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SPANKING MYTHS SLAPPED DOWN
Eight Dangerous Myths About Spanking
By Debra L. Stang, LCSW
A few nights ago, I was talking to a friend when the subject of
spanking came up. I could not have been more surprised when her first
response was, "I can't say I'm totally against it. What if a two year
old is crawling for a hot stove?"
This is not an uninformed woman. She and I both cut our clinical teeth
working with victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual
assault. We have seen over and over the harm and damage caused by
Yet for some reason, she is still not able to set aside the old wives'
tale which holds that spanking, unlike any other form of hitting, is a
I'm sorry to say my response to my friend wasn't a particularly
enlightening one. I managed to gasp out one or two rebuttals, but
mostly, I just stammered in shock.
The confrontation, and my response to it, got me thinking about the
most common myths people use to justify hitting children. In this
article, I've examined eight of those myths and I've provided the
researched, reasoned responses I wish I'd had ready for my friend.
Myth #1. Being spanked never hurt anybody.
This makes little sense for many reasons. First, the whole idea of
spanking is to inflict at least temporary pain. People who advocate
spanking are well aware of this. For instance, James Dobson, founder
of Focus on the Family and unapologetic advocate of spanking, has
noted that "pain is a marvelous purifier" (qtd. in Greven, 1991, p.
68). Other spanking advocates have recommended corporal punishment
severe enough to leave redness, welts, and even bruises on the child's
skin (Greven, 1991, pp. 79-80).
Since most children are spanked on the buttocks-a part of the body
they have been told is "private"-they feel shame and humiliation as
well, along with an uncertainty about how "private" that part of their
body truly is (Johnson, 2001).
But even beyond the mortification and the physical hurt, there is a
longer-lasting emotional pain. Among many other negative outcomes,
being spanked has been linked to:
Low self esteem (Bryan & Freed, 1982)
Depression (Straus, 1994)
Masochism (Straus & Donnelly, 1994)
Psychological Distress (Turner & Finkelhor, 1996)
Myth #2: I was spanked, and I'm okay.
Most smokers never develop cancer, most drunk drivers don't get into
wrecks, and most children who grow up in homes with lead paint do not
suffer brain damage. But no intelligent adult would seriously advocate
smoking, driving drunk, or using lead-based paint to decorate their
walls. There's also one more thing to consider. Most people who were
spanked are "okay" in the sense that they aren't in prisons or
psychiatric facilities. However, corporal punishment is handed down
from one generation to the next. Compared to people who were not
spanked, people who were spanked as children are more likely to spank
their own kids (Muller, Hunter, & Stollak, 1995). Let's put that in
plain English: People who were hit when they were vulnerable children
are more likely to think it is acceptable-even desirable-for a fully
grown adult to use painful physical force against a small child. How
okay is that?
Myth #3: Some children need a good, hard spanking.
Let's look at who really benefits from the spanking. The child? No.
Other interventions work just as well in the short term and better in
the long term. Furthermore, the spanked child is put at risk for many
negative consequences (see Myths 1, 5 and 8).
Rather, it's the parent who benefits, in two ways. First, the parent
achieves immediate results-results which could also be gotten through
non-violent methods. Second, the physical punishment gives the parent
a release of anger and tension-a kind of catharsis. Using a
non-violent form of discipline such as time out or even a verbal
command ("Don't touch!") will alter the child's behavior just as
effectively, but it won't provide the parent with the same degree of
emotional release (Carey, 1994).
In other words, parents continue to spank because spanking meets some
of their own misguided needs. It does not benefit the child.
Myth #4: Spanking is the best way to stop dangerous behavior in
Small children have short attention spans when it comes to long lists
of rules. Spanking may stop the behavior in the moment, but not any
more effectively than non-violent discipline (e.g., time-out, saying
"no," etc.). With toddlers no method of discipline, including
spanking, works reliably for more than a couple of hours (Larzelere,
Schneider, Larson, & Pike, 1996).
There are only two ways to keep toddlers safe. The first is adjusting
the environment (for instance, keeping sharp objects locked away or
out of the child's reach, or building a fence around the back yard to
provide a safe play area). The second is providing careful, loving,
and nonviolent supervision.
Myth #5: Being spanked keeps children out of trouble.
Being spanked has consistently been linked with aggressive behavior
(Frick, Christian, & Wootton, 1999), including domestic violence
(Simons, Lin, & Gordon, 1998) and cruelty to animals (Flynn, 1999).
Jordan Riak, who works with convicted felons, has noted that close to
99% of the men in his groups report being spanked as children
(personal communication, 1/9/02). If the goal is keeping children out
of trouble, spanking is clearly not the way to go.
There is another problem as well. While spanking may teach some
children to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of punishment, it does
not teach the child to think about what is right and what is wrong.
Rather, it teaches the child to ask, "Will I get caught?" and "Will I
be punished?" Spanked children do not learn to measure their behaviors
against their own moral beliefs. Rather, they rely blindly on the
judgment of those in authority-those who have the power to punish. If
the person in authority gives unethical orders, the results can be
tragic. It is no coincidence that a society where physical punishment
was the norm gave rise to the most shameful words of the twentieth
century: "I was only following orders."
Myth #6: Nothing but spanking works on some children.
First, let's look at the child's age. If the child is a toddler, for
instance, no method of discipline, including spanking, is going to
reliably curb certain behaviors for more than an hour or two at a
time. The frustrated parent may get some emotional payoff from the
spanking. The child will only be harmed.
