Parents may spank or hit their child in anger or frustration or when they don’t know how else to get their point across. Some parents believe that spanking is the only way to teach their child to listen and behave well. Yet spanking is not necessary; there are other, more effective ways to get children to change their behavior.
In our society, spanking is still a widely accepted method of discipline. Many parents defend spanking by saying, “I was spanked and I turned out okay,” or “It’s the only way to get the message across.” Others feel defensive and embarrassed about hitting their children: “I know I shouldn’t have spanked him, but …” Some parents feel guilty after spanking and want to follow up with a hug or an apology to assure themselves they haven’t lost their child’s love. Still other parents say that, though they spank, they really don’t believe spanking changes their child’s negative behavior. Even those parents who strongly believe in the effectiveness of spanking say it usually only temporarily stops inappropriate behavior.
There are problems with spanking. Most importantly, your child will imitate what you do. One three-year-old, after hitting her brother, was yelled at by her father: “Don’t you ever hit your brother!” The three-year-old responded, “You did it. Last night you hit me.” If you hit your child, why shouldn’t she also hit when someone does something she doesn’t like? Can you fairly tell your child not to hit when you discipline her by spanking? Does it make sense to tell your child to “use words” when she’s angry, while you spank her when you’re upset with her behavior?
Spanking can be a particular problem because a young child doesn’t understand ahead of time that an action is wrong. If she’s spanked, she won’t easily see that she’s done something inappropriate, but rather will focus on the pain and embarrassment of the spanking. It’s very difficult for a young child to make a connection between her own behavior and a spanking, yet one of the goals of discipline is to have children make those connections.
Spanking a child may actually hinder discipline. All parents want their child to eventually develop self-discipline and a sense of right and wrong. As children grow older, they start to feel badly about their unacceptable behavior, and their gradually emerging sense of guilt keeps them from misbehaving as frequently. But when a child is spanked for her wrongdoings, she doesn’t learn to monitor her own behavior. She may learn instead that, as long as she doesn’t get caught, she can misbehave. And if she does get caught, guilty feelings she has will be relieved by the spanking, since she has paid the consequences. She’ll learn that if she can tolerate the spanking, she doesn’t have to feel bad about her negative actions or try to change her behavior. Even when parents explain to their child why they’ve spanked her and how they want her to change, she may be too angry or humiliated at the time of the spanking to listen and learn.
Discipline works best when you set firm limits verbally and then follow through by removing your child from the scene of her misbehavior, taking away an object or privilege she’s abused, or having her spend time sitting away from the family until she changes her behavior. When punishment is relevant to the inappropriate behavior, when your child throws a block and is made to stop playing with the blocks, she learns to make the connection between her actions and its consequences. Until children develop self-control, they’re motivated best by their desire for parental approval and the fear of losing privileges and toys.
Parents often think that they must spank their young child to teach critical safety rules, such as not to run in the street. Of course, making certain children are safe is a must. To keep children safe, parents need to closely supervise, and give consistent warnings and frequent reminders.
Sometimes parents say, “When I tell my child to stop, she ignores me, but when I spank her, she does what I want.” One mother who was browsing in a department store with her three-year-old became angry when her daughter tried to investigate the dressing rooms. She repeatedly told her child not to go near them and then spanked her for not listening. The child cried, turned around in circles several times, and looked defeated. The situation is a familiar one, yet the mother had other options that would have left her and her child feeling happier. Since young children have a hard time listening to limits when they have an intense need to explore, the mother could have acknowledged her child’s interest and even taken a moment to look into the dressing room with her. This might have made it easier for her child to do what she wanted.
Because children’s behavior can be so frustrating, parents sometimes find themselves on the verge of “losing it” and may feel ready to hit or spank their child. At such times, it’s important to remember that young children have only a limited ability to integrate rules.
Disciplining children is a necessary, complex, and gradual task. Your young child needs to be reminded of limits over and over, and often firmly. Try to have realistic and age-appropriate expectations, and be patient as she slowly learns self-discipline. If you spank her, she’ll feel defenseless, humiliated, and angry, and won’t understand the connection between what she did and what you’re doing to her. It takes self-control not to spank and to trust that your child can still learn appropriate behavior.