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Spanking: Children are People, Not Property


Gentle Parenting father holding young son on a mountain top.

There are some important questions to consider when looking at the issue of spanking:

Is it okay to spank?

There is no controversy. There is no debate. Spanking is ineffective and wrong.

Some common arguments for the acceptability of spanking include the patriotic argument of ownership. “He is my child and I can parent him in any way I see fit.” While this is mostly true, as this freedom is a part of the foundation of this country and results in a better-rounded and diverse group of people, there are some limits to that freedom that we have collectively agreed upon as a society in order to protect the rights of your child. You do not have the right to abuse your child in the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect. Your child is not your property, he is on loan from the universe. And while it is your honor and responsibility to guide your child, including disciplining for behavior that is not acceptable, you do not have the right to violate his body.

Childism: a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs.

Religion is another argument sometimes cited for the legitimacy of physical abuse in the form of spanking. I think that the Sears Family of Pediatricians addressed this argument best in number six of their article “10 Reasons Not to Hit Your Child.” There is also an article titled Spare the Rod: The Heart of the Matter by L.R. Knost that offers well-studied intepretations of biblical lessons.

Reality can be formed through language. If parents want to hit their child but know it would be wrong, they may invent more acceptable language around the abuse to make it more acceptable. Words like “swatting” serve to disarm the hitting behavior for the parent and the public. “I give my son a little swat when he misbehaves,” is much easier to swallow and more tolerated by others than, “I hit my daughter when she misbehaves,” which triggers concern, instinctively and appropriately so. You can call it “swatting,” you can call it “the gracious hand of guidance,” or “rainbows and butterflies” for all I care—it’s still hitting.

“Well, I was spanked and I turned out fine.” Children can be resilient. Some children are forced to endure all kinds of experiences that are not in their best interest and some of them turn out just fine. Many of them do not. My father has said, “We never had seat belts and we all turned out fine,” to which I respond, “Except all the kids who died in car accidents aren’t here to say they didn’t turn out fine.” You are not the same person as your child. Each of your children will be vastly different, containing within them varying attributes of risk and resiliency. Just because you walked away from physical abuse and a parenting style based on fear does not mean that your child will.

“If by fine you mean functionable in a trauma based society, then yes, we are fine … People get raped, too, and can still have relationships, kids and go to work everyday, but those things are no measure of ‘fine.’ … Ask almost anyone how they are and if they insist they are ‘fine!’ I can almost assure you they are not fine … Fine is a word of settling.”

Earth Based Mom

Social feedback is a powerful force. If a woman posted in social media that her husband had hit her, she would not receive a flood of, “It’s okay. He’s human. He’ll say he’s sorry and then you can just move on. He’s trying his best.” We would say, “No, that is NOT okay. It is unacceptable to treat a human being you love that way. He needs to get help right now.” So why do we say the former every time a woman posts that she hit her child?

“When a child hits a child, we call it aggression.
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility.
When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault.
When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.”

Haim G Ginott
Young boy gathering rocks with his big family nearby.

What does the law say?

Physical Abuse: An act of commission by a caregiver that results or is likely to result in physical harm, including death of a child. Examples of physical abuse include kicking, shaking, stabbing, or punching of a child. Spanking a child is usually considered a disciplinary action; although it can be classified as abusive if the child is bruised or injured.

Spanking: is physical abuse unless with an open hand, on a clothed bottom, leaving no mark.

Sexual Abuse: An act of commission, including intrusion or penetration, molestation with genital contact, or other forms of sexual acts in which children are used to provide sexual gratification for the perpetrator. This type of abuse also includes acts such as sexual exploitation and child pornography.

Neglect: An act of omission by a parent or caregiver that involves refusal or delay in providing health care; failure to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter; affection and attention; inadequate supervision; or abandonment. This failure to act holds true for both physical and emotional neglect.

What does physical discipline teach?

Physical discipline teaches your child to fear you; to associate you with intimidation and your touch with pain. Every time I get to the spanking portion of the parenting curriculum with a Parenting Group, someone always brings up the scenario of a child running into the street as cause for a spanking. “I don’t spank but if my child runs into the street, I give him a swat so he knows I am serious.” Try to imagine the situation from your child’s perspective. What your child learns if you hit him when he runs into the street is to not run into the street while you are there watching. He learns to fear you, not the cars in the street.

Research tells us unequivocally that children who are spanked will likely be aggressive children, lacking in empathy, and grow to be more depressed and anxious adults. “The more children are hit, the more anger they report as adults, the more they hit their own children when they are parents, the more likely they are to approve of hitting and to actually hit their spouses, and the greater their marital conflict [Link]. Even controlling for baseline antisocial behavior, the more 3- to 6-year-old children were hit, the worse their behavior when assessed 2 years later.”[Link][Link]A recent study [Link]confirms that “when children are disciplined using harsh physical punishment like spanking, they are at higher risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental health problems – even if they aren’t otherwise abused or maltreated.” [Link]“The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties, according to a new meta-analysis of 50 years of research on spanking by experts at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan.” [Link]

