Spanking: Socialized Child Abuse or Discipline?

The discussions among parents about how we bring up our children tend to be pretty polarized, in my experience. There are those who use the term discipline to describe what they do, and others will propose that we can teach our kids better through showing them the way by our example – by not acting in ways that our children will mimic.

And that includes hitting or spanking. The people who don’t spank have strong feelings about why using pain to teach a child is not right, and those that do spank are equally sure that the way they do it isn’t about pain.

We don’t spank, and are pretty outspoken about it – we believe that touching our kids with intent to harm or inflict pain is not only the antithesis of the love and care we have for them, but would also be teaching them about hitting, instead of an alternative. That’s just how we roll.

I wasn’t spanked as a kid for punishment, but I do remember getting whacked on the butt once in a while – it definitely got my attention, but it also made me resentful. And then I became a dad, and saw the types of challenges that disciplining or teaching kids present, which helped me to understand how people get so frustrated or mad at their kids that they see spanking or smacking as an option. I don’t condone it or justify it, but merely acknowledge that parenting can be frustrating or maddening if we’re trying to get our children to listen or obey and they won’t.

The point in my life that made me realize that I could not hit my kids, even to get their attention, came when my young daughter was going to reach into a cage of pet rats (who weren’t too friendly) to pet them. Before I even thought about it, I reached out and popped her on the head with the flat of my hand, not taking into consideration the ring on my finger. As I connected, I knew it was a mistake, and I could tell that it was really going to hurt her. She did stop reaching for the cage, but the look on her face as she turned to me was one of hurt, distrust, and fear. And I knew that I couldn’t ever justify that type of behavior to myself again – it just wasn’t right.

A post about spanking at Queen of Spain caught my eye this morning, one both pointed and clear, with a title no less blunt than the message: Spankers Can #Suckit. She referenced a study which claimed that kids benefited when they are spanked, and are happier and more successful than those who aren’t.

And then she wrote this paragraph of brilliance:

“I’m guessing hitting your wife can have some benefits too. Keeping her in line, and what not. Hell, I would probably vacuum more often if I thought my husband would hurt me if I didn’t. Smacking your dog around probably has some benefits too, I mean…I bet you that mutt won’t pee on the carpet again if you give him a really good whack! So why not, Jr. too?”


But the real depth to the post comes in the comments, with one woman staunchly defending her spanking, another disagrees and leaves this gem: “When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault and battery. When a child hits a child, we call it aggression. When an adult hits a child we call it….discipline?”

The discussion is diplomatic and very thoughtful, and yet it raises still more questions, such as “If it’s not intended to cause pain or threat, does it still work as discipline? If it is to cause pain, what types of fear are we instilling in them?” and “If you’re just using it to get their attention, does it teach them to hit to get attention?”

Yet another commenter called spanking socialized child abuse, and made it pretty clear where she stood:

“If more people like you would stand up and call bullshit on socialized child abuse, we’d have a lot more confident happy people and a lot fewer bullies and criminals.”

I then looked up the definition of discipline, and found this:

“the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience”.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be physical punishment to be discipline, as there are other ways that kids get punished that isn’t through physical pain. Verbal punishment is often used to discipline, as is the ever popular ‘time-out’ or losing of privileges. We’ve gone the route of that last one, even though it’s still controlling our kids through controlling their stuff or their bodies. It’s a tricky road, but one we feel is better than using a physical or verbal punishment.

We also try to take great care with the words we use when talking to them. If we tell them they’re bad, instead of focusing on the positive behavior we want to see, we may actually be reinforcing the undesirable behavior, and causing them to internalize that message of “I’m bad.” Our reasoning is that we would like to use positive reinforcement and the setting of a good example, rather than the threat of punishment after the fact. It seems to work better for us.

I posted one article earlier about a spanking related study that found negative effects, but I’m sure we’ll see other studies invalidating those studies before long, such as the one linked to at the top of this post. I don’t think that we ought to read too much into these studies, however, as they are limited in their areas of focus and don’t generally include the influence of environment, media, peers, and diet on children’s behavior. I do think that we ought to mindfully choose how we are raising our children, whether it’s spanking or another type of punishment.

For me, it wasn’t a hard decision to be a non-spanker – it was simply a natural consequence of our family’s values. We choose no spanking, no threats, and no physical punishment in our family.

What’s the most effective form of discipline in your house? Is it the same or is it different from the way you were raised?

Image: HA! Designs – Artbyheather at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

15 thoughts on “Spanking: Socialized Child Abuse or Discipline?

  • I totally agree with everything you said. We even stay away from the word discipline, because of the severe connotation (and meaning) it has.

