The subject of spanking children has long been in the hot seat, with some parents firmly in the "yes" and "no" camps, while others hover in the grey area in between. When Kelly Clarkson revealed in an interview that she spanks her children and sees no issue with the disciplinary method, the age-old debate came alive once more — is spanking effective or harmful? — bringing out strong opinions and plenty of questions about the actual effects of spanking on kids.
We spoke with child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, who told us that spanking has detrimental long-term effects and put to rest the common rebuttal of spanking supporters: "I was spanked, and I turned out fine."
The Long-Term Effects of Spanking
"Children who are spanked have the repeated experience of being frightened by their parent who has chosen to use fear through physical violence to control the child's behaviour," Dr. Lapointe told POPSUGAR. "This creates an emotional disconnect for the child. In addition to being traumatic in the moment, the accumulation of these frightening and emotionally disconnecting experiences for a child can lead to a significant rise in mental health issues as early as middle childhood — and certainly by adolescence — and children who are spanked tend to have more, rather than fewer, behavioural challenges, including behavioural disorders."
"[Parents who were spanked as children] are more likely to spank. We do what we know."
Dr. Lapointe noted that another effect on someone who was spanked as a child is, ironically, being much more inclined to spank their own child.
"[Parents who were spanked as children] are more likely to spank," she said. "We do what we know. Some parents may come through the experience of being spanked and rebel against that from a fearful place of not wanting to harm their own child. I would encourage even those parents to continue to explore this and choose respectful parenting not from a place of fear, but rather from a place of compassion and care for their child."
Coparenting With Someone Who Defends Spanking
As noted, many parents who spank were likely physically disciplined as children themselves. Dr. Lapointe says that people often tell her, "'But I was spanked and I learned respect,' or 'But I was spanked and I grew up to be OK.'" She added, "Here's the thing, if you are saying that to me and you are also sitting in front of me suggesting that we should hit children to control them, did you really learn respect? Are you really OK?"
If you and your coparent disagree on whether or not to institute spanking in your home, Dr. Lapointe recommends being straightforward and direct with them about your ultimate and shared bottom line as parents, especially if you are firmly against spanking.
"It is important to understand that we do what we know and we resist change out of fear. So your partner may not know any different. Maybe you could do some reading together or attend a seminar by a reputable professional on the topic to gather some more current knowledge. And come alongside understanding that your partner also wants the best for your children and their worry of messing that up might be what is driving them to hang onto this antiquated form of punishment."
Alternate Disciplinary Methods
Whether you're against spanking yourself or have used it as a form of discipline and are looking to move away from it, Dr. Lapointe has plenty of tips — she's written an entire book on the subject, titled Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up.
"There is zero support on any level for parenting through fear and physical punishment in the science of child development and related literature."
"There is zero support on any level for parenting through fear and physical punishment in the science of child development and related literature," she said. "In fact, the child development literature increasingly has converged on the idea that the use of any 'emotionally separating' disciplinary strategies is not good for child development. This includes things like time out, contrived consequences, enforced removal of privileges, and the use of reward strategies or systems . . . I think that parents are resorting to time outs and behaviour charts because you can only give what you got. And it almost goes without saying that we were all raised by a generation of parents (several generations actually!) that were told by the 'experts' to do this to our kids. Now that we know better we need to do better."
To do better, Dr. Lapointe encourages parents to focus on:
- Developing nurturing, healthy relationships with their children. "The relationship your child has with you is THE foundation of their entire existence and will determine their healthy development. Infusing their world with connectedness more generally, then, needs to be a focus. The first step in this is really coming to see your child for who they are. They are not an inconvenience to be managed. They are a real living, breathing human being! They are not trying to manipulate or be naughty, they are just growing and bumping into things as they are supposed to so that they can develop in the way that nature intended. When the going gets rough, they aren't intentionally pushing your buttons, they are struggling."
- Establishing appropriate boundaries and expectations that are firmly and kindly held. "The boundaries that you establish will be determined both by social norms and by your own value system. You establish them by first being clear inside of yourself that this is what you want, and second by firmly, but kindly, communicating that to your children. If it is new to them, expect some push back. That is what they have to do to make sense of where this new boundary has landed. If your 'expectations aren't met' then don't assume it is because your child is a brat who is trying to be difficult. Consider that they might need a few goes at this in order to make sense of the boundary and know its integrity. Do all of this [and redirect them if you need to] with a confident presence, a firm guidance, and a compassionate heart. Resorting to behaviour charts and time outs will do none of this for you."
- Reflecting on the tricks and strategies you resort to for discipline as the first sign that your relationship with your child might need some attention. "Maybe you use time outs and reward charts as a default or maybe you use them because you aren't really in charge of your kids and don't have confidence in yourself to be actually in charge of them without that kind of a trick or strategy. Either way, when you refocus on relationship as a central driving force of healthy child development, you can see how interfering with relationship by employing disconnection (the time out, the reward chart/'not-reward' chart) isn't going to work. In this I am not suggesting that you just toss all norms, expectations, and rules out the window! That would be terrible for a child and not at all part of healthy development. Instead, it is about firmly holding a line while having a heart for your kids. Say 'no' to them and don't be a menace about it. Mean it and then come alongside them. No tricks required."
"Hitting or swatting is all a physical intrusion on the child's person," Dr. Lapointe said. "The experience of fear and disconnect is universal regardless of the age of the child . . . The effects of spanking are wholly negative."