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  • Márcia Fervienza

Spanking: Reasons, Consequences and Alternatives

The other day I answered a question about spanking on Quora. Because of the comments I received afterward, I thought it could be worthy to write more about it.

Spanking is a very controversial topic. I’ve had friends say that the reason our kids are the way they are these days – misbehaving, entitled, etc. – is that we aren't allowed to physically punish them anymore, as we used to be in the good old days. Others believe that long intellectual conversations are the best option, even when trying to keep a toddler safe. What is the best course of action to keep our children protected while helping them understand the meaning of “no”?

When I was growing up, I was spanked a few times. Not often, but when it did happen, it was bad enough to make me remember it. My mom never used anything but her hands or flip-flops. Thus, any physical damage caused was superficial and not long-lasting. Once, when I was six, I messed with the phonograph, and the needle broke. My mom grabbed me, locked me in a room, and spanked me for what felt like a long time. I was crying while she was doing it, and so was she. In the end, she left the room to continue to cry in the bathroom. I stayed in the bedroom crying, looking at my badly hurt right thumb, which was the one to take most of the beating while I was trying to defend my behind. During the spanking, I was never angry at her. After all, I knew I had earned it. Today, looking back, I feel that breaking a phonograph needle is too little to get a 6-year-old child a beating. But, as a mom myself, I know that wasn't about it. It was not about that phonograph or that needle. It was about all of the other times she had told me not to do something (and that thing in particular) to no avail.

How do I know that? Well, I have three kids. My first born did get some spanking a handful of times. She was very unruly, and I was very young, which tends to be an unfortunate combination. My second child never got any beating because she has always been a rule-follower. So, she didn’t do anything to “deserve” it. But I do think that (being older myself) I would have resorted to different measures, had that not been the case. My third one is now 3 ½ years old, and I can say for sure that I won't spank him, regardless of his behavior. Why? Because spanking is never about them and always about us!

Spanking as a resort to release (our) anger

Let me go back to my own experience. When my mom lost it with me, in the case of the phonograph needle, the beating hasn't stopped my behavior. It stayed with me for a little while (my thumb was a great reminder), but that was about it. I never got angry at my mom for any beating. I felt that spanking was something that parents had the right to do to misbehaving children. What I do remember is being very confused by the fact that my mom was crying while inflicting that pain on me. Why? She was not feeling the pain. The emotional distress was something beyond my grasp at that time, so I just didn’t understand.

Looking back, though, her crying coupled with my own experience as a mom are very revealing. Even though Science and Psychology have sometimes questioned the educational value of spanking a child, a lot of us continue to do so. A lot of us do it not because we rationally decide to, but because we can’t stop ourselves. Why? We tell ourselves that it is for the sake of the child. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. At least nine out of ten times we spank our children when we have run out of resources (and patience) to deal with the situation in any other way. We beat them when we feel that we can’t make them understand through rational means. We spank to assert our power (as if it was not obvious enough). But most of all we spank them because we lost control (of them, but also of our temper and ourselves). We do it to release our anger. Yes, this is our dirty little secret. We don’t say it out loud, and we probably won’t ever admit it to others. But the truth is that we spank our children when we are at our wit's end. I am not saying they didn’t take us there. They probably did! But we are the adults in the situation, and we should be better able to cope with our anger.

Before proceeding, let’s make one thing clear. When I talk about spanking, I am not referring to the hand slap that a toddler gets every now and again. Toddlers lack the resort of language, and the options to communicate with them are very limited. So, sometimes, a light hand slap may be the only efficient way to make them learn by association, for example, that fingers should never go into a power outlet. Why the example of a power outlet? Because that is a risk that we can’t remove from the toddler's access, which would be the first appropriate action. It may also be hard to keep them off of the risk area since power outlets are spread throughout the house (which would be the second appropriate action). In said cases, a light hand slap may be adequate to communicate danger in a language that they understand. This may keep them safe from a higher risk. But anything other than that is abuse.

