Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Should Parents Spank Their Children?

December 31, 2001

First of all, let’s define spanking. Spanking is defined as hitting a child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury. It is done with the intention to change a child’s behavior. Spanking does not include any other forms of physical contact such as using any other instrument other than a hand to strike the child or to strike a child on the face or torso. This definition also excludes lifting, throwing or shaking a child.

Using that definition of spanking, choose one of the four choices below to describe if, how or when you spank.

A. Little or no physical punishment and no intensity.

B. Occasional physical punishment with no or little intensity.

C. Some or often use of physical punishment with little or no intensity, or frequent physical punishment with no intensity.

D. Frequent physical punishment with at least some intensity.

Diana Baumrind, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, studied the effects of whether spanking has a negative impact on child development and adjustment. Baumrind is well known for her research on parenting styles, - Authoritative, Democratic, Directive, Good Enough, Permissive, and Rejecting/Neglecting. For this research, her samples were taken from a middle class parents of European descent in a University community.

When is spanking negative. Using the categories Baumrind found that for those parents who chose category "c", spankings had detrimental effects for preschoolers and early adolescents (ages 14 or 15) but not for early elementary ages 8 or 9. Category "d" spankings were detrimental for all three age groups.

Here are some of her other conclusions:

- There was no difference between child adjustment for children who received no spankings versus those who had experienced occasional spankings with low intensity.

- Low intensity or infrequent spankings at the preschool ages did not have any harmful effects on later childhood competence or well-being. Parents who rate high in parenting skills phased out spankings rapidly once their children began elementary school.

- Spanking is clearly inappropriate with early adolescents.

- Impulsive spanking is harmful to child development.

- Verbal punishment such as yelling and shouting, sarcasm, and giving generalized disapproval were as harmful if not more so than spankings that are too frequent or given with intensity.

- Authoritarian/directive or rejecting/neglectful parents are much more likely to resort to overly severe physical punishment with no reduction in frequency or intensity as the child gets older. These type of parents are also likely to accompany their physical punishment with rejection and controlling attitudes.

When is spanking OK? Baumrind believes spankings can be used conditionally and effectively as an additional punishment when used in combination with reasoning, time-outs, and deprivation of privileges.

Spanking can be most effective in enforcing short term obedience to parents and to limit demanding, rebellious behavior by the child. Primarily it is used with bold, defiant children as a back up to time-outs. It should not be used with fearful or shy children.

How is spanking properly done? Baumrind cites another researcher, R. E. Larzelere, who offered these guidelines of effective spanking.

1. Should not cause more than a moderate level of distress.

2. Controlled and planned, not impulsive.

3. Preferably used between ages two and six and phased out soon after.

4. Used in conjunction with reasoning and explanation.

5. Used privately.

6. Motivated by child-oriented concern and not parent-motivated concern.

7. Used after a single warning to enforce a directive or time-out.

8. Used flexibly with recourse to other disciplinary tactics, rather than increasing the intensity of the spanking.

What qualities makes parenting best? Baumrind lists qualities that she feels make for optimal parenting.

"These features include deep and abiding commitment to the parenting role, intimate knowledge of children’s developmental needs; respect for a particular child’s individuality and desires; provision of structure and regimen appropriate to developmental level; readiness to establish and disciplinary strategies to enforce behavioral guidelines; and cognitive stimulation, effective communication and use of reasoning to ensure the children’s understanding of parents’ goals and disciplinary strategies."

Baumrind emphasizes that clear limits are firmly enforced during the early years and need to occur within the context of a warm and responsive parent-child relationship. By being consistently firm, rational and responsive and by proactively teaching the child to behave morally, parents minimize the need for spanking or other punishments to get reasonably compliant behavior.

Baumrind also is careful to point out that the effects of spanking depend on the meaning children attach to it. This in turn depends on community or cultural standards and whether the child perceives the parent as loving, responsive, fair, and committed to his or her welfare. Some ethnic subcultures view spanking in a more positive light without the emotional baggage that mainstream culture attaches to it.

Why anti-spanking policies backfire? When spanking is criminalized or stigmatized as a functional disciplinary practice, this contradicts many parents’ own personal experience and cultural backgrounds. By taking an unconditional anti-spanking position, educators and policy makers alienate rather than educate the very people they are trying to influence.

Reliance on spanking as a disciplinary technique and the intensity of the spanking are the problems, not spanking itself. Educators need to influence those parents who rely on spanking to learn how to use it occasionally and conditionally. It is to be used with reasoning and as a back up to time-outs. It needs to be phased out rather quickly as the child enters elementary school.