The Problem with Spanking

by Marlene Resnick
Article #4 in our series on Parenting
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Marlene Resnick, M.A. is President of Parenting U International, an organization dedicated to helping parents and professionals work with children and families to do the best job possible. She is a parent who has been involved with parent education for over twenty years. You can order her book by clicking the link below:

If They Only They Came With Instructions
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It is unfortunate that corporal punishment is used to discipline children in any situation. We can argue the intricate details of spanking versus abuse, however it is a rather pointless exercise if you look at the results of both actions.

Many adults today grew up in households where they were hit, and they strongly defend that style of punishment as a measure of loyalty to their parents. Most say that they deserved it and therefore believe that children should be spanked when they misbehave.

Let us take a look at what the most extensive research tells us about this behavior. Based on studies of over nine thousand families in America, Dr. Murray Straus in his book titled, BEATING THE DEVIL OUT OF THEM, Corporal Punishment in American Families, has found that: "Children who are spanked quickly learn that love and violence can go hand in hand." In the twenty years of research compiled in this book, the findings indicate that children who are spanked are from two to six times more likely to be physically aggressive, to become juvenile delinquents, and later, as adults, to use physical violence against their spouses, to have sadomasochistic tendencies and to suffer from depression. We are not talking about physical abuse here; we are talking about "spanking."

In my own experience of working with more than 1,500 families over a period of many years, hitting comes from a lack of knowledge of how children actually learn. If adults truly understood this process, they would realize that what they teach when they hit is that when you are upset with someone, you should hit them.

We are facing a crisis in the rise of violence in younger and younger children. Discipline has nothing to do with punishment. Discipline is about teaching children what they need to know to become self-disciplined and responsible. It is about helping them to do better the next time. Punishment is about making children feel bad about themselves, which undermines the development of self-discipline and doesn't help them to do any better next time.

The fact that so many parents, and even some school personnel, use hitting of any kind is an indication of a crisis in creativity in developing constructive relationships with children. Firm discipline is a critical element in helping children to become capable and responsible human beings, but it is the antithesis of hurtful punishment. Assault is assault is assault, whether it is called child abuse or whether it is called spanking.

Most adults resort to corporal punishment because they haven't learned to control their own emotions, they don't understand how children actually learn, and they may carry a combination of anger and loyalty in regard to their own parents.

There are a multitude of discipline strategies that are far more effective and longer lasting in their outcomes. What is needed is a willingness to learn to deal effectively with emotions, to have an understanding of how children actually learn, to set appropriate limits and to teach children to solve problems.

When someone hits you, does it make you more open to listening and learning? Or does it make you want to hit and hurt, as well? Why would anyone think that children feel differently?

Recent brain research indicates that when children feel threatened their higher level thinking skills close down. The limbic system, which is responsible for the fight or flight response, takes over. When this happens, chemicals in the brain are released that actually affect the developing architecture of the brain. This type of high stress on a regular basis has been proven to produce a brain which is impulsive, hyper reactive and which does not have the ability to think before acting. This means that this type of experience does not help a child to do better but, in fact, increases impulsivity and violent tendencies.

To this point, I have discussed the problems with spanking from the point of view of child development. In addition, to that very important aspect, it is also critical to look at the unfolding relationship between parent and child, as well as the social and political aspect of investing in spanking as a method of controlling children's behavior.

Hitting and hurting engenders fear as a motivating factor. The naturally occurring problem with this outcome is that eventually a child grows to be as large or larger than the parent. If fear has been utilized by the parent to control a child's behavior, as the balance of power changes we find parents who now fear their children. This is obviously not a good situation for a parent who is growing older, weaker and smaller than his or her adult child. This issue has become a growing problem, particularly within families where domestic violence has been present. The broad sampling of nine thousand families in the study cited earlier indicates that approximately 93% of parents hit toddlers. This percentage decreases to about 50% by the time children reach their teen years.

Children imitate what they see. When children are hit and hurt with the explanation that it is "good" for them, what is the lesson that they are learning? This provides a powerful model of behavior for hitting and hurting in order to deal with anger and frustration. Is this really what we want to be teaching?

Political concerns also need to be addressed. In the United States we have a political system based upon democratic principles. Those principles are eloquently stated in "Of the people, by the people and for the people." The laws protect us from assault and battery, as well as slander. As we teach young children the rules required to live successfully in our system of law, we run into numerous conflicts in principle and practice in regard to spanking. How can we take someone to court for hitting us and yet feel perfectly comfortable in hitting our children?

In discussions with parents, spanking is the issue that most divides individuals. This is an issue that generates a sense of passion or outrage. Whenever this is the case, it is critical to understand that we are dealing with more than meets the eye.

If we are truly committed to helping the next generation to be healthy, capable and responsible, we must be committed to learning the skills necessary to support that development. We do not lack the research, which clearly states the answers. If we want children to be respectful, then we must treat them respectfully. If we want children to be responsible then we must learn how to set limits in helpful ways. If we want children who are capable of making good decisions, than we must allow children to make decisions within the bounds of safety, until they are skilled in decision making.

Hitting, hurting and spanking, do none of the above. Those behaviors on the part of parents or other adults create a strange link between love and violence. In addition, they engender resentment; they teach children to become skilled liars in order to avoid pain and punishment. But most destructive of all is that those behaviors replicate themselves. Hitting encourages hitting. Hurting others in order to enforce your will becomes a lesson in morality. When children are hurt, they become dulled to their own pain. As a result of that, they become unable to feel for others. They lack empathy.

Arno Gruen in his seminal work, THE BETRAYAL OF THE SELF, writes, "Empathy is the basis of morality." He talks quite eloquently about the fact that when children must give up their autonomy in order to be loved, they loose what is truly their soul. Do what you are told and we will love you, is the lesson that so many children learn. They spend the rest of their lives living out someone else's expectations.

Corporal punishment is not an effective tool for teaching discipline. The word discipline comes from the Latin and it means, "to teach." The behavior that we model is what we teach. To justify hitting children because they are children needs to be examined more closely. As adults, we're only justified in hitting someone in self-defense according to the law. Why is it that children do not have the same protection?

Marlene Resnick

President of Parenting U International

* Marlene's book is available directly through and is posted in The Well, our on -line store

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Editors note:

Marlene's segment is an opportunity for parents and professionals to explore issues regarding parenting and the challenges we all face in raising children. This series invites you to network, dialog, and problem solve on a number of topics. We look forward to your participation.

Dr. Stephen J. Bavolek, founder of The Nurturing Programs wrote: "Your book is terrific and is very compatible with the philosophy of nurturing."
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