Spanking Undermines Discipline
- Loving Alternatives -

by Pam Leo

"It's not nice to hit people; children are people."
- Pam Leo

Parents hitting their children has been accepted as a form of discipline in our society for so long that some parents can't imagine that it is possible to discipline children without hitting them. We have learned that not only is it possible to discipline children without hitting them, but it is impossible to discipline children by hitting them. Making children feel worse does not make them behave better. Dr. Daniel F. Whiteside, former Assistant Surgeon General, reported that, "Corporal punishment of children actually interferes with the process of learning and with their optimal development as socially responsible adults. We feel that it is important for public health workers, teachers and others concerned for the emotional and physical health of children and youth to support the adoption of alternative methods for the achievement of self-control and responsible behavior in children and adolescents."

When most of us were growing up, it was believed that as long as the hitting did no permanent physical damage, the physical punishment would "teach us a lesson." Although the words punishment and discipline are often used as if they mean the same things, punishment and discipline are very different. Punishment is defined as arbitrary harsh treatment for wrong doing. Discipline means to teach. The only "lessons" we teach children when we hit them are to hit, fear, and distrust those who hit them.

Most parents intend to teach their children to be courteous, respectful, responsible, kind and loving. Children learn most from imitating what they see us do. Since hitting is not courteous, respectful, responsible, kind or loving, how can we possibly expect to teach our children those things by hitting them? Hitting is punishment, not discipline. Punishing children doesn't teach them why their behavior was unacceptable or what they should do instead. Punishment is meant to deter children from repeating the behavior by being painful or unpleasant enough to cause the child to want to avoid being punished again. In theory, this method may sound effective, but in reality, being punished causes children to think more about the wrong that was done to them than the wrong they did.

The goal of parental discipline is to teach children self-discipline. If the only reason children have for not doing something wrong is the threat of being punished, then what guidelines will they have for acceptable behavior when no one is there to punish them? Hitting children when we catch them doing something wrong doesn't teach them how to do what's right; it teaches them that they need to be sneaky and to lie to avoid being caught.

Hitting children not only hurts their bodies, it hurts their hearts and minds. Instead of giving them the message that what they did was bad, being hit causes children to believe that they are bad. Research shows that children who are hit have lower self-esteem than children who are not hit. There is even some evidence from a British study that children who are hit may be less able to learn because physical punishments reduce children's IQ. Being hit triggers the fight or flight response in human beings. When we are hit, our rational thinking shuts down. All we can think about is hitting back or running away to protect ourselves. If we can't think about why what we did was wrong, we can't learn the right thing to do either. Most adults who were hit as children tell us that while they remember being hit, they don't remember why. This is more evidence that hitting fails as a form of discipline or teaching.

While not all people who were hit as children grow up to be hitters, all adults who hit grew up either being hit or witnessing hitting. When an adult hits another adult we call it assault. When a husband or wife hits the other we call it battering. When a big kid hits a little kid we call it bullying. When a parent hits a child we call it spanking. No matter what name we give it - a swat, slap, tap or spank, it is hitting. When the adults in a family hit each other we call it domestic violence. Why then, when the adults hit the children in the family, do we call it discipline? Nowhere else in our society is hitting considered acceptable. Isn't all hitting violence?

In spite of the fact that we now know hitting children does not teach them acceptable behavior but damages them emotionally, intellectually and physically, many children are still being hit in the name of discipline. When talking to parents in my parenting workshops about why parents hit, I found three answers most common:

  1. "I was brought up to believe that it is my right to hit my children when they misbehave and that it's the only way to make them mind."
  2. "Until now I didn't know there was anything wrong with hitting them. My parents hit me and I just thought that's what you do to discipline your kids."
  3. "I know it's not good to hit your kids, but sometimes I get angry and frustrated and I don't know what else to do."
Most parents love their children and want to be good parents who raise good kids. Many parents feel badly about resorting to hitting their children and are anxious or at least open to learning methods of effective, loving discipline. To those parents I offer some alternatives.

It Wouldn't Hurt To Try:

  • When a small child is about to touch something dangerous or breakable, catch their hand, name the danger emphatically (Hot!) then show them what they can touch instead.
  • When a child is about to do something dangerous like going into the road or climbing on a bookcase, gather them into your arms, tell them "Danger!" and explain to them why their behavior frightens you. The word danger is more effective than just saying no.
  • When you have told a child to stop doing something 10 times and now you are angry, you've been talking too much and teaching them they can do something 10 times before you will stop them. Speak once and then go over and tell them what they can do instead. Telling children what we don't want them to do doesn't teach them what we do want them to do.
  • Children need to be taught how to behave in stores, restaurants, etc. We can teach them at home by "playing" store or restaurant.
  • Children need lots of attention. When we give enough positive attention, children don't become so starved for attention that they resort to any behavior that will get our attention.
  • When a child is having a temper tantrum, they are pouring out built up hurts, disappointments and frustrations. All we need to do is prevent them from hurting themselves or anyone else and just let them pour out their feelings. As soon as the feelings are emptied out their behavior will improve.
  • When you get too stressed and feel yourself about to hit, announce loudly, "I'm feeling angry, I need this behavior to stop and I need a hug."
  • For older children make up a family code word or gesture that you can use in public that let's them know that you want them to stop what they are doing.
  • Parents, who didn't have models of nonphysical discipline, can take a parenting class to learn effective parenting skills.
  • Since children who are "acting out" are usually trying to tell us, "I need more love,"..."When you see red - hug me instead."

Ending all forms of violence against children will be the beginning of the end of domestic violence. However we treat the child, the child will treat the world.


  • Plain Talk About Spanking - PTAVE, P.O. Box 1033, Alamo, CA 94507-7033
  • Spanking - A Short-Cut To Nowhere... by Penelope Leach, Emphatic Parenting Journal, Volume 17, Issue 2 Spring 1994
  • Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 356 First Street, Box 700, Midland, Ontario, L4R 4P4

"Spanking Undermines Discipline"  © 1989-2007 by Pam Leo and Connection Parenting (™)
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