Spanking is Wrong for These Three Reasons

As a psychologist, I often am asked questions related to children, child rearing, and development (Despite not being a developmental psychologist!). As a generalist in teaching psychology, I do my best to give researched and nuanced answers. One comment I often get from students and parents alike is that they disagree with most experts on spanking. They believe it’s an effective form of punishment and (in some cases) have told me that they will not change their mind. I figured today I’d take some time to explain the reasons why spanking is wrong, giving you a chance to think about them and debate.

I’m going to detail three reasons why spanking isn’t the good, effective, and virtuous tool that some believe it to be. First I’ll discuss the psychological reality behind reinforcement versus punishment, next I’ll discuss a developmental argument around modeling behavior, and finally I’ll address the moral and ethical considerations one has to take into account. I’ll even take on the spanking enthusiasts favorite argument.

As many a frustrated freshman will (eventually) tell you, reinforcement is anything that one does to make behavior occur again. Conversely, punishment is anything you do to make behavior less likely to happen again. Psychologists then complicate things more by adding the “Positive” and “Negative” prefixes – with positive referring to adding something to the environment, and negative referring to taking something away. Positive Reinforcement includes things like giving extra allowance money or screen time. Negative Reinforcement, despite sounding bad, is actually just as good – perhaps letting a child skip regularly scheduled chores for a good report card (in this case you’re removing something from the environment – chores). Negative Punishment might be removing screen time to discourage behavior, and ironically, Positive Punishment (which sounds like a new-agey peacenik type slogan) includes corporal punishment – a.k.a. spanking. In all cases, the child must see a clear link between their behavior and the reinforcment and/or punishment given. This means reinforcement and punishment must be done in close proximity to the behavior, and generally in a calm clear manner.

The interesting thing about reinforcement and punishment is that they operate in the same way and can be interchangeably used. I can punish bad behavior, leaving good behavior, or I can reinforce good behavior, and it will elbow out bad behaviors. I often suggest parents focus on the reinforcement route. “I’m not going to make my kids ‘soft’”, they cry, “They need to learn there are consequences to their actions”. Yes, they do. But here’s the problem with punishment – it has 3 possible pitfalls that don’t affect reinforcement. And those 3 pitfalls make it empirically less useful than it’s counterpart. In a nutshell, here are the 3 pitfalls:

  1. Punishment is susceptible to “cheating”. Organisms understand that punishment might not be applied 100% of the time. Anyone who drives over the speed limit knows this to be true – the cops can’t be everywhere, so you speed where you can, and slow down where the speed traps are likely to be. Kids learn about this too – they know the times they are most likely to ‘get away with it’ and choose their timing wisely. To be effective, punishment cannot miss a beat – it must happen reliably every single time (or at least 90% or more of the time). Conversely, no one has ever tried to cheat reinforcement.
  2. Punishment can be interpreted differently than intended. The classic example here is the child in the grocery store desperately vying for it’s parent’s affection. The child realizes that Mom and/or Dad is pre-occupied, and is not happy. If the child throws a temper tantrum, what generally happens? Mom is no longer looking at the shelves – she’s turned her attention to the child to either soothe or yell. And regardless of her intent, the child gets what he or she wanted – Mom’s attention. This is what psychologists refer to as “concurrent reinforcement”. Mom intends to punish by yelling, but the child feels reinforced because she’s now directing her attetion toward him or her. Conversely, there is no concept of “concurrent punishment”.
  3. Punishment cannot be mild to be effective – it must be severe. While one can provide small levels of reinforcement and it still is effective, people build up a tolerance to punishment. Imagine yourself in this scenario: You speed to work and get pulled over, but instead of a $130 fine, you get a $1 fine “because it’s your first offense”. You ask the officer what the fine will be next time, and he tells you that it goes up $1 for each time you get pulled over. I don’t know about you, but if money motivates me, it’s going to take a lot of times for me to be pulled over before I start caring about the loss of a few dollars here or there (Especially since I don’t always get pulled over – see point 1!). Parents who use spanking typically don’t apply severe punishment the first time the child is disciplined, and thus build up tolerance.

For those 3 points alone, punishment should be avoided as much as possible. Sure, there are times when one might have to punish a child – jerking one’s hand away from the hot burner comes to mind – but in each case one must be mindful of the 3 pitfalls above, and compensate for them if possible. Punishment just isn’t as effective a tool as many parents think. This is an empirical argument.

The second argument one might consider is the developmental one, and thankfully this one is a bit shorter. Psychologists refer to incidental learning by observation as “modeling”. I estimate that the majority of our learning is done indirectly – we don’t necessarily experience a reinforcement or punishment directly, rather we learn from watching others. The example I often use in class is the vending machine: Imagine you’re watching a person use a vending machine from 100 feet away. The person puts in their money and hits a button, waits about 10 seconds, and then kicks the machine as hard as he can. I often ask students what they just observed, and they report (likely accurately) that the machine ‘ate’ his money and didn’t vend the product. We don’t need special training to figure out these sorts of things – we are naturally observant creatures that see behavior and make decisions about it without needing to experience it as the actor.

Now apply that to spanking. A child observes the following scene: Another child has done something bad. An adult, who has all of the power and authority in the relationship, spanks the misbehaving child. Misbehaving child cries, adult walks away. To the observer, this sends a pretty clear message: If you need to send a message to others, hitting them seems to work out pretty well for adults. It’s no suprise that kids repeat the behavior themselves, just as they repeat dozens upon dozens of behaviors they observe adults doing. There is absolutely no way for a 3 year old to understand the concept ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. It is beyond their cognitive comprehension. All a 3 year old will know is that hitting results in zero consequences, and unless you can enforce consequences 100% of the time (see point 1 above regarding ‘cheating’), you cannot send a different message if kids know you’re using spanking and ‘getting away with it’. They don’t even have to see it – they just have to know about it.

Finally, the last argument that one might consider is a moral and ethical one. Quite honestly we have some very strange public morality surrounding spanking. If I, as an adult, go up to a random stranger and hit them anywhere on their body, I am likely to be charged with assault or battery. If I hit them on their buttocks, I might even get a charge of sexual battery. I might also get hit back by the random stranger, who probably won’t take too kindly to me doing this. However if I, as an adult, decide to hit my child’s buttocks, I’m legally OK. Eventhough my child has absolutely no ability to defend him or herself from me, the stronger adult. It’s further complicated when one brings in a view of ethics that states that I am old enough to use hitting effectively (see the “do as I say, not as I do argument”). If that’s true, and I’m old enough to know when I can use hitting effectively, than why can’t I hit other people without legal ramifications? After all, I know when I should use it and when I shouldn’t. It’s just a huge ethical and moral gray area.

Before I go, I have one last little comment – my response to the Spanking Enthusiast’s most tried and true line – the one they love to fall back on: “Well, my parents hit me, and I’m OK” or some varient.

Really think about that line for a second. Let me rephrase it as I hear it: Your parents hit you, and you think it’s OK to hit defenseless children. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider that “OK”. For those of you who are animal lovers out there, substitute “defenseless children” with “puppies” or “kittens” and see if you find yourself in the situation where you believe it’s OK to hit your children, whom you should love unconditionally, but not your pets. Awkward.

So that’s it – my arguments. Hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought. If you still believe that spanking is a useful tool, please leave me a comment and let me know why. I’m happy to discuss it further!

Photo Credit: Flickr: Mindaugasdanys

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