Is It OK to Spank Your Child?

I have a confession to make. I spanked my niece. She had been misbehaving so badly during lunch that I gave her a swat on the behind and put her to bed. When I checked on her later, she was sound asleep. In fact, she had immediately fallen asleep when her head hit the pillow, as evidenced by the un-swallowed hamburger in her mouth. I have felt a twinge of guilt over this for almost 40 years. What my niece taught me is that she didn’t need a spanking, she needed a nap. The spanking was for me. I had lost patience and acted out aggressively.

As a family therapist, I’ve heard debates over how to best discipline children. Advocates of corporal punishment think that a child sometimes needs a good hard spanking. Others believe any demonstration of physical aggression is akin to child abuse.

Let’s define our terms here. Corporal punishment is defined as the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics considers spanking with an open hand to be acceptable. It becomes unacceptable if it involves use of an object and extends beyond the buttocks, is conducted out of anger, or results in injury.

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) published an article by Tomoda, et.al. “Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishments.” The bottom line is that frequent and harsh corporal punishment has negative impact to a child’s brain. Physical punishment actually alters the developing brain. They found children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in certain areas of the brain that have been linked to negative outcomes such as depression, addiction and lower performance on IQ tests.

If spanking is used as a means to teach a child a lesson, it is counterproductive. The spanking may stop the immediate behavior, but it doesn’t teach a lesson about why the behavior was wrong, or how to manage themselves. The brain of a child who has been subject to regular spankings is less able to manage their emotions. And if they are less able to manage their emotions, they are more apt to receive harsh corporal punishment.

Additionally, it is difficult for a child to perceive a parent as loving and caring on one hand, and intentionally hurtful on the other hand. There may be a disconnect between a child’s impression that they did not do much if anything wrong, versus a parental impression that they must be severely punished for their mistakes. This disconnect may slow social cognition.

What I’ve learned is that aggression fosters more aggression. Violence and aggression are learned behaviors. Children learn how to express and manage emotion by watching others manage themselves. Children who receive harsh corporal punishment express more aggression.

Once we are in control of our own emotions, then we are better equipped to find creative solutions to our children’s poor behavior.

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