Why Spanking Does Not Work

Corporal punishment is an outmoded tool of parenting (and education, which is a whole other topic), so it is a sweet relief that the American Academy of Pediatrics officially rebuked spanking as an effective disciplinary tool on November 5. In all the news of the midterm elections, I do not want this full-stop, empirical recommendation on how to raise less anxious, depressed, and potentially violent children to get lost amid the headlines.

I grew up in a home where spanking was practiced, and I knew if I was ever lucky enough to have a family, I would never spank my child. From the moment I became pregnant, I discussed my long-held beliefs in using positive reinforcement and developmentally appropriate consequences with my husband and extended family, and, to some degree, my anti-spanking stance alienated a few family members from how we raise our 19-month-old daughter. While pre-motherhood I may have cared about such familial shunning, after bringing our daughter into the world, I do not have the time nor inclination to worry about the ironically thin skin of people who had their shot at parenting.

For me, my rationale against spanking is quite simple—when my parents spanked me, I learned nothing from them other than to fear them and operate more covertly moving forward. While my parents and others of their generation may boast about picking switches off a tree for their spankings, the been-there-survived-that legacy is not one I am willing to pass along to our daughter. What is difficult about this discussion is that the judgment of one’s parenting is involved—the judgment that spanking is ineffective, abusive, and may create long-term negative consequences for a child. I understand not wanting to be judged, especially as a parent learning the ropes, and yet we owe it to our children to end a practice that causes harm.

I know for some, like two of my three siblings, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ announcement will not stop them from spanking their children. Part of what compels my younger siblings to spank is what Proverbs 13:24 has to say on the issue: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” Those who believe spanking is an effective disciplinary practice rooted in religion, even with pediatricians, psychologists, and researchers showing ample evidence to the contrary, is a divide representative of American politics. Op-eds in favor of the practice tend to be written by evangelical Christians, such as Dr. Jared Pingleton’s 2016 essay in TIME Magazine. Granted, many Christians also speak out against spanking, such as Heidi Schlumpf, a national correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

But here is the problem of thinking spanking is an innocuous practice: We bemoan violence in our schools, churches, synagogues, outdoor concerts, and elsewhere, but do we actively contemplate how spanking perpetuates a culture of violence not only in the home, but also in society? In 2018, moral and scientific evidence resoundingly shows that spanking does not change a child’s behavior for the better (in fact, there are numerous mental health risks posed by routinely spanking a child), yet here we are, with the Pew Research Center reporting that a little less than half of all parents “often/sometimes” spank their children (17 percent) or “rarely” spank (28 percent). Spanking, overall, is down from earlier decades, but when will the rod be put away for good? When will we join other countries who have banned spanking? The issue of spanking is, for certain, divisive, but it also has the chance to unite us in choosing a more patient, more humane approach in teaching our children how to exist in the world.