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Spanking and Corporal Punishment – Harmful to Children

Categorized as Child Custody

Nothing creates more tension in a family law case in our office, than a case with children and a spanking adult.  Or in some cultures, a “whooping.” Our judges hate it and typically at least one of the parents hate it. Then there is the parent who thinks a firm smack on the back side is appropriate.  What is the right way to handle family disciplining their children?

I rarely see people who are ambivalent about the subject; you are either a proponent of spanking or dead against it.  I, for one, am in the camp of you shouldn’t do it.

There is a lot of research on the subject of spanking, but I know my kids mirror my behavior.  Good and bad. The first time you hear your five year old swear or say something bad that you recognize came out of your own mouth at some point, you know what I mean.

So what exactly is spanking or swatting the child teaching them?

In my opinion, it is telling the child that I have failed in my ability to “use my words” any longer and now I must resort to hitting you.  What kind of example is that?

Imagine going through life hitting everyone when you don’t get your way.

Guy takes your seat on the train, hit him upside the head.  

Clerk at the court is ignoring you, give her a little smack.

It may feel good, but it just isn’t allowed.  Why teach your kids to do something that you will have to “unteach” as they get older?

It isn’t an effective communication tool as you get older, so why teach them that this is an acceptable way to communicate when they are young?  I love the parents who say, “Well my dad hit me and I turned out ok.” Or “kids nowadays aren’t being hit enough and look at how they act.” I never said I advocated for letting the kids run wild or that they shouldn’t be disciplined.  But when your words have failed you and you resort to hitting, you are headed down a slippery slope. When does it end? And when you child is hitting other children because they cannot figure out effective communication, doesn’t that make you proud?

Harmful Effects of Corporal Punishment in the Home

The Wall Street Journal just published an article on spanking that was very interesting.  The article stated that it isn’t good to spank, and they cite to the American Academy of Pediatrics as their authority.  The American Academy of Pediatrics just issued a strongly worded policy statement warning against the harmful effects of corporal punishment in the home.

The group, which represents about 67,000 doctors, also recommended that pediatricians advise parents against the use of spanking, which it defined as “non-injurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior,” and said to avoid using nonphysical punishment that is humiliating, scary or threatening.

The article cites numerous studies that show that children do not benefit from spanking.  It obviously gets your child’s attention, but so does taking away the toy that they want to play with.  Both ways are going to be effective and your kid is certainly going to pitch a fit when you take their toy away.  Let them. Take the toy away and let them have their fit. The next time you tell them to do something, so long as you follow through with your punishment, they will shape up.  Because no one wants their toy taken away.

Studies are showing that all corporal punishment is doing is making the kids aggressive.  It makes them angry and makes them defiant. And in some cases, parents don’t stop in time when they are administering corporal punishment and it can lead to abuse.

The Negative Impact of Spanking on the Brain

The article went on to discuss the ramifications to the brain as well: A 2009 study of 23 young adults who had repeated exposure to harsh corporal punishment found reduced gray matter volume in an area of the prefrontal cortex that is believed to play a crucial role in social cognition. Those exposed to harsh punishment also had a lower performance I.Q. than that of a control group.  But I don’t think that most people are using a “harsh corporal punishment” approach. Most people when discussing corporal punishment are talking about a swat on the behind. It isn’t a hard hit, but designed to get the child’s attention. But I think it is still saying to the child, “I cannot figure out any other way to get my point across, so I’m going to hit you. Hitting is ok.”   Except when it isn’t.

Kids Need Proper Communication Tools

Kids need to learn proper communication tools and hitting shouldn’t be one of them.  I think taking something from them, especially when they are in their greedy “that’s mine!” stage, sends a bigger message.  It will certainly get their attention. As children age, you’ll have to adjust what their punishment is, but continuity is the key.  If you say you are going to do something, then you have to do it. Otherwise they don’t trust what you say. Don’t threaten to do something and then fail to follow through.  It only takes one time and then they’ll know that they don’t have to comply.

This isn’t about being harsh or mean or unloving.  It about discipline. Everyone you know will love you for it, from the school teacher to your baby sitter.  You may be able to stand your child’s temper tantrums, but others will hate it and hate to be around your kid.  When you hear people say that they don’t like kids, it isn’t really a true statement. People like kids-well behaved ones.

The article discussed effective discipline, and that involves practicing empathy and “understanding how to treat your child in different stages in development to teach them how to cool down when things do get explosive,” said Dr. Vincent J. Palusci, a child abuse pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at N.Y.U. Langone.

Determine Punishment Before You Need It

The academy’s parenting website,, offers tips for disciplining younger and older children. Rewarding positive behavior, using timeouts and establishing a clear relationship between behavior and consequences can all be effective strategies.  The important thing is to figure out what the punishment will be before you need it. It keeps you from doing something rash like grounding them until they are 30 years old.  They know that won’t happen, and then it is ineffective. My spouse used to tell her daughter that she was going to sell her to the gypsies if she didn’t behave. The kid would scream and cry and I’d roll my eyes.  Did the kid really believe that her mother would sell her to the gypsies?

According to the article, the number of parents who spank their children has been on the decline. A 2013 Harris Poll of 2,286 adults surveyed online found 67 percent of parents said they had spanked their children and 33 percent had not. In 1995, however, 80 percent of parents said they had spanked their children while 19 percent said they had not.  Spanking has become less popular.

I remember as a kid how the same kids used to get the paddle in school.  At the time, I wondered why they didn’t get it. Why did they keep doing the same wrong thing that resulted in being paddled in front of the class on a daily basis?

As I grew up, my thoughts on it changed, and I realized that to those kids, getting paddled was no big deal.  They were used to being paddled. That was a part of their life. They were disciplined at home with hitting, they were disciplined at school by hitting, and these kids weren’t the timid ones in your class.  They were the mean kids. Remember how you used to avoid them? How you never made those kids mad? Hitting them changed nothing. It just made them meaner. Children who were spanked were more likely to show disruptive, aggressive behaviors later on. Those behaviors, in turn, made it more likely that those children would be spanked more in the future.

In 2000, the academy recommended that corporal punishment in schools be abolished in all states. And in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a tool kit for preventing child abuse and neglect that highlighted a need for legislation to end corporal punishment. But attempts to do so at the federal level have failed.

Many parents continue to spank, even when they don’t think it does much good. It seems like it is more about making the parent feel better, to just deliver a sound smack on the child’s bottom because they cannot think of anything else to do.  Children who are spanked respond more aggressively, and become even more challenging, reinforcing parents’ sense that only harsh discipline will work, so parents find themselves escalating the discipline, which in turn evokes more intense behavior.

There are many professionals out there to help with different types of discipline.  Positive parenting strategies can be utilized as well, although I don’t think I personally have the patience for it.  But I do believe it can be effective. You need to learn which behavior is developmentally realistic for young children.  They cannot help doing it a certain way because they are too young. Once you realize that, it helps with your patience level.  The same holds true with teenagers. How many times do you just shake your head and wonder how they can do such foolish things? Their brains aren’t fully developed yet so treating them like adults can be a mistake.  Every child is different and every child develops at a different level, but it is often a mistake to think that your teenager can process problems and think like you can.

Educate yourself by talking to your pediatrician about the effective ways to get your point across to your child.  It shouldn’t involve hitting them. It just sends the wrong message.

If you are wondering about corporal punishment, child visitation, or any other family law matter, it is important to get sound legal advice. Contact Anderson & Boback to speak with an experienced Chicago child custody lawyer about your situation including whether spanking and corporal punishment.

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