There’s no ‘right way’ to spank a child
I think it’s safe to assume that most parents who spank their kids love them very much. I’ve never met one who said otherwise.
However, that does not mean that spanking is an act of love or that there is such a thing as a “right way” to do it.
Let’s put my own biases on the table. I was spanked growing up, and yes, I think I turned out fine.
Not only was I spanked, everybody around me was, too: my siblings, my cousins, the neighbors.
All of us kids came to know and fear the menacing look on our parents’ faces that meant we would spanked when we got home. It was part of our lives as kids.
I even went to medical school and entered my training in pediatrics thinking that spanking was no big deal, just another part of my upbringing.
Then I read the data and learned a thing or two about the functioning of a child’s brain when it comes to punishment.
CHOOSING TO SPANK MEANS TAKING A GAMBLE
As it turns out, my loving parents took a gamble when they chose to use corporal punishment in my upbringing. I turned out fine, but I also could have not.
To be clear, they didn’t see it as a gamble. Raising a strong-willed child in Latin America in the 1980s and early ’90s, my parents did not have the wisdom of the past 20 years of medical research.
This research has linked corporal punishment — including spanking — to higher risks of depression, aggressive behavior, cognitive problems and risk-taking behavior in teens, as well as a negative relationship between parents and their kids.
Critics of the data say the studies cannot possibly establish spanking as the cause of these, but association is as good as we are ever going to get.
No institution will ever approve a study in which half of the children get spanked and half don’t, just to record the behavior differences.
Now, when I counsel families as a pediatrician, I talk about spanking as a risk factor and as an unnecessary gamble.
SPANKING DOES NOT WORK IN THE LONG TERM
Another set of data shows that spanking does not lead to long-term behavior change.
Luckily for me, spanking wasn’t the only thing my parents did in their efforts to turn me into the woman I am today.
They have been an unconditional and constant source of love and support, teaching me kindness, respect and hard work by modeling these values themselves.
I learned everything from those moments and nothing from being spanking. When my parents spanked me, I immediately resented them for it. I became the victim.
And once I was victimized, I stopped listening.
Sure, they got my attention, and I stopped misbehaving in the few minutes that followed a spanking.
In speaking to my parents about it now, they say spanking was some sort of resolution, a tangible consequence to our misbehavior.
My dad said he hated having to punish us, he felt guilty about it, and he always knew we’d do it was again.
And he was correct. I distinctly remember thinking, “that actually didn’t hurt that bad. I can keep on misbehaving.”
My sister was even smarter. When she knew that a spanking was coming, she’d run and put on the thickest jeans she owned. Then she kept on misbehaving.
Not only is there data saying that spanking does not work, there’s even more for methods that do work, based on the understanding of children’s brains and development offered to us by modern science.
These methods include ignoring behaviors that aren’t dangerous (after all, kids like attention), whether it’s positive or negative.
Another favorite is time-outs. I ask families to practice them ahead of time by rehearsing a tantrum and the tools to calm down.
Regardless of the method they choose, I advise families to take a step back and think of their long-term goal.
THE GOAL IS TO TEACH, NOT PUNISH
I believe that my parents, like the many parents who I’ve counseled on discipline as a pediatrician, wanted to teach me right from wrong when they spanked me.
But in the heat of the moment, it is easy to lose sight of the goal and focus on punishment instead.
And that’s the thing about punishment: It is never planned out and thought through ahead of time.
Proponents of corporal punishment often paraphrase Proverbs 22:15 in the Bible: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.”
As a devout Catholic myself, I also know that the word discipline comes from the Latin word “disciplinare,” which means to teach or to train, much like a disciple follows a teacher.
Children are worthy of compassion. Their strong wills not something to be driven far away but something to be cherished and guided.
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