[Editor's Note: Amy Cavanaugh is a medical psychologist specializing in adolescent and family counseling.]
Spanking is one of those controversial parenting topics where everyone has an opinion. The Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association are both against spanking as corporal punishment has been linked to a variety of problems in children (aggression, anxiety), but a majority of U.S. children have been spanked at some time in their lives. Most parents who spank their children do not believe it is harmful, and spanking is based in their own childhood experience of discipline, i.e., “if kids today were spanked like we were back in the day, they wouldn’t have all these problems.” Most parents are well-meaning and want the best for their children, and I believe that many parents spank because they are at a loss for how to discipline their children in other ways, especially children who have a high activity level, such as children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Similarly, parents of toddlers and preschool children often see spanking as a way of “getting the child’s attention” and don’t know other ways to accomplish that.
Although I do not recommend spanking as a discipline technique, I accept that spanking is going to go on in some families. If a family is adamant about spanking, I advise that spanking be used as a punishment of last resort and that it not be used on children with anxiety or who already demonstrate aggressive behaviors. Think about it: it doesn’t make sense to teach your child not to hit by hitting them. Most important, spanking should not be done out of anger. The purpose of spanking is not to make the parent feel better by expelling his negative emotion in a whack; it’s supposed to be a consequence to a undesirable behavior. So if you’re going to spank, make sure to be calm when you do it so as not to scare and/or possibly harm a child. There’s a fine line between fear and respect.
Punishment, including spanking, is the least effective method of shaping behavior. Some children, especially more active, less anxious ones are especially motivated by reward and much less affected by punishment; punishment “doesn’t phase them.” Remember that discipline is about teaching, so that children develop a conscience and make good choices because they’ve internalized your values. Positive reinforcement, which is giving a reward for a desired behavior (especially one you’re working on like listening the first time, using your table manners) is the most effective way to increase the likelihood of good behavior occurring again. I’m often asked: “isn’t a reward like a bribe?” No; a bribe is given before a behavior is performed; a reward/positive reinforcer is given after the desired behavior is performed. Think of it this way: earning your paycheck at the end of your workweek is not a bribe; neither is a word of praise, choosing what’s for dinner, a hug, ten extra minutes of television, or a sticker on a chart that leads to a larger prize for a child’s good behavior.
Consequences, positive and negative, are important. We all have to learn the cause and effect of our actions, good and bad. I tell parents all the time: “don’t say it if you don’t mean it and you’re not going to follow through with it.” This is true whether you promised a child to go out for ice cream for good grades or you threatened to take away television for being sassy. Your word is your bond. Consequences can be natural (“you stayed up late and now you’re tired; you still have to get up for school”) or applied, like a parent taking away a privilege (no iPod, no playing outside, no going to that sleepover this weekend) or, for younger children, time-out. “But Dr. Amy, time-out doesn’t work.” If time-out doesn’t work, it probably means you’re not doing it right. Here are some time-out tips: