Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Parents Still Spank Even Though They Know They Shouldn’t

Here are 3 suggestions for what to try instead.

shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
Source: shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

by Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H.

A friend asked me recently: “Why do parents still spank their children even though they know they shouldn’t?” This raises two wonderful, specific questions: Do parents still spank their children? And do they know they shouldn’t?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. (Oh, and by the way, let’s remember that spanking is simply a euphemism for hitting.)

Do Parents Still Spank Their Children?

In the U.S., surveys consistently show that the rate of approval of physical punishment has decreased slowly but steadily over the past several decades. However, over 65% of adults surveyed still approved of spanking, men more than women (Child Trends Data Bank, November, 2015). Most such studies are self-reports. But in one fascinating piece of research, investigators asked mothers to wear recorders for several hours every day. The mothers then self-reported the number of times they hit their children. The recorders showed that the mothers hit their children approximately twice as much as they reported.

Internationally, over 50 countries have banned physical punishment in all settings, including the home, and over 100 countries prohibit physical punishment in schools. Violation of these laws tends to result in educative more than punitive consequences. Thus far, the outcome of these policies seems positive, e.g. Karen Osterman and her colleagues showed a decrease in child homicide subsequent to the ban (2014).

However, the U.S. has no federal or state laws banning physical punishment in all settings, and, remarkably, 19 states still permit physical punishment in the schools.

Do Parents Know They Shouldn’t Spank Their Children?

How about the second question: Do parents know they shouldn’t spank, i.e. that spanking seems more associated with damage than benefit?

The data show that damage wins out, but the message does not seem to be getting through. In 2014, Murray Straus and his colleagues summarized hundreds of studies, finding 15 major trends associated with physical punishment, including poorer parent-child relationships; more domestic violence; more crime perpetrated as child and adult; more drug abuse; higher probability of depression; more physically-forced sex; and physical abuse of one’s own children. These data strongly suggest that a variety of poor outcomes are associated with physical punishment.

There is much media publicity about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, and violence. Why is there not more publicity and awareness that many of these problems are associated with physical punishment? Maybe it takes time…after all, it took centuries for a germ theory of disease to take hold, long after van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria. And it took decades for the clear health dangers of smoking to change smoking behaviors. Perhaps psychoanalysis can help us address this conundrum.

Why Do Some People Hit Their Children?

The motives for physical punishment, conscious and unconscious, are many—control of behavior and thoughts; to socialize and discipline children; helplessness, fatigue, stress, rage, to do what was done to oneself, and lack of alternatives. Distress, if excessive, leads to anger. Other negative emotions such as fear and shame can lead to distress and then anger. Mix in action and impulsivity and it’s easy to see why some parents end up hitting their children. Bottom line, impulsiveness, action, and violence are not the messages one wants to send to one’s children…especially not as a way to solve problems.

We love our children but, at times, we also hate them. In his paper "Hate in the Counter-Transference," D. W. Winnicott, the famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst, noted 18 reasons a mother might hate her child. Some of these include: the baby is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth, the baby is an interference with her private life, and the baby is disappointed in the mother which makes mom feel bad about herself and then angry at the baby.

What are some better alternatives?

1. Words instead of actions. Use words to label your child’s feelings and words to explain your own feelings. Increasing the child’s capacity to put words to feelings will result in increased tension-regulation, self-awareness, and thoughtful decision-making.

2. Set a good example. Act and talk as you would want your child to act and talk… your child strives to be like you. As psychoanalyst John Gedo noted in 2005, these identification and internalizing processes are among the most important factors in the formation of character structure and psychological health.

3. Use positive reinforcements. Rewards and praise will enhance the child’s self-esteem when appropriate standards are met. And if one is disposed to set time-outs, try a parent time-out instead of putting a child in time-out, and put your feelings into words.

In conclusion, physical punishment does not work and only makes things worse. It leads to more violence, bullying, and domestic abuse. Like many things, violence often starts early, and it often starts at home. There are better alternatives. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, If hitting a child is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH, is Faculty and former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Training and Supervising Analyst and Child and Adolescent Supervising Analyst. He is Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, and has authored numerous articles and books in psychiatric epidemiology, psychoanalysis, and infant and child development.