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Spanking Children: Harmful, Not Helpful

Apr 19, 2023

You might be looking at this title and wondering why, in 2023, I am writing about spanking kids. Some of you may think that nobody hits their kids anymore while others might think hitting for disciplinary reasons is not a problem. The fact is that yes, many kids are still being hit or “spanked” and the evidence is really clear that it is not an effective or healthy form of discipline and it can do a lot of damage. My intention with this article is not to shame anyone, especially if you are of the older generation where this was an accepted and common parenting tool. Many of you were told (even by your pediatrician!) that this was the “right” thing to do. You may have even been hit yourself and felt like you came out of childhood unscathed and well-adjusted and that may be true! There is no judgement here. Instead, I want to open up conversation, offer new information and encourage introspection. If your children are already grown up, there is still what to learn here. Stick with me.

Often when I bring up the topic of being spanked as a child, I’ll hear things like “I was hit and I’m fine!” “It didn’t affect me, I learned to listen.”  Child therapist Justin Coulson wrote a great piece where he outlined the errors of this argument. He says, when people use the “I was hit and I turned out fine” argument they are basing this on their experience alone and ignoring everyone else’s experience. It is similar to saying “I got blackout drunk and I was fine!” Do we think it is safe or wise to get blackout drunk? What is being said is that I am not negatively affected (as far as I can tell) so it must be fine for everyone else.  Related to this point, a statement like this ignores the research that tells us otherwise. Also, what is the determinant of being “fine”? They are not in prison? They have a job? They have a relationship? These are pretty basic. People who were not spanked can be fine in this regard as well. Just because someone cannot recognize the harm in something does not mean harm is not present. Perhaps they are attributing their own personal struggles, whether it’s with self-esteem, people pleasing, trust of themselves or others, controlling their temper, difficulty making decisions, etc., to other causes but in reality, being hit plays a large factor in these issues.

Most of us would agree that it is not okay to hit a partner, friend, coworker or any other adult just because we feel angry with them or want to teach them a lesson; why then do we not agree that it is problematic to hit a child - a person who is smaller and younger than we are - because we feel angry or want to teach them a lesson. If we hit our partner, it would be called domestic violence but when we hit our kids it is called discipline? Some people argue whether spanking is really abuse. To that I say, violence is still violence regardless of where it falls on the continuum. It is a really bad idea to see how far we can go until we actually fall in to the” abuse” category. Let’s do better for our children and agree that hitting and aggression are not loving acts and cause real damage.

Child development experts have clearly shown that hitting causes harm. Even if the hit is not strong (I have heard people say things like “I just tapped his bottom”) the fear and anxiety it creates releases cortisol and other stress hormones that can cause damage to a developing brain and body. It is also related to increased aggression, depression, impulse control disorders, crime and delinquency, anxiety, social issues, suicidal ideation, moral internalization issues, attachment issues and relationship problems.  

Reviews of the research on corporal punishment show that there is little to no evidence that spanking is effective. In fact, researchers found that the only “desirable” outcome was immediate compliance and that was not across the board. Many kids acted out more severely. Hitting doesn’t teach appropriate behavior. It doesn’t teach the child why what the child did was not okay or unsafe. It doesn’t convey a message of love and concern, just the opposite actually. It does not motivate the child to want to do better for themselves. Instead, they will operate out of fear and when that fear is eventually gone, it is usually replaced with resentment, anger and wounded self-esteem. There are better and more effective ways to get kids to do what they need to do without physically or emotionally harming them.

Hitting children gives kids some really unhealthy messages such as:

Hitting gains control because in order to get you to listen or cooperate I can hit you.

Hitting is used by those in power because if I hit, I am powerful and in control

Hitting is an acceptable way to communicate displeasure because when you do something wrong, I hit you.

Might makes right because I am bigger and stronger than you so I can do hat I want to those who are weaker or more vulnerable than me.

Fear and threats are effective tools because I use them when I want you to do something.

And most problematic and dangerous, people who love you can hurt you.  Love and violence become inextricably connected.

