To Spank or Not to Spank?

Son and father
Alp Studio

It’s one of the most common parenting questions, especially for young parents. The topic charges emotions and often sparks controversy. The problem is, there’s not an easy answer. Parents need to evaluate their own personality and parenting styles and decide for themselves. 

One thing is for sure. If your family chooses to discipline through spanking, it needs to be the most infrequently used tool in a comprehensive discipline toolkit.

As a family counselor and Focus’ VP of Parenting and Youth, before entering the spanking debate, I advise parents to step back and reflect on their role and to work at building and maintaining the 7 traits of an effective parent.

Parenting is about influence, not control. It’s not about being perfect but about growing together and bringing out the best in our kids, which requires us bringing out the best in ourselves.

Ultimately, we want kids to learn how to discipline themselves. When we use our words and actions to guide, teach, encourage and correct, children learn to self-discipline and self correct. That’s a valuable lifelong tool. And, it helps kids tune in to who God designed them to be (Ephesians 2:10). 

With those things in mind, let’s begin by looking at some different views on spanking.

What do Americans say about spanking?

According to national statistics, about three quarters of the United States population uses spanking as a parenting method. In a recent study:

  • 62% of Latino and Caucasian women believe it is sometimes necessary to give a child a “good hard spanking”
  • 81% of African American women believe the same thing
  • Latino (73%), Caucasian (76%) and African American (80%) men are closely matched in their belief that children sometimes need a “good hard spanking”

What does the research say about spanking?

Research on spanking is varied.

Some research makes sweeping claims that frequent and/or severe spanking increases mental health and behavioral issues in kids, ranging from depression and anxiety to alcohol use. What is unclear from the research is whether behavioral issues precipitated the spanking, or vice versa.

What the research doesn’t measure:

  • Do the children being spanked already struggle with behavioral issues, perhaps triggering parents’ decision to spank?
  • Are kids with behavioral issues more likely to be spanked?
  • Do the non-spanked children simply have more cooperative and compliant personalities?

Research supports the fact that diet, stress, environment, media and social influences all play a role in misbehavior and in temperament (personality), sleep habits, sleep quality and possible mental health issues in the child. Misbehavior can rarely be placed on one single factor, such as spanking. The exception is when there’s been abuse, which often manifests itself in misbehavior.

Research also supports the fact that, when used correctly and infrequently and as one of many discipline forms, spanking has been a common factor in kids with well-developed self-motivation, empathy, morality and character.   

What does the Bible say about spanking?

The word parenting comes from the root word pere, which means “to bring forth, give birth to, produce.”  It means rearing kids using the necessary methods and techniques. Let’s see what the Bible says about our role as parents:

  • We get to help shape our children and not exasperate or provoke them (Ephesians 6:4).
  • We’re to discipline and provide the Lord’s instruction. To teach them about God’s word (Deut. 6:6-9 and Joel 1:3).
  • We’re to guide them according to who God has created them to be (Proverbs 22:6).

There’s an entire article on the biblical perspective on spanking here.

Spanking can be appropriate, It can also be inappropriate

Used correctly and infrequently as part of a comprehensive parenting toolkit, a spank can be that last resort discipline method you use when you need to create attention and a clear understanding why the behavior should never happen again.

Used inappropriately, spanking can be dangerous. I’ve found some parents who use spanking as their main discipline tool and, many times, use it when they’re frustrated or angry. I’ve also noticed some parents spank and move on, skipping the important teaching element. That communicates nothing more than, “I’m in power and you need to listen to me.”

I’ve seen spanking used effectively. I’ve also seen it backfire; both outcomes are dependent upon the parents’ approach and relationship with the child. Like many other things, effectiveness is dependent on the user of the tool. 

As you read through this series on discipline/spanking and consider this foundation for your thoughts:

If you incorporate spanking, it should be:

  • The most infrequently used tool in your parenting toolbox
  • Done with love, followed by guidance/teaching and respect, which are some of the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting.
  • Part of a loving, nurturing relationship
  • Used with purpose, caution and most importantly, love

If you incorporate spanking, it should NEVER be:

  • The “go-to” discipline
  • Aggressive or done out of anger
  • A power play
  • Used during the height of emotion
  • With a closed fist or a strike to the face or genitals

Some parents should avoid using spanking

There are some parents with certain temperaments who should never spank.  

If you’re a highly emotional, volatile and reactive person, you’re better off honing every other discipline method and leaving spanking out of your toolkit. If you fall into this category, you may want to consider working on how to manage your emotions so that you can teach well. Take some time to work on the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting.

If you are a single parent, you don’t need anyone to tell you how much energy it requires. Since many single parents are running on empty, it’s better to develop the other discipline tools available to you.

In either case, invest heavily on your relationship with your child and get some counseling help, if necessary. Children mirror their parent’s behaviors, especially the parent they identify with most closely.

As you can see, the answer to the “to spank or not to spank” question is incredibly complex. It’s controversial. And it’s highly personal. However, not controversial is the idea that every parent does well to invest in developing an effective and comprehensive discipline toolkit, which requires intentionality and adaptability, two of the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting.

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