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Does research really say that spanking is bad for kids?

We’ve had an interesting week on the blog, where we’ve talked about periods, sex, homeschooling, and so much more!

But I want to revisit Rebecca’s post on Wednesday about how we shouldn’t be spanking babies, despite what many Christian books (like To Train Up a Child or Shepherding a Child’s Heart) may say.

Some of you may not know this, but Rebecca has written a book called Why I Didn’t Rebel: A 22-year-old explains why she stayed on the straight and narrow (and why your kids can, too). She looked at the research about what made it more or less likely that kids will rebel, and then she interviewed dozens of millennials, some of whom had rebelled and some who hadn’t, and looked at commonalities. She was specifically looking at how sometimes the advice that we’re taught in many Christian parenting books actually doesn’t work, because it’s focused on trying to change outward behaviour rather than trying to build relationship so you can impact godly character.

It’s honestly a great book!

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In researching Why I Didn’t Rebel, Rebecca looked a lot at the big studies on spanking, and talked to professors who had spent their careers looking at the research, and doing research themselves.

After our conversation on Wednesday, a few people on Facebook raised what’s a common question whenever we bring up spanking. I’ll paraphrase, because a number of people said this. But it tends to go like this:

I was spanked when I was younger, and I have a great relationship with my parents. And none of my siblings rebelled, either! In fact, I can’t think of another discipline technique that would have worked on me. Sometimes spanking is the best option.

Rebecca left a great reply, and I’d like to post it here so that we can all see it, and comment on it:

What research says is that spanking leads to either negative outcomes or neutral outcomes–many kids are spanked and are totally fine! The same way that if you never wore a seat belt, it is very possible that you would never get hurt.

BUT, we know that wearing a seat belt is wise because we can prevent serious damage. So we wear a seat belt, even if we’ve personally never been in a car crash. Because the stats say that you have a higher likelihood of dying if you don’t, similarly, the research says your kids have a higher likelihood of aggression, mood disorders, poor relationship with parents, and other externalizing behaviors if you spank. Not everyone will, but the chances are higher.

Additionally, among families who did spank who had kids who had good relationships with their parents, research suggests that it’s not the spanking that helped–rather, they have good relationships with their parents DESPITE the spanking. So likely the homes overall were warm, loving, nurturing, and the introduction of spanking wasn’t enough to overcome those protective factors. But if a little bit of poison doesn’t make you ill because the rest of your diet is really really good, you still don’t need to ingest the poison. Also, there are usually other disciplining forms at use in these families that mean that even if spanking wasn’t used, they likely would have turned out fine and been well-behaved children.

The fact that there are families who spanked who turned out great does not negate the research with hundreds of thousands of participants that found that overall, spanking is an unnecessary risk that, at best, leads to neutral outcomes and has not been found–even when done “correctly” (not in anger, only when the child is of certain ages, only with an open palm, etc.)–to help strengthen parent-child bonds or lead to lower rates of unwanted behaviours in children and adolescents.

It is worth noting that other parenting practices have been found to not only avoid negative outcomes but actually promote positive ones, so there are research-based alternatives.

And I’ve got 10 ideas on how to discipline without spanking here!

But swatting babies can teach them things, right?

Another thought came up repeatedly over the last few days, and one commenter summed it up well:

When my baby started crawling she wanted to put her fingers in the plug sockets. I sat next to her and said no and took her hands away. She looked at me and slowly reached for the socket again. I flicked her fingers with my hand and said no again. She pulled away from the socket in shock. After that she never tried it again. And she understood what no meant. Pain given in love is not evil. Don’t be led by the world’s wisdom. God inflicts pain on those He loves. “He who spares his rod [of discipline] hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines diligently and punishes him early.” [Prov. 19:18; 22:15; 23:13; 29:15, 17.]

Here was my reply, which I’m elaborating on a little bit for this post:

What you’re explaining is called operant conditioning. You’re not teaching obedience (babies can’t understand at that age); what you’re teaching is compliance.

Operant conditioning makes a behaviour more or less likely based on what the kid will get out of it. It’s not a moral choice, and when it’s with a punishment involved (like pain) it’s a fear-based avoidance behaviour to prevent the pain from happening.

Flicking a baby’s hands or swatting a baby teaches that baby that reaching for the socket brings pain. But because the baby is too young to do any kind of moral reasoning or even obedience, what this does is teach babies that mommy gives pain at certain times, without understanding why. That can be difficult for a baby to process, especially if there isn’t a lot of acceptance and joy in the rest of the relationship. If the relationship is otherwise a loving and healthy one, it likely won’t do much harm, and may end up neutral.