I have had parents ask me about a “safety hit”. This is hitting a child when they are about to do something dangerous like run in to the street, hit their baby brother or touch something hot. To this I ask, if you were about to walk in to the street while a car was coming and I slapped you, what would you be more focused on? “I was just saved by Rachel and I need to be more careful. Thank you, Rachel” or “WHY DID YOU HIT ME?? Who does this lady think she is??”  Calling it a “safety hit” doesn’t change the fact that it is still hitting. A child cannot differentiate. All they know is that they are being hurt. Again, hitting takes the focus off what we want to teach and puts the child in to victim/self-protection mode. They may not do these things with you but because they did not learn any new information about that situation or any skill, they might engage in the same behavior with grandma or at school. If you hit when they run in to the street, they are not afraid of running in to the street, they are afraid of you. If you hit them to tell them not to hit their baby brother do you see how that’s contradictory? They are likely hitting for the same reason you are! “I don’t like what the baby is doing (taking your time and attention) and I want him to stop. I feel mad”. Also, “safety hits” are really just a slippery slope. Very often this opens the door to more frequent hitting for minor issues and more severe abuse.

There are many non-violent ways to communicate with your child. You can use a stern voice, this in itself is a consequence and gets the child’s attention to know that something serious just happened. From there you can talk about what occurred and offer better alternatives. We as parents need to focus less on control and obedience and more on explaining and educating our kids. Less punishing, more learning. If the goal is that the child shouldn’t run in the street, hit when they feel frustrated or touch the stove then we want them to learn the skills of looking and waiting, using their words to express frustration or sadness and understanding why kitchen appliances can be dangerous and how they can identify if an appliance is on or hot.  If we want our kids to be better emotionally regulated, we have to be better emotionally regulated.

Sometimes parents tell me they think their kids cannot understand these explanations to which I counter: if they cannot understand your language what makes you think they will understand the not-at-all-connected- connection between being spanked or hit and running in the street (or any other undesirable behavior)? The purpose of discipline is to teach- that is literally the definition of the word. Hitting is not discipline. It is simply aggression.

Not convinced yet? Here is what neuro imaging of the brain shows us: Spanking causes increased cortisol (a stress hormone). Chronic high levels of cortisol have been linked to heart disease, anxiety, depression, memory impairment and fatigue.  It also cases a chemical disruption of the brain’s mechanism for regulating stress. If you are someone who spanks and your kids are still out of control and you can’t understand why- you may be in a vicious cycle. Spanking can also cause slower cognitive development and have adverse effects on academic achievement (kids will have a harder time in school).  Most alarmingly, it has been shown that spanking can reduce the volume of the brain’s grey matter. This is the region of the brain that is involved in emotions, decision making, memory, self-control and speech. Finally, spanking can cause changes in the reward pathways of the brain which are associated with vulnerability to abuse of drugs and alcohol. The gray matter that is quite literally being spanked out of them is what the brain needs in order to learn better self-regulation. Hence, as I said earlier, hitting only serves to make parenting harder and causes kids to be more out of control.

Professor Elizabeth Gershoff, Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, is known as one of the lead researchers on the effects of spanking. According to Professor Gershoff, “There is no study that I have ever done that demonstrated a positive consequence of spanking. Most of us will stop what we are doing if someone hits us, but that doesn’t mean we’ve learned why somebody hit us or what we should be doing instead, which is the real motive of discipline.” In a 2016 study, Gershoff and colleagues found that “hugs, not hits” were stronger predictors of increased child social competence and decreased child aggression over time. One study found that the best bet for parents was to model the behavior they want to see in their children (crazy concept, right?). The more parents expressed affection toward and engaged in positive interactions with their kids the more friendly, open and kind their children became.  In short, if you want your children to be warm, friendly, sociable and to manage their emotions in a healthy way, then you should be modeling that in your interactions with them. Spanking teaches that hitting is acceptable and most parents don’t want their kids to be aggressive. Key to that goal is not hitting them.

