I am "pro-spanking." Here's why.
From the time that I first learned I was going to be a parent, I rapidly became aware of the increasing movement to convince parents that spanking is both inhumane and ineffective. Although I agree that spanking as a punishment can be abused, it is a reasonable and effective consequence to an action a child may otherwise be unable to immediately interpret as having negative effects.
Definite negative reinforcement -
It is difficult enough to determine what motivates ones peers, both negatively and positively. The thought processes of a child, while not as alien as some may believe, are still in many cases beyond our comprehension (and any psychologist who tells you different should turn in his diploma). It is unpleasantly likely that what you or I may perceive as a negative punishment would be interpreted as either neutral, positive, or even totally misinterpreted as far as cause and effect (Yes, I realize the last can be applied to spanking as well, see the next two sections). However, pain is guaranteed to be perceived as negative. It is hardwired into the brain.
Immediate consequence -
So many punishments recommended by the anti-spanking establishment consist of applying long-term consequences (relative to the immediacy of pain). A child is likely to find herself in a negative circumstance, imposed by the parent, with the misdeed itself a distant memory. With the parent's enforcement a constant reminder of the negative, but the causal act long forgotten, the connection likely to be made is: Parent = negative consequence. This would confuse the brightest child. However, when pain is applied immediately, the connection is made between the deed and the consequence on an instinctive level. The child doesn't have to work out (and probably can't, please see "When is it appropriate?" below) "Why am I here, why is this happening to me?" The connection is made: Misdeed = negative consequence.
Objective application -
An important aspect of the application of spanking as a tool for teaching appropriate behavior is proper administration. If a parent spanks their child while visibly angered, that emotion is likely to be very apparent to the child. Unfortunately, that anger is all too likely to become attached to the punishment, resulting in the undesirable connection of: Angry parent = pain. Obviously, we want to teach our children "Don't dash into the street," not "If your father is angry, he will hurt you." A calm, even-tempered parent is considerably less likely to become an active part of the negative memory.
When is it appropriate? -
I suddenly realize this question can have two interpretations, so I will address them both.
- As a response to what conditions is spanking appropriate? - Obviously, this is entirely up to the judgement of the parent, but I tend to agree that not only is spanking less likely to be abused if sparsely applied, but it maintains a greater impact when it is applied. I would say only when life or limb is likely to be at risk, or perhaps when there just doesn't seem to be any other way of getting through.
- At what age is spanking an appropriate punishment? - On the low end, I suspect it is a reasonable approach as soon as a child shows the ability to direct her own actions toward an immediate goal. On the high end, once she is able to routinely work toward long-term goals, a more subtle approach is probably best. I would never completely rule out spanking in older children as a last resort, but if it really seems necessary, I would also be on the lookout for more serious problems with the parent-child relationship.
It was pointed out to me by a correspondent replying to this page that many governments have passed laws restricting or even eliminating the right of parents to use pain as a teaching mechanism with their children. I am reminded that in the last century, many of today's medical practices would be viewed as barbaric, or even torturous. There are even techniques developed in the last few years that would have horrified a doctor in 1985. I refuse to believe that today's psychologists are the be-all and end-all of understanding human behaviour. For that reason, I cannot condone government preventing a parent from raising a child in any way that cannot be absolutely proven to cause substantive damage to the child.
Spanking is certainly not the only effective punishment, and perhaps not even the best, but I feel it to at least be effective, when applied sparingly, in parallel with other teaching mechanisms.
Further reading: I recommend the novel "Starship Troopers" by Robert Heinlein. It is a highly philosophical work which addresses numerous controversial topics. There is an interesting treatise on the reasonableness of corporal punishment in chapter eight. Even if science fiction doesn't thrill you (it is a very good story, in my opinion of course), the point I wish you to see is presented in about half a dozen pages at the end of the chapter. You'll know it when you see it.
Of course, feel free to comment if you have questions, or just want to rip into me for advocating "such barbarity."
First published: December 21, 1995
Last update: July 1, 2010