Consequences of spanking: behavior correction?

Back to our topic, why shouldn’t you spank your child? I can’t possibly exhaust all the reasons here. I won’t state the obvious and say that by punishing them when you are angry, you are stating that physical aggression is an acceptable way to deal with irritation and frustration. But I will call your attention to the fact that your relationship is already one with an imbalance of power. In it, you are the one who they owe respect, you are the insurer of their survival (physical and otherwise), and you are physically bigger than they are in every possible way. Therefore, like it or not, spanking is an abuse of power. As parents, we have authority over our children, which grants us power. And that is the exact reason we should be mindful. In any other social or professional situation, we have to be careful not to adopt an abusive attitude towards those we hold power. Why isn’t that true when it comes to our children? With power comes responsibility. And, although small, they are people in their formative years, who deserve our caring and respect. A relationship where there is an abuse of power is an abusive relationship. And that is not acceptable, not even between parents and their children.

Furthermore, studies have proven that school bullies are usually bullied at home. But what does it mean to be bullied? Not only to be the reason for jokes within the family (when there is one) but also to be treated in a way that creates anger and frustration. Am I saying that we should work to avoid frustration to our children at all costs? Not. At. All. I am stating that feelings need to be addressed and released one way or another. And when there is no room for that at home, it will come out in other harmful ways, to oneself or others. In relationships where power is used as a coercive tool to try to generate behavior, there is usually a lot of repressed feelings. And those always make their way to the surface, no matter the cost.

Grounding as an option, only when done right

Let me refer once again to my own experience. When I was spanked, I was left physically hurt, but the reason for the spanking never stayed with me for long. Maybe while the pain lasted, but that was it. Now, the times that I was grounded, oh boy, I remember those very well. But what does being grounded mean?

These days, the reasons for grounding is sometimes lost and not necessarily associated with the behavior we want to correct. At my home, I try to make sure that the action is linked to the punishment. For example, if my daughter’s weekly chores aren't finished when due, I may not allow her to hangout with her friends on a weekend night. If she wakes up late for school for staying on her phone until late, I may set up an earlier than usual curfew for a few days. If that happens again, then the earlier curfew may become the new norm. This may seem obvious, but it is very common to see parents establishing punishments that are completely dissociated from the transgression.

It is also important to keep in mind what is it that we want to accomplish with the punishment. It has to be to correct the behavior. Grounding can’t be a substitute for the anger release that spanking used to provide. It has to make sense. What was the offense? That has to determine what will happen next.

The old tactic of removal of love: a no-no

Another type of punishment that parents sometimes use to punish children is to remove their love from them. As if they were saying “if you do this, then I don’t love you anymore.” Love should never be up for debate. Love must be unconditional. What is not unconditional is trust, freedom, having fun or getting the wished-for Christmas presents. Those can be conditional, but never love. Conditioning your love for your child to their behavior places a big IF in their sense of self-worth. “I will love you IF you ARE like this, if you BEHAVE like that, if you meet my expectations for who you should be.” By doing that, we are giving away our children to their peers, who accepts them unconditionally. We are also removing from our child their right to be their own person, regardless of whether that pleases us or not.

A final tip

Finally, I will leave a tip for parents of children with problematic behavior. We are taught to give children a “time out” when they misbehave. We remove them from our immediate environment and from our sight to give them time to think (and to give us time to chill out). But, more often than not, especially when they are teenagers, what they need is proximity to us, not distance. They are probably misbehaving because we haven’t been close enough. If we had been, we probably wouldn’t have missed that there was a problem in the first place. So, sometimes, I make part of the “punishment” in my household spending more family time with us, the parents. It not only works as a punishment (which teen wants to spend more time with family?) but also helps to minimize distances, to improve communication, to strengthen bond and affection and it tends to help to resolve the backend problem, even when it is not clear to us. It is worth the try.

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