Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Spanking Part I: The Truth about Why We Don’t Spank

The first day you cradled your child in your arms, your heart was filled with love and gentleness. You probably looked down at that sweet face and thought,

“I will do anything I can to protect you; I will never hurt you.”

And then your kid turns three and you think:

“I swear I want to kill you sometimes!”

If you have kids, you know what I mean. And because we know this feeling well, we have a rule in our house. We will never strike our children. Ever.

We have the rule because invariably it would happen in anger if we didn’t swear it off completely. Just the other day Mickey (my husband) thought Kharis purposefully got soap in Kai’s eyes and I heard him from the other side of the house,

“Kharis, if you hurt your brother I’m going to smack you.”

Kai had put the soap in his own eyes (he’s a smart kid…really…) and Mickey was left to explain to Kharis that he will never actually smack her.

I grew up with the threat of a freshly trimmed switch and to this day the tinkling of a belt buckle coming undone rings like alarm bells in my head. I was not abused by my parents. Not even close, but corporal punishment was standard in our family.

Once, on a road trip, my arm got rolled up in the automatic window. I was screaming hysterically, not realizing that I was the one pushing the button (like mother, like son apparently). My father assumed it was my brother who had done it and he was livid. He threatened to pull over and get a switch. Thankfully, we realized I was an idiot before my brother was beaten for something he didn’t do.

Were you ever spanked for something you didn’t do?

Injustice stings worse than spanking. It is the hard pit we swallow and can still feel if we take a moment to remember it’s there. Everyone’s innermost being resists injustice. And when you’re a child, at your parent’s mercy, sometimes there is no justice. 

I remember the burn of bitter tears and angry hot cheeks and a fiery lick in my gut so much more than the sting of the beltI remember wanting to not be so miserably helpless and dependent. I remember wondering how the people I trusted could hurt me and say,

“This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Those words never rang true to me as the person on the receiving end.

But, of course, everything gets better. We get old enough to lose privileges and spankings stop and we make happy memories and grow friendships with our parents. We come to understand that parenting is hard and that they did the best they could.

And then we become parents and we say,

“I was spanked and I turned out alright.” 

Which, of course, is mostly true, I suppose. I think I turned out alright, but spanking is something I had to forgive my parents for. I was a little person completely at my parents’ mercy and they hit me. It doesn’t matter if you can logically defend it from every angle as an adult.  I remember how it felt as a child.

Societal norms around spanking are changing. In the 60’s, 95% of Americans approved of spanking – that number has fallen to 65% – and only 38% of parents with college degrees approve of spanking now¹. Several research studies involving corporal punishment have pointed to long-term detrimental effects on learning, behavior and mood². And the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages it³. (Links included in superscripts)

Conservative Christians stand out as one of the demographics that continues to defend spanking. The Bible certainly advises to discipline our children. Proverbs 23:13-14 says,

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” (KJV)

*Yikes.*

Maybe Solomon was talking about eternal death, because there have been a number of kids who have died due to corporal punishment at the hands of their parents. Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, Hana Williams, ages 4, 7, and 13 (just to name a few).

Almost all of the kids I see in the ED with child abuse injuries were being disciplined in some way. Broken ribs for crying too much.  Broken vertebrae for not sitting still. Skin dripping off from scalding hot water for having an accident while potty training.

We all know that child abuse is wrong. That is not up for debate. Few people view spanking as abuse, but physical punishment exists on a spectrum and where corporal discipline tips over into abuse is a matter of perspective.

Most of us agree that Adrian Peterson took it too far.  But use of a switch is pretty commonplace. There’s a parable that goes like this:

A child did something at age 5 to merit his first spanking. His mother asked him to go out in the yard and find his own switch. He came back a while later tearful and apologetic. He said he couldn’t find a switch, but held out a rock and said, “Here, you can use this.”

Does the object used matter if the act and effect is the same? 

Striking to produce pain is what spanking is. The far end anti-spankers argue that hitting is hitting and violence is violence, but I do believe there is a gray area for spanking. I have just seen how quickly that can tip over into something more serious.

On a slow Sunday night in the ED, I once took care of a kid who probably would have chosen a spanking if he could have gone back in time.

His whole grim-faced family was dressed in their Sunday best. The patient had done something naughty just before they were ready to leave for church (their 2nd service of the day). When threatened with a spanking, he ran and scurried up onto his top bunk bed and wedged his leg between his bed and the wall trying to keep from being pulled down.

