Gentle Discipline: Some Helpful Alternatives to Spanking

Over the last few months, we’ve had some interesting discussions on Multicultural Familia about spanking and other punishments.  The first was a discussion on outdated parenting styles and secondly, a look into cultural relevance in discipline styles.  In each post, there were questions the about the use of physical punishment in general but also these discussions challenged readers to address whether physical punishment is something that is used because it is part of the cultural norm or whether it goes beyond that and really becomes a personal decision no matter where a parent was raised and what the cultural parenting practices were.

Personally, I am very against spanking. I view it as abuse and I firmly believe that it is ineffective parenting. I am NOT at all suggesting that ALL parents who spank their children are horrible parents. There are a lot of reasons why parents think spanking is an effective parenting tool. But these posts have opened up a dialogue that I would like to take one step further. My intention is to provide parents with some food for thought about spanking.

Before I get to the meat of this post, I would like to share two thoughts with you. First, why do we often believe that spanking is effective parenting? When a parent strikes a child that parent is instilling a sense of fear in the child. Fear based parenting is not going to help your child learn acceptable behavior. Yes, they may avoid the behavior they got spanked for but truly, your child will not understand why he or she should not engage in that behavior. Most parents I know want their children to grow up with a real understanding of why certain behaviors are acceptable and why others are not. Discipline is not about physicality. It is about setting developmentally appropriate boundaries, making them clear, and being consistent in enforcing those boundaries.

Second, how would you feel if you were spanked for behaving a certain way, especially if you did not really “know any better?” Think of it this way – if you wrote on a piece of paper that you thought was scrap paper and it turned out to be an important document that your spouse really needed, would you “learn your lesson” if he hit you as a “punishment.” I think that you would consider that abuse and not an acceptable expression of dissatisfaction for your behavior /action. Clearly, your spouse did not make it clear that this piece of paper was important. How were you to know? So is it “ok” to spank a child for coloring on the walls with crayon? If the child is coloring on the walls then either you have failed as a parent by not providing proper supervision and guidance (if my daughter was coloring on the walls it would only be because I was NOT paying attention to what she was doing) OR because your child developmentally is not at the point of understanding where and where not to use crayons. A one year old simply cannot grasp the proper mediums to use crayons on. Everything is a canvas at that age!

Now that I have given parents a little food for thoughts, let me share some important information about spanking. If you are a parent who spanks, please take some time to really digest this. Changing your parenting approach is not something that will be easy but it will pay off tremendously in so many ways.

self esteem spanking

Image Credit: Flickr / nofrills

Research has suggested that spanking may be the least effective discipline method. Spanking does not teach an alternative behavior and can instead promote even more undesirable behaviors. Specifically, spanking is not advisable because:

  • Spanking teaches children that hitting is an acceptable way to solve problems, and particularly it teaches children that it is O.K. for bigger people to hit smaller people.
  • Spanking sends confusing messages about the parents’ attitude toward the child. Repeated spankings teach children that they are “bad” and can have lifelong negative impact on their self-esteem.
  • Spanking can also affect a parent’s self-esteem. Spanking often leaves the parent feeling guilty over the use of physical punishment and erodes confidence in his or her parenting skills. Parents who use spanking routinely may fail to develop alternative discipline strategies and enter a hard-to-break cycle of physical responses to misbehavior.
  • Spanking tends to promote anger in both the child and the parent. Even if spanking seems to work in reducing misbehavior, victims of spanking tend to feel overpowered and humiliated, which over time leads to resentment and anger toward the parent and thus undermines the parent-child relationship.
  • Spanking can quickly escalate into full-blown abuse. If parents use spanking for minor infractions, more serious misbehavior can lead to more serious physical responses. Again, spanking may prevent parents from developing more effective, alternative strategies.
  • Spanking is ineffective in improving behavior. Children who feel badly about themselves—a typical response to being spanked—are more likely to engage in inappropriate behavior rather than learn alternatives.

Research has identified a number of negative outcomes of physical discipline, including higher rates of antisocial behavior, aggression toward peers and family members (including child and spousal abuse as adults), and psychological disturbances.

If you spank your children or grew up in a family where you were spanked (cultural norm or not), you many need some suggestions as to what you can do instead of raising your hand.

Alternatives For Infants

Infants respond impulsively to many situations without a real understanding of their surroundings and abilities. Spanking will only cause fear and anxiety in children who do not yet understand such concepts as natural consequences and danger.

  • When there is danger, grasp an infant’s hand instead of slapping.
  • When the infant is holding something that you do not want him to have, trade a toy instead of forcing the item from him. He will only hold on tighter if you try to take something away. Baby-proof your living space so that there is nothing dangerous or breakable in reach.
  • Leave the room if you feel your temper flaring, making sure that the baby is in a safe place like a pack and play.

