SPANKING: Discipline or Abuse?

117456135Introduction: When I prompted my dad to start this blog, we started a process where we kick around ideas for topics; if it’s an idea I really want him to address, I kickstart his process by sending him an email with my thoughts on a particular subject; then he writes his blog post (I tell him he has two things I don’t possess at this life stage: wisdom and time); and then I insert the article into the wordpress software. Below, is the email I sent dad about this week’s issue. His post follows.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. I think we should dedicate some blogs to that issue.

I can’t think of any other issue that evokes more polarization in the parenting world than spanking. While I’m in the middle on many issues, spanking isn’t one of them. In my opinion, spanking is lazy parenting. I was never spanked, however, my older brother and sister were. I remember the wooden paddle.

Interestingly, I had this idea that my parents stopped spanking because my dad went back to school to be a psychiatrist. I found out later that unbeknownst to my parents, my older sister hid the paddle, and my parents just didn’t bother spanking my other sister and me because they couldn’t find the paddle and decided it didn’t really work anyway. At least that’s how I remember it.

To me, spanking brings up a larger issue of rearing a child to have internal controls versus external controls. If I put myself in the mind of a four-year-old, spanking says, “If I’m bigger than you and you do something I think is bad, I can physically hurt you,” and then to add insult to injury, the four-year-old gets spanked for hitting his little brother when that little brother destroys his toy. The kid is just doing what he has learned: “I’m bigger than you. What you did was bad. I can physically hurt you, and humiliate you in the process.”

Discipline is about teaching, not punishment. The goal is to rear a child who has his own internal controls and does the right thing even when nobody is looking. I recall one of the many parenting conversations my late husband and I had about spanking. We vowed never to spank our children. He was spanked and said it taught him to learn how to be a good liar, be sneaky, and not get caught. He never gave a second thought to whether what he was doing was right or wrong because the goal was to get away with whatever he was doing.*

But I’m wondering what my dad thinks. Spanking? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

* P.S. When I talked to dad about this blog article, he mentioned that I didn’t give any examples of discipline that teaches children. So, I added some information at the end of the blog to address his point.


Maggie has asked me for my opinion on spanking. I find the issue a bit more complicated than she does.  Of course the first question which comes to mind is when does spanking become abuse.  Is it a matter of the amount of pain inflicted, both emotional and physical, or is the act itself never justified? This reminds me of the story of the of the man who when chastised for hitting his mule on the head with a club responded that he was not trying to hurt the mule, but only to get its attention.  Mules are notoriously stubborn, and there are some children who also possess that trait.  In such cases spanking will usually get their attention, but the question remains, is it the best and least damaging way to accomplish that goal.

Spanking in the good ole’ days

There has been a great deal of disagreement over the pros and cons of spanking during the past 50 or so years.  As I was growing up, there seemed to be a consensus that spanking was not only effective but necessary in order for children to distinguish right from wrong and learn to do that which was right, or as what we shrinks would call the development of a strong images8BL7CRUNsuper-ego.  The paddle was a prominent fixture in every school principal’s office and parents almost always assumed that it was used judicially.  I still recall vividly my only trip to the principal’s office, and the terror and humiliation I felt as he deliberately left me waiting in the outer office.  I was in the eighth grade and had avoided trouble until then by being “the teacher’s pet” according to my classmates.  I avoided “cracks” as spanking was referred to then, but Mr. Leckrone made it clear that he was not one to be messed with and that a return appearance to his office would result in unspecified but dastardly consequences.  I returned to my home room spankingvowing to never to talk in class again, but enjoying the notoriety as it allowed me to shed the goody two shoes identity that had plagued me until then.

Is spanking effective?

Fundamental to the controversy about paddling is the question as to the effectiveness of any kind of punishment in meeting our goal of producing self- disciplined, reasoned, confident, and caring individuals.  One lesson which must be learned in order to achieve this level of maturity is that behaviors have consequences.  Without this realization children are apt to lack judgement and make poor decisions throughout their lives.  I do not believe there is a one size fits all approach to teaching this concept, but the strategy used may vary depending on the personalities of both the parent and the child.  Among the most important factors in disciplining a child is consistency.  Children can hardly be expected to learn the lesson about consequences if a given transgression is treated differently from one time to the next.

My history with spanking

Punishments carried out in anger serve the parent’s needs rather than the child’s.  It goes without saying that when provoked with anger we are apt to be impulsive and exercise poor judgement; consequently it is a good idea to count to 10 before deciding on a response.   Now and then I think of an episode in which I flunked that particular test of patience, resulting in me feeling not only guilty but foolish.  My two grandsons were visiting and discovered a toy gun from my son’s childhood (No, my son has not shown any inclination to shoot anyone in spite of this early training).   My grandsons were barely more than toddlers, but were fascinated by the gun.  Their interest was probably fueled by the absence of toy guns in their lives as their parents did not believe it was a good idea to teach kids to shoot people; besides the game of playing cowboys and Indians, so popular in my childhood was no longer politically correct.