His father got him down and broke his femur in the process. His femur. That kid was just trying to avoid a spanking and ended up with general anesthesia instead.

Discipline is hard for ALL parents, whether you spank or not. Most grown-ups aren’t very good at self-discipline let alone the disciplined discipline of another human being. But, however uncomfortable and imperfect, it is necessary.

We use time outs and loss of privileges. Kharis has, at times, helped me figure out “fair” punishments. The consequences she comes up with are usually more harsh than I would have doled out, but her perception of fairness is the key. My children require tons of correction and it is exhausting. But they know we will never hit them.

As parents, we already have total control over our children (they can’t drive, get a job, or even turn on the TV for themselves at this point). It would seem a mighty abuse of our power (and trust) to resort to physical pain to correct their behavior when there are other options available. The bottom line from my perspective is:

Discipline is necessary, spanking is not.

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This is part of a two-part series on spanking representing opposing viewpoints. Part II is written by my talented sister-in-law, Jesse Prentiss. You can read her perspective here.

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What are YOUR thoughts on spanking? Why did you decide to spank (or not spank) your kids?
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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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2 Comments

  1. Fred B.

    I have mixed feelings on this, and to me it comes down to love, respect, and responsibility. Over the years, and yes, some of those years also spent working hospital emergency rooms, I saw children treated in a number of different ways by their parents, and so often it seemed that love and/or respect for them was missing. I filed this away for future use.

    When my wife and I married, she very badly wanted a child – OK, and we accomplished that mission. But I had a condition, and that condition was that we would always treat this child with love and respect from day one, and that included, whether it truly mattered or not, always telling this child, even as a newborn, what we were doing (I am going to turn you over now, rather than a quick 180-degree flip to clean her bottom). And we continued to address her with respect as she grew up – and she grew up knowing that she has value.

    Does that mean that she grew up perfectly? Absolutely not – but this did affect how we handled discipline. Discipline cannot be solely punitive – there must be a goal, and usually that goal is to modify behavior, and so should not be done without thought. Creative discipline is definitely more work than a quick swat, but worked fairly well for us. And I have to say, we were very blessed – we did not have a problem with ;public displays or tantrums, other than possibly once, and seldom at home. Why ? – because they were unacceptable, and would mean leaving the store or restaurant right then and there. In a restaurant – no pancakes, we’re going home. In a store – we are out of there. We knew that we were not going to subject other diners, or shoppers, to our daughter’s misbehavior (and can’t understand why other parents don’t understand this) – so it was really a non-issue. Abby was a fast learner, and learned that this behavior was not the way to achieve her goals. LOL.

    We tried to fit punishment to the crime – often with time-outs, sometimes loss of privileges, but always tempered to the severity of the crime and the age of our daughter (at 2 years old, a time-out of much more than a minute looses its effectiveness) – but she always received an explanation that this was a punishment and why, and as she got older, needed to acknowledge why she was being punished, and how she should modify her behavior in the future.

    But there is responsibility – and we are responsible for how our children behave, and how they grow up. We love them, and want the best for them. And with that in mind, and giving all due thought to what punishment was necessary, there was ONE instance that Abby was spanked – and all it was was one open-handed swat on the bottom, but in light of the total absence of physical punishment, that swat, which most people probably wouldn’t even notice, shocked the heck out of her, and at 32 years of age, she still remembers it and remembers why she got it – and says that she deserved it. But she also remembers that it was the only one, and that she never, even at that moment, ever doubted that her patents loved and respected her.

    It was very interesting reading both articles on this subject – and it is evident that both administer punishment with love, respect, and thoughtfulness. And those are the important parts – discipline with goals, which leaves out the options for the horrible things seen in ERs. Discipline with thought and love, not out of anger. If anger enters into the equation it is a time for a time-out not only for the child, but also for the parent.

  2. Kassi

    Spanking, slapping, hitting a child is wrong for so many reasons, but the most practical one for parents who need some convincing : To parents–what is the purpose? To punish or to teach? Because spanking and physical pain become the memory, not the ‘teachable moment’. Whatever a child does to cause a parent to feel the need for any kind of corporal punishment, know this. The child has already forgotten what it is they did wrong. No lessons learned. Except adults are powerful, unjust and worthy of fear. Children do not learn lessons about life out of fear.
    Nicely written, K.

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