The topic of parenting is a sensitive one, especially when the conversation directs to discipline. One such method of discipline in particular has long been debatable: spanking. While many parents agree on its appropriateness, more and more parents are opting out of this disciplinary action. In fact, in 1979, Sweden was the first country to actually implement spanking as illegal.
Rights Specialist Emme Kristensson from BRIS (Children’s Rights in Society) states, “It’s a basic human right to grow up free from violence of any kind and abuse, we see that even lesser forms of aggression and violence have long-term effects on you as an individual.”
However, many countries have opposed banning spanking or smacking, like New Zealand. People who opposed the ban claimed that, “no decent research shows [a] smack by a loving parent breeds violence.” But they actually may be wrong.
A recent study published in The Journal of Family Psychology by experts at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, claim that children who get spanked are more likely to “defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.“
And this isn’t just a typical study that monitored children for maybe a couple of years. In fact, researchers say “it is the most complete analysis to date of the outcomes associated with spanking, and more specific to the effects of spanking alone than previous papers, which included other types of physical punishment in their analyses.” This study is based off of a meta-analysis of 50 years of research involving over 160,000 children.
The analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking—an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities. When any parent chooses to spank their child, more often than not his or her intention is to create long-term obedience, when in reality, it only creates immediate obedience.
“We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
Undoubtedly, parents only want what’s best for their children, so their intention of course isn’t to cause long-term side effects from what they’ve always believed an appropriate form of discipline. That’s why it is vital for all parents to recognize the effects they could unknowingly be causing to their offspring.
“The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.” —Co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work
Most people would say that there is a clear distinction between physical abuse and spanking, but both were associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and nearly the same strength. Gershoff explains, “our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree,” and that “there is no clear evidence of positive effects from spanking and ample evidence that it poses a risk of harm to children’s behavior and development.”
Another big downfall with spanking is that the cycle is most likely to continue. The study explains that adults who were spanked as children were more likely to support physical punishment for their own children.
In the book All About Love by Bell Hooks, she investigates where we first learn about love and decides it is during childhood that we learn the original school of love. She expresses the confusion her and her siblings felt when they would be physically punished and told “I’m doing this because I love you” (p. 17).
“There is nothing that creates more confusion about love in the minds and hearts of children than unkind and/or cruel punishment meted out by the grown-ups they have been taught they should love and respect.”
Bell Hooks references Lucia Hodgson’s book Raised in Captivity: Why Does America Fail It’s Children? (p. 19) where Lucia, “documents the reality of lovelessness in the lives of a huge majority of children in the United States.” This of course stems from a deeper issue that Hooks delves into, believing that “love will not be present if the grown-ups who parent do not know how to love” (p. 19), bringing focus back to the endless cycle of abuse.
Children are essentially voiceless when they are governed by their parents. Hooks highlights this point: “In our culture the private family dwelling is the one institutionalized sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic” (p. 20).
I have to say, it wasn’t until I read her novel early last year that I had actually decided to question the use of physical abuse as a form of punishment. I too have received a spank here and there growing up and thought nothing of it, and assumed myself to be a pretty sound individual. Or am I?
Hooks recounts a party she attended with “mostly of educated, well-paid professionals, a multiracial, multigenerational evening” (p. 20) and says the topic of disciplining kids by hitting was brought into discussion. She says “almost all of the guests over thirty spoke about the necessity of using physical punishment” (p. 21) and that many of the people in the room themselves have been smacked, whipped, or beaten as a child.
One man bragged about the aggressive beatings he received from his mother, saying that “they had been good for him” (p. 21). Hooks states that maybe if he hadn’t been brutally beaten by a woman as a child he may not have turned out to be the “mysoginist woman hater he is today.” Another young professional mother bragged that she did not hit her small son but instead would, “clamp down on his flesh pinching him until he got the message.” A clear form of coercive abuse.
The point of this story is that these are all well-meaning adults who are professional and educated and yet do not see that they are abusing their small children. Hooks points out that,
“had we all been listening to a man tell us that every time his wife or girlfriend does something he does not like he just clamps down on her flesh, pinching her as hard as he can, everyone would have been appalled” (p. 21)
This was the moment that brought perspective crashing down over my head.
“All the parents in that room claim that they are loving. All the people in that room were college-educated. Most call themselves good liberals, supportive of civil rights and feminism. But when it came to the rights of children they had a different standard” (p. 21).
The irony of the word discipline is that it comes from the word disciple which means to teach. When you are using a forceful form of punishment, what message is really being relayed to your child? Is it one of love and affection? Or perhaps that if they are not happy with a person they can spank, hit, or smack them?
There is another form of discipline that is far less detrimental.
Gentle Parenting means no punishments and no rewards: just a partnership with your kids where they want to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.
Rebecca English wrote an article in The Conversation that provides some tips for parents looking to take a different approach to discipline.
Below is an excerpt from the article.
What might this type of approach look like?
There are many websites and groups that can help you to practise this parenting approach. Here are a few steps that parents take to encourage a partnership with their children:
- They start from a place of connection and believe that all behaviour stems from how connected the child is with their caregivers.
- They give choices not commands (“would you like to brush your teeth before or after you put on your pyjamas?”).
- They take a playful approach. They might use playfulness to clean up (“let’s make a game of packing up these toys”) or to diffuse tension (e.g. having a playful pillow fight).
- They allow feelings to run their course. Rather than saying “shoosh”, or yelling “stop!”, parents actively listen to crying. They may say, “you have a lot of/strong feelings about [the situation]”.
- They describe the behaviour, not the child. So, rather than labelling a child as naughty or nice, they will explain the way actions make them feel. For example, “I get so frustrated cleaning crumbs off the couch.”
- They negotiate limits where possible. If it’s time to leave the park, they might ask, “How many more minutes/swings before we leave?” However, they can be flexible and reserve “no” for situations that can hurt the child (such as running on the road or touching the hot plate) or others (including pets). They might say: “Hitting me/your sister/pulling the dog’s tail hurts, I won’t let you do that.”
- They treat their children as partners in the family. A partnership means that the child is invited to help make decisions and to be included in the household tasks. Parents apologise when they get it wrong.
- They will not do forced affection. When Uncle Ray wants to hug your child and s/he says no, then the child gets to say what happens to their body. They also don’t force please or thank you.
- They trust their children. What you might think of as “bad” behaviour is seen as the sign of an unmet need.
- They take parental time-outs when needed. Before they crack, they step away, take a breath and regain their composure.
The method also raises some concerns for parents who wouldn’t usually use this approach, probably feeling their child may be ‘getting away with too much’ but that’s just my own personal speculation.
The bottom line is that we are the ambassadors for our children. They look up to us and depend on us and hope that we will make the best possible decision for their safety and happiness. I believe we owe it to them to do our own research and to be proactive in creating a dialogue with them, gauging their reactions and responses to discipline and most of all, being patient. Being a parent is a never-ending process of growth and transformation for you and your child, so lets make it a beautiful one.