To Spank or Not to Spank

To Spank or Not to Spank

To Spank or Not to Spank

When my mother had her first child my grandmother visited her in the hospital and gave her a wooden spanking paddle.  “Some day you will need this,” she told my mother.  I heard my mother tell this story again and again throughout my childhood to justify her use of corporal punishment.  As a child, I was determined never to spank my children.  “Some day you will understand,” my mother told me.

When I became a pediatrician, I took care of toddlers that ultimately died from corporal punishment.  I watched their brains swell until the neurosurgeons had to drill holes in their skulls to release the pressure.  I took care of one teen who was beaten so badly by his mother that he was hospitalized with renal failure.

Then I became a parent.

I, like 94% of American parents, utilized corporal punishment.  Not often.  Not severely—just an occasional quick swat on the buttocks.  Spanking was an ultimatum used only for defiant children that refused to go to time-out, and I threatened it far more than I ever actually did it.  I finally understood what my mother, my grandmother, and generations of parents faced.  But I don’t spank anymore.

Few issues are as controversial as corporal punishment.  In September, 2012, Delaware made spanking illegal.  Yes, that’s right, parents who inflict any “pain” on their children can go to jail… in Delaware.  Yet 19 states still permit spanking in public schools.  California and other states are working hard to push through legislation that makes spanking a crime.  There are organizations that oppose all forms of child punishment, including extra chores, writing assignments, etc.   But you can go online and hire a professional spanker to come and spank your child or teen.  There are even those who advocate for “spanking therapy” and discuss “whipping theory” as a cure for depression, and addiction.   Is your rear end burning yet?

The experts are just as conflicted.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly opposes corporal punishment.  But The American College of Pediatricians (ACP) feels that “Disciplinary spanking by parents, when properly used, can be an effective component in an overall disciplinary plan with children.”  From the AAP’s “Guidance for Effective Discipline,”:[]

  • Spanking children <18 months of age increases the chance of physical injury, and the child is unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment.
  • Spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in preschool and school children.
  • Spanking and threats of spanking lead to altered parent–child relationships, making discipline substantially more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents.
  • Spanking is no more effective as a long-term strategy than other approaches, and reliance on spanking as a discipline approach makes other discipline strategies less effective to use. Time-out and positive reinforcement of other behaviors are more difficult to implement and take longer to become effective when spanking has previously been a primary method of discipline.

But the ACP criticizes the research behind the AAP’s statements.  [ ].  The ACP feels that “appropriate spanking” should be an option for parents.  “Appropriate spanking” includes:

  • two open-handed swats to the buttocks in a child of about 2-7 years who defiantly refuses to cooperate with milder disciplinary measures, such as time out

The ACP quotes other research “That limited use of spanking, when directly compared to alternative disciplinary tactics, has actually been shown to lead to improved compliance and less aggression in children.”

As for me, my spanking days are over.  I have other parenting methods that are more effective.  Violence is a poor solution to the ills of our world, and the challenges of parenting are no exception.  I feel freed from some burden now that I don’t have to spank my kids.  But I certainly have not given up discipline.  Teaching discipline and self-control is a primary obligation of a parent.

So what do we do instead of spanking?   In our house we do a lot of service projects for people we have disrespected.  If you mouth off to me, you might need to help me with laundry, or gardening, or cleaning the bathroom.  If you are mean to your sibling, you might have to help them with homework or clean their room.  Exercise can also help calm strong emotions.  Sometimes I’ll send a child outside to walk a few loops of our cul-de-sac.  If a child is truly out of control, they usually have to sit in the bathroom and draw a picture or write an essay about the issue at hand.  Those too young to draw pictures just have time out in the bathroom, one minute for each year of life.  5-8 year-olds often have to copy essays I have already written.  My favorite starts like this: “Attitude is a choice.  When I have a bad attitude, I am hard to live with.”  If they refuse to write their essay, they get a longer essay.  Until the essay is written there are no privileges such as tasty meals, toys, extra-curricular activities, etc.  Different children have different needs and temperaments, and there is on one-size-fits all form of discipline.

Many people say they spank as a rare attention-getter when a child puts his or her life in danger.  My ear piercing screams have served this purpose the few times my toddlers have run towards busy streets or otherwise endangered their lives.

Most importantly, we try very hard to tame our own anger.  Yelling and using angry verbal reprimands is just as bad, if not worse, than spanking.  We say we discipline out of love.  Anger is not love.

Love and discipline go hand in hand.  For my grandmother, spanking was what it meant to love and discipline her children.  When I had my first child, I wondered if my mother would bring me a spanking paddle as a baby gift.  Fortunately, she loved me enough to find a better gift.

Please follow Dr. Kathleen on Twitter @CatholicDoc and “like” CatholicPediatrics on Facebook!

Copyright 2012 Kathleen Berchelmann, MD


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  1. Wonderful post. Thank you! This was quite timely in that my daughter-in-law and I were just having a discussion about spanking, yesterday!

    I’m hoping you see this comment and can take a moment to reply…one part of your post raises an “issue” that I’ve had brewing in my heart for years-on-end, and I’d LOVE to know your thoughts on it.

    It is regarding the “service projects” aspect of “alternatives-to-spanking” .

    Our family, too, utilizes physical exercise as punishment, at times: running laps, or, for older boys, doing push-ups, etc…

    However, each time I begin to implement the “service” idea, something inside me cringes as I fear that I am presenting an image of “serving others as punishment” to my children.

    Have you experienced this? If so, how were you able to “get around that” in your mind?

    We are “all about” service in our family…but, I want my kids to grow up viewing “service” as something we do because Christ did it first…and it is good and right…not because they are being punished for a wrong-doing. Does that make sense?

    Like you, I also have my children write and/or do copywork as a consequence to poor behavior…Often times, I will have them write an essay pertinent to the issue-at-hand…for instance, if a child is being disrespectful or disobedient, I will have him/her write an essay on why “obedience” is important if we are to be followers of Christ.

    Anyway, thank you for this great post…and, if you have a chance, either here or on Facebook, since you and I are connected there, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my inner-struggle that I’ve shared, above. THANKS!

    God bless your beautiful family!

    • Kathleen Berchelmann on

      Dear Judy,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I also struggle with this idea of enforced service. I think it is OK to use service as a punishment as long as it is only occasional, not daily. I want my kids to do service as a choice more than they do it for punishment. There are lots of times when we “make” our kids do things we hope they will learn to do on their own. This is just part of parenting. I think of enforced service not so much as a punishment but rather as a learning opportunity, something like a penance. This is really a great form of parenting, trying to teach/re-direct rather than simply enforce with a negative stimulus.

      Does this help? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      In Christ,

      • I tried to reply directly from the email alert I received on your comment…but, it doesn’t seem to have gone through…so, I will write here…if another comment comes through and it’s redundant; I apologize!

        You have helped me find peace with the idea of service as a consequence, Kathleen. THANK YOU!

        I love the idea of adding a penitential or reparation aspect to it all. My mini e-book, “Tending to the Hearts of Our Children” focuses on shepherding the whole HEART of the child and not just stopping bad behavior. Your way of looking at service as “punishment” is very conducive to that…in fact, I think it would help if we had the child serve the person he/she has offended! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You’ve shed new light on this topic for me!