Spanking Causes More Harm as Children Get Older

Parents who learn to spare the rod see fewer discipline problems in their teenagers.

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Spanking is a huge hot-button issue for parents. Many psychologists say that spanking or any other physical discipline harms children and their relationship with their parents. But quite a few parents disagree, and some experts do, too. Lawrence Diller, a behavioral pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif., and author of The Last Normal Child, even argues that more parents should consider spanking to speed behavior improvements in young children.

I'm in the no-spanking camp myself, figuring I can't teach children that hitting is bad if I'm doing it myself. But that doesn't mean I've never given a balky toddler a swat on the fanny. Now that my daughter is in first grade, I wouldn't dream of smacking her. My challenges come more in trying to figure out how to reward appropriate behavior.

So I was fascinated by new research in the journal Child Development that followed a total of about 750 children from ages 5 to 16 and looked at how parents' choices of discipline in childhood were tied to teenage behavior. Researchers found that the children whose parents put aside physical discipline over the years demonstrated much less antisocial behavior than those whose parents continued to use harsh or moderate physical discipline. The physically disciplined children also had much poorer relationships with their parents. Of course, there's no evidence that the lack of spanking caused the improved behavior. It could be, for instance, that problem kids are more likely to be spanked and also more likely to be problem teens. "More difficult children elicit more punitive behavior in their parents," says Jennifer Lansford, who led the study. Researchers tried to factor that out by adjusting the results if children were considered badly behaved as 5-year-olds, as well as the family's socioeconomic status. Inherited behavior traits could also be a factor, says Lansford, a developmental psychologist and associate research professor at Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy.

What's new and intriguing in this work is that the researchers found that most parents back off on physical discipline as children move into the later elementary school grades. In other words, most parents pick up on the fact that as their children become more sophisticated in their thinking and behavior, their own approach to discipline has to grow up, too. For whatever reason, the parents who can't or won't make that shift—and keep hitting—are the ones who are more likely to have problem teenagers.

The good news: There are time-tested methods that work to discipline children without smacking them. They've been tested on children of all personality types and even work for children with serious behavior problems. The big secrets? Praise works better than punishment in teaching children proper behavior. But not just any praise. It needs to be:

  • Superenthusiastic
  • Specific to the desired behavior
  • Reinforced with a smile or a touch
  • Frequent
  • And immediately following the desired behavior ("Wow, you did a great job clearing the table!")
  • If you're curious as to how this might work, this video from Yale's Child Study Center shows the basics:

    Have you given up smacking for praise? If so, how is it working for your family?