I have yet to meet a parent that hasn’t experienced the impulse to hit their own child. Perhaps the thought occurs when a 15 month old bites mom and then laughs, an 18 month old slaps his sibling, a 3 year old runs into the street. The impulse of course is normal, but is the act of hitting normal too? And if normal for a great number of parents, is it an effective tool for discipline? Will it harm your child in the long-run?

It is easy to understand the argument that supports an aggressive response by parents to the actions mentioned above – ‘my child will only know that hitting hurts if she experiences it also. My child doesn’t respond to time-outs or is too young to understand loss of privilege as a means of discipline… We only ever hit in an attempt to show the severity of the infraction — running into the street has to be met with a greater punishment – otherwise it is only as bad as everything else we discipline for…’

My greatest concern regarding this form of discipline is that the bar will need to continually be raised to evoke the intended result. Eventually, the child may really get hurt at the hands of a potentially well-intentioned parent. I also think it makes a lot of sense, and the data really support this notion– that using aggression as discipline teaches that mode of conflict resolution. It may not be ok for me to hit as a child, but as a parent it clearly is… And thus the cycle continues.

The data indicate that spanking is still quite pervasive. Parents often say that they were spanked as kids and turned out fine themselves so it can’t be as bad as the experts purport. In a 2010 Pediatrics study, 3-year-olds who were spanked more than twice a month were 50 percent more likely to exhibit hostile tendencies and marked aggression by age 5. According to current statistics, 1 in 4 parents are ignoring this very real data in support of outdated beliefs regarding corporal punishment. Perhaps feelings of guilt are motivating us to rationalize the action of hitting our children despite mounting evidence.

Additionally, Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, spanking researcher and child development professor at UT Austin, conducted a meta-analysis in 2002 of 88 studies focused on spanking as discipline and found that kids who are spanked have a significantly higher risk for aggression, depression and relationship problems both as children and, later, as adults.1

There is some data that “controlled” spanking – a swat to the buttocks when time-outs are failing can improve the child’s behavior with little downside – but the problem is that the majority of parents claim to spank when they’ve so-called “lost it” and thus the severity of the punishment tends to increase. In fact, ‘’an estimated two thirds of child-abuse cases start off as disciplinary acts and then degrade into something far more menacing.”1

My greatest concern regarding this form of discipline is that the bar will need to continually be raised to evoke the intended result.

So, what approach works:

  1. To address tantrums – in kids under the age of 3 – try to ignore it… Step right over your child sprawled out on the floor. Do everything you can to act inversely to your child – the more they escalate the calmer and quieter you become… Obviously not easy, but very effective. Try to find the humor in their craziness. It helps to deflate the anger…
  2. In preschool age kids – try offering quiet love and support during tantrums. As difficult as this is, 3-4 year olds seem to respond to this better than just being ignored. Generally at this age the tantrum is resulting from an overwhelming sense of emotion – anxiety, anger… lack of control. Whereas, the younger kids often tantrum as a means of discovering what works with regards to getting what they want.
  3. Time-outs really are effective – if the behavior that elicits this discipline is acted on consistently and rapidly – with very little discussion and no negative attention once in time-out. The rationale for this approach is to temporarily “ignore and isolate”, thus giving the child no benefit to their behavior. Ignoring and isolating temporarily should be the cornerstone of our approach, not shouting and spanking.
  4. With kids over 3, it is also really helpful to do a sticker chart or a jar of marbles that is visible to a child (but out of reach) that is populated secondary to good behavior and pulled from with bad behavior. A single warning should precede the removal of marbles or stickers. Once a certain number of marbles has been reached, your child gets to pick out a new “toy”. The number of marbles needed to get a new toy should be attainable, so that the benefit of good behavior is experienced.

More than anything, we want our kids to learn impulse control – that is really why we discipline in the first place. Therefore, if we spank for punishment, we are failing at controlling our own impulse to hit—an action that has been shown definitively to hurt our children beyond the moment of contact. How can we expect our children to control their impulses if we cannot control our own?