Spoil the Rod, Spare the Child

I feel a little funny posting about this — like, “surely everyone has figured this out” — but I have seen a number of posts on other peoples’ blogs, lately, about whether or not it is appropriate or preferable to use corporal punishment with children. And I would like to just say a flat out and resounding NOOOOO.

Not to get too uppity about it, but I think that there are so many reasons not to spank our kids and/or use pain to “teach them a lesson” that I am having to weed through the multitude just to formulate a cogent statement about it without writing a volume. So, in no particular order, I am going to give you the “off the top of my head” list of grievances and/or problems I have with corporal punishment.

1. It causes pain. This may barely seem important to most of its proponents — or even preferable — as in, “Of course it causes them pain! That’s how you make sure they don’t forget the lesson!” And while that may be true to a certain degree, the “lesson” that is reiterated every time a child is punished with pain is that power is exercised through causing suffering; that the child’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs matter little in comparison with “the rules” of the parent(s); and/or that the relationship the child shares with his parent is so tenuous that given a single infraction of those rules his parent can turn from a loving, supportive, protective figure, into a nightmarish, bullying, assaulting menace; and/or that his parent is willing to hurt him to prove a point.

2. It damages the relationship. As intimated above, when parents use pain to punish, it can have serious detrimental ramifications on the relationship they share with their child(ren). It damages trust, it damages the feeling of safety, it damages the bond, and it damages the child’s impression of her worth to her parent(s). And as it turns out, all of these ramifications have a negative effect on the child’s likeliness to do what the parents ask.

3. It doesn’t actually work. There is a growing mountain of evidence supporting this claim. You may disagree, but spend any time consulting the piles and piles of data on the subject, and the fact becomes somewhat unquestionable. Even if you were raised with corporal punishment, and you think it made you steer clear of punishable activities, consider again how many times you did the same or other equally punishable things when you felt certain no parent would catch you… Furthermore, there is powerful evidence that shows, not only does corporal punishment fail to deter children from doing the punishable activity, it also produces children more likely to act out in other negative ways.

4. It makes children afraid of their parents. This is related to number 2 above, but I include it separately because, in addition to damaging the bond shared between parent and child, the use of corporal punishment can make it so that your child actually stiffens, and/or recoils in fear when you walk into the room. There are some parents misguided enough to think that this may also be a good thing — that fear is necessary (or at least beneficial) to maintain control. I happen to disagree vehemently, and also think that, even if I am wrong, it is too high of a price to pay. I don’t want my children to be afraid of me — whether or not that fear could make them more obedient. I don’t care enough about their obedience to use fear as a method of securing or maintaining it — and even more so because it doesn’t actually work.

5. Even if it does “work” as a deterrent for some period or with some children, eventually the threat of corporal punishment always loses its power. As children grow, the fear of punishment will slowly evaporate, and the punishments which before seemed so convincing, become impotent. Then, in order to maintain control, the parent has to escalate and begin to invent ever more diabolical punishments to get the attention that a simple spank once commanded. And in the end, a wrathful parent may just find herself the victim of an angry and more powerful child trained in the art of creating pain.

6. Corporal punishment is abuse. I don’t want to be too dramatic about it, but that is the bottom line. Recast or redefine it however you like — injuring someone else, for any reason, and however “temporary” you estimate the injury to be, is textbook definition abuse. Even if it is only in his own mind, if he is being spanked, he is being injured, and if he thinks he is being injured, that is abuse. Period.

7. Corporal punishment (and really any punishment) distracts the punished child from the real issue(s) at hand. Instead of being taught to have concern for others, or for “the rules”, the child who is punished (particularly with pain) becomes more self-focussed. The data shows (over and over again) that these children learn how to avoid being caught, not how to be kinder, or more considerate, or more careful, or more “well-behaved”. And if you think about it logically, what would you do if you got hit for a mistake you made at work? Would you really spend time contemplating how to perform better, or would you instead be thinking about how unfair and humiliating it was to be treated in such a manner, or maybe even be plotting your revenge? If you think this logic doesn’t apply to children, then try watching yours after the next spanking (or time-out) — check to see if you really think she is contemplating the infraction or lamenting over the punishment’s consequences to herself.

8. It models the idea that hitting/hurting is the way to get compliance. And just what are we teaching our children if we model that hitting/hurting is the way to get compliance, or pay someone back for not complying? That abuse is the preeminent means of exerting power — and that when one feels powerless, one should seek to cause pain to reinstate himself to his rightful state of power. Now consider all the reasons why, and contexts in which, you don’t want your child(ren) using pain to get compliance or exact retribution — including when they become adults.

For more on this, as in a whole chapter’s worth, check out Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. He presents not only a convincing argument against corporal punishment, but against punishments of any kind.

And for the record, we don’t use any punishments with our girls. We tried time-outs with the eldest, but felt it was more trouble than it was worth keeping her in the time-outs, and it felt just awful for all of us. And even though it was our automatic response whenever she hit someone, it never once deterred her from such. It wasn’t until we started using and modeling empathy that she got the point about hitting. And now we find that information and empathy are generally all that is needed to teach our children what is considered socially conducive action. Imagine that…


Be well.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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4 Responses to Spoil the Rod, Spare the Child

  1. itznu says:

    There’s still a lot of places where smacking kids is considered normal. I think that the most effective approach with any age is to have measurable tasks with a known reward/consequence that is followed through on without fail. The rewards/consequences don’t have to be big. The consequences are best when completely separate from archaic ideas of punishment or revenge. For example, when they screw something up, you help them fix it and make them take an active roll. Hurting, shaming, or scaring the kids does nothing to fix any problem that is created by them doing some task wrong.

    • I’ll certainly agree that “Hurting, shaming, or scaring the kids does nothing to fix any problem”; and that “There’s still a lot of places where smacking kids is considered normal.”

      But generally speaking, we do our best to avoid rewards/consequences of the type you describe as well as corporal punishment. So far we haven’t had to do anything other than model what we’d prefer and talk with our kids about things in order to get cooperation — but I think that is almost solely because of the emphasis we’ve put on bonding and relating with them. As is naturally the case in a well-nurtured family, we want to work together — our kids want to follow us, and we want to be flexible and allow them to make their own way(s) as well — it all works together, and the relationship is the key. Rewards and consequences, praise and punishments — all feel like coercion to the human psyche; they don’t feel like trustworthy, safe, mutual connection; and they, therefore, interrupt the natural cooperation that the relationship is built to facilitate by undermining the integrity of that relationship. Buut… you can read me rant on about that — if you so desire — by clicking on the “punishments” hyperlink above…

      Thanks for writing in — always glad for more discussion!

      Be well.

      • itznu says:

        That theory is wonderful but I haven’t been able to make that work in real life. Kudos to those who are able

      • I appreciate your position. It can certainly seem like just a pie-in-the-sky idea if you haven’t experienced it. If you want more information on how to make it work, feel free to get in touch with me.

        In the meantime, I will gladly accept your kudos on behalf of all of us who are making it “work in real life”.

        All the best to you.


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