What to do as a parent if spanking doesn’t work?

By Benjamin Schoendorff

The subject of spanking regularly comes back into popular consciousness seems that as soon as there is a discussion about the problem behaviours of kids and teens, folks start bemoaning laws against corporal punishment for children. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, over 80% of parents use spanking as a means of disciplining their kids worldwide. In case you have any doubt of how popular the desire to spank still is, just read the comments generated by any online discussion about the problem behaviour of kids. You will probably find comments reflecting fears like “If spanking becomes illegal, how will parents ever be able to discipline their unruly kids?”

In a landmark study published in August 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers analyzed 75 studies spanning more than 50 years and looking at 150,000 children. The results were unambiguous and found that spanking does not work to discipline children. The study also revealed that while spanking can put an immediate stop to a problematic behaviour, over time defiance increases, along with antisocial behaviours, aggression, and a host of mental and cognitive difficulties. “We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviours,” says study author Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

So what is a parent to do if we can’t use spanking to discipline our kids? Decades of behavioural researches demonstrate that producing positive consequences of desired behaviours are vastly more effective to modify behaviour than negative consequences for problematic behaviours. Research has also identified three main parenting styles that parents adopt with their children: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative/democratic.

  1. Authoritarian parents impose rules with no exceptions. They have rigid expectations and use negative consequences. They can use spanking. They don’t encourage autonomy and problem-solving in their kids.
  1. Permissive parents have trouble setting limits and express minimal expectations for their children’s behaviour. They are reluctant to use consequences of any kind. They often seek to befriend their children and may tend to avoid confrontation at all costs. Their kids are often left to solve problems on their own, with little parental guidance.
  1. Authoritative or democratic parents set down flexible limits and expectations. They explain why they set limits and what’s behind their expectations. They are open to their kids’ opinions, without letting the roles blur. They use mainly positive consequences and eschew violence. They encourage autonomy while offering support and guidance as needed.

In practice, these styles are not always so clearly delineated. Many parents go from one style to the other. A common and unhelpful cycle is from authoritarian to permissive and back again. This happens when parents try to impose rigid rules before caving in or disengaging when their kids rebel.

The parental style most associated with optimal emotional, cognitive and social development and for the strongest and most satisfying parent-child relationship is the third style: authoritative/democratic. In a future blog, I’ll present some parenting principles that make it easier to become an authoritative/democratic parent that never needs to spank their kids. Psychological flexibility can greatly help in becoming and remaining an authoritative/democratic parent. One more thing, which is good news, you don’t have to do it perfectly every time for it to be effective!