An interesting article last week in the Los Angeles Times on corporal punishment inspired me to write this entry. My read on the relevant science is that corporal punishment, if it is used in a calm and non-abusive fashion (e.g., open hand on a clothed bottom without excessive force) by generally loving and effective parents, probably has a neutral impact. However, in my 20+ years of doing clinical work this is not how I find that corporal punishment is typically used. So, I’d like to list six reasons why I believe it is ill advised. Before doing so I’d like to stress that I’m not trying to guilt generally effective parents for having a lapse and spanking a child (I’ve certainly been there and done that); such parents already feel bad enough for the lapse and realizes that he or she has some work to do. No, I’m challenging the position that spanking is a useful parenting tool. These are my primary reasons:
#1. Corporal punishment usually occurs when a parent is experiencing transient brain dysfunction. We all regress and lose IQ points when we get angry. The more primitive systems in our brain become more in charge of us. Sometimes I must parent when I’m in this state, but it is to be avoided, lest I say and do things that I’ll later regret when my brain comes back fully online.
#2. Corporal punishment usually is akin to undisciplined discipline. I say to my child: be in better control of yourself while I’ve lost some of my control. This is akin to a customer service manager screaming at his employees: “Treat our customers with &^%$ respect!!”
#3. Corporal punishment usually promotes a variety of unsavory messages: “physically stronger people win” or “if you get mad at people the thing to do is to knock them around.”
#4. Corporal punishment can be a shaming and humiliating experience for the child that can inspire strong feelings of fear or rage. Imagine what it would be like to be subject to corporal punishment from a boss or a spouse; there are reasons there are laws against such things (and maybe why 31 countries have outlawed corporal punishment).
#5 Corporal punishment is an ineffective technique for reaching common parenting goals. In my years of working with families I’ve found that parents generally have great goals for their kids, including when they discipline. Parents want their children to apply themselves in their academic work, learn to do useful things when they don’t feel like it (e.g, chores), exert sufficient self-control and so forth. It is the methods for reaching those goals that vary in their effectiveness. It’s true that I can get my kid to stop picking his nose in front of me if I hit him when he does it. But, when he’s not around me he may dig away. Moreover, I risk two things: imbuing nose-picking with more emotional importance than I intend and damaging my relationship with my kid.
#6. Corporal punishment is often used when parents have run out of ideas. I would rather have a parent expand on his or her parenting repertoire than resort to this technique just as I would rather a carpenter go out of his way to obtain and use a screwdriver to attach screws rather than use a readily available hammer. One of the reasons I’ve written Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference, is to make such tools readily available to parents. You would find this book articulates how to set up a science-based, time-efficient and effective discipline plan that, assuming a child or parent is free of significant psychiatric pain, should leave you wanting to keep corporal punishment in the tool box unused. You may also find additional resources for facilitating parenting on the sister website for this book: www.resilientyouth.com.