Problems When Parents Spank Kids

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I told you to stop doing that!” yelled the mother as she spanked her three year old son’s behind. Her son lets out a yelp and stops what he was doing. The mother does not feel happy that she had to spank her son, but it did get results.

The problem is that spanking is not as successful as parents would like to think it is. The goal of any punishment is to stop future misbehavior from happening. While spanking does stop the current behavior, it usually is not as successful in stopping future misbehavior.

In fact, a recent research study that recorded parent-child interactions found that most children misbehaved again within ten minutes of having been spanked. A ten minute respite from misbehavior is hardly a ringing endorsement for the effectiveness of spanking.

The same study found several other flaws in the ways parents spanked. One flaw is that spanking should be used infrequently and as a last resort. Yet, parents who did spank their children were found to use spanking as their second option and spank just 30 seconds after a conflict started with little warning to the child.

A second flaw is that parents should spank only for serious misbehaviors. However, most parents in the study tended to spank for violating minor social conventions such as eating improperly or sucking on their fingers. This would not constitute a serious misbehavior.

A third flaw in the way parents spank their children is that spanking should not be done in anger. This can be very difficult to do when a child is pushing his parents’ buttons. This difficulty is reflected in the study as half of the parents were clearly angry when they spanked their child. When parents are angry, their anger can spill over and the spanking can be much harder or longer than the misbehavior warrants.

What this research shows is that it is difficult to do spanking in a manner that is effective in reducing a child’s future misbehavior. The numerous flaws in the ways that parents administer spanking illustrates the need for a more effective alternative for childhood discipline.

An effective technique that has far less negative consequences for a child is timeout. In brief, timeout is removing a child from a situation for a set period of time. The rule of thumb is to remove a child for one minute for every year of age. For example, a five year old would be in timeout for five minutes.

The child should be put in an isolated yet safe place during timeout. A washroom or the corner of a room are a couple of examples. Once a child has been taught what timeout is and how they can get out, parents can put it into action.

While there are some days that parents will feel that their child is living in timeout, it gradually begins to reduce future misbehaviors. This is the whole purpose of punishment and it is strikingly different than the repeat misbehaviors that occur when parents spank.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on July 27, 2014.

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