I grew up in a spanking culture. In my family and community, not only was spanking considered totally acceptable, but it was considered necessary. My kids’ father had a similar upbringing, so when we had our first kid in our mid-twenties, it didn’t occur to either one of us not to spank. In fact, I’d go one step further and say I was proud that spanking was a part of our disciplinary toolbox. Literally, spanking represented good, responsible parenting.
Let me be clear: I was not beaten as a child. I have clear memories of my father spanking me on my bottom, not hard, and not frequently, and I remember that he portrayed that spanking was not something he wanted to do, but that he felt was necessary to ensure I learned right from wrong. The threat was always there from my father. I know my mother spanked me at some point, but I don’t remember it. Certainly she never spanked me past four years old. I do remember that I did not question her authority.
I don’t feel I carry residual trauma by having been spanked as a child, but I do believe the spankings I received as a child were unnecessary, and as a kid I definitely was afraid of my father. I absolutely regret ever spanking my own child.
I started to question spanking, and then stopped the practice altogether, for a couple of reasons. First, when my son Lucas was in preschool, I began to notice he was different from other little boys. When I observed him in a group of his peers, it was obvious he was exponentially more wriggly and loud and distractible. We received daily notes from his preschool teachers about his misbehavior and inability to participate with other kids in group activities. When research led me to believe we were probably witnessing ADHD, I started buying parenting books. These books were filled with expert advice for how to manage distractible, unruly, strong-willed children, and none of that advice included spanking. It offered up a lot of alternatives that would require restraint, forethought, and major additional effort on my part.
Second, spanking was not working. It simply was not working. It made my son cry but did nothing to curb his impulsive behavior.
This was the big thing that made me question my methods. I hated hitting my kid, even lightly, but supposedly it was necessary and it worked. Yet, if spanking worked so well, why was I doing it over and over and seeing no change in my kid’s behavior? When was that respect for my authority supposed to kick in?
My initial resistance to quitting spanking had to do with my fear that without spanking, I wouldn’t be able to assert my authority as the parent, but it was clear spanking wasn’t doing it. And what I came to learn, through parenting books, through a psychologist I befriended who taught me her gentle discipline methods, and as I tried out disciplinary tactics that didn’t involve spanking, is that respect of parental authority is not demanded under threat of being struck. It is earned.
Years after we’d stopped spanking my son, I had a debate with a pro-spanking friend who insisted that because his parents spanked him and he turned out okay, that must be evidence that spanking works. This is probably the most common defense of spanking. It was my defense too, until I stopped.
When I questioned my friend about how he defined the word “works,” as in, “spanking works,” he explained that his parents spanked him regularly until he was about age 13, and even after that his father knocked him down a few times. His mother, he said, used to slap him on the forehead as a way to get him to quit back-talking.
My friend said that as a result of his parents’ discipline methods, he knew damn well never to question their authority. (Note that I say the same thing about my mom, who I don’t remember spanking me. We’ll get to that in a minute.) I know a little about my friend’s childhood. He’s joked many times about how much trouble he used to get into as a kid, from skipping school, to petty theft, to underage drinking, lying, fighting, and other behavior in which I pray my kids never engage.
I’m not judging my friend’s adolescent misbehavior. I’m making the point that many people who use themselves as an example for why “spanking works” somehow manage to blind themselves to the ongoing misbehaviors that prove that spanking in fact did not work for them. My friend whose parents regularly spanked him still got in trouble all the time. If spanking worked as well as he claimed, wouldn’t he have only needed to be spanked a few times and then he would’ve stopped constantly breaking his parents’ rules? If spanking is so effective, why do parents have to do it over and over again?
My friend who defended his parents’ harsh discipline didn’t stop misbehaving when his parents hit him, but he did get better about hiding it and lying about it. He became more defiant, more determined to do what he wanted. Research supports this outcome. Children lie and hide their misbehavior when they’re afraid someone will hit them.
I never questioned my mom’s authority, but it wasn’t because I was afraid she would spank me. I have no memory of her spanking me or threatening it. It was her calm, clear, and constant explanations of her expectations of me that led me to respect her so much. When I snuck out as a teenager, it was my mom’s drama-free installation of a four-month ban from all social activities that made me never want to sneak out again. It was my mom’s lengthy talks about how terrified she’d been when she couldn’t find me that made me understand I hadn’t just broken a rule—I had scared her half to death and broken her trust, and it would take a long time to earn it back. My mom theoretically believed in spanking, but throughout my entire childhood she parented the way parenting experts said to—by modeling the behavior she expected and by enforcing firm, fair, logical consequences.
Giving up spanking was about so much more than feeling bad that I hit my kid (though I do feel bad I ever hit him). It’s that there are literally more effective options to manage a child’s behavior than spanking them. Spanking did absolutely nothing to alter my son’s behavior, aside from making him fear me. If spanking doesn’t work, but there are other tools that do work, why opt to keep spanking?
If you spank your kids—especially if your child has a neurological difference like mine that makes them act out more than other kids—please believe me that there truly is a more effective way to discipline. I’ve read stacks of books, but a few of my favorites are Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child, Driven to Distraction, and Superparenting for ADD. Another that consistently pops up as being highly recommended is No-Drama Discipline.
I used to believe spanking was a necessary evil of raising a kid. But I switched long ago to a discipline style that doesn’t involve hitting, and my son has developed into a compassionate, honest, hard-working 14-year-old whom people regularly compliment for how respectful he is. I regret I ever hit him in the first place, but I’m 100% confident I made the right choice by switching up my methods.