Over the last few months I’ve noticed an interesting trend among some of social media posts from people in my age group. There’s a longing for the “good ole days” and a fond sharing of how they were “spanked” and look how well they turned out. Inherent in their posts is the underlying belief that a lack of discipline and proper parenting is at the root of all the disrespect and rudeness they see in today’s social behavior. The expectation that a good smack with a belt will cure all that ails our culture is a major oversimplification. But we do need to ask ourselves does corporal punishment have a place in the parenting toolbox, especially with boys?
To answer that question fairly let’s first look at how parents use corporal punishment. Healthy discipline is about helping a child establish healthy boundaries. It is a requirement of parenting that we help children learn these boundaries. The smaller the child, the more boundaries need to be determined by the parents. Part of the maturation process is that kids internalize these boundaries so that they can draw on them when they’re not in the presence of their parents. The last step in the maturation process is that they understand and choose to implement the boundaries. As adults they will establish their own boundaries based on what they learned and their life experiences. Corporal punishment is one tool in a parent’s arsenal but should not necessarily be the primary tool in the arsenal.
Why relegate corporal punishment to a lesser role? Because as a tool corporal punishment has an expiration date after which it is no longer effective. When that expiration date is reached, and corporal punishment is the primary tool there will be a shift in the power relationship between parent and child that will never be reversed. Let’s look at this in more depth. As discussed in my book Richard and the Boyz: The Puberty Experience when boys enter puberty mood swings are a part of the transition. These mood swings will include increased irritation, anger and frustration. In addition, physical changes are occurring as the boys are developing increased muscle mass and strength. As these changes occur boys will become more willing to challenge and push back on authority. If the relationship is solid than these challenges will remain primarily verbal. Physically it will be demonstrated in the need to physically dominate the alpha parent either in what starts as playful wrestling, a sudden intensity in a one on one basketball game etc. In a home where corporal punishment is the primary tool and obedience is fear based, the challenge will take place more forcefully. The child will physically assert himself against the parent. This creates the shift in power I described earlier. For example, a son pulling away as his father get ready to hit him and states “you’re not going to hit me anymore!” They both realize at this point that the father can no longer dominate the son and he could successfully strike back. Once a child realizes that he can now physically dominate the alpha parent fear is no longer a restraining emotion. The young man feels that he is now the Alpha and in control. Moving forward in the relationship, compliance to the rules will be because he chooses, not because he feels he has to. An exception to this scenario is in a home where domestic violence is an issue and weapons have played a part. For example, if a parent has brandished a weapon at the other parent or at the child, their reaction will vary based on their flight or fight response.
So, when is corporal punishment a good option? When used sparingly, corporal punishment has the shock value of really getting a kids attention if it’s out of character for the parent. A parent should never strike in anger. That is not parenting that is assault … and before you start yelling that I’m exaggerating read the definition of assault. Assault is a physical attack. You are not trying to teach the child anything, you are lashing out based on emotion. If you want to test that, next time you want to strike your kid, tell them you’ll be back to punish them in a half hour. Wait and see if you do come back with the same level of intensity. This type of corporal punishment is the least useful in parenting. The child only learns fear rather than boundaries and later that fear gives way to anger. If you want to use corporal punishment, make sure that you have the physical capacity to make it sting otherwise it is a fruitless exercise that again undermines your goal. It will make you look ineffectual. A properly delivered spanking should sting some. The power in a good spanking is the embarrassment rather than the pain. It should be an experience the child does not want to repeat.
Earlier I used the term the “Alpha” parent. The reason I used that term is because despite what our older social media friends would like to see, our families are changing. The physically dominant parent is not always the father. In addition, while according to the Census Bureau over 65% of our children are growing up in two parent households, the percentage of kids living with a single mom has tripled to 35.2% or roughly 16.4 million kids and continues to climb. How does this affect the use of corporal punishment? Simple spanking etc., requires the ability to physically dominate to be useful. The expiration window on the use of corporal punishment, on average, is even shorter for women. Their sons will attain a strength advantage at an earlier age. One example that comes to mind, a 5 foot 2 mom went to smack her 5 foot 6 fourteen year old son for back talking and he simply put out his hand and held her head in place so that she couldn’t reach him. That day the power shifted in that relationship. He was no longer afraid of her and she was a little intimidated by him. Not the healthy parent child relationship we would strive to achieve. Is he mature enough to handle the power? No, the part of the brain required for good judgement is not yet fully formed.
So, back to the original question to spank or not to spank? The reality is when a child respects and has an appreciation for what their parent provides, then gender, size and strength are not the issue. If a child has love and respect for their parent and is fearful of losing privileges, access or support, until they can provide those things for themselves, they will, with occasional resistance respect their parent. When corporal punishment and fear is the primary motivator once the fear is overcome the power of the relationship will shift and unless the love and respect are present you may find yourself dominated by the very child you raised. A brief word about money. The occasional parent will see money as an excellent substitute for corporal punishment. Do not be fooled money comes with a similar expiration date. Once a child can achieve an alternate source of funding, the power in the relationship will shift. In conclusion my recommendation? Use the spank with caution. Give your kids a better reason to listen to you than “because I said so.” That option expires around puberty.
-Dr. Nadine Pierre-Louis, LMFT, MCAP