Spanking, rewards, consequences, limit setting – what to choose?


A few weeks ago, major media outlets announced that spanking is harmful to child development. The TV news segment included a brief statement about using positive rewards and limit-setting as an alternative.  However, dangling rewards and imposing limits to improve behavior is not easy and often is unsuccessful.  If it worked reliably, many parents would not resort to spanking.

Corporal punishment has established deep roots in our society and has yet to let go of its grip. Most recently a charter school in the south brought paddling back as a form of discipline. Some of the folks who grew up being spanked have a common response, “I was spanked and I turned out okay.” Many of us casually laugh at jokes like this one, by Robert Orben, “Never raise your hand to your children – it leaves your midsection unprotected.”

Corporal punishment is a loaded subject and can bring up all kinds of feelings.  Many parents who spank don’t relish imposing this form of discipline; they believe it to be an unpleasant but important part of being a good parent. My goal here is not to examine whether spanking is good or bad – I will let the evidence speak for itself on this point.  I’m more interested in exploring a different way of approaching child discipline. On the one hand, children need structure and expectations and on the other they need warmth and support.  Too much of one is not good. For the parents who are fed up to the eyebrow with their offspring’s misbehavior, an urge to spank may feel like the only option left.  After all, it seems like rewards, consequences, time-outs, pleadings, and warnings didn’t do the trick. So, if the parents should not spank, what are they to do instead? Here are a few ideas.

What are your hot buttons? Do the same situations make you think of spanking? Does it happen in the heat of the moment, when everybody is about to go ballistic? I often ask parents, “Are there specific misbehaviors that especially infuriate you, be it hitting a sibling, throwing a tantrum, being mean to a pet, lying, being disrespectful (swearing, talking back, sassing, laughing in your face), wasting your time, or not following your reasonable request the first time?”

According to Dr. Ross Greene, the author of the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model, behind every challenging behavior is a lagging skill. If your child is misbehaving, they communicate that they have difficulties by not doing something you’re expecting them to do.  Some may say, “Oh, no. My child is perfectly capable of doing that!  They are just being a brat, disrespectful, manipulative, etc.” I would suggest reframing your thinking from, “Why is my child giving me a hard time?” to, “Why is my child having a hard time?”

Recently I’ve seen a post on Facebook reading, “Thinking of your child behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.” When emotions run high you may not be thinking that your child is in distress and lagging certain skills but perhaps this reframe can help to start seeing your child’s problem behaviors in a new light.

Ironically, just because a child performed a task once or twice or even several times, does not mean the child has mastered it. This is a common trap in thinking among parents and teachers.   Ask yourself, “What is different this time?  What is going on in my child’s environment? Anything happened at school or sports practice? Why could she do it last time and is having a hard time now?”

If you can’t figure it out, ask your child in a non-judgmental way, “Hey, I remember last time when I asked you to stop playing the video game, you did it quickly.  I wonder why it’s difficult to do it tonight.” Have a conversation with your child and find the reason. While you may not agree with them, at least you will know their concerns.  Empathize with them; share your concerns and see if you can figure out a plan. Your child may not know why it is difficult for them to do something so you may need to guess a few times to see if you are on a right track.  Keep at it. Your child will see that you are interested in solving a problem without instilling a punishment. After all, your relationship with your child is the most important thing.

For some kids with many lagging skills it might even be difficult to have this type of conversation. It’s a common pattern that children who are challenging for their parents to manage are more likely to get spanked. There are many alternatives to deal with a child’s misbehavior.

Here are the links to some approaches that foster non-adversarial, collaborative, skill-building, relationship-enhancing intervention.