To spank or not to spank?

One of the most controversial topics among parents is that of spanking. Should toddlers be spanked? If so, with a hand or another object? Should older children be spanked for being deceitful? Rude? Forgetful? For doing badly at school? Should teenagers ever be spanked?

Spanking caricatures

Too often these questions lead to anger and intolerance rather than valuable discussion. Each extreme has caricatured ideas of the other. Those who believe that no child should ever be spanked assume that those who do are always abusive. They see some parents who shout and threaten their children, not listening to them, and then spanking as their child demands more and more attention. They hear of the horrors of children beaten violently, or read about appalling new theories proposing measures such as spanking toddlers merely for showing curiosity. It can be hard to understand that there is a difference between occasional, controlled spanking, and violent abuse.

Those who do believe in spanking may have seen children running wild, not listening to their parents or any other adult, doing whatever they please, sometimes hurting other people – and insist that a little ‘discipline’ would work wonders. They see bullies and those who fight their parents, perhaps shop-lifting or vandalising property, and claim that such children should have been spanked when they were younger, to help them to learn the difference between right and wrong.

Personality of the child

While I used to believe that some children responded well to a mild spank – a single tap on the hand or leg – reminding them about boundaries, I have moved, over the years, further into the non-spanking camp. I would now say that some children are probably unharmed by the occasional light spank – or smack, as we prefer to say in the UK and may even learn something from it. But by no means all of them.

Some children are clearly deeply offended by being hit in any way, and become angry with their parents as a result. Some, by contrast, don’t seem to care at all, and a few have even stated that they would actually prefer to be spanked than to be sent to their rooms, or banned from the TV, because it’s over with quickly. However, the more I observe different parenting methods, and the more I look back over my own experiences, the more I see that ‘punishment’ of any kind is usually unhelpful and counter-productive. Discussion, and perhaps logical or natural consequences are far better and more positive teaching tools.

Spanking within boundaries

Many parents who believe in spanking or smacking in principle have quite specific self-imposed guidelines. They believe in giving plenty of positive attention and encouragement, and saying ‘No’ as infrequently as possible. They believe in creative solving of problems. They believe in explanations, reasoning, and cuddling, and know that children (like adults) sometimes behave badly when they are tired or ill.

These parents generally reserve spanking for two occasions: firstly, when a child too young to understand reasoning is about to run into danger. They point out that a quick smack can be a reminder to a child not to run into the street, or to go near a vicious dog. A small amount of pain saves a much greater, and possibly fatal amount. But this kind of smack will be rare, and only for children under the age of about three or four who have not yet developed the kind of language and reasoning skills necessary to understand danger themselves.

The other time when some parents spank their children is for what is termed ‘wilful disobedience’. I am a little ambivalent about this term. However, as an example, if a parent needs to go somewhere in the car and has nowhere to leave their child, then there should be a non-negotiable rule that the child is strapped into their seat. This is both a legal requirement and necessary for safety. Most children understand this and – never having been in a car without being strapped in – will not even think of arguing.

But sometimes a child feels like objecting, and may undo the straps, or scream at the idea of going in his seat. Assuming that the child is not ill, that the seat is comfortable, and that he has a choice of toys or snacks as usual in the car, this might be considered ‘wilful disobedience’ if he continues to object strongly and unstrap himself once the parent has explained. In this case, some parents will give an ultimatum: ‘Let me strap you in before I count to five, or I will spank you.’

This shows the child how serious the parent is, and gives him a last chance to be sensible. Indeed, most parents find that this threat needs only ever be made (and carried out) once. In future, simply ‘Strap yourself in before I count to five’ will be sufficient for the child to understand and do what the parent asks.

When the journey is finished, and the parent and child are spending some time together in a non-stressful situation, the parent will talk to the child about what happened, and try to find out what caused the anger or screaming. They will aim to find some way of avoiding such a situation in the future, and will explain again why the child could not travel without being strapped in, emphasising that it is because the parent loves him so much and does not want him hurt badly.

Discuss, listen, negotiate

I don’t wish to judge anyone, and parents using the occasional smack as above clearly know their children and may feel they have no choice. Still, beyond these two kinds of extreme situation, and over the age of about five or six at most, I do not personally believe that smacking or spanking are ever acceptable. As soon as our children develop conversational skills, they learn the power of negotiation. We need to give them some boundaries for their safety, but they should be as few as possible, and always open to discussion. No child wants to be in danger, after all. So long as parents take their children seriously, and listen to them, and give them plenty of time and conversation, most children will equally take their parents seriously and accept that – at times – the parents are more knowledgeable and experienced and should not be ignored.

So to answer the questions in the first paragraph:

I don’t believe a child should ever be spanked (or punished in any other way) simply for being a child, which often includes rudeness, forgetfulness, or even lying on occasion. I don’t believe he should ever be spanked with anything other than a hand, as it might cause damage. I don’t believe he should be spanked for school problems, which usually occur because of boredom, or being bullied, and I absolutely don’t believe that older children or teens should ever be spanked. The more we respect our children, the more they will respect us; moreover, some children’s personalities mean that no smack or spank is never a good idea for them.

However, there is not just a fine line but a huge gap between occasional, controlled spanking for pre-defined reasons, and violent abuse. To ban all spanking in the hope of stopping abusive beating is as pointless as banning all alcohol in the hope of stopping drunkenness. It merely pushes the problem underground.

There are not simply two kinds of family, those who spank and those who don’t. Is it better to have a loving family where the child is given plenty of care and attention, lots of freedom, and has all his questions taken seriously – although he is occasionally spanked under circumstances similar to those I have outlined – or to have a child who is never spanked, but has his parents screaming and shouting at him, sending him to his room, and ignoring his questions?

Further reading:

Understanding temperament
Learning styles

Reading aloud
Are all teenagers horrible?
Parenting theories

Jealous of the new baby