The boys were the same age and had always played together and seemed to enjoy each other’s company; however as you might expect the presence of two boys and only one desirable object was certain to result in conflict, and it did.  Initially there was a tussle, then one of the boys who shall remain forever nameless wrested the gun away and promptly hit his cousin on the head with it.  This was not a love tap, and could have done significant damage.  I was incensed, and promptly smacked him on the butt with my hand.   Later I would realize that I was angry with myself for not being adult enough to intervene before the situation got out of hand, and for violating my own rule about acting in anger.  Needless to say Grandpa’s overindulgence would reach a new high for the remainder of that weekend.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to ask my son if I had ever spanked him.  He said that I had but that it had been rare.  I find it very interesting that I have no memory of ever spanking him, while the previously mentioned episode is so firmly imbedded in this tired old brain.  I suspect that the answer is that I, the control freak, uncharacteristically lost control, and in such a state could have done serious harm to a little guy I loved.  As a psychiatrist I have seen many people with problems dealing with and controlling their anger.  It seems reasonable to me that for such people to engage in corporal punishment is dangerous and may account for many if not most cases of child abuse.  Unfortunately there is little that can be done about these parents until after the damage is done.  For some, this alone is enough justification to warrant a ban on any kind of physical punishment to children.

Does spanking damage children?

Certainly the most important issue in the spanking debate is the effect that it may have on children.  Research in the social sciences is notoriously difficult in that it is almost impossible to control all the variables when doing large scale population studies.  For example, an article at cites sociologist Annette Lareau saying that research shows that “corporal punishment on average correlates with lower measures of cognitive ability, such as IQ,” but follows with the admission that “measures like IQ are confounded by many variables.” Consequently; one can find corroboration on almost any position one takes if they search hard enough.  Few statistics are available regarding the incidence of spanking.  An ABC poll showed that 65% of Americans approve of spanking and 50% of the parents said they have spanked their children. According to a Gallup poll 28% of American families spank their children. It is said that a majority of those who admit to spanking are conservative Christians, although I could find no evidence to confirm that premise.  Indeed one study found a higher incidence in non- Christian nations.  Many refer to the phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” as a Biblical admonition, but it was first coined by Samuel Butler in a poem called Hudibras written in 1664.  The Biblical literalists who espouse spanking generally refer to several passages in proverbs in which beating your child is described as an act of love, just another reason for my not getting into the old testament.  Although I can’t picture Solomon as a sadist, I do have concerns that such passages may give license to those who are.

My experience as a psychiatrist and insights from patients about being spanked as children

During my many years as a psychodynamically oriented psychiatrist I have listened to literally hundreds of people tell the stories of their childhood.  It is dangerous to draw conclusions from such anecdotal information, especially when it may be colored by subjective perceptions.  Nevertheless; one would expect these perceptions to have some relevance.  As I reflect on the issue, it comes to mind that most had experienced some kind of physical punishment, usually spanking.  As you might expect my sample is skewed since many of these people had obviously suffered severe psychological damage due to extremely cruelty administered in the guise of discipline.

There were many who resented having been spanked, but more often identified overly strict parenting as their major complaint.  In other words it seemed not to be the spanking per se which disturbed them but rather it’s too frequent and injudicious use.  Of course there were those examples which may have crossed that line into abuse.  On the other hand there were significant numbers of patients who recalled almost fondly their experiences with the paddle.  Those folks seemed to interpret physical punishment as evidence that their parents cared about them, thus appearing to give some credence to the Solomon philosophy.

This same interpretation is also common among friends of my generation who are likely to be more critical of parents “who let their kids run wild” than of those who physically punish their children.  The phrase “that kid needs his little butt smacked “ is often heard among my contemporaries; although it is rarely recommended for their own grandchildren.  There is no doubt that society’s laissez faire attitude regarding such issues contributed to child abuse, and that mistreatment of children is still a major problem in many parts of the world and even here in this so called enlightened society.  It is true that many parents have abrogated their responsibilities toward their children, but it is also true that in our country while many children are overindulged many are neglected usually due to poverty.  Both groups need to learn discipline, but are denied, the first because of permissiveness and the second due to hopelessness.

