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Go Ask Mom

Study: Spanking doesn't make kids more compliant; alternative discipline tips

Posted May 2

Researchers examined 75 studies spanning a half century to figure out what spanking does and does not do. They found the effects linger into childhood in ways that may surprise parents. (Deseret Photo)

Here's a story I like to tell from my childhood. I'll leave the names out since it was such a long time ago, but it's stayed with me decades later as I made my own decisions about how I would discipline my kids ... and that has never included spanking.

The child of three or four had misbehaved in some way. The actual offense has been long forgotten. It was the mother's reaction that I remember. She found the wooden spoon used for these exact moments, pulled the child to her and spanked her with that wooden spoon.

It was a typical scene until the spoon snapped in two. The mother's face turned absolutely white with horror that she may have hit her child so hard to cause the spoon to break. The child stood up, as defiant as ever, looked at the mother and laughed: "And that didn't even hurt."

The mother never spanked again. And what, exactly, did the child learn? To me, it's never made sense to teach a child through threat of physical pain.

Now, a major study backs up my concerns about the long-time practice. A meta-analysis of 75 studies conducted over the last 50 years, which includes data on about 160,000 children, found that spanking can lead to long-term behavioral, emotional and cognitive negatives.

"Spanking — which the researchers were careful to separate from physical abuse and defined as an 'open-handed swat on the child's behind or extremities' — appears to be linked to unintended consequences like increased aggression, anxiety and depression," according to an article on "In all, the study looked at 17 outcomes and found links to 13 of them, 'all on the negative side.'"

"Our research shows spanking is linked to the same negative outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lower degree," said Elizabeth Gershoff, one of the researchers and an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, in the article.

So what's a parent to do? At my house, we've relied on time outs, consequences and withholding of privileges. We're far from perfect parents, but we do our best not to "threaten" consequences. We try to always deliver on our promises that bad behavior means they lose out on things.

My kids have missed out on days at the beach, time on their electronic devices, a dinner out and more. And, believe me, they definitely remember those nights when the other sibling got to go out to eat with a parent and they were stuck at home with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends some really practical discipline strategies that do work, including for older kids. The key to any of these discipline methods, however, is following the tips that the group shares to ensure they are effective.

Tips To Make Discipline More Effective
Via American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Be Aware of What Your Child Can and Cannot Do. Maybe your three-year-old isn't quite sure where his toys go. Or, maybe your toddler just wants to see what happens when she spills her milk for the third time. What parents might consider misbehavior may actually be a sign that their child doesn't understand what they need to do or just can't do it.
  • Think Before You Speak. If you need to take a moment, take it to make sure that you can follow through with what you're saying. Don't be wishy washy. If you make a rule, stand by it. You're the parent!
  • Don't Give In. Never give in. If your child is crying for a piece of candy at the store, don't get it for him to stop the crying. That means he's just going to cry the next time you're at the store so you get him a piece of candy. Never reward bad behavior because you're tired of the whining.
  • Work Toward Consistency. Kids love structure and consistency. They are happy when they know what to expect day to day. If the house rule is one hour of TV time, don't let that vary wildly from day to day. Kids, faced with inconsistency, will push the limits to find out what they are, the pediatric group says.
  • Pay Attention To Your Child's Feelings. Do they always seem to act up when a friend is about to leave or right around the time you're trying to figure out what's for dinner? Look for patterns and talk to your kids about them. Recognize their feelings (but, still, don't give in).
  • Learn From Mistakes—Including Your Own. "If you do not handle a situation well the first time, try not to worry about it," the pediatric group says. "Think about what you could have done differently, and try to do it the next time. If you feel you have made a real mistake in the heat of the moment, wait to cool down, apologize to your child, and explain how you will handle the situation in the future. Be sure to keep your promise. This gives your child a good model of how to recover from mistakes."

Another thing I find incredibly effective: Praise your kids. Build your kids up when they do the right thing. Share and celebrate their successes with other family members at dinner that night. Love them, hug them and make sure they know that the best way to get your attention is not by misbehaving, but when they make the right decisions.


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  • Chris Wilson May 4, 10:22 p.m.
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    Unfortunately, they may have tried to observe that method, but many of those in prison (not all) come from broken homes without a mother and father. Much less, parents that worked together on discipline.

