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Discipline debate: Spanking gets a timeout

A proposed California law that would outlaw spanking has reignited the debate on the best way to discipline unruly tots.
Kim Carney /
/ Source: contributor

Of all the controversial issues in parenting perhaps none is more heated than spanking. Most of us probably can recount seeing an out-of-control parent in a parking lot or supermarket (if not in a home) smack a child. And if you’ve seen it once, it likely left an indelible impression.

In California, one lawmaker says she's had enough. Democratic assemblywoman Sally Lieber has introduced a bill that would outlaw this behavior with children under age 4. If the bill becomes law, that parent in the parking lot could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail or a fine of up to $1,000, making California the first state with such a law. The use of physical punishment to discipline children is already illegal in Austria, Finland, Germany and Sweden.

But should spanking be banned? Is it wrong or even effective? What's really the best way to discipline unruly tots?

“Education, not legislation, is the method of choice to improve parenting practices, with the exception of clearly abusive practices,” says Diana Baumrind, a research psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Baumrind is one of the few experts who has been dubbed “pro-spanking” in the media. “In my view, spanking…is no more or less harmful than a mild scolding, timeout or other developmentally appropriate level and kind of punishment.”

However, Baumrind also says that any form of punishment by definition is aversive, and so, whether physical or non-physical, punishment should be reserved for times when milder methods such as persuasion or distraction have failed.

The majority of psychologists, however, come down decidedly on the anti-spanking side. And the American Academy of Pediatrics is firmly against spanking and hitting, saying in a policy statement that “corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.”

Researcher Paul Frick of the University of New Orleans in Louisiana warns spanking and hitting can lead to later emotional and behavioral problems. Even children who are only smacked occasionally are more likely to show signs of depression or lower self-esteem, he says.

Frick and his team, who studied the impact of corporal punishment on 98 children and published their results last month in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, said they couldn't find any positive effects for spanking. Children on the receiving end of a slap can learn that when they are upset and angry they hit, he says, rather than understanding their behavior was wrong and that they need to do better.

“This is a small but significant sample,” says Frick. “We don’t want to overstate the implications, though. The vast majority of kids who are subject to mild corporal punishment will not suffer severe negative effects. Our point, though, is that spanking and hitting are not effective and may be dangerous.”

Parents at the end of their ropes
Jane Tucker, a parenting coach and mother of a 4-year-old son in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees. “I think parents only use it because they get to the end of their ropes," she says. "Usually, the problem is that they haven’t set up boundaries and clear limits. If there aren’t limits, kids will just push and push parents as far as they can.”

For example, kids often have meltdowns in the grocery store. Tucker says she conditioned her son early on to know that when they go to the market he gets to select one of several items she allows. “I look for ways to make win-win situations so we’re both happy and there’s little need for discipline — physical or otherwise.”

Even when discipline can’t be avoided, most parents have found ways to circumvent the need to make it physical.

“We’ve started using timeouts on our 3-year-old son," says Robin Cook, a marketing director and mother of 4-month-old and 3-year-old sons in Fayetteville, Ark. "First we give him a warning and a choice, though. So we say, ‘Either you can listen to what mommy or daddy say or you can have a timeout. What would you like to do?’ He had a few timeouts in the beginning but after that it’s really worked well. He now usually makes the right choice.”

Taking a cue from Super Nanny, Kimberly Powell, a stay-at-home mom in Dallas, uses the “stop chair” (a.k.a. The Naughty Chair) for her 3-year-old daughter. “I started using it since when my oldest daughter was 2 years old and it has worked well,” she says.

Jodi Torres, a sales representative and mom of a 2-year-old son and newborn daughter in Irvine, Calif., says prevention is the best discipline. “We’ve found that if we remove our son from the situation/room where he is misbehaving, calm him down and sit down at his level and discuss the situation, he gets it and things get better. Most importantly, though, I feel getting enough sleep and food keeps little ones from acting up too much. We try not to skip naps if we can help it.”

Still, some parents do spank. Julie Lawrence-Edsell, an actress and mother of 17-month-old and 5-year-old boys in Montclair, N.J., has mixed feelings about the practice. “I was spanked when I was young and it certainly made an impression,” she says. "I don’t know if it should be outlawed but I do know we prefer to talk instead of resorting to physical punishment with our kids.”

Lawrence-Edsell admits her older son has been spanked “maybe once” but she and her husband tend to take privileges away instead to discipline. “When he was younger we would take away his favorite stuffed animal if he wasn’t listening. Nowadays we take away treats, desserts or play dates. It seems to work pretty well,” she says.

10 push-ups for smart-mouthing
So is all physical punishment necessarily wrong? Some parents have developed other inventive ways to make discipline a physical experience as their children got older.

“I tried timeouts, taking away privileges, groundings from TV, computer, games, etc...nothing seemed to bother my sons too terribly much,” says Jackie Joens, a family therapist and mother of two grown boys in Des Moines, Iowa. Joens says she finally discovered a punishment her kids wanted to avoid at all costs: cleaning.

Joens made up a "discipline cleaning list." On the list were jobs that no one ever had enough time to get to: washing the garden furniture; cleaning out drawers, closets and cupboards; polishing silver and scrubbing the deck. “As the boys grew older, the discipline chores advanced with age appropriateness. It worked wonders.”

Deborah and Terry Pope of Richardson, Texas, picked up tricks from their 7-year-old daughter’s martial arts class. “We're always looking for new ways to discipline our daughter, as not much seems to have an effect,” says Deborah. “Lately, we're taking the military route! Since she's enrolled in a martial arts class, we're linking class to home and giving her push-ups — 10 for smart-mouthing or 20 for lying.”

Frick says that whatever you do, consistency is more the point with discipline. But he doesn’t mean that if you hit your kids once you should always hit.

“Usually hitting is done when parents...have lost it and often the punishment doesn’t even fit the final crime,” says Frick. He notes that there are many other discipline options — from timeouts to taking away privileges or any of the ideas above — that can be done calmly and consistently.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.