Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.

Stop The Cycle

Spanked! Rethinking Child Discipline

Where is the line between corporal punishment and child abuse?

Posted Jul 19, 2012

Astrid Lindgren, the author of Pippi Longstocking, once told a story of an old pastor’s wife she had met twenty years before.

Lindgren said that the wife didn’t believe in spanking children even though, in those days, “spanking kids with a [branch] pulled from a tree was standard punishment.”

One day, her son of four or five acted out in a way that made her finally believe that she needed to spank him. The mother told her son to go out and find a branch that she could use to hit him. “The boy was gone a long time, and when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, ‘Mama, I couldn't find a [branch], but here's a rock that you can throw at me.’”

The pastor’s wife suddenly understood the discipline through the eyes of her young son. The boy could not make the distinction that his mother had made between violence and discipline—he only understood that she was going to hurt him.

Disciplining children by physical punishment is more often harmful than helpful. Research has shown that using harsh physical force on children can be child abuse and increase the risk of mental disorders and repeat family violence later in life. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that adults who were physically punished as children are more likely to have schizotypal, antisocial, narcissistic, and borderline personality disorders.  The Aversive Childhood Experiences study by the Centers for Disease Control found that child maltreatment was associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, criminality, and violence in adulthood.  This is reason enough for us to rethink spanking as a form of child discipline.

Physical punishment can also send mixed messages. If a 3-year-old pushes his playmate, what do you think he will learn if you punish him with spanking? A child needs boundaries and discipline to grow up into a well-behaved adult, but you do not need to employ any physical force in order to be effective.

If discipline is too lax, too harsh, or inconsistent, the child will act out. Parents must unwaveringly stand their ground, but in a manner that is calm, steadfast, and loving.  The slippery slope of physical punishment is when it crosses the line and becomes child abuse.

Studies have proven that time out, explanations, and positive reinforcement is the most effective way to teach children what is right or wrong. When you feel that punishment is necessary, however, there are ways to do it that are not physical and that will have a healthier, more positive impact.

Time outs are key because they offer consistency and allow for self-reflection. A standard rule of thumb is to issue a time out at a length of one minute for each year of the child’s age (for example, a nine-year-old will have a nine-minute time out).

Do not forget to discuss afterwards what you want your child to do instead of solely focusing on what your child did wrong. The whole point of discipline is to modify the child’s behavior so they act differently next time; you cannot teach the lesson if you don’t help them logically reason through the mistake or misconduct.

Astrid Lindgren finished her story recounting how the pastor’s wife reacted when her boy returned with the rock meant to be thrown at him. “All of a sudden the mother understood how the situation felt from the child's point of view: That if my mother wants to hurt me, then it makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with a stone,” she remembers.

“The mother took the boy onto her lap and they both cried. Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself forever: Never use violence. And that is something I think everyone should keep in mind. Because when violence begins in the nursery-one can raise children into violence."

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

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