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Why spanking children doesn't work

Mother upset at daughter
Credit: iStock.com/StefaNikolic

For many years, spanking was considered to be a ‘normal’ way to discipline a child. But as more studies revealed the harmful impact of spanking children, it is now widely recognised as being a form of abuse.

One of the most widespread studies into the act of a parent spanking their children involved US research reviewing dozens of spanking studies. A team of researchers at University of Texas, led by Professor Elizabeth Gershoff, examined the results of 61 US studies and eight international investigations into spanking.

The studies all focused on how childhood behaviour changed after children were subjected to physical violence, including spanking.

The University of Texas study, Spanking and child development: we know enough now to stop hitting our children, revealed that zero studies found that physical punishment predicted better child behaviour over time.

Meta-analyses from the study revealed that spanking is linked with several unintended negative outcomes for children, including

  • Lower self-esteem
  • Mental health problems
  • Difficult relationships with parents
  • Lower academic performance

In 2010, a UNICEF report, Child Disciplinary Practices at Home found half of the children in a 33-country survey have been physically punished by their parents.

Why do parents spank their children?

Professor Kay Bussey, Dept of Psychology at Macquarie University, says parents should know by now that spanking is not good for their child, nor for their relationship with their child.

She’s the co-author of the study Moral disengagement and the propensity to endorse physical punishment practices.

“Our work looks at how parents justify spanking. They might be told that spanking is not good, but they keep on doing it. How do we stop them? We've been using a concept called ’moral disengagement’,” Professor Bussey says.

“What we’ve looked at is the justification parents use for spanking. They continue to spank, even when they're told that it's not a very effective strategy.

“They will blame the child, or they say, ’It's just a good way to teach them a lesson’. We’ve been working on ways to assess those justifications, so that parents realise the danger in using physical punishment and they must resort to other forms of reasoning.”

All the child gets from the spanking is, ‘I know that if I do this, I'll get spanked and, if she's not here, then I can do it’. So, because of the lack of internalisation, they're much more likely to defy parental requests, particularly when the parent isn't present.
Professor Kay Bussey

Learning to defy parents when they are absent

Professor Bussey says children who’ve been spanked, don't internalise the rules behind why they're being spanked. While the parent might get short term compliance from the child, they don’t actually register the reason why they were spanked in the first place.

“In fact, as soon as these kids get a chance, they will defy whatever the parent wants. For example, if the child is told not to watch television and the parent is there, they might comply. But as soon as a parent is not looking, they'll go against their parent and do exactly what they want to do,” Dr Bussey says.

“All the child gets from the spanking is, ‘I know that if I do this, I'll get spanked and, if she's not here, then I can do it’. So, because of the lack of internalisation, they're much more likely to defy parental requests, particularly when the parent isn't present.”

Spanking teaches children to be violent

Dr Bussey says, in many cases, the only thing spanking achieves is it teaches a child to be violent.

“The parent is a role model. How will they resolve conflict if they’re going to hit a child? All they are doing is showing the child aggression. But what we worry about the most is that spanking is the biggest risk factor in ongoing physical abuse.

“There might be one or two little smacks today, but that can soon escalate into full blown child abuse. It’s the strongest predictor of child physical abuse occurring.

“And because spanking is such a problem, one way of dealing with the high levels of child physical abuse is to completely outlaw spanking. This has happened in several countries (such as Japan) but not here. In Australia, we have outlawed it in certain categories, for example, you’re not to hit a child on the head, but you can still spank a child.”

Professor Bussey reasons that if a parent in Australia, who is legally allowed to hit their child, (so long as it’s not on the head or face), hit another person’s child, it would be regarded as assault.

“So, it's very strange that the same behaviour is defined differently, depending upon the relationship with that particular person. In other words, these kinds of practices are allowable with your own children in the guise of teaching them a lesson,” she says.

“If you want your child behaving well, the best way is to reason with the child and give them reasons for what they should be doing. Build up a relationship with them, rather than smacking them.

“By spanking your child, you’re not building up a positive relationship; the child wouldn’t want to spend time with you. We’ve found children who get a lot of spanking, tend to want to spend more time with their peers and not their parents.”

Professor Bussey believes parents should be letting their children know that they are valuable and that it's important to be concerned about others; and that harming other people is not acceptable behaviour.

Teach children about rules and reason with them

Children need to know the importance of abiding by the rules, and told why rules are so important.

“They need to be taught that disagreements need to be dealt with in another way – not with violence or aggression. Parents must make sure the child understands right from wrong and knows not to hit other children. Kids need to be taught that they can talk to their parents about any issue.

“If a parent starts off reasoning very early with their child, then that kind of strategy is going to work later. What often happens is if a parent has a very bad relationship with a child, they will lash out and smack them. And, what accompanies a lot of this smacking is blaming the child. ‘If you had a child like this, you’d smack them too!’

“So the child gets blamed, and they start to think that they're a bad person. It’s very important to instil in the child that you think that they're a good person.

“If they’ve misbehaved, tell them you’re very sad at what's happened and that they shouldn’t do it. You need to simply reason with them, and let them know they’ve done something wrong. It’s never a good idea to physically discipline a child.”