Spare the Rod, Spare the Child

Alternatives to spanking really do work

Most of you reading this agree that there is no excuse for hitting children--no biblical teaching, no frustrating circumstance, no misbehavior or disrespect can excuse hitting. Most attachment parents consider spanking to be a form of hitting. But what, we get asked, do you do for discipline if you don't spank? There are many, many options. Before discussing some alternative routes to a disciplined home, it's important to think about why people might choose spanking.

What's really going on when a child is spanked

To me, the only reason for hitting a child is the same reason for hitting an adult: One has lost control of one's own behavior. A crucial difference, however, is that if you strike an adult in your family, even as light as a spanking, you are considered an abusive spouse or sibling and may be subject to punishment under the law. No one calls the police if you spank your child.

As far as I can tell, no matter why parents hit, the true reason for hitting resides in the adult doing the hitting. They have either lost their temper, which is an understandable, although unattractive, reason, or they enjoy exercising their greater might on a being smaller than they are, or they have been convinced by some logic that spanking is right.

You don't have to choose spanking

Much of what you see and hear is geared to make the hitting called spanking seem normal and necessary. Many times, children are made to bear the responsibility. I have heard parents say that if their child "sassed" them, that they would then have no choice but to hit. I have heard some say to their child "Are you asking for a spanking?" If a child is misbehaving, according to the parent's notion of behavior, the child may in fact be communicating any of a number of things. It is a pretty safe bet, however, that none of these things amounts to "Please hit me."

"Uh huh, sure," I can just hear the Average Spanking Parent thinking. "Your child is [pick the applicable phrase] under five, over two, a girl, not a tough one," or whatever their child is which makes the hitting seem so necessary. Well, yes, my oldest child is over two, a girl, under five, and only sporadically boisterous. But like every parent, I experience anger toward her, irritation in reaction to her behavior, and feelings of frustration. The reason that I do not use spanking as a discipline method is not because of something my child is or does. It is a choice that I made as a parent. No circumstance exists under which I would hit her.

Some Things to Do Instead of Spanking

Calm down - breathe or leave.
Think: How would I like to be treated if I were my child?
Look for the humor in the situation. Might you laugh about this in time?
Use kind but firm hands-on teaching, at their eye level, with your hand
on an arm.
Give your child choices.
Hug your child. Sometimes acting out is a way of asking for attention.
Write down what kind of parent you want to be. Post the description
where you can see it.
Think prevention.
Make sure your children have ample opportunities to release energy.
Provide opportunities for your child to make restitution for wrongs.

The root of the word discipline has been described to me as discipling, teaching, leading. Any number of good synonyms could probably be found. We want our children to assume the burden of self discipline as they grow older. When looked at in that way, it's easier to make some choices about how we help that process along.

And, hate to admit it, it's much slower to help a child assume responsibilities than it is to assume them oneself by punishing lapses. Years slower, in fact. The ultimate goal of all the talking, showing, allowing natural consequences, is a child who can control their own behavior. It helps to remember that when it seems as though I'm saying for the hundredth time, "Please do not shout at me for no reason."

"Wait, wait!" You may think, "What about when my child does something life-threatening, to themselves or someone else. How else do I stop it?" The classic example seems often to be the toddler who dashes out into a parking lot filled with dangerous cars. Why not a quick swat on a (heavily diaper-padded) bottom? Don't we have to get this message across?

Well, yes, toddlers cannot be allowed to run in front of cars. Prevention, not punishment, seems to be the key for very young children. Toddlers don't dart into streets out of a desire to be hit by cars, they just want to run and explore, and maybe escape the big people. If they can be restrained until they are old enough to understand danger to themselves, they won't dart quite as quickly. Much of what exasperates parents evaporates, given greater time and maturity.

Think prevention, not punishment

Spanking is faster and probably easier than more time-consuming methods of discipline. But prevention can make spanking in this kind of situation obsolete. Applying creative thinking opens up a whole world of possibilities. Place a toddler from their carseat into a shopping cart. Hold on tight to their hand. Hold them between your legs (my daughter was a sprinter for a time) while any bags are stowed. Put them in a backpack.

Then there is "We (whap) don't (smack) hit (spank) other people!" This gem pops up on playgrounds. The rationale seems to be that hitting other people is such a bad thing that it automatically justifies spanking the hitter. The logical contradictions inherent in this position are obvious and many.

My daughter went through a hitting period at home. We are blessed with a patient dog, but even the most tolerant dog shouldn't have to endure being hit with a flyswatter, broom, stick or whatever else is handy. Instead of hitting my daughter to show her what it felt like, I tried firmly stating, "We don't hit." Then I took the object from her hand and removed her from the situation, bodily if necessary, by talking if possible. This is, admittedly, slower than swatting.

If you choose to spank

No matter what I do with my family, those who choose spanking should be aware of research that suggests they may be storing up trouble for themselves down the line. Children don't stop misbehaving, since parents must keep on spanking, often for the same behaviors. In addition, according to a recent study by Murray Strauss and others in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, children who are spanked exhibit more anti-social behavior years later than children who aren't spanked.

Spanking doesn't seem to be teaching what parents say they want their children to learn: the proper behavior. What spanking does say, loud and clear, is: "I am larger than you. If you do what I do not wish, I can hit you. You cannot hit me [until you're bigger than I am], or I will hit you again. You should be very, very careful that I don't catch you doing something wrong."

Ill-behaved children aren't much fun for anyone to have around. If spanking actually worked, I might have to concede that its harmful effects were outweighed by the benefit. But that isn't the case. Children learn a lot by imitation. I want my children to learn non-violent ways of dealing with people. After all, I hope to be alive when my children are adults. I may need care from them someday. I don't want to be hit because I'm querulous or angry then. I won't hit mine now. The golden rule is a fine starting point for parenting.

Contributing Editor Stefani Leto writes and parents in the Bay Area. Mother of an almost-five year old and an infant, she says nothing challenges her mind like parenting. Her work also appears at and