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Ask Dr. Sears: Spanking—Yay or Nay?

Q. My husband believes in spanking, but I don't. How can we come to an agreement on how best to discipline our kids?

A. I've practiced pediatrics for 35 years and raised eight children with my wife. Over the years, I've seen lots of children grow up, and I've become more and more convinced that spanking is not the best solution when it comes to child discipline. In my opinion, "sparing the rod" results in emotionally healthier and better disciplined children. In fact, based on increasing scientific evidence against spanking and anti-spanking opinions among child development researchers, most European and Scandinavian countries have enacted laws against spanking. In addition, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child declared spanking a form of violence and supports the creation of laws against physical punishment. Besides those facts, here is some other information you can share with your husband that might encourage him to rethink his position on spanking:

Spanking doesn't work.

In my practice, I have had parents who spank and those who don't. With the ones who do, I've seen that it just doesn't work. Many times the parent will say, "The more we spank, the worse he behaves!" Spanking creates a distance between parent and child. It doesn't promote good behavior, and if it seems to discourage bad behavior, it does so more by force than desire.

As parents of a large family, my wife and I have had to run a well-disciplined household, so I believe in discipline that works. Since my wife and I are aware of the research against spanking and have rarely seen it work, we adapted a "no spanking" attitude in disciplining our children. Having decided that we would not spank our children  -- but we would discipline them  -- forced us to learn better discipline techniques. If you program yourself with "I will not hit my child," it forces you to stop and take the time to think, "Is there a better way I can handle this situation?"

Spanking models violence

When a big person hits a little person, especially out of anger, it can tell the child that it's okay to hit people. The mom of one of my patients once told me that she thought she had to spank her child to be a good disciplinarian, until one day she observed her 3-year-old daughter hitting her younger brother. When the mom intervened, the daughter said, "I'm just playing mommy." Obviously, there was no more spanking in that house!

In a child's mind, if Mom or Dad does something, it's okay. If you vent your anger by hitting your child, then it's harder to rationalize to your child why he shouldn't hit someone when he's angry. Empathy  -- the ability to think before you act and imagine how your actions will affect the other person  -- is one of the main qualities that we want to instill in our children. Spanking sabotages empathy. A child is likely to haul off and hit another child without considering whether his actions are going to hurt the other person.

Research supports not spanking 

Long-term studies have shown that children who were spanked tend to be more physically violent as teenagers and adults, are more likely to be bullies at school, and are generally more antisocial. In addition, children who were spanked excessively had a four times greater incidence of becoming spouse-abusers as adults. Spanking families plant the seed of violence in the next generation. (A necessary note about spanking studies: The same studies also showed that spanking had less damaging long-term effects when practiced in an overall loving home, used sensitively and infrequently, limited only to major offenses, and when the parent rationally explained why the child was spanked.)

So how should you discipline your child? Getting behind the eyes of your child can do wonders for prompting you to click into a much more sensitive mode of disciplining than spanking. When he misbehaves, stop and think: "If I were my child, how would I want my parent to handle this?" Spanking is simply a force that gets a kid to stop the misbehavior at that particular time. Remember, discipline means teaching. You want your child to obey because he has learned to make his own choices of what is right or wrong, not out of fear of getting spanked.

If your husband wants to learn discipline techniques other than spanking, have him read our book, The Discipline Book, for many sensitive strategies that can replace spanking in your home.