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How effective is spanking as a form of discipline?

6 December 2010 . The Star Newspaper

I have spanked my children for their disobedience, and it didn't seem to help. Does this approach fail with some children?

Children are so tremendously variable that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all members of the same human family. Some kids can be crushed with nothing more than a stern look; others seem to require strong and even painful disciplinary measures to make a vivid impression. This difference usually results from the degree to which a child needs adult approval and acceptance. The primary parental task is to see things as the child perceives them, thereby tailoring the discipline to his or her unique needs. Accordingly, a boy or girl should never be so likely to be punished as when he or she knows it is deserved.

In a direct answer to your question, disciplinary measures usually fail because of fundamental errors in their application. It is possible for twice the amount of punishment to yield half the results. I have made a study of situations in which parents have told me that their children disregard the threat of punishment and continue to misbehave. There are four basic reasons for this lack of success:

1) The most common error is whimsical discipline. When the rules change every day and when punishment for misbehaviour is capricious and inconsistent, the effort to change behaviour is undermined. There is no inevitable consequence to be anticipated. This entices children to see if they can beat the system. In society at large, it also encourages criminal behaviour among those who believe they will not face the bar of justice.

2) Sometimes a child is more strong-willed than his parent - and they both know it. He just might be tough enough to realise that a confrontation with his mum or dad is really a struggle of wills. If he can withstand the pressure and not buckle during a major battle, he can eliminate that form of punishment as a tool in the parent's repertoire. Does he think through this process on a conscious level? Usually not, but he understands it intuitively. He realises that a spanking must not be allowed to succeed. Thus, he stiffens his little neck and guts it out. He may even refuse to cry and may say, “That didn't hurt.” The parent concludes in exasperation, “Spanking doesn't work for my child.”

3) The spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn't hurt, it doesn't motivate a child to avoid the consequence next time. A slap with the hand on the bottom of a multidiapered 30-month-old is not a deterrent to anything. Be sure the child gets the message - while being careful not to go too far.

4) For a few children, spankings are simply not effective. The child who has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, may be even more wild and unmanageable after corporal punishment. Also, the child who has been abused may identify loving discipline with the hatred of the past. Finally, the very sensitive child might need a different approach. Let me emphasise once more that children are unique. The only way to raise them correctly is to understand each boy or girl as an individual and design parenting techniques to fit the needs and characteristics of that particular child.

This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia ( and the Questions and Answers are extracted from “Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide” by Dr James Dobson with permission.

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