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Why Do Adults Spank Kids and What Are the Alternatives?

Understanding how children of different ages learn helps avert impulse to punish

Key points

  • Too many adults misunderstand child development, leading to unrealistic expectations.
  • Children learn in different ways at different ages—they should not be punished for it.
  • Children should be supported in their learning and, thereby, self-confidence.

When do adults punish children (e.g., with slapping or scolding)? This is what I’ve observed. Parents spank/slap/hit when:

  • babies seek physical contact or reach for a forbidden object
  • toddlers put things in their mouth or run off
  • preschoolers do not follow directions to sit
  • children are intensely concentrating on something and are not ready to shift attention.

Why do adults spank children? Typically, to alleviate their own discomfort in the moment. This may be partially due to an overload of stress but it may also be due to a misunderstanding of child development. Understanding child developmental needs can help adults avoid reacting with punishment when a child does not go along with the adult’s plans. It helps to understand the way children at different ages learn.

Characteristics of Child Learning

Today, many adults who have children or interact with them did not grow up with children of different ages nor nor did they take child development coursework. So they often do not understand the innate drives to learn that accompany each age.

Children have innate guidance systems for learning, so it is best to stand back most of the time and let them build their intelligences in the phases that have evolved for their thriving. Here are few tips about how children learn at each age.

Social Development

For every age, social relationships are fundamental to growing social and emotional intelligence. Ideally, children have supportive, authentic relationships with people of different ages so that they learn to adjust to different others in flexible ways and learn to trust what others communicate. Children are ready to cooperate and learn what they see others do. They especially gravitate toward learning from those who are older, imitating their behaviors.

Physical Development

Babies learn from being physically close to and usually in arms of responsive caregivers. This is because they are rapidly growing brain and body systems and need co-regulation to establish their systems in healthy ways—e.g., stress response, oxytocin system, vagus nerve.

Babies and toddlers learn from moving their bodies and exploring their environments. Toddlers learn from running and climbing. There are developmental milestones that take place in a particular order and must be met for proper development to take place.

Cognitive Development

Babies and toddlers learn from testing the quality of things they can pick up—banging, tasting, testing objects. Preschoolers learn from exploring and testing their environments.

All children need time to focus on what interests them, without interruption. Their brain function before age 7 is more in theta waves, the hypnotic state, as they learn the culture around them and how to function in the world. This is not the time for school-type learning, which shifts them into a different state, unnatural for their age (House, 2011).

Right Brain Development

Most adults focus on what can be called ‘left-brain development’—the conscious, deliberate mind that schooling trains. But childhood is oriented to development of the unconscious part of the mind-brain, which governs perhaps 90% of adult behavior (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). In the first years of life, this aspect of the brain grows more rapidly, being the early location of self-regulation, including the vagus nerve, and social-emotional intelligence (Schore, 2019). Throughout childhood, the urge to play and explore adds to the knowledge base this facet of the brain collects for use by the conscious mind later.

The Importance of Play

Play is the way children learn best. It is self-directed, going in the direction of what they are ready to learn. It is not consciously led but an unconscious, global and integrated process. When play becomes “planned, purposeful, and adult-led,” it undermines the self-initiated, integrative process of learning (Open EYE Campaign, 2011, p. 87). Regular thwarting of self-initiated play can lead to aggression, an indicator that more self-directed play experience is needed. Adults often misunderstand the need for play and punish its appearance instead.

All children learn from whole-body playing with others—circle games, dance, animal imitation. Again, ideally this takes place with multiple-aged playmates as we evolved to need (Narvaez, 2014).

When children do not get enough physical play (i.e., running, jumping, dancing), they can have trouble cooperating with routines or getting into bed (Cohen, 2002). In some cases, patterns develop where the child runs around before bedtime, frustrating the parent but signaling an unmet need for play.

What if a child is in their learning mindset but needs to follow adult direction?

A common approach is to give a choice, for example: Do you want to leave now or in two minutes? Do you want to put on your shoes or should I do it? The problem with using this approach very often is that it is encouraging the shift to conscious reasoning too soon, which normally occurs in stages around age 7 and age 12. Research shows that who are pushed into reading or decision making too soon not only do not show benefits later but have a greater risk for adverse outcomes like mental health issues and decline in motivation (House, 2011).

Capturing a young child's imagination can be more suitable:

  • Sing a song that indicates a shift in activity. You can make up a chant, for example, “Let’s go to the car, the car, the car, and see what we can see.”
  • Use play and silliness, such as exaggerating being mad and stomping around saying you have to leave the house without your child. Make games out of the requirements of your schedule.

See Lawrence Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, for a host of ideas about how to use play for virtually every parenting challenge.

Meltdowns

If a parent is losing their cool, they take a time out. They can do some rhythmic movement like jumping jacks. It's important to try not to scare the child.

If a child is in a meltdown from tiredness or frustration, adults can take them outside or to a window to broaden their perspective.

Importance of Connection

The most important thing to remember as a caregiver is to stay connected to the child (Leo, 2007). When disconnection occurs, as it will, reconnect through emotional vulnerability and belly-to-belly touch (Welch, 2016; Welch & Ludwig, 2017). This is the best way children develop social and emotional intelligence so they develop competence and capacities to repair their own relationships in the future.

References

Bargh, J.A., & Chartrand, T. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist. 54, 462-479.

Cohen, L. (2002). Playful parenting: An exciting new approach to raising children that will help you nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, and encourage confidence. New York: Ballantine Books.

House, R. (Ed.) (2011). Too much, too soon? Early learning and the erosion of childhood. Stroud, England: Hawthorn Press.

Leo, P. (2007). Connection parenting: Parenting through connection instead of coercion, 2nd ed.. Deadwood: OR: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.

Open EYE Campaign (2011). The Tickell Review of the Early Years Foundation Stage: An 'Open EYE' dialogue. In R. House (Ed.), Too much, too soon? Early learning and the erosion of childhood (pp. 83-97). Stroud, England: Hawthorn Press.

Schore, A.N. (2019). The development of the unconscious mind. New York: W.W. Norton.

Welch, M.G. (2016). Calming cycle theory: the role of visceral/autonomic learning in early mother and infant/child behaviour and development. Acta Pædiatrica, 105, 1266–1274.

Welch, M.G., & Ludwig, R.J. (2017). Calming Cycle Theory and the co-regulation of oxytocin. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 45(4), 519–541.

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