Second, were the alternative methods of discipline being used
correctly? I once spoke with a client who told me she "had" to spank
her four-year-old daughter because the child wouldn't stay in her
time-out chair. The length of the time-out? Four hours! No child can
be expected to sit still for four hours with no diversion-to demand it
is abuse. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the
vast number of successful non-violent methods of discipline and how to
use them, many parenting websites and books do just that. A quick
search of the internet or the local library will provide dozens of
effective alternatives to spanking.
Finally, some parents misperceive the actual value of spanking. They
may, for instance, spank their child repeatedly for the same
misbehavior, but declare time-out or some other non-violent means of
discipline a failure when it does not stop the problem behavior after
only one trial. The research, meanwhile, is clear: even in the very
short term, spanking does not work any better than non-violent means
of discipline such as explanation, time out, or verbal command
(Larzelere, Sather, Schneider, Larson, & Pike, 1998; Roberts & Powers,
1990). There is no reason to strike a child. Ever.
Myth #7: Spanking isn't hitting or violence-it's discipline.
Imagine this scenario: an aide at a nursing home for Alzheimer's
patients discovers an elderly woman poking at an electrical outlet.
The aide immediately slaps the woman hard across the buttocks several
times, reducing the woman to tears.
Has the woman been hit? Most of us would agree that she has. Has she
been a victim of violence? Most of us would agree to that, also.
Furthermore, even though there is no permanent injury to her physical
being, every state in the United States would define what happened to
the woman as abuse. The aide would certainly lose her job and might
face criminal charges as well; the facility would be in danger of
losing its license.
But substitute "two-year-old" for "elderly woman" and "parent" for
"nursing home aide" and all of a sudden, our perceptions change. The
hitting and the violence become a "spanking" and even some of the most
dedicated child rights activists start referring to the incident as
"sub-abusive." Why? The two-year-old is equally hurt and humiliated by
the blows; he or she is no better able to defend against them; and he
or she is not more likely to get any benefit from them.
The fact that our society has arbitrarily decided to offer protection
to one victim and withhold it from the other does not alter the truth:
spanking is hitting and it is violent.
Myth #8: Spanking is not harmful if it's done by loving, supportive
If anything, it may be even more distressing for a child to feel loved
and supported by the very people who perpetrate violence against him
or her. The child could learn to confuse love with violence, or to
believe that it is okay to use force in the context of close, loving
relationships. Or, the child could begin to feel worthless and believe
he or she deserves physical violence.
Not surprisingly, the research shows that the negative effects of
spanking persist, even among loving and supportive families. The
negative effects that have been studied in the context of family
support include antisocial behavior and conduct problems (Frick,
Christian, & Woottton, 1999; Gunnoe & Mariner, 1997), teen dating
violence (Simons, Lin, & Gordon, 1998), masochism (Straus & Donnelly,
1994), and psychological distress (Turner & Finkelhor, 1996).
The research is clear and has been for some time: Spanking causes
harm. No matter how or why it is administered, it is not benign or
beneficial. It is physical violence. And, like any other type of
physical violence, spanking scars its victims emotionally.
We have spent too many years ignoring the research and accepting the
myths about spanking without bothering to investigate them fully. The
time has come to confront these myths and stop finding excuses to hit
References Bryan, J. W., & Freed, F. W. (1982). Corporal punishment:
Normative data and sociological and psychological correlates in a
community college population. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 11,
Carey, T. A. (1994). Spare the rod and spoil the child: Is this a
sensible justification for the use of punishment in child rearing?
Child Abuse & Neglect, 18(12), 1005-1010.
Flynn, C. P. (1999). Exploring the link between corporal punishment
and children's cruelty to animals. Journal of Marriage and the Family,
Frick, P. J., Christian, R. E., & Wootton, J. M. (1999). Age trends in
the association between parenting practices and conduct problems.
Behavior Modification, 23(1), 106-128.
Gunnoe, M. L., & Mariner, C. L. (1997). Towards a
developmental-contextual model of the effects of parental spanking on
children's aggression. Archives in Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 151,
Johnson, T. (2001). The sexual dangers of spanking children (2nd ed.)
[Booklet]. Alamo, CA: PTAVE.
Larzelere, R. E., Sather, P. R., Schneider, W. N., Larson, D. L., &
Pike, P. L. (1998). Punishment enhances reasoning's effectiveness as a
disciplinary response to toddlers. Journal of Marriage and the Family,
Larzelere, R. E., Schneider, W. N., Larson, D. B., & Pike, P. L.
(1996). The effects of discipline responses in delaying toddler
misbehavior recurrences. Child and Family Therapy, 18, 35-37.
Muller, R. T., Hunter, J. E., & Stollak, G. (1995). The
intergenerational transmission of corporal punishment: A comparison of
social learning and temperament models. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19(11),
Roberts, M. W., & Powers, S. W. (1990). Adjusting chair timeout
enforcement procedures for oppositional children. Behavior Therapy,
Simons, R. L., Lin, K., & Gordon, L. C. (1998). Socialization in the
family of origin and male dating violence: A prospective study.
Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 467-478.
Straus, M. A. (Ed.). (1994). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal
punishment in American families and its effect on children. Boston:
Straus, M. A., & Donnelly, D. A. (1994). The fusion of sex and
violence. In M. A. Straus (Ed.), Beating the devil out of them:
Corporal punishment in American families (pp. 121-136). Boston:
Turner, H. A., & Finkelhor, D. (1996). Corporal punishment as a
stressor among youth. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 155-166.
Project NoSpank at www.nospank.net
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