Why I Don't Believe in Corporal Punishment

Momentous Institute’s Jessica Trudeau dives into the topic of corporal punishment. If not spanking, what works? Read on.

By Momentous Institute | Dec 04, 2015
Why I Dont Believe In Corporal Punishment

This can be a tough topic to approach.  When I talk about something as personal and controversial as corporal punishment, I acknowledge that how we parent is directly correlated to how we were parented – most people parent either the same way or the exact opposite of how they were raised.  Also, let me acknowledge at the outset - parenting is difficult.  The vast majority of parents love their children, are trying their hardest to do the best they can for their kids and have good intentions.  For many parents, corporal punishment is what they know and what they believe will work.

But I believe and literature indicates that there is a better way to parent children, one that does not involve inflicting harm or physically punishing our children.  In the book, No Drama Disciplineby Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, there is a great, succinct explanation for why corporal punishment is not only ineffective but also damaging.
“The brain interprets pain as a threat.  So when a parent inflicts physical pain on a child, that child faces an unsolvable biological paradox.  On one hand, we’re all born with an instinct to go toward our caregivers for protection when we’re hurt or afraid.  But when our caregivers are also thesource of the pain and fear, when the parent has caused the state of terror inside the child by what he or she has done, it can be very confusing for the child’s brain.  One circuit drives the child to try to escape the parent who is inflicting pain; another circuit drives the child toward the attachment figure for safety.  So when the parent is the source of fear or pain, the brain can become disorganized in its functioning, as there is no solution.”
They go on to conclude, “Another problem with spanking is that it teaches the child that the parent has no effective strategy short of inflicting bodily pain.  That’s a direct lesson every parent should consider quite deeply: do we want to teach our kids that the way to resolve a conflict is to inflict physical pain, particularly on someone who is defenseless and cannot fight back?”
Another significant reason I am opposed to corporal punishment comes from what I have seen in my work with children and what we know to be true from research:  corporal punishment, including spanking, can often escalate into something much worse.  According to an article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, mothers who report spanking their children are 2.7 times more likely to report abusing their children as well (Zoloter et. al, 2008).
In particular, with parents living in toxic stress spanking can escalate quickly.  In this scenario, the parent may be working multiple jobs.  She also may have had one too many drinks and not be entirely self-regulated.  Her child is not following directions, so she spanks him.  The child hits back and she spanks him again, but a little harder this time.  The child hits back harder.  She hits him in the face.  You can imagine that it’s not that difficult to go from a well-intentioned attempt at discipline to full-on physical abuse.
So, what then? What else can a parent do instead of spanking? The best parenting programs focus on three main strategies:
1. Prevent misbehavior in the first place. 

In an ideal world, there would be no reason to spank a child, right?  However, we all know that kids will misbehave.  With this in mind, the first step is to minimize misbehavior by ensuring that children’s basic needs are met including attention from their caregiver.  Often children misbehave because they’re seeking attention, dysregulated because they have not rested or eaten, or they are bored. You can read Laura’s post on attention-seeking behavior here.   When we, as parents, are able to attend to children by spending short amounts of time fully present, they’re less likely to act out in order to seek attention.  An example is to spend ten minutes on the floor working on a puzzle with your child or talking to your child while she is coloring.  Be fully present by pointing out the beautiful colors that your child has selected.
2. Use positive parenting strategies when misbehavior occurs.

When children act up – and they will – the first step is to ignore the behavior (if it’s not harmful) or attempt to redirect the behavior.  Again, Laura’s recent post on attention-seeking behavior referenced above (read it here) goes into this in more detail.  As parents, it is our job to keep calm and stay regulated, especially when our children can’t.  We have to keep minor misbehaviors minor by not feeding them with attention, and encourage our children to use breathing and other strategies to calm down.
3. Replace corporal punishment with positive discipline strategies when necessary.

I am not advocating that we simply let our kids get away with everything.  Of course we have to set firm limits so that children know what to expect and how they should behave.  Time out is recommended, but isn’t effective without time in. When one person breaks a family’s agreed-upon rules, such misbehavior should be met with consistent and appropriate discipline.  This might be two minutes to himself, followed by time with mom reflecting on how his actions affected the other members of the family.  Appropriate discipline might mean that he gets his toy taken away momentarily.  Time in occurs when the child returns to the situation and is able to make the right choice and receive praise for this behavior.
There are countless studies that indicate a correlation between corporal punishment and subsequent aggression, criminal behavior and lifelong struggles with attachment and relationships.  But in reality, corporal punishment is simply not necessary when we interact with our children with empathy, respect and consistency.  Children will misbehave.  It’s up to adults to minimize this behavior, not escalate it with violence.
© 2015 Momentous Institute

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