To Spank or Not To Spank? Part 1

Self, Family

Spanking teaches children to fear authority and fear their own decision making abilities.

To spank or not to spank continues to be a controversial issue. Many believe that the lack of “spare the rod, spoil the child” is the reason children are running amok in our world today. I grew up with and understand their beliefs. Like so many other people who got spankings I grew up to be a competent, responsible adult, which is part of the rationale for believing that spankings work. Yet, the down side of the ‘spankings’ many receive is that they learn to fear authority and fear their own decisions and abilities.

Case Study: An elementary age client of mine, who is usually ready to engage in play or art, walked slowly into my office one day with shoulders bent over and avoiding eye contact. Her parent told me that their daughter had been spanked at school because she was being disruptive in class, disrespectful, impulsive and thoughtless toward others. Mom said that she supported this punishment.

This child exuded the shame of what well-meaning people did in the name of love to show her the error of her ways. She in no way reflected that she felt at all loved or understood. I asked her if she was embarrassed to tell me for fear I might be mad at her. She stated she was ashamed to admit to me, her counselor, about what had happened.

The spanking had overwhelmed her nervous system and deepened her belief in her perceived ‘inherent defections.’ She felt angry at the violence inflicted upon her, violence that fractured her sense of safety and security and trust in her caregivers and in the school system.

This child does not set out to misbehave. She understands that when she gets stressed she doesn’t do so well, especially in a group like school or day care, but isn’t always able to stop and use the tools she has been learning. She realizes that she needs some discipline.

Is spanking the right solution?

If an adult physically hits another adult, it is called “assault” and there are criminal consequences. If an adult physically hits a child it is called discipline or, more accurately, punishment. Punishment means to seek revenge; discipline means to teach. We still have these confused.

Violence and society

Socially sanctioned hitting of wives and children has been around for thousands of years, and continues in many cultures. In our own violent society, we don’t recognize that spanking, hitting, slapping, etc., are forms of violence. They are not only a violation of the body but of the mind and emotions. The bruises heal, but the emotional bruising of being violated by someone in the name of love lasts a lifetime. These experiences leave invisible scars that never heal.

Children don’t think like adults

Children don’t think like adults. Children don’t see what adults see. Children don’t feel what adults feel. A child’s logic is very different from adult logic.

After a spanking, the adult leaves the experience believing they did a loving thing in the name of discipline by teaching the child a valuable lesson. The child leaves the experience, not only feeling guilty for their action, but also with their limbic system on fire and a belief they are somehow flawed and not good enough for the adults they are trying to please. They feel shamed that something about their personhood isn’t right. They lose trust in the benevolence of the adult world and fear they will never measure up. Spankings instill fear, which nests in a child’s consciousness and grows with each repeated experience.

Transforming our beliefs about children and having a clearer understanding of child development would go a long way to make the need for the lack of physical and verbal violence against children an idea whose time has gone.

Spanking and its effects on the body, mind, and spirit

Hans Seyle, the father of stress identified three stages of adaptation our bodies go through when we experience threat: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.* When a child is spanked, the pain from the physical assault triggers the alarm stage: chemical signals are sent to the nervous system and the endocrine glands so that they produce hormones to combat the wear and tear on the body. If the threat continues, the body goes to the resistance stage. The body appears to adapt to what has happened; however it is a fragile equilibrium and is easily disrupted. If the stress continues or new stressors are added, the body reaches the exhaustion stage. This wear and tear on the body can lead to collapse.

The behavior of a child in the alarm stage is expressed through crying about and fear of the physical assault. As they go into the resistance stage, they may scream or stomp their foot in protest. Usually this elicits more blows by the adult, which may lead to compliant behavior but it is because the child’s body has shut down in the exhaustion stage.

Because the child appears to have complied, the adult believes that the spanking made the child obey. In fact, research tells us that this is simply a physiological response to the pain, and no real learning has taken place.

Spanking is a controversial issue. I have spent too many hours in my therapy room seeing the impact of this shaming experience on too many sweet souls, both children and adults alike.

*(Spanking and the ‘Alarm Reaction’ by Adah Maurer, Ph.D Paddles Away:A Psychologial Study of Physical Punishment in Schools, Palo A lot, California: R.&E. Research Associates, 1981 found on internet in 2010

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.