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Health Information An Expert Opinion: Spanking Hurts

A 2010 study found that spanking children under 6 years of age may have its benefits, with spanked children in the study performing better in school than kids who had never been spanked. The spanked children were also found to be more likely to volunteer and go to college. The American Academy of Pediatrics and many other pediatric experts, however, argue that the negatives of spanking far outweigh any positives. This group of experts includes Paul Holinger, MD, MPH, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Rush, who believes that physical punishment — at any age — initiates a cycle of violent behavior. Below he shares his views on spanking and discipline.

You are against spanking in any form. Why?

Spanking is a euphemism for hitting. Hitting a spouse or a stranger is considered domestic violence or assault. So why should you be permitted to hit a smaller and even more vulnerable child? Hitting a child elicits precisely the feelings one does not want to generate in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame and disgust. Studies show that children who are hit will identify with the aggressor, and they are more likely to become hitters themselves (i.e., bullies and future abusers of their children and spouses). They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with disputes.

Why then do some parents still spank their children?

The usual answer is to get children to do what parents think is best for them. And, yet, the answer is much more complicated. Dealing with children can stir up very charged and old feelings. The arguments and screaming of a child can push the same buttons that your own parents or siblings pushed long ago. Or perhaps you or your spouse spanks because that’s what your parents did. I've often heard "I was spanked as a child, and I turned out all right."

While that may be true, I believe you turned out all right in spite of the spanking, not because of it ... and perhaps things would have been even better if your parents had turned to effective alternatives to spanking.

What would you recommend as an alternative to spanking as a form of discipline?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use words instead of actions — that is, talk rather than hit. Talk with the child about what behaviors are acceptable or not, what is safe or dangerous and why.
  • Listen to your child — find out why he or she did or did not do something.
  • Explain why the behavior is unacceptable — this will enhance the child's decision-making capacities.
  • Offer positive reinforcement — rewards and praise. This will enhance the child's self-esteem when appropriate standards are met. Positive reinforcement is more effective in obtaining long-term behavioral compliance than frightening and shaming punishments.
  • Set a good example for the child. Your child wants to be like you. Children identify with their parents, and they will put feelings and actions into words when they see their parents doing this. Who the parents are, and how they behave, will have a profound impact on the development of their children. Your child will follow your lead.
And what about tantrums, which tend to peak parents' stress levels? Children are often not in the mood for listening in these situations.

When it comes to tantrums, prevention is key. Take steps to avoid tantrums from ever happening by knowing what triggers them. Three issues in particular can provoke distress, anger and tantrums; these are fatigue, hunger and illness. When tantrums do occur, remain calm. Ignore the behavior rather than feed into it with a bribe, which is a reward for bad behavior and only increases the chances of the behavior happening again. And definitely don't resort to hitting.

What about time-outs?

Well, in my experience, parents typically need the time-outs more than their children. I think time-outs can be somewhat isolating to a child, and that’s not always productive. That said, I think there are times when children and parents need to separate and cool down. So, in that sense, time-outs can be valuable.

Whether it's a time-out, using positive reinforcement or having a sit down to explain unacceptable behavior, these alternatives to spanking have their advantages. According to Holinger, these can include helping children tolerate frustrations, regulate tension, behave in socially acceptable ways, develop appropriate ethical and moral standards, and improve self-esteem. And in his view, if we truly want a less violent society, not hitting our children is a good place to start.

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.  

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An Expert Opinion: Spanking Hurts

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