  • Chris Wilson May 4, 10:19 p.m.
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    Spanking is not the easy punishment. We give our kids the opportunity to make the right choice and we explain the consequence if they do it again. If they choose continue the bad behavior they get the consequence ( sometimes the consequence is a spanking). To answer your question, if one of my kids hits me or someone else they go straight to time out and then they must apologize. Our 2 year old twins went through a hitting phase for about 3 weeks. Spanking when done properly, I believe, teaches children to tie pain/emotion bad behavior. Controlled "hitting" if you will, as a consequence simply cannot be compared to violence in the since that you mean. All kids are different, some don't require spankings. My children know that they are safe, loved, and they can play around my wife and I, but they better not be disrespectful.

  • Raleigh Rose May 4, 9:44 a.m.
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    I believe spanking is harmful. If your child is hitting, how is punishing them by hitting (spanking) them going to teach them that it's wrong? You are telling a child to not use violence and using violence to teach them a lesson. Spanking is the easy punishment. Try sitting down and explaining why whatever they did was wrong. Then pick a punishment be it timeout, taking away a privilege, etc and STICK WITH IT. If they argue, double the punishment. Once they lose the TV, computer or their phone (if they have one) for a week or more they will learn and it gives them the time to really think about why they are being punished, but you have to be consistent. I have a friend who acted up enough that the parents cancelled Christmas one year. The parents stuck to it, and that punishment stuck with my friend more than any spanking and changed the behavior. You also have to remember, children's brains are not fully developed and they are not going to act like little adults.

  • Amanda Townsend May 3, 6:35 p.m.
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    that would actually be an interesting study. Poll those in prisons on whether they were spanked as children.

  • K Hope Capps May 3, 3:13 p.m.
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    The prison system has been bursting at the seams for decades and I'm sure more than a few of those inmates grew up in households that observed "spare the rod and spoil the child" discipline philosophies.

  • K Hope Capps May 3, 3:11 p.m.
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    I agree with this.

    For everyone who claims "my family has been spanking since the Mayflower came over and we're all just fine" then lucky you! Just because that's the way it's always been done, doesn't mean it's the way it should continue to be done. Just because YOUR parents did it, doesn't mean it was the right thing.

  • Johnny Malaria May 3, 8:55 a.m.
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    Not sure how a 5-year old differentiates a parent hitting them as "just spanking" and physical abuse. To the child it is nothing but one of the two most important people in its life causing pain and fear. If you are someone who was spanked and believe you "turned out fine" then great. But there are other children who were habitually hit by their parents who did not turn out fine.

    Would you "spank" your adult child or spouse to teach them to behave? What's the difference? Oh, yeah, a child won't remember, right? The way abusers justify their actions is disgusting.

  • Candace Williams May 3, 7:09 a.m.
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    This isn't a liberal thing or a conservative thing. It's parenting choice thing. I'm a liberal and I spank my kids. Quit trying to make everything political.

  • Candace Williams May 3, 7:07 a.m.
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    Spanking should never be the go to punishment but there is only so much talking, taking of privileges, and grounding that can be done. When all of that fails to work what else is there? No, we don't spank for every little infraction but our kids do get spanked. I've seen the results of refusing to spank under any circumstances. A bunch of brats that think being put in the corner is the biggest punishment they'll receive for doing wrong. Kids talking back and cursing at their parents. Kids hitting and kicking and parents afraid to do anything. Punishment needs to be done for each individual child. No one thing works for everyone. Time out works for my 3 year old. It never worked for my 10 year old. We've found what works for each of our kids and structured it for their age, understanding, and personality. Maybe we should let parents parent instead of telling them everything their doing wrong and how they should be doing it. Sorry I know this was rambling. It's still very early. Lol

  • Scott Householder May 3, 5:08 a.m.
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    Spanking as a disciplinary action and beating/abuse are two entirely different things, my friends. I for one, looking back, am glad I got spanked when I darn well deserved it - I am better off for it. As a student who went to East Cary and later Cary High School, there was a paddle for those of us that on occasion need it. If the Principal or Vice-Principal saw you out in the hall because the teacher put you out of class for being disruptive - 3 whacks and you were then marched back into the classroom and made to apologize to the teacher and the rest of the class for being disruptive. Sorry, lefties, it was effective. I personally believe that the prison system is bursting at the seams today because this practice has been done away with. Anyone remember the wood shop teacher's paddle? That thing had holes drilled in it and I swear was aerodynamically superior to the rest of 'em! You didn't act up in wood shop, that’s for sure!!