“Researchers say that kids who were spanked actually showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – the same condition war veterans get.” Furthermore, “The IQs of unspanked toddlers were on average five points higher than those of their [spanked] peers … even four years after the spanking took place. In fact, the more often a kid was spanked, the lower his IQ was. They also found that nations where spanking is still socially acceptable today had lower national IQs than nations that look down on it.” [Link]

Research shows us that the consequences of spanking go beyond the outcomes of traumatizing life experiences to physically altering the child’s brain. “Researchers found children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex…”Less gray matter in the brain has been linked to all the effects discussed above like depression, addiction, delinquency, and lower IQ but what’s more, “That gray matter we’ve been spanking out of them? It’s the key to the brain’s ability to learn self-control. ‘The more gray matter you have in the decision-making, thought-processing part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex), the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences …’ The sad irony is that the more you physically punish your kids for their lack of self-control, the less they have.” Another result of physical discipline is something called the “hostile attribution bias,” which causes children to experience the world as a hostile place in which they expect people to be mean. “In turn, children are on edge and ready to be hostile back.” [Link]

Physical discipline also teaches your child that hitting is an appropriate expression of anger and an effective means of communicating in conflict. My favorite hypocritical example is the parents who hit their child when he hits. Really?! You are trying to teach your child not to hit by hitting? <spank> “Don’t hit!” Huh? I am completely perplexed by this logic. I can only imagine how confusing it must be to a child. If your goal is to teach your child to be violent and feel unsafe, then spanking could work for you. If your goal is to teach your child appropriate behavior, then spanking will not work.

Gentle parenting mother and young son hugging on a mountain top.

When does spanking usually occur?

This question is particularly telling because calm parents who are accessing their rational minds and responding with intention to their child’s behavior never choose to hit their child. Parents spank their child when they are angry [Link] and have lost control, which is the same reason a child hits. It offers the parents a release of aggressive energy and provides some unhealthy relief from the level of anger they are experiencing. Most parents, after giving themselves a cool-down period in the face of angering behavior, would never choose to hit their child. In my experience, all parents wake up wanting to be the best parents they can be; wanting to do better today than they did yesterday. No parent wakes up thinking, “I am going to hit my son today to really teach him some things about the world.” Most parents begin the day with humble intentions and then their emotional reactivity gets in the way. If you realize that you are spanking your child as a reaction out of anger, put in place some anger management strategies to deescalate before you discipline.

A new study [Link] using real time audio found that parents were often angry, reacting impulsively and emotionally while spanking, hitting for trivial misdeeds and minor infractions, the most common being violation of social conventions, spanking less than 30 seconds after the conflict began, spanking 18 times a week (children were 7 months to 3 years old), and that the child misbehaved again within 10 minutes of being spanked. This is a landmark study in that it shows us that the rate of corporal punishment is significantly higher than previously thought, as previous studies have been based on self-reported data.

What parenting techniques would be effective to replace spanking?

Parents often seek specific strategies to plug in, and those parenting tools are available (and included in the Sage Parenting book), but the foundation of a violence-free childhood is a parent-child relationship that is based on love, trust, and respect. Parenting techniques like I messages, logical consequences, and time-ins and -outs are all examples of disciplinary tools that can actually help teach your child what you want him to learn.

If your child runs to the street, instead of a spanking, say, “Danger! When you run into the street, I am scared because you could get smashed by a car (pointing at cars) (I statement) (look scared). Danger (pointing at the street)!”

Then, and here’s the most impactful part, “Let’s try again” (replay). Take him back to the point at which you were both together, and walk through the situation again, making the safe choice. Run toward the street, then stop abruptly at the curb. Point to the curb and say, “Stop!” (make it fun).

If you feel a consequence is necessary, you can continue with a logical consequence, “We now have to spend the rest of the afternoon inside the house because I cannot trust that you will make safe choices outside and I must keep you safe.”

Now every single time you are about to step off a curb, you both stop abruptly and say with a smile, “Stop.” Doing that routine will make it second nature for him to stop at the curb.

As your child gets older, you can expand it to, “Stop. Look left. Look right. No cars.” to equip your child with the skills to navigate the world more independently.

Responding to a child running to the street in this way will teach this child that running into the street is scary, not safe, and will not be tolerated, in a way that enhances your bond, respects your child as a human being, and empowers him to make better choices in the future.

You’ve read this article, and now let it simmer. Allow it to ruminate and shift assumptions you have held for a lifetime. Revisit details when you sense dissonance, and embrace the change that leads to growth. Commit to providing a childhood free of violence at the hand of the one your child needs to trust most. That is not just evolution for your own personal journey of self-actualization (becoming your best self) and for your children, but the world. Then share this article. Be a change maker that shifts the tide for humanity’s future. I want a new generation of heart-full children.

Listen to Episode 25 of the Sage Family Podcast with Ross Greene to learn how to respectfully parent even the most challenging of children.

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I work from an island in the Pacific Northwest, where I live wild and free in connection with my hilarious husband and three growing sailors in our fixer upper on the beach. I authentically live this healing work out loud raising my own neurodivergent family (inner child included) and draw on my decades of education and experience (I've done all the nerdy work so you don't have to) to guide a revolution of overwhelmed parents just like you to feeling at peace within yourself, consciously connected with your children, embraced by a supportive community, and enjoying a values-aligned life you love.

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I'm Rachel Rainbolt

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