Creating boundaries is an essential part of raising kids and instils a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. Sometimes when kids have brought you to your wits ends, spanking feels like the only way to get them to knock off their naughty behavior. We understand the urge, but there are other, less harmful ways to get children to listen. One of the most difficult aspects of parenting is figuring out how to effectively teach a child that something she’s done is not gonna fly.

For parents with very strong-willed children, being at home can sometimes feel like a power struggle, and instead of losing all control, spanking becomes a way to immediately enforce rules and good behavior.

Children who are spanked on a frequent basis “increases the likelihood of abusing one’s own children or spouse as an adult.” When a frequently-spanked child is at risk of future emotional problems, as a parent, sometimes you have to step back and decide if “It worked for me!” is really a good reason for using this method now.

So, is it okay to spank a misbehaving child, every once in a while?

Spanking does not result in a more obedient child.

There’s one positive outcome of spank and that’s that the child immediately complies with what you’re asking because she’s afraid. Yes, after a good spanking your child will probably shut her mouth and do everything you instruct her to do in that moment and maybe even weeks after you physically disciplined her. Obedience erodes over time and is not at all effective as a long-term form of discipline.

Children who are hit, are more likely to hit others.

No question about it – children who are hit are more likely to hit other children, more likely to hit their parents, their siblings. And when they grow up, they’re more likely to hit their partners.

Spanking doesn’t teach kids self-control.

It only teaches them that a certain behavior will result in violence. It can be confusing and frightening for children to be hit by someone they love and respect, and on whom they are dependent. To Spank is an emotional event and a child’s feelings of “fear and sadness” as it’s happening can obstruct any message you’re trying to convey through spanking. So what to do instead… Punishment is an effective way to correct bad behavior. Instead, parents should set non-negotiable boundaries for their children through ‘Empathic Restrictions’.

A method that teaches kids not only to comply but also helps them understand that sometimes they have to “give up something they want for something they want more – a positive relationship with their parents,” has been around for a while. To give you a clear understanding of how to implement Empathic Limits in everyday situations, we’ve used one of Dr Markham’s examples:

When trying to get a strong-willed child off the swing because it’s time to go home and eat dinner, she may fight and scream and make it incredibly difficult for you to get her out of the playground. In this instance, you as a parent, might match your child’s misbehavior with yelling or even spanking for not listening. Dr Markham asks parents to “STOP, DROP, AND BREATHE,” i.e. calm down, take a few breaths, and then state your non-negotiable limit again.

Why parents spank children

Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toledo Michelle Knox noted a striking irony in the American attitude toward corporal punishment: “In the United States, it is against the law to hit prisoners, criminals or other adults. Ironically, the only humans it is still legal to hit are the most vulnerable members of our society – those we are charged to protect – children.”

Experts noting that “…spanking is often the first step in the cycle of child abuse.” What may begin as the parent’s well-intentioned wish to discipline a child often ends with the parent’s mounting anger and worsening blows. It isn’t that the parent is “evil” by nature or is a “child abuser.” Often, the parent has been stressed to breaking point, and is not aware of alternative methods of discipline – for example, the use of “time-outs,” removal of privileges and positive reinforcement of the child’s appropriate behaviors.

Parents vs. researchers

But wait: aren’t there exceptions to these general findings? Aren’t there times when a light rap on the backside can do a misbehaving child some good – or at least, not cause any significant harm?

The effects of spanking may depend on the “meaning” children ascribe to it. For example, spanking perceived by the child as parental aggression (as opposed to nonaggressive limit setting) may be associated with subsequent aggressive behavior by the child. And, to be sure, some parents have argued that it is the misbehavior of children that leads to spanking – not the reverse.

Nevertheless, there is a strong consensus in the mental health community that any form of corporal punishment can cause harm. Experts in 2020 review that: “Even minor forms of corporal punishment, such as spanking, increase the risk for increased child aggressive behavior.”

Furthermore, clinical studies have shown that reducing parents’ use of corporal punishment can reduce children’s subsequent aggression. Parents who believe they have no alternative except to spank their misbehaving children do not need finger-wagging lectures from clinicians. But they do need professional support and education, aimed at reducing their level of stress and increasing their use of alternatives to corporal punishment.