The acceptance of discipline tactics changes with the times in which we live

Not so many generations ago ours was an agrarian society.  Families were generally much larger, and children were expected to work the land alongside the adult members of the family.  A sense of responsibility and strong work ethic were highly prized as the family’s wellbeing and at times even their survival was at stake.  Sending children to school represented a sacrifice as it took them away from work on the farm.  Summer months were the most labor intensive time for farmers thus began the practice of closing schools during the summer as we continue to this day.  I have no doubt that children were loved in those days, but I think it is safe to say they were rarely coddled.  It also seems clear that punishment was harsh when compared to present day standards.  Many of those disciplinary actions would in our time be considered abusive, while our ancestors would undoubtedly label them as methods to teach societal values and behaviors.

Those attitudes stand in marked contrast to those of our generation.  With fewer children in each family they are more likely to be overindulged and overprotected as parents have placed all their expectations in one or two baskets.  A dramatic example of this phenomenon exists in China where more than one child per family was prohibited.  This has resulted in an epidemic of childhood obesity which rivals that of the United States.  Some also feel that it has contributed to excessive narcissism among many of these kids.  I recently heard that the Chinese government has rescinded this anti-propagation law for fear that it will eventually result in a shortage of labor.

Now that children have little economic value, parenting has become even more of a vicarious activity than it has been in the past.  We want our children to “make us proud” which actually translates to allowing us to relive our past hopefully with better results.  In my own case, I am especially invested in my children and grandchildren’s athletic successes since I had tried out for every sport offered at my high school, but never made the team.  When one of the kids wins a game, some of my DNA was involved, and I find that very satisfying.  Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than at a little league or biddy football game, where parents complain constantly about the officiating as if any perceived bad call is a personal affront.  The coach’s authority is often questioned and opposition players may be denigrated.  I am told that so called “trash talking” has become part of the game, and that deception strategies are welcomed.  Even the concept of sportsmanship appears to have evaporated.  It is my contention that teaching effectiveness is influenced more by what we do than by what we say.  In other words I believe that children tend to model their behaviors after those close to them even when those behaviors are objectionable (monkey see, monkey do).

Opinions about child rearing were influenced in the past century by Freudian ideas.  The emphasis on childhood traumas as the cause of most mental disorders was center to Freud’s theories; consequently parents, especially mothers, were to blame for causing a lifetime of problems for their children.  Mothers as primary nurturers assumed responsibility for their child’s successes and failures.  The “where did we go wrong” lament was frequently heard, and motherhood took a hit.  Alfred Adler, one of Freud’s disciples, emphasized what he called the inferiority complex which he felt had its origins in failures on the part of parents to enhance self-esteem.  This led to the position that criticism was to be avoided at all costs and that children should be always praised in order to protect their fragile egos.  Of course spanking by devotees to this philosophy would be a definite no no.

These ideas became institutionalized: teachers were taught to never be critical, and Mr. Rogers came along to tell kids how wonderful they were.  There were to be no losers for when there was a group activity in which there was competition, everyone would get a trophy.   Marshal Mcluhan commented that the so called TV generation was growing up feeling they should be entertained; however there has been some progress in that now kids spend hours interacting via video games rather than sitting motionless for hours at a time.  Still such things do little to nourish creativity.   Sixty years ago Dr. Hugh Misseldine, a child psychiatrist, delivered a lecture to my medical school class in which he stated that children who are overindulged grow up to be bored.

Have all these factors conspired to leave many of our children feeling entitled? Have we fostered over confidence setting them up for failure?  Have we impaired their judgement by not allowing them to suffer consequences?  Do we assume  responsibilities that should belong to them?  Last but by no means least do we really have as much power to affect our children’s development as we think we do?

I’m ready to render an opinion

Now, after that brief prelude I am ready to get around to answering Maggie’s question (she should know me well enough to not expect a simple answer to any question).   First I feel the need to address the paddle issue.  She may recall that I  manufactured that paddle with great fanfare, and hung it on a wall in the family room for all to see.  I don’t recall if I ever used it, but I do know that its primary purpose was intimidation.  That must have worked for I never had a need to use it on anyone after that.  I was aware that it had been hidden, and remember chuckling to myself about my oldest daughter Molly’s ingenuity.

A few years back I saw a patient who blamed her problems on a conflicted childhood which she described as chaotic.She reported that her father was very warm, loving and attentive except when he was drinking which was frequently.  When he came home drunk, the children would all look for some place to hide for he would become violent and abusive.  Her conflict centered around deciding which was the real person.  Was his behavior when sober an act or did he really love her.  This to my mind is the most important factor in answering the question.  I strongly believe that the most damaging thing which can happen to a child is perceived parental rejection.  The emphasis here is on the child’s perception as to whether he is loved even when punished.  As with Harlow’s wire cage monkeys children simply cannot mature without appropriate nurturing.  To feel unloved may be the most painful of all human experiences.

Since we cannot know how a child will interpret our motivations and since they tend to learn from and eventually mimic our behaviors, I lean rather strongly to the thumbs down answer.

