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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is spanking bad?

"Spare the rod, spoil the child." This is a well-known quote found in both the Hebrew Ketuvim and Christian Bible, both in Proverbs, probably written by King Solomon of Israel.

(an older post on spanking:

Is this "wisdom of Solomon" applicable in contemporary life? What did Solomon mean? The word "spoil" with regards to children, grew out of 1600s Europe, and it referred to "over-indulging" a child. There's no direct translation for the word spoil in Hebrew. Another proverb says, "Withhold not correction from the child... Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell." Many religious leaders still believe that children were born with "rebellion" in them or were inclined to "sin" and thus, parents must "drive it out of them,"  or "break their will," by causing pain.

Over 90% of studies show that corporal punishment is
highly correlated with anti-social behaviors, especially
for white males.
In this case, parents bear quite a burden, if your child goes to hell, it's your fault for not using the rod enough when they were young. Keep in mind that the this idea of using the "rod" has it's roots in logic from about 3,000 years ago when most people only lived to the ripe age of 25, so your life was half over by the age of 12. Our understanding of child development is so much more clear today than it was in 1,000 BC, and with regards to safety, there's no comparison. Prior to modern society, fear-based techniques like parenting helped keep children safe from harm.

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The influence of out-dated ideas about discipline, like spanking, persist because the religious leaders of today continue to preach them as useful or "right." These religious beliefs about child rearing persist because religious writings are not open to new ideas, hence, they are dogmatic. But these same religious leaders will not adhere to other out-dated ideas like not eating shellfish, mixing certain types of foods, or stoning people to death for not going to church, etc... . Even King Solomon, in his own wisdom, felt that certain biblical laws did not apply to him, coincidentally, in areas of life where he wanted to behave differently.

These days, one very popular religious group is Focus on the Family (FOF). I often work with parents who have relied on parenting advice from FOF, only to report that it doesn't work to well, over time, even with more challenging children.

Here's a direct quote from the parenting advice section of the website of Focus on the Family:
       "One has to wonder why so many "experts" on parenting have failed to notice that some children are tougher to raise than others. One would never get that impression from reading the advice offered by this army of permissive psychologists, counselors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and columnists for women's magazines, who are convinced that raising kids is as simple as falling off a log. All parents need to do, they have been saying for decades, is give them a lot of space, treat them like adults, and if absolutely necessary, explain every now and then why they might want to consider behaving better."

The former paragraph is, to put it nicely, misinformed. Mental health practitioners like Social Workers and Psychologists are not permissive, and certainly are well aware of how some children can be more "difficult" or challenging that others. Parenting experts who are trained in child development tend not to give over-simplistic advice as FOF says they do (give them space, etc..). This misleading position regarding professionals, found in the FOF website, is upsetting because FOF is supposed to a christian organization - yet their website's attitude is divisive and rejecting of the research behind good parenting.

            Here's what Focus on the Family recommends for how to discipline children:

"All parents seek disciplinary techniques that work. However, not all techniques work for all ages or for all children. Use this list as a guide for age-appropriate discipline.
Distraction. Infants (birth to 18 months) typically do not need strong disciplinary measures. When babies "misbehave" they are often exploring and testing their boundaries. Simply directing a baby's attention elsewhere may solve the problem.
Time-Out. Many parents use time-out for all behaviors all the time. However, for time-out to work, it should be used as one tool in an arsenal of other discipline techniques for ages 2 to 8. Some basic guidelines for time-out include:
  • Make it short — 1 minute for each year of your child's age.
  • Eliminate reinforcers. Your child should not be able to play, watch television, etc.
  • Use a timer. Restart the time if your child leaves time-out.
  • Use other discipline techniques if time-out does not work.
Removal of privileges. Taking away toys, activities or outings can be an effective way to manage inappropriate behavior for children ages 18 months and older. To make sure this technique works for you:
  • Choose a meaningful privilege that your child will greatly miss.
  • Follow through on warnings to remove privileges.
  • Remove the item for a short amount of time (differs by age — several hours for a 2-year-old but several days for a 12-year-old).
Natural consequences. Parents do not need to get involved in order for natural consequences to take effect. For example, if your child refuses to eat dinner, instead of developing a power struggle, allow her to go to bed without eating. She will naturally be hungry in the morning and will be certain to eat. (Appropriate for children 2 and older.)
 Logical Consequences. This is a punishment that fits the crime. Suppose your child throws a ball in the house and breaks a vase. She could be asked to work off the value of the vase or use her allowance to buy a new one.
Spanking. Spanking typically works best with ages 2 to 6. It should be used only for specific, purposeful misbehavior and should never be done in anger. As with other techniques, spanking should be used as one of many discipline tools."

I probably could probably write my own book about why the advice given by FOF is (1) over-simplistic, and (2) leaves out loads of important information, and (3) most of its assertions are incorrect. If you parent your children using this advice, your parenting effectiveness will be very limited and may even make things worse!

Read one more time what FOF says about spanking. What we know about spanking today is that it is a form of punishment, it does not teach children how to behave, it only deters behavior; it does not work for behavior problems which occur a few times a month or more; it can lead to parent-child relationship problems; and, children who are spanked tend to hit other kids much more often than kids who are not spanked. Spanking children can also make them afraid of their parents which can lead to them becoming introverted (which parents see as "well behaved), and having a lack of initiative (again, parents will see it as well behaved).

I couldn't emphasize more, that FOF's parenting advice is over-simplistic and leaves out important information. For example, FOF's advice focuses on mis-behavior - almost exclusively. What about how to get your child to behave the way you want them to behave? Deterring bad behavior is not the same as teaching good behavior. Just because a parent has deterred a bad behavior does not mean that they have taught the good behavior automatically. This tends to confuse parents because adults often assume that if the bad behavior is deterred, then the child will default to the good behavior.

When FOF says that spanking should be used for "purposeful" behavior, how are parents supposed to know if the behavior was purposeful? The problem that I see with FOF's advice is the same problem I see with the perspective held by many parents - they mistake a child's behavior for their personality - that is, they think that behavior is a choice and that it is "on purpose," in order to get attention or to manipulate, or worse, to annoy parents. Behavior is not personality! So, don't label a child's personality based on their behavior with empty labels like, "lazy," or "manipulative."

What is more of a problem than spanking is when parents have a dysfunctional parenting style and when parents have unrealistic expectations of their children. I will discuss parenting styles in another post.

What's worse about spanking is the it is highly correlated with anti-social behavior, especially in white males. That is, if you spank your child, they are much more likely to develop anti-social behaviors, such as, hitting, stealing, lying, poor academic performance, defiance to authority figures (teachers), and other problematic behaviors. Children who are labeled with ADHD have very high rates of corporal punishment.

What I want you to come away with in this post is that:
1. Punishments usually don't work and over time, they tend to make things worse for parents and children.
2. Spanking is a form of punishment that can cause additional behavior problems, such as hitting, and becoming fearful which may stifle the parent-child relationship and good personality traits like taking initiative and having good communication.
3. There are many other very effective parenting approaches that parents can learn and use that aren't mentioned in FOF's website or in religious texts, which are very effective.

Mental Health Advice Disclaimer
The information included in this post and blog are for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional mental health treatment or medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her mental health provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a mental health or medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a therapist-patient relationship.

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