What can you do now if you previously hit your kids and you want to stop? First and foremost, take responsibility. Own up and apologize. As parents it is a good parenting practice to be doing this for any and all mistakes we make, not just hitting. I over reacted when you talked back? “I’m sorry. I know you were upset and having a hard time and there was a better way for me to let you know that I didn’t appreciate how you were speaking. I am the parent and it is my job to stay calm. I love you”.  I screamed at you when you knocked over your cup? “What I did wasn’t ok. Accidents happen and I wouldn’t want someone to yell at me if I did that, I’m sorry and I love you. I’m going to work on being less reactive. It is not your problem; this is something I need to work on.” FYI, this is an important skill with your romantic partner as well.

It is fine and healthy to tell our kids that we messed up.  Tell them that you read an article from a fabulous Five Towns therapist that really opened your eyes and you want to do better. Tell your kids you know now that hitting is wrong and you don’t want to do it anymore. Let them know that you don’t want them to do it either and that is another reason that you want to change. After this it is important to gain parenting tools to help you deal with challenging behavior in a more gentle and effective way. There are so many amazing parenting resources available online and in book stores. I highly recommend starting there (I have shared some recommendations at the end of this article).

If you have finished raising your kids you can still make things right. It is never too late to make a repair with our children. Admitting mistakes and making apologies to our kids does not undermine us as parents. On the contrary, it can make our kids trust, respect and love us more. It creates safety and models healthy relationship behavior. Validation, recognition and repair is always a good idea. It is never too late to do the right thing.

Remember that when we make mistakes it is never helpful to get bogged down with guilt and shame.  Instead, internalize that you are not your actions. You are responsible for how you act but you are not a bad person. You can always start again. Show yourself compassion because thinking you are a bad person will make it more likely that you will act like one. Forgive yourself. Finally, ask yourself what you can learn from your mistakes. Torturing yourself doesn’t make you a better person, growth and learning does.

For those of you who were spanked or hit as a child, for your mental health and healing it is important to think about becoming a cycle breaker and finding forgiveness for your parents (I am not referring to anyone who was seriously and violently abused or sexually abused. In these cases, forgiveness is not an appropriate discussion for healing). Thirty years ago, spanking was considered an acceptable parenting practice. We know now that it was not only not helpful but really harmful. At the time though, most parents truly believed it was the loving thing to do (hence the “This hurts me more than it hurts you” line). This does not mean that your parents never hit out of anger or frustration but they likely did not know how harmful it was. The world did not know then what we know now about attachment, child development, and parenting. Now that we know more, we can do differently. We can acquire new tools and coping mechanisms to do differently and teach more effectively. Remember that holding on to anger and resentment prevents change and only serves to hurt you. You can acknowledge that your parents’ approach was wrong and accept that it may be the root of some of your issues. With that being said, the responsibility lies with you to deal with those issues now, especially if your parents are not the type to take ownership and make a repair with you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what happened was okay but it can help you to move forward and heal. You can love your parents and simultaneously recognize that they are human and made mistakes. You may even have a really nice relationship with them now and that is why it is hard to admit that any physical violence was actually harmful. Two things can be true, your parents really loved you and they did things that hurt you.

To wrap up, I believe that most parents don’t actually want to hit their kids. As a parent, I know that it cannot feel good to behave like that. I feel terrible when I yell! I would feel even worse if I hit. I firmly believe that most people are just repeating what was done to them in their own homes. It is always okay to say “I did not know about this before and now that I do I want to find out how to stop and do better.” If you are working to break the cycle, thank you for making the world a better place! You are literally making new connections in your brain, which is not easy, and making healthier ones for your own children.

If you want to learn more about how to parent more effectively without corporal punishment, I highly recommend Brain Body Parenting by Mona Delahooke, No Drama Discipline by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson and Dr. Becky Kennedy’s book Good Inside as well as her podcast called Good Inside with Dr. Becky. I specifically love her approach to parent education because she operates from the premise that we are all good inside (including us, the parents) and this belief is much more conducive to change and growth. If you are on Instagram, I really love Blimie Heller of Unconditional Parenting (@unconditional_parenting).

Here’s to becoming better humans and raising them too!




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