Spanking: Is it Discipline or Abuse?

by Dr. Marilyn G. Chotem – July 2003

Originally published in The Family Examiner

Much controversy surrounds spanking. The current, popular belief is that spanking is so detrimental to the child that it should be made illegal. Whether or not that would prevent child abuse and raise socially appropriate adults – is another question. From the point of view of the effect of spanking on children, we have a lot of research as well as practical advice to parents so that they don’t need to spank. The camps seem to be between traditionalists, like Christian Psychologist, Dr. James Dobson, who advocates the use of spanking when the authority of the parent needs to be shown to the child, and Child Psychologists and educators who believe there are better ways to discipline.

So what is discipline? Basically, discipline is any means used to shape behaviour. Ultimately, that reduces to the carrot or the stick. We motivate people by rewards or aversions. Children, like pets, can become obnoxious when overly indulged. Limits to unpleasant behaviours do need to be set. Abuse, however, does not set limits nor teach appropriate alternative behaviours. Abuse violates another person’s integrity, safety and respect, and teaches fear and submission. It is traumatic.

Whether spanking is abuse or discipline depends on the relationship between the parent and child, the frequency of spanking, the severity of the hitting, and the parent’s overall psychological health. Parents who abuse their children are unable to empathize with their children, or own their mistakes as parents. Alternatively, parents who love their children, but believe in spanking as discipline are usually able to convey love and forgiveness to the child, as well as empathy for the effect of the spanking. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a Biblical quote that unfortunately has been exploited to justify abusing children. An unempathic rod teaches compliance and fear, and leads to anger which is either “acted in”, as in eating disorders, or “acted out” in antisocial kinds of behaviours. Because trauma is severe and disabling, the risk of causing childhood trauma would caution one to develop alternatives to spanking. There are many.

Dr. Elliott Barker, Director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children writes:

“Kids who have their needs met early by loving parents… are subject totally and thoroughly to the most severe form of ‘discipline’ conceivable: they refrain from ‘bad’ behaviour because they love you so much! In other words, children who love their parents, called ‘attachment’ by Psychologists are more likely to want to be ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’.”

Dr. Barker advocates picking your fights carefully. He says
“If you haven’t cluttered the airwaves between you and your child with a thousand stupid ‘don’ts’ over your Royal Doulton china, or not eating their dessert before the main course, or not finishing their spinach, or not doing this or that, then those few situations where it really matters because of safety and impropriety don’t need anything approaching the connotation of ‘discipline’ to ensure appropriate behaviour.”

Barbara Coloroso is a dedicated and entertaining parent educator who lectures to large audiences of parents in Canada and the USA with the theme: “Kids Are Worth It”. She talks about three parenting styles from passive “jellyfish” to “backbone” (strong but flexible and democratic) to “brick wall” (autocratic). She advocates for limiting your restrictions to those things that are essential for the safety and well being of your child. She describes ways to motivate responsible behaviours without yelling or hitting. She ultimately advocates methods of parenting that honour the child’s self-worth, and teach respect and responsibility, by showing respect and having age appropriate expectations of the child.

Children’s needs change across developmental stages. In the first year of life, the child develops trust when it experiences the secure base of loving caretakers who are sensitive to the infant’s needs, and respond in an optimal time frame. Children in the first year of life need to be held, adored, related to, enjoyed and protected. ‘Spanking” at this stage is indeed, abuse.

In the second year of life, also known as the ‘terrible twos’, the child starts to explore the world around it. Now it needs the security of the parent’s availability, interest, and readiness to protect from danger. The child moves out toward the world, and back to the primary caregiver(s). Also, at age two, the cingulate gyrus portion of the brain is developing. The cingulate gyrus gets “stuck” or overfocused and oppositional which explains why two-year olds say “no” to everything. The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for rational thought, and develops after the cingulate gyrus, around age three. Thus, you can reason with an older child, but a two year old needs distraction to be redirected. This is often a time of crisis for parents, and they need to hold on to their tempers and their patience. They also need good coping strategies so they can stay calm in the face of adversity.

Help for Harried Parents
Many parents have found Dr. Thomas Phelan’s book “1-2-3 Magic” a life saver. He has developed a method that uses “one” as a warning signal; Two as an advanced warning signal; and Three as the final count before applying a consequence. His method teaches the parent to:

The usual consequence advocated is a time out, but all consequences need to be appropriate to the misbehaviour and the child’s personality and sensitivity. It should also take into consideration the underlying motivation of the child for the misbehaviour.

While parent education classes abound, and lots of good advice is available, when faced with misbehaviour, our reason often goes out the window. Reflexes may take over that are emotion driven. Suddenly, we may act in ways we regret, perhaps in ways that we were parented. Experiential learning is certainly the strongest, and most automatic. But hitting is not effective discipline, and when a parent succumbs to reflexive parenting, it’s important to acknowledge one’s mistakes to the child, while also teaching the child corrective behaviours.

The best prevention of destructive discipline is good self-care as a parent. Parents who were hit as children may benefit from psychotherapy that helps them resolve repressed pain and anger; and diminish the chances of doing to the child what was done to them. Learning to communicate assertively will reduce frustration and get quicker results, before tempers rise. Good stress management is essential for good parenting. Set realistic expectations of yourself. Practice self-appreciation and beware of self-criticism. Take breaks. Arrange time for intimacy and/or socializing. Do parent-exchanges so you can get breaks from the often relentless demands of young children. And remember, you are creating future adults who will behave toward themselves and others as they have been treated.

Submitted by: Marilyn Chotem, Ed.D., Registered Psychologist #773