From a pediatrician: Why you shouldn’t spank your child

Parenting has evolved, and so has disciplining children

I’m in Walmart, picking up art supplies for my kid’s school project, when I hear “the warning” in the next aisle.

“You better knock it off, or you’re going to get a spanking.”

The hair stands up on the back of my neck. I want to grab the glitter pens and get home, but I can’t stop hearing the threats.

“I SAID … don’t touch that or I’m gonna pop you.”

Do I go over there and see what is happening? Do I try to intervene? Or just keep to myself?

“Now that’s IT!”  Smack … hit … slap … spank.

Crying child.

Is this a bad parent? Is this a bad kid? Is this the tip of the iceberg for an already stressed parent that has now boiled over into this moment?

Does the spanking help?

Childhood has evolved; so can parenting

Spanking has been a long-standing tactic used by parents to “discipline” their children. So why change now? Well, because as more research comes to light, parenting techniques have changed. For example:

  • If you are over age 30, your parents probably placed you in your crib on your belly due to concerns that if you vomited, you would choke. But in fact, research has shown that “back to sleep” positioning in a safe sleep environment decreases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Seat belts: I remember fighting with my siblings over who got to ride without a seatbelt “on the hump” in the back of my parent’s car. Research showed us that in an accident, persons not wearing a seat belt have a much higher risk of serious injury or death than those wearing seat belts. Would you not put your toddler in a booster seat? I don’t think so.

So what about spanking? Over the past several months, two major professional organizations — the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association — have published strong policy statements against spanking. Together, these organizations represent nearly 200,000 doctors, scientists and educators.

After decades of research on thousands of kids, the evidence is clear. Children who are spanked are at a higher risk of increased aggression, mental health issues such as depression and poor relationships with parents. Spanking increases the risk of physical injury and abuse.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month

Learn more about preventing child abuse and what to do if you suspect abuse

Many parents say, “Well I was spanked and turned out fine.” That may be. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, but smoking certainly increases the risk.

Other parents say, “I would never get carried away and injure or abuse my child.” Research tells us otherwise. In one study, approximately three of every four children with substantiated abuse were injured due to escalated punishment. Did these parents mean to abuse their children? In almost all cases, no.

Children learn everything from us. Spanking teaches kids that violence is the way to solve problems and that hitting loved ones is acceptable behavior. This does not help prepare kids for the real world. My boss does not hit me when I am late for work or receive a poor evaluation. It is not acceptable or lawful for my husband to hit me. When we spank, we are teaching children that if they get really angry, they should react by using their hands and hurting someone else. In a world where we have become almost numb to daily news reports of violence, we have an opportunity to cultivate households that are violence free and children who identify other ways to solve problems.

How do we get there? No spanking does not mean no discipline. We must continue to teach children appropriate behavior. If spanking is the “go-to” in your parenting toolbox, consider alternatives such as distraction, redirecting, house rules with agreed-upon consequences, and positive reinforcement for good behavior. If you aren’t familiar with these strategies, reach out to your health care provider or research online resources.

The time is now to discipline differently.

Kelly L. Dauk, M.D., is chair of the Norton Children’s Hospital Child Abuse Task Force and a pediatrician with UofL Physicians.