Spanking, Discipline and Physical Abuse

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Plenty of parents believe strongly in spanking. But research not only fails to support the most common rationalizations in favor of spanking, it suggests the opposite — that spanking is bad for kids.

By now many of you may have seen or heard about the seven minute video of a family court judge from Texas beating his then 16-year-old daughter with a belt. The incident occurred seven years ago when the daughter, knowing such a beating was coming, secretly taped it. She only released the video recently. My husband mentioned the video to me and I decided to watch it because I wanted to write on the topic of spanking. It was so horrible that I couldn’t get through much more than a few minutes. The father was clearly furious, yelling obscenities and using all of his strength behind the belt while she was crying and pleading with him to stop. It literally made me sick to my stomach. According to the young woman, this type of beating was fairly common for a while.

It’s been interesting to watch the controversy that erupted as a result of this video being released. Passions both for and against are running extremely high, so much so that a National Public Radio program on the topic felt the need to point out how much tension there was in the studio during air time. Part of the problem with the debate is that, without realizing it, people are arguing about two separate issues. The first issue is whether or not this was abuse versus spanking (which is what the father is claiming). The second issue is about the ethics and merits of spanking.

If you look up the definition of “physical abuse” I think you’ll have to agree that what the video shows is abuse. Both the free online medical dictionary and the Child Welfare Information Gateway (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) state that physical abuse is “any act resulting in a nonaccidental physical injury.” The medical dictionary includes “the results of unreasonable punishment” in their definition while The Child Welfare agency includes “striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child” in their explanation. The beating, which went on for seven minutes, was in response to the girl illegally downloading music. That sure seems like an unreasonable punishment because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. As both a psychologist and a mother, I would suggest things like taking away her access to the computer, making her work to pay for the music, grounding her from social activities or even making her write a five-page paper on the immorality of stealing — but lashing her with a belt? No.

So let’s pretend that it wasn’t abuse but was instead a spanking. Would that have been OK? Although attitudes towards spanking do appear to be changing here in the US, Americans still strongly believe in spanking. Arguments I’ve heard in favor of it range from “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and “I was spanked; look how well I turned out” to “Sometimes it’s the only thing that works” and “Parents today are too lenient; there would be fewer people in jail if they were spanked more often.” The problem with these sentiments is that the research doesn’t support them.

Hundreds of studies on spanking spanning at least 75 years failed to provide evidence for the assertion that physical punishment improves children’s behavior in the long term (Gershoff 2008). Children who are spanked do not tend to internalize the value their parents want them to get (via the spanking) but instead are merely more likely to understand that they should not get caught. Thus, the corrective outcome of spanking is short term at best (Larzelere 2000). In fact, one research study that followed children with serious behavior problems found that the children’s behavior actually improved after parents stopped spanking (Webster-Stratton 1990).

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Moreover, the research shows that spanking is bad for kids. Spanking makes it more likely that children will be more defiant and aggressive (Taylor et al 2010), that they’ll be at risk for negative outcomes including mental health troubles (Strassberg et al 1994) and that they’re at greater risk for serious injury and physical abuse (Straus et al 1997). I’ve heard spanking proponents dismiss this research stating that spanking is incredibly difficult to quantify and evaluate. This is definitely true, but even if you don’t believe the spanking research, all you have to do is look at other behavioral research to find corroborating justification for the spanking research conclusions. Other research has consistently found that punishment is a vastly inferior method of behavior correction and that, put simply, violence begets violence. Per social learning theory, if you see someone use violence as a way to control another’s behavior, chances are you will too (ergo, the Cycle of Violence). That’s one reason why it’s always astonished me when people use spanking as a way to teach children that they shouldn’t hit. The logical conclusion to that technique is: only hit those who are less powerful than you.

The realization that spanking is both ineffective and harmful seems to be slowly filtering into the public consciousness. As I mentioned earlier, polls in the US show that fewer parents than ever before believe that spanking is a good disciplinary strategy. On the global stage, at least 24 countries have prohibited physical punishment in all settings including the home. These countries include places as culturally diverse as Norway, Chile, New Zealand, Israel and Bulgaria. In these 24 countries, there is no “crime” of spanking per se, but the police treat all assaults similarly.

So, I can hear some people out there asking what parents are supposed to do when their children misbehave. Should they just let them do whatever they want? My answer: children need structure and consequences but, most of all, they need discipline, a word which comes from the Latin root to teach. As parents, it is our responsibility to figure out what values we want our children to have and then how best we can transmit them. For younger children we can redirect, use time-out and take away toys and privileges. For older kids and adolescents, utilizing natural consequences, rationalization for rules and positive discipline strategies may work best. Yes, it does involve creativity and effort, but the payoff will be worth it.

As for the family court judge who is still maintaining that his daughter is a spoiled brat who only released the tape to get revenge on him, I hope that he grows up. Regardless of her motives in releasing the tape, what he did was wrong and he needs to do more than say he is sorry. Maybe he should be required to write a legal brief on physical abuse for the Child Welfare Agency or another children’s advocacy group. Perhaps he should be required to attend six months of counseling for anger management. Or he could be forced to co-teach (with a trained child advocate) a workshop for parents on non-physical disciplinary strategies. In other words, my suggestion is that he be disciplined instead of punished. It works better.

References

Gershoff, E. T. (2008) Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline. Online at http://www.phoenixchildrens.com/PDFs/principles_and_practices-of_effective_discipline.pdf

Larzelere, R. E. (2000) ‘Child outcomes of non-abusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An updated literature review,’ Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 3(4):199-221.

Strassberg, Z., Dodge, K.A., Pettit, G.S., & Bates, J.E. (1994) ‘Spanking in families and subsequent aggressive behavior toward peers by kindergarten students,’ Development and Psychopathology 6:445-461.

Straus, M.A., Sugarman, D.B., & Giles-Sims (1997) ‘Corporal punishment by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior in children,’ Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 155: 761-767.

Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J. & Rice, J. C. (2010) ‘Mothers’ spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children’s aggressive behavior,’ Pediatrics 125(5): 1057-1065. Online at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/125/5/e1057.full.pdf+html

Webster-Stratton, C. (1990) ‘Long-term follow-up of families with young conduct-problem children: From preschool to grade school,’ Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19:1344-1349.

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