A Response to Spanking: A Psychological View

Mar 27, 2000


The debate over corporal punishment has been going on for many years and won't stop anytime soon. I, for one, don't believe in spanking your child. On the other hand, I won't vilify people who do believe that. Following is my psychological understanding that made me reach my conclusion.

Personal Background

I think it's important to start by giving you my personal background in relation to this subject. In my family, spankings were present, but rather infrequent. I have to say that I remember every time that I was spanked as a child. I had little relationship with my father, but starkly remember him spanking me. One reason I will never spank my child is that I don't want the child to remember me as the person who hurt him. Of course, most parents who spank their children have their child's best interest in mind, but a small kid isn't at a point where they can understand that. I would hate to think one of the most impressionable memories my child has is of me spanking them.

As I grew older, my mother took a different turn with my brother and started to believe that spanking was wrong. Today, she will not lay a hand on my brother. I can say that disciplining him has not gotten any easier or harder since she stopped using spanking as a threat. I am very much unpersuaded by those that say that sometimes spanking is the only thing a child understands.

Pavlovian Dogs and Spanking Children

Spanking children when they do bad things is one of the most basic relationships understood in Psychology. Most of us are familiar with Pavlov's dog. Pavlov would ring a bell and then give the dog food. Eventually, there came a time when Pavlov would ring the bell and the dog would automatically start salivating before the food was even there. This is the same idea behind spanking -- that eventually children will not do bad things because of the negative association with pain. Just like the dog, they will automatically associate bad behavior with the spanking.

Children are Not Dogs

What a profound statement, huh? My first point, however, is that although psychologists use animals to model after human behavior, humans are not dogs. Humans have a mental capacity above the dog. While we can train dogs with rewards and punishments, we can train children in other ways. Children have a capacity for reasoning and understanding. Of course, at a very young age, they don't have the same capacity as adults, but they learn incredibly quickly.

This is one reason that I won't spank my child -- because I don't have to. There are always other options which work just as effectively with children. Talking to them usually cures many ills if you have an open and trusting relationship with your child. Of course, children can be difficult, and talking may not always work depending on your child.

There are certainly other types of punishments and rewards that work just as well. These can be a backup when talking doesn't work. Putting your child in time out, taking away privileges, and giving rewards for good behavior are all alternatives. It's not a question to me of if spanking is morally right. I know that most parents have the best interest of their child at mind. The question to me is why would you spank if there are other options?


Many parents don't know the other options or think they will work simply from their own history. These are usually parents that were spanked as a child. It is natural that we learn parenting behaviors from our own parents, and if your parents never used time-outs or other such methods, you may not know how to use them effectively nor think they will work. Let me just say that they will work and there are tons of resources that you can use to find out how to use them and which ones work best. A simple search on the Internet, or a couple of issues of Parenting magazine is all you need.

Problem with Spanking from a Psychological Point of View

Many studies have been done on spanking, and the majority reach the conclusion that although spanking reduces bad behavior, it does so in a different way than talking to your child or other such methods. Instead of making your child realize that the behavior is bad, it teaches your child that getting caught is bad. In some homes, this is enough to stop the behavior, but once the child moves away or gets to college the parent has a huge problem.

Another problem is that punishment in general is not a good means to stop bad behavior consistently. Research has shown that using rewards for kids and/or making them understand what is good and bad will stay with them their whole life. Using punishment, however, will eventually wear off, and the kid will be back at square one.


There are certainly more in depth articles on the subject, but I think they alienate people by vilifying them and claiming that they are bad for spanking their children. I know that most parents want to raise their child the best that they can, and I hope that everyone that does spank might consider using other methods not because it is wrong per se to spank, but because there are other methods that work better and don't have you doing the very unpleasant deed of using pain to stop your child's bad behaviors. As the saying goes, it is harder on the parent than it is on the child, but it doesn't have to be that way.

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