Physically Discipline Our Children

Spanking has a long history of popularity as a disciplinary tool. It has been handed down from generation to generation as an appropriate way to teach children to behave obediently. The "logic" that parents use to approach their children with this form of punishment varies. Some parents are completely conscious. In other words, they think "My child did something wrong. She must be punished. Therefore I will spank her to teach her a lesson." Other parents are sort of semi-conscious. In other words, when their child misbehaves, they don't necessarily think it through, they just automatically react by spanking. Still other parents use spanking less as a disciplinary tool, and more as a way to release their own strong feelings of anger, frustration, or even rage. Sometimes these feelings aren't even because of something their child did. Most parents who spank are a combination of the three types of parents above. Sometimes they're conscious, sometimes they're simply reacting, and other times they are venting their own strong feelings.

There is no doubt that the ways in which our children sometimes behave can evoke intense feelings of frustration, anger, even rage. Most parents discover depths of feeling they never knew they had until children arrived. In fact, many times, it's those bewildering extremes of feeling - one minute we're having a terrific time with our child, the next minute we're furious at him - that cause us to feel so out of control. Many times these feelings are accompanied by helplessness about how to correct the situation. I had one man tell me that his 3 year old daughter was "the very devil." He said he "slapped her legs till they were red, but you know what? Even that didn't stop her!" He then declared that he finally "gave up because it was clear that nothing was going to change her behavior." The flaw in his logic, however, was that it wasn't that his daughter was too "stubborn" or "willful" for spanking to affect her. It's the spanking itself that was ultimately ineffective. There are far more effective disciplinary strategies, yet many parents aren't aware that they exist and / or frequently won't take the time to learn them. In fact, hitting your child often has such underlying negative effects that it eventually counteracts any immediately "positive" outcome: although your child may stop misbehaving right then, the spanking doesn't take care of the underlying motivation for the misbehavior, and the child becomes increasingly likely to misbehave in the future. (Even if the misbehavior is postponed until they become teenagers or adults.) In order to understand how we can choose more effective methods of discipline, we first need to understand why spanking a child is ineffective, and how it takes away his motivation to behave correctly.

To begin, you might already have noticed that I use the words "spank", "hit" and "slap" interchangeably. The word "spank" is a euphemism for hitting or slapping. In other words, it's socially accepted and softer sounding, and invokes less guilt for most people than if they say "I hit my child", or "I slap my child." However, the physical action is exactly the same. If you feel uncomfortable using the words interchangeably, good! Allow that uncomfortable feeling to be your guide in choosing an alternative form of discipline.

Hitting a child severely damages a child's self-esteem. A child (or adult for that matter) who is hit on a regular basis begins to feel that something is essentially wrong with him. He must be "bad" inside to have evoked this kind of disrespect. This feeling of being bad, contrary to many adult's expectations, does not work in our parental favor. Children who feel as though there is something wrong with them will eventually do wrong things on purpose. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. They aren't motivated to "be good" because deep inside they feel as though they're "bad."

Effective discipline separates the child's behavior from the child. In other words, it must send the message to the child that "I don't like what you did, but I still love you." The problem with spanking is that the child can't conceive that you might love him and still be willing to hit him. Hitting makes him feel unlovable, no matter what things you say to the contrary. And if a child does somehow reconcile that you are hitting him but still love him, he may very well begin to equate hitting with love itself. Thus, he may believe that in order to show love you must hit, and in order to feel loved you must be hit. This can set up a dangerous pattern for future abusive relationships.

Another reason parents spank is because they believe that hitting their children will help them learn to be obedient. What happens, though, is that children who are spanked may learn to obey an authority figure, but not necessarily to develop an internal sense of right and wrong. They may learn to be obedient, but not necessarily to take responsibility for their actions. After all, they only get spanked if they get caught. Many children who are spanked just learn not to get caught! In addition, teaching children to be obedient to authority figures can be dangerous in today's society. Many people pose as authority figures in order to take advantage of children.

Effective discipline teaches children that there are logically related consequences for ALL misbehavior, whether there is an authority figure present or not. In choosing a "punishment", parents should make sure it is logically linked to the misbehavior because it's this logical relationship which teaches responsibility. As we said last month, children are faced with tough decisions in today's society. These decisions require the child to have an internal sense of right and wrong, to be able to make responsible choices without relying on an authority figure. The problem with spanking is that the child can't learn to be responsible because there's no logical relationship between the spanking and the misbehavior, it's simply an arbitrary form of retaliation on the part of the parent.

The final reason that we should substitute another form of discipline for spanking is that it teaches our children a very negative way to handle anger and problems. Children who are hit frequently believe that hitting is an appropriate way to handle differences of opinion. Therefore, in an argument with a friend, they are more likely to lash out with their fists, rather than work it out with words. Likewise, once these children get older (and bigger) they may express their feelings of rebellion and deep seated anger by lashing out at you with their fists.

There's no question that it's more difficult to discipline and communicate in a respectful way, but the payoff is HUGE. Children who feel respected WANT to behave appropriately. They think of themselves as good people because you TREAT them like good people - even when you're disciplining them. And good people do good things. You might want to think of it this way...it may be easier to resort to spanking and being disrespectful, but it would also be easier if you didn't have to work to earn money to make a living. You do that because you have to. Think of not spanking, hitting, or slapping your child as something you have to do.