Alternatives For Toddlers

Disciplining toddlers requires a tremendous investment of time, energy and patience, so it is important to find gentle, effective and appropriate techniques. For example, it will not be effective to tell toddlers not to play with items that are dangerous, such as the stove, because they do not understand the consequences. Spanking, however, will not clarify the consequences either. Instead, children may learn from spanking that “I’m a bad person,” rather than “I did something I should not.” You must use gentle discipline methods consistently or your child will learn that you are not serious.

  • Make sure the environment is safe by removing any harmful or dangerous objects. It is natural for toddlers to want to explore their environment.
  • Always supervise toddlers; it is unrealistic to expect a toddler to play safely without adult supervision for more than a few minutes.
  • Avoid direct clashes with toddlers, which will only make both of you angry and frustrated. Instead, try a diversion or distraction. Many problem situations can be eased with something funny or unexpected, such as tickling a mildly upset child.
  • Use your size and strength to eliminate situations. Simply lift a child out of the bath or carry a child who refuses to walk.
  • If you start to deliver a slap, divert it to your knee or a table. This sound will interrupt the behavior without hitting the child.

Alternatives For Older Children

  • When you start to feel angry with your children, clap your hands loudly. The sound will interrupt their behavior.
  • If you child refuses to listen to you, crouch down to his level and then talk calmly.
  • Since spanking does not occur in calm, rational moments, it is especially important to control your anger to prevent “losing it.” You can walk away, hit a pillow, call a friend or write a note. Once you have cooled down, you will probably feel less inclined to spank.
  • Although I am not an advocate or practitioner of a rewards/punishment system, if you feel you must punish your children, make sure the punishment is logically related to the incident so that they can learn the lesson you want to teach. For example, if your child rides her bike onto a road that is forbidden, take the bike away for the afternoon. This punishment teaches her that roads can be dangerous, that you are concerned for her safety and that you will enforce safety rules as long as they are needed. Taking away TV, dessert or spanking will not teach bike safety.

A few more ideas to consider:

  • Model what you want to teach, like self-control, fairness, respect, and compassion. Children learn through imitation, so if we preach respect and kindness, we must live it—even when we’re ready to blow. Reacting to our kids in hurtful ways will ultimately bring out similar behavior in them. Manage your anger so your kids can learn how to manage theirs.
  • Stop and breathe before you react. The few seconds it takes to do this will enable you to discern and choose what to do rather than react impulsively. If you are home, you might even give yourself a time-out. Go somewhere quiet for a few minutes to center yourself. Your child will see that you are making the effort to ground and center yourself.
  • Set expectations ahead of time. Let your kids know what you expect of them. Children need boundaries and they need those boundaries enforced in a loving, gentle way.
  • Allow kids to have feelings. If you’ve prevented your child from doing something she wants, and she reacts by crying or screaming, let her. Trying to force her to accept the disappointment as well as push down her feelings isn’t healthy. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. While it’s not OK to let a child get abusive or defiant because she’s upset, there’s no harm in letting a kid cry out her upset or say she’s mad when that’s how she feels. Instead of punishing her for her reaction, tell her, “I know you’re disappointed. You’re going to need to have your tantrum in your room. We can talk later when you’re calm.”
  • Get to the bottom of “red flag” behavior. When your child does something that hurts himself, others, or property, or is a serious act of defiance, dig deeper. For example, if your fifteen-year-old smacks his brother in a fit of rage, try to understand what’s at the bottom of the behavior. Once tempers have cooled, talk to him and try to find out what was behind his actions. Red flag behavior always has a cause.
  • Get help when needed. If you’ve tried everything and the extreme misbehavior continues, counseling could be the best solution.
  • Talk to your kids and be willing to hear them out. Help them understand why you’ve set the limits you’ve set. Teens who have healthy, solid relationships with their parents inevitably refer to their parents’ willingness to listen as one of the prime reasons they’re close. The lines of communication stay open, something so essential as our kids get older and are faced with tough choices.
  • Speak to your child’s highest self. Even when your child misbehaves, speak to the part of him that knows what’s right. Children tend to live into our expectations. If we believe they are inherently good and decent, and if our words and actions reflect this, our children will rise to that positive expectation. Our highest power as parents is believing in our children and accepting that they will make mistakes and test limits.

I hope that these suggestions resonate with parents. There is a lot of support, information, and guidance out there for those of you currently employing spanking in your disciple arsenal. I encourage parents to reach out and get more support so you can make the transition to a better, more peaceful discipline lifestyle. The long term health of your children depend on it.