While talk of the Peterson incident has quieted somewhat in the mainstream media, the debate about spanking, beating, and child abuse has not. It’s a good thing, too, because how we discipline our children reflects our deepest values and commitments. Our choices also produce either responsible, respectful, and self-controlled adults or entitled, defiant brats. We need to get it right.
In my 22 years as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, staff member in psychiatric hospitals, therapeutic treatment centers, schools, and private practices, I have worked with countless children, ranging from survivors of horrific child abuse to those who had never experienced any form of corporal punishment. I have trained hundreds of parents to train their children with reasonable but firm discipline. I am also the father of three amazing, well behaved, joyful, and well-adjusted children. In the interest of full disclosure, I spanked all three of them on two occasions each (my son, three times) and have absolutely no guilt about having done so.
I can say unequivocally that spanking, when done correctly, is the safest and most effective discipline tool on the market, for several reasons:
First, it is the quickest and most effective method of establishing a reasonable dominance with a child. In every family, someone is dominant—either parents or children. It is essential to establish that you, the parent, are the one in charge. Reasonable spanking accomplishes this quickly, with lasting effect.
Second, the Bible prescribes spanking; of course, the Author knows a thing or two about a loving rebuke and leveraging suffering to chasten and grow His children. A culture that ignores this wisdom is doomed.
Third, many research studies have validated its safety and effectiveness. Of course, some mainstream research suggests that spanking results in violent or mentally ill children; these studies uniformly fail to account for confounding variables that actually do hurt children, such as rage, hate, injury, and an insufficient foundation of loving affection. None of these are essential elements of spanking.
Fourth, it has been used with great effect for thousands of years. There is no shortage of anecdotes from people who attribute their success and self-control to having been spanked as a child.
I can also say that what Adrian Peterson did to his son was not spanking. I’m not going to discuss right now whether it was child abuse—it clearly is, in my opinion, but there are several critical mitigating factors that soften my judgment about it—but for now, I’ll simply say that it was out of line and unacceptable. What Peterson did was beating.
Peterson and some in the media attempt to soften the severity of his beating by giving it a nickname like whoopin’. Whoopin’ is just a cute word for whipping, which often involves a switch (a thin, wiry, flexible stick); but whoopin’ is also a generic term in the black community referring to beating: slapping, smacking, using a cord, and other means of corporal punishment. The nickname isn’t fooling anyone. Just as slapping a woman across the face would not be any less vicious if called slappin’, a whoopin’ is synonymous with beating.
Make no mistake: whoopin’ is unacceptable, regardless of how effective it might be in controlling and subduing a child.
Views on Corporal Punishment
There are three camps in the corporal punishment debate. The first camp includes what I call the Wooden Spoon Abolitionists. These folks generally mean well; unfortunately, they make the innocent but tragic error in reasoning—presuming that because some parents overdo spanking, that all spanking is abusive and therefore wrong. Often, the abolitionists have personal experience with physical abuse, which they conflate with all corporal punishment. This breeds their emotionality, focus on protecting children, and sanctimonious judgment about those who do spank.
The second group isn’t just pro-spanking; these folks subscribe to Red Bottom Digest and seem gleeful when retelling episodes of spanking their children. Frankly, these “spank always for everything” folks are more than a bit creepy. To them, spanking is a sport or a fetish.
Blessedly, there is a moderate group that believes that spanking is acceptable, yet understands that excessive frequency and intensity amount to child abuse. More importantly, this group, of which I am a member, comprehends that spanking and beating are not the same thing.
The table below describes the range of discipline, from no physical discipline too excessive corporal punishment (i.e., beating/child abuse).
Non-Effective + Unsafe Effective + Safe Non-Effective + Unsafe
As I have written countless times, spanking isn’t for every parent or every child. There are a few subsets of both for whom spanking is either dangerous or ineffective:Who Shouldn’t Spank
- Parents who cannot spank while maintaining emotional or physical self-control should not spank. These are the parents who produce the supposed negative effects from spanking.
- Parents who can’t spank hard enough to make the act aversive (i.e., make the child not want a sequel) should not spank. This is usually mothers or parents who have endured child abuse and simply can’t bring themselves to do it.
- Parents who don’t use other means of discipline (the main reason: punishment never teaches new behaviors; it can only reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviors).
- Children with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Children with significant emotional, intellectual, or developmental disabilities
- Children older than six who have never been spanked (it’s too late to start at that point).
Finally, the Bacon Metaphor!
Imagine a Mother burning a piece of bacon to the point where it is inedible (I know, a horror worse than death). What should she and other parents do, decide to stop cooking and begin serving raw bacon? No, the sensible thing to do is to learn from her mistake and figure out how to cook the bacon properly. What we have in our culture is a subculture that has been frightened by a few bad cooks that they can’t conceive how to prevent burning their bacon. Out of abject, irrational fear, they have convinced themselves that raw bacon is best.
Ignore them; what they’re serving is disgusting and dangerous.
We already know the ill effects permissive parenting has on children; I spend half my professional life repairing the inevitable, catastrophic damage. There are more choices than child abuse and wimpy parenting. Assertive, alpha parenting is the way to go—and that can include spanking. Just don’t subscribe to Whoopin’ Illustrated.