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To Spank or Not to Spank?

By Elizabeth Pantley

In my house, my father had a belt hanging on a hook in the kitchen. It was a visible reminder to be good or to be put over his knee. We were all afraid of that belt.

One day, my father couldn’t find the belt. Eventually it was found in the trash can — my little sister, then age six, had decided the garbage would be a better place for it. She was due for a spanking and was trying to avoid it. Once discovered, she knew her spanking would be worse than ever.

When my father put her over his knee, he noticed that her little rear end had been replaced by a large lumpy surface — wadded-up towels in her underpants. Boy, did he get angry! He pulled out the towels, pulled down her pants and proceeded to hit her. I can still remember the welts on her bottom after her bare skin was hit with that belt. I remember thinking, “Yuck!”

As a mother with four children of my own, the memory brings tears to my eyes. The odd thing about this story is that both my sister and I remember the spanking, but neither of us can recall what the behavior was that caused it. We know that our father must have been trying to teach a lesson. The lesson, however, has been lost. The memory of the spanking is all that remains.

A legacy of punishment
Our parents punished us the same way in which they were punished. And their parents punished them the same way that they themselves were punished as children. After all, we learn what we live. We tend to parent the way we were parented.

Somewhere along the line, parents need to stop the pattern. They need to evaluate their child-rearing methods, especially checking for those destructive practices that they may be following simply out of habit. Parents need to research the current data, analyze their current parenting results and continually look for better answers.

Considering spanking
I have four children. They are respectful, responsible, well behaved and just plain great kids. I don’t believe in spanking and have used only positive, loving discipline with them. Parents often ask me whether they should spank their children or not. When looking at the issue of spanking, I urge them to consider the following.

Spanking does nothing to teach a child to develop inner discipline. A child’s focus is on the spanking itself, not on a review of the behavior that led to it. After a spanking, a child does not sit in his room and think, “Gee, I sure goofed. But I really learned something. Next time I’ll behave.” Instead a child is typically thinking, “It’s not fair! She doesn’t understand! I hate her.”

Spanking is seen as punishment for a crime or payment for a debt. In other words, once paid, they have a clean slate. Spanking gets in the way of allowing a child to develop a conscience. The guilt that follows misbehavior is a prime motivator for change. Spanking takes away the guilt, because the crime has been paid for.

Spanking makes the parent feel better. When we get angry, we move into the “fight or flight” mode. Our adrenaline increases, and we have a primitive need to strike out. Hitting releases this negative energy and helps us feel better. But even a minor spanking can escalate into major abuse. Parents have reported that during the heat of the moment, it’s hard to stop hitting, and some say that they don’t even realize how hard they’ve hit until they see the bruise.

Parents who spank sometimes come to rely upon spanking as their primary source of discipline. If you give yourself permission to spank, it becomes a quick fix for all kinds of problems. It blocks off the effective use of other more productive skills.

Spanking gets in the way of a healthy parent-child relationship. Children look up to their parents as protectors, teachers and guides. When a parent breaks that pattern by hitting a child, the relationship suffers.

Spanking is not an effective form of discipline. Hitting a child typically stops a behavior at that point because of shock, fear or pain. But most children turn around and repeat the same behavior – sometimes even the same day! Parents who spank often find themselves spanking a child many times a day – so if spanking “works,” why is this so?

Spanking does teach a lesson. The lesson is: “When you don’t know what else to do, hit!” or “When you’re bigger, you can hit,” or “When you’re really angry, you can get your way by hitting.” It’s common knowledge that children who are frequently hit are more likely to accept the use of violence and are more likely to hit other children. It only makes sense, because after all, children learn what they live. Children who are spanked often have more resentment and anger and lower self-esteem.

What if your child is in danger?
Even with these points in mind, I’ve read several articles that address the issue of spanking where the writer says it’s okay to spank if the child is in danger – for instance, if a toddler is running into the street or reaching out to touch a hot burner on the stove. They suggest that at these times, a few pops on the rear end are okay.

I must admit this naïve mindset baffles me. Why in the world would we want to teach our children about safety by hurting them? Does your ski instructor jab you with his ski pole to teach you not to jump off the chair lift?

A parent who believes that spanking is the only effective way to teach a young child about safety issues is not giving the child enough credit. Children – even little ones – can indeed learn about safety through our teaching them. As a matter of fact, through teaching they will learn much more, as they can absorb the reason for the rule and, over time, learn to make good decisions on their own.

I watched two friends one summer teach their toddlers not to run in the street. Mom A give her toddler a swat on the rear every time he went into the street. Mom B picked up her toddler, looked him in the eye and said, “NO street! Dangerous. Stay by Mommy.” By the end of the summer, both children learned to stay out of the street. Which child understood why? And which child has better communication with his mother?

Positive, respectful, consistent discipline is the real key to raising well-behaved children.

© Elizabeth Pantley.

Excerpted with permission from Kid Cooperation: How to Stop Yelling, Nagging and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate by Elizabeth Pantley.


Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the author of numerous parenting books, including the widely cited The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. Buy her books at Powells.com. She is a regular radio show guest and is quoted frequently on the web and in national family and women’s publications. Elizabeth lives in Washington state with her husband, their four children and her mother. Visit her at www.pantley.com/elizabeth.

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