But remember that babies can’t make a moral choice to obey before two. When a baby “obeys” before that, it’s not that they’re doing something right; they’ve simply been conditioned to expect pain. They “obey” out of fear. They’ve learned that people in the world are not safe.

That’s not what God means by obedience. Godly obedience is understanding that there are two choices, and deciding to do the right thing intentionally. This is something else altogether. So we have to ask ourselves: What is it that we want our babies to learn about the world?

And in the light socket example, I’d just simply buy those light socket protectors and baby-proof it!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

What we often miss in this conversation about discipline is the other side: how to engage with your kids.

The other problem with focusing so much of our parenting life on how to curb behaviour and how to discipline or punish kids is that we ignore the other half: how to actually engage with your kids, talk to your kids, interact with your kids. When we spend time with our kids and talk to them and help get them engaged in what’s going on around them, they learn so much. And they also form relationships with you so that they feel safe and they want to do what’s right. Really, this side of it is just as important, if not more important, than discipline (let alone punishment) and yet we so rarely talk about it.

That’s what Rebecca found in Why I Didn’t Rebel, too. We focus so much on rules for our teens, when what they really need is to be able to talk to us.

If you’re struggling with this idea of engaging rather than just punishing, can I suggest two resources?

I absolutely love the book Discipline that Connects with Your Child’s Heart by Jim and Lynne Jackson.

discipline child - What Does the Research Say about Spanking?

And then, if your kids are older, say 9 and up, take a look at Why I Didn’t Rebel (although it’s a great read even if your kids are younger, too, to start thinking about the relationship you want with them when they’re teens!)

You can teach your baby “no” without abusing them.

(Hitting a baby is abuse in Canada, and I refuse to call it anything else). Alex had a BAD biting problem when he was eating where he would grind his gums together and it was absolutely excruciating. So anytime he did it I said “no” firmly and we stopped feeding. We went and played for 10 minutes and then I offered him milk again. It took a few days, but within a week he had stopped biting me because biting didn’t lead to the desired outcome: milk. He did not suddenly think, “Huh, I must be doing something mom doesn’t want me to do when I bite her, so maybe I’ll try not biting her instead.” He was not capable of that complex of a thought at the time. Instead, it was very simple. He tried X and wanted to see what it would give him. X failed to give him good outcomes and instead led to the loss of good things. X no longer became something his little brain wanted to do.

Spanking is not the only way to discipline difficult children.

I talked extensively with a doctor of psychology who works with incredibly severe behavioural disorders in children on a daily basis. She also teaches parenting psychology at the PhD level at one of the best psychology schools in Canada and runs a part of the practicum program for students training to do what she does. She deals with incredibly difficult children–“strong willed” wouldn’t begin to describe it. She has a multitude of evidence-based parenting and behavioural management strategies she uses that WORK as long as the parent is invested and involved. You know what isn’t on her list of tools? Spanking. If she can get kids with diagnosed behavioural issues to behave–even ones who have been expelled from multiple schools–without spanking them, I find it hard to believe that there is literally no other option but spanking for children who are strong-willed or stubborn. Rather, I encourage parents to humbly talk to a parenting psychologist. This is what they do, and odds are your kid will seem like a piece of cake compared to some of their clients. Read books on parenting from evidence-based approaches. Ask for help for non-abusive and non-spanking parenting techniques. Look into cognitive development research so that you understand how your child’s brain works and you get ahead of the problem. If your 10-month-old is poking her fingers into electrical sockets, the answer is not to hit her–the answer is to cover the sockets.

Non-spanking parenting techniques are, frankly, harder and take more time and effort.

Spanking gets results. You hit your child, the child stops what they are doing. But as a parent, it is not your job to find the easiest path to compliance. It is our job as parents to do what is best for our child, even if it means it takes more from us. It is not right to expose your child to something that has been shown to lead to a much greater risk of mental health issues, lower quality familial bonds, and externalizing behaviours if it is unnecessary. And it is unnecessary. So please, do the research, look at other options, and don’t be willing to go with the easy option that’s potentially going to harm your kid. Because is that a risk you really want to take, if there are other options that work that don’t carry the risk?

Rebecca Lindenbach

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

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And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

I hope that helps clarify how to think about spanking.

It’s really about the aim–do we want to connect with our kids and shape character and teach them about God, or do we want to simply change behavior? Because when we do things based on physical force, it’s really about control and fear, not about molding character. If you’re a good parent and you have a good relationship, you can usually withstand it. But it’s DESPITE the spanking, not BECAUSE of it. And there are alternatives!

Research about Spanking - What Does the Research Say about Spanking?

So now let me know: has your thinking about spanking changed in the last few years? What do you think about it? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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