“If spanking is so bad, what the heck am I supposed to do when my kid is being a terror?”


Spanking is a controversial subject. Some parents justify it as a form of effective discipline, and some parents insist that it disrespects the child and teaches the child that it is okay to disrespect others.

And here we go with my opinion:  Oh, wait.  It’s not an opinion.  It’s truth based on research.  Spanking is bad.

 (Or more-specifically, the short-term effectiveness of spanking comes at the cost of long-term unintended consequences.  Basically, getting a kid to listen in that moment by using corporal punishment ends up risking the child’s sense of self-respect and respect for others, damaging the child’s trust, heightening anxiety levels, teaching the child that it is okay to hit when angry, etc.)

…Not to say I haven’t done it.  I remember one time spanking my chubby, smiling little toddler (my first kid) when he wouldn’t stop climbing on the stairs.  Of course, he just stared at me with a giggle, having no idea that his mom’s weird  and random smashing her hand on his diaper-padded butt was supposed to be a deterrent– actually he found it pretty funny– .  So I decided that the whole spanking ordeal  was ridiculous, pretty much a way of managing my own unchecked anger and frustration with a little  human not letting me ever sit down for more than ten seconds at a time… 

So I read article after article about this, and inevitably in the comments, someone says something like:

“If spanking is so bad, what the heck are we supposed to do when our kids act like terrors?”

Good question.  Here are seven alternatives to spanking that teach the child the lesson they need to learn, but don’t include the unintended consequences that accompany spanking…But beware:  A couple of these may slap you in the face with the reality that spanking is more about managing your own anger than teaching the child, the same way that I was slapped in the face with that reality when I really thought about it…:

1. Natural consequences.

If Tommy keeps running away at the supermarket, secretly watch him from a hidden place until he panics that he is lost. If Tommy picked the flowers from the neighbor’s new garden, have him knock on the neighbor’s door and offer to do work to make up for the damages. If Tommy keeps throwing his truck, it is time to simply take the truck away. If Tommy is resisting his bedtime, tell him he can choose his bedtime, but tired or not, he has to get up at 7am with the rest of the family. If Tommy made a huge mess, make it his responsibility to clean it up.

2. Model and teach understanding and respect.

If the problem is disrespect or talking back, etc., then something is going on that spanking will make worse. If Tommy talks back, that’s the opportunity to sternly tell him that is not okay, quickly model what he should have said instead, and then drop the subject. Later, when he is calm, open a dialogue about what Tommy is really angry about, and teach and explain how he might express himself more respectfully.

If Tommy is acting out or having a meltdown, becoming angry will make it worse. Simply give him space and time to calm down without giving in to his demands. When he is calm, explain to him that it is not okay to act that way, but you are perfectly willing to listen to him express himself calmly. This method doesn’t escalate the child’s disrespect and doesn’t reinforce such behavior by providing positive or negative attention. Instead, it models understanding and respectful ways of communication.

3. Calmly change the environment.

If Tommy keeps trying to jump down the stairs, put a gate on the stairs. If Tommy keeps sneaking cookies, put them in a place where he can’t access them. If Tommy keeps sneaking out of bed, consider a lock on the outside of the bedroom door.

4. Manage your own frustration or anger.

Most of the time when parents spank it is in order to expel their own anger and manage their own powerlessness, not to teach the kids anything. I think all parents have fallen into this trap of punishing a child for their own benefit as opposed to the benefit of the child. In these circumstances, it is good to practice delaying the consequence by walking away from the situation, and telling the child that you need a moment to think of a proper consequence.

5. Meet them where they’re at.

Sometimes, due to developmental factors, well-meaning kids continue to make mistakes. In these situations, it is best to surrender to the fact that the child is not developmentally able to “behave” at this point before providing opportunities to practice underdeveloped skills. Toddlers have limited language abilities, limited impulse control, limited abilities to reason, and limited abilities to control emotional responses. It is developmentally normal for older kids to assert themselves against the rules, to lie, and to have difficulty with frontal-lobe tasks such as planning, judgment, insight, and delaying gratification. Certain kids are more developmentally prone to seeking sensation, taking risks, hyperactivity, unintentional selective listening, difficulty with organization, or behavioral issues.

Sometimes a kid who keeps tackling other kids is just sensation-seeking; a kid who looks like they are never listening may be legitimately unable to focus; a kid who is irritable and testy may simply be tired or hungry; a kid who is acting out or tuning out may be overstimulated and unable to cope with the noise or visuals around them. In these situations, it makes sense to acknowledge the reality of the child’s capabilities before holding them accountable for making gradual, realistic improvements.

6. Take away something good or add something bad.

If it is impossible to create a “natural consequence” (i.e., Tommy keeps running into the street, and you can’t exactly let him get hit by a car), then adding an arbitrary consequence is sometimes called for. My favorite examples of this type of consequence are removing a toy, removing a privilege, or giving a child chores.

7. Consult with the child.

Remember, the point of parenting is not to just get the child to listen to authority, but is to teach the child to be able to make good choices on his or her own so that (s)he will be happy and successful. If a child engages in a certain behavior that is dangerous or inappropriate, ask him/her why (s)he suppose that would or wouldn’t be a good idea. Ask the child for suggestions for alternative behaviors that he/she could do instead in the future. Encourage the child to begin to think for him/herself, but if the child is very young or just has a hard time providing ideas, offer up simple answers. This consultation process can happen whether or not there will be additional consequences or natural consequences to follow.

Just Something to Think About!

Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

Find other parenting, relationships, and psychology stuff on my Facebook Page!


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