    I just published a post 2 minutes ago about questioning how we reprimand children and each other and how it disrupts the natural learning process.
    .-= Hillary´s last blog ..flowers13: harmful to reprimand children & each other? RT @tweetmeme To Reprimand or To Let Be | …infinitely learning… =-.

  • We also choose not to spank. When I tell people that, they often ask, “Well, what *do* do you do?” I am floored that anyone would think that without spanking a parent is left without any tools for teaching and discipline.
    .-= Casey´s last blog ..Our Holiday Card =-.

  • Derek Markham

    Thank you all for your support and comments! I’ll be checking out the links and sharing them.


  • PDeverit

    People used to think it was necessary to “spank” adult members of the community, military trainees, and prisoners. In some countries they still do. In our country, it is considered sexual assault if a person over the age of 18 is “spanked”, but only if over the age of 18.

    For one thing, buttock-battering can vibrate the pudendal nerve, which can lead to sexual arousal. There are multitudinous other physiological ways in which it can be sexually abusive, but I won’t list them all here. One can use the resources I’ve posted if they want to learn more.

    Child buttock-battering vs. DISCIPLINE:

    Child buttock-battering (euphemistically labeled “spanking”,”swatting”,”switching”,”smacking”, “paddling”,or other cute-sounding names) for the purpose of gaining compliance is nothing more than an inherited bad habit.

    Its a good idea for people to take a look at what they are doing, and learn how to DISCIPLINE instead of hit.

    I think the reason why television shows like “Supernanny” and “Dr. Phil” are so popular is because that is precisely what many (not all) people are trying to do.

    There are several reasons why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea. Here are some good, quick reads recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak,

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson,

    by Lesli Taylor M.D. and Adah Maurer Ph.D.

    Most compelling of all reasons to abandon this worst of all bad habits is the fact that buttock-battering can be unintentional sexual abuse for some children. There is an abundance of educational resources, testimony, documentation, etc available on the subject that can easily be found by doing a little research with the recommended reads-visit

    Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea:

    American Academy of Pediatrics,
    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
    American Psychological Association,
    Center For Effective Discipline,
    Churches’ Network For Non-Violence,
    Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
    Parenting In Jesus’ Footsteps,
    Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
    United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    In 26 countries, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  • I’ll go along with Casey’s statement, “I am floored that anyone would think that without spanking a parent is left without any tools for teaching and discipline.”

    In my experience telling a child you are disappointed with them is very strong discipline. What does a kid want more than the approval of their parents? Of course once they come under strong influence of peers…
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last blog ..How to Make a Winter Bird List =-.

  • zachary

    well written. so thoughtful. thank you much for this thoughtful article and all the great pieces you write. (and an indirect thanks to the authors of the great comments you reposted)

  • Thanks for a succinct outline of many of the arguments about why spanking is outdated and cruel. My bottom line argument is much like the comment you quoted above – you can be jailed/fined/etc. for touching another adult (or another person’s child!) in the same way that you would spank your own child, so what makes it right to do it to your offspring? Absolutely nothing.
    Sharing this article!

  • if you molest your kids i will find you and make you sufer spanking is sexull abues no exscuse for hiting a child

  • Brittany

    I was spanked when I was a child and it made me learn not to do whatever I did to get one. I believe if used at the right time then it is a good way to discipline a child. Yes. I might use the time out method but if they go and do the same thing once again then they will get swats.

    • socuteyourheadasploded

      I think it’s sickening that you believe violence is okay if it’s convenient for you. Very US Government attitude. Disgusting what passes for ‘parenting’ these days.

  • namegoeshere

    Discipline my hairy butt. All parents are doing is making their children’s life worse. If you want discipline, a trip to the corner, a good YELLING. Just no bullcrap. It’s as if parents like these want their children to physically and verbally abuse their future children, even wife. I say that whoever spanks their children deserves a spanking themselves.

  • socuteyourheadasploded

    I am a libertarian, and as a libertarian I believe in some simple rules, one of them being: you do not physically hurt people unless they are an immanent physical threat to yourself or others. Under no circumstances. Zero. Zip. Doesn’t matter who it is – a drug dealer, a loudmouth drunk, a child, a Nazi. You don’t do it. If you do YOU’RE the aggressor and YOU are the one asking to get your teeth knocked in.

    And I’ll tell you right now this minute, I see anyone hit their kid I’ll sock you in the jaw before you know what happened.

    • Lol, the irony in your words, tsk tsk. So it’s not ok to hit a Nazi, but it’s ok for you to sock a parent in the jaw. Nice work!


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