Maggie’s addendum. In the introduction of dad’s post, I said I would answer my dad’s suggestion that I provide examples of discipline that I view as beneficial. Here goes…

There are several times as a child, I wished my parents would have spanked me instead of rendering consequences that seemed to last an eternity. One such time was when I mouthed off to my mom…I don’t remember exactly what I said or did, but she said, “I don’t want to hear another word. If I do, you’re going to be grounded for a week.” The challenge was on! I, of course, mouthed off in protest and she said, “That’s it, you are grounded for one week. Do you want to go for two?” Of course I did! This battle of the wills continued until I was up to four weeks of being grounded.

I sulked the entire weekend, and then started my campaign for goodness. I did my chores, I was pleasant, rubbed my mom’s back and feet before bed, asked how her day went…the whole enchilada. My friend Annette asked me to spend the night for a big sleepover the following week…mom and I had been getting along great and I had been the model daughter. I said, “Mom, Annette is having a sleepover Saturday. I’ve already done my chores and cleaned out my closet. Can I tell her I can come?”

Mom said she just needed to check the calendar. “Oh, honey you’re still grounded. Tell Annette you can spend the night three weeks from tomorrow,” she announced in her nicest mom voice. “I wish you would just spank me like normal parents,” I muttered under my breath as I stomped out of the room.

When Steve and I decided we would never spank our children, we had to have a strategy. The most valuable advice I acquired (other than the example of my parents) was a book called “Kids Are Worth It.” The main takeaways: identify your child’s currency at the time (it changes); be consistent; keep your word (follow-through); make them tell you not just what they did wrong but what they should do differently the next time (appropriate responses); embrace natural consequences; exhibit the behavior you want them to model; and make sure they know you love them.

The “currency” thing is key! My kids didn’t grow up in a “neighborhood” so grounding them like my parents did, wasn’t going to work. With Simon, there was a time when grounding him from the Playstation was a punishment worse than death, but he would have times when he wasn’t into gaming so I had to figure out what would make the biggest impact.

Another lesson: make sure it’s something you can control. During one stage, his phone was the currency that mattered. I took it away, but realized that I needed him to have a phone in order for me to reach him when I was at work since I had gotten rid of our landline. I gave him the “uncool” pay as you go phone. I soon learned my lesson: I can’t physically make him turn on the phone.

The last time he was grounded might have been even more of a punishment for me than him. I had given him permission to go to a concert with three of his friends. He had been looking forward to it for months. It was a big deal. He got mouthy and verbally abusive. I gave him the warning: he tested me. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked with a second warning. “F-you. I hate you. Everybody hates you.” Done. No concert. Grounded for the weekend. He kept it up. Grounded from everything: phone, computer, X-box…life. It was a long weekend since I had to stick to him like glue to enforce the punishment (good times…hanging out with an angry, sulking teenager). Stuck with each other for the entire weekend, we emerged with a better relationship even though I was exhausted. He seemed to develop a renewed respect for his mom who would do what she said (no matter how painful) and I was proud of myself for sticking to my guns.

I was fortunate Caroline’s personality has been less confrontational. She is introverted and her currency was books. I used to think to myself, “If I need to dole out punishment, what am I going to do? Ground her from reading?” Somehow that didn’t seem right. Fortunately, she hasn’t had to be grounded yet.

Two things from my dad’s article that are especially pertinent: methods of discipline have much to do with societal norms (in his day, it was common for kids to get spanked…almost a right of passage) but today it can make a child feel confused since peers don’t experience that same discipline; children crave and need consistency; and the fact that your child’s perception of events IS his/her reality. This last lesson my dad taught me has served me well. I often asked my children, “What do you think I meant?” It is amazing how they perceive what I have said in ways I never intended.

My all time proudest moment as a parent was when daughter Caroline sat down and started counting to 10 while taking deep breaths  when I told her she couldn’t have yet another cookie. “I am so frustrated right now. I just need to take a break for a minute,” she said–she had watched me do that through the years and pulled it out for a coping tactic.

The difficulty with parenting is that you never really know how you’re doing and won’t know for years to come. A kid isn’t going to say, “Good move, mom. I really learned my lesson with that punishment.” One thing I do know: nobody has ever given me a good reason as to the need to spank a child. I still contend it is lazy parenting.

2 thoughts on “SPANKING: Discipline or Abuse?

    1. Hi Rebecca,
      I’m answering for my dad. He’s still working on accessing the comments section. I can’t find a way to add Dennis to the mailing list. He needs to “follow” the blog and will be notified of new posts. However, I will tell dad to add him to his email list when he posts a new blog. Thanks so much for reading and following!
      Maggie (eshrink’s editor and daughter)


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