Why Do We Spank Our Babies?

By Nancy Saltz

I hear so many people - both men and women - decry the horrible frequency of domestic violence in this country. Yet, rarely to I hear of this concern linked to what I believe to be the root cause of the problem. We teach our children to solve problems with physical force almost from the time they are old enough to walk. We do this by using spanking as a form of discipline. We control them with either violence or threats of violence. Even parents who spank infrequently will use threats like You're going to get a spanking as a means of control. Why then are we so terribly surprised that these same little children grow up and hit others?

I have yet to hear of a case of a violent adult who was not taught this first lesson of violence at home - often by his (or her) mother. True, many adults who were spanked as children do not become violent. People react to unpleasant experiences in many different ways. The point is that spanking does not contribute to a positive self-image and in the long run does considerably more harm than good.

I was in a store one day and witnessed a scene that I will remember all my life. It was a simple common occurrence, but it had an incredible influence on me. I saw a woman who appeared to be a victim of violence because she had bruises on her face. Perhaps she just fell down or ran into a door - but I doubt it. Anyway, what struck me was what she was doing. She was hitting her small son (I'd guess he was about 5 or 6 years old), and while she was hitting him she kept saying over and over, Don't hit! WACK! Don't hit WACK! And she hit him again. She wasn't being abusive by most people's standards. She was merely disciplining her child.

For those adults who believe that parents have a right to disciple their children by hitting them, but who paradoxically believe that it is wrong for one adult to hit another, I have a question. Exactly how old does a person have to be before others do not have a right to hit them? When one adult hits another it is called an assault. If the person being hit is young (actual cutoff age unknown), we call it spanking and it gets classified as discipline. So basically, the more defenseless a person is, the more acceptable it is to hit them. Am I missing something?

Spanking is supported and encouraged by many churches. They cling to a brief Biblical reference about Spare the rod, spoil the child and misunderstand its meaning. The "Rod" was used by the shepherd to guide his sheep, not to beat them. Consider the phrase in the 23d Psalm "Thy Rod and Thy staff, they comfort me..." For children, there is comfort in the guidance given to them by their parents or guardians.

I find it hard to understand how hiting children ever got confused with guidance and loving discipline. It is certainly easier and faster to hit than to thoughtfully guide, but it is a short-term solution that has harmful long-term consequences. Love and violence are contradictory concepts. Hitting and spanking are simply not ways to show we care.

I also hear over and over My parents spanked me and look how well I turned out! Well, just how well did we turn out? We have the highest use of psychiatrists and highest instances of domestic violence and child abuse of almost any country in the world. We also have the highest instance of parental use of spanking as a method of discipline.

I have a ten-year-old child. I never spank her and I let her know that NO ONE has the right to do so. (Not surprizingly, she has never hit another child herself.) Instead of spanking, we talk. I also practice what I learned in a parenting class is called "Natural Consequences." When she was small, if she abused a toy, that toy or book was taken away from her. If she did not mind me, she was given a time out on the steps (usually about 5 minutes). I also counted - one, two, three and three would get rather stern. After a while I only had to say "One."

If my daughter damages something belonging to someone else, she pays for it. If she does not have the money, she can work it off by doing something for them. Truth is, it has come up so infrequently that I don't have too many suggestions. She is very mindful of others. I explain to her that I consider it my job to teach her to become the kind of person that other people will like and that she will like. How could I teach her to like herself if I hit her?

If you don't know what will work with your child - ask your child. I did that once when my daughter was about three and was going through a stage of not listening to me. She didn't like "time out." So I asked her, "What will work?" I told her that we would use whatever she said - as long as it was working. You know what she said? "Hug me!" So I agreed. Whenever she misbehaved, I hugged her. And while I was hugging her I would ask, "Is this going to work?" -- IT DID! I was amazed. From that point on - no more timeouts. Now she simply behaves. Well, not all the time - she is still a child and she still tests her limits. Also, she frequently tries "All the other Moms let their kids (you supply the word)." And I reply "I'm sorry, honey, you're stuck with me - I guess you will have to make the best of it!" She groans, gives me an "Oh, Mom, that's not funny." and then she tries one more time before she finally decides I'm standing firm.

In case you ask, no, I have no child-development credentials. I am only a parent with an opinion. I make as many mistakes as everyone else. I simply wanted to share my thoughts with you. Please, don't spank your babies.

Alternatives to Spanking and Related Reading:

Gentle Discipline Resource Collection

Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain [book]

The Science of Parenting: How today's brain research can help you raise healthy, emotionally balanced children [book]

The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost [book]

Our Babies, Ourselves [book]

The No Spanking Page alternative ideas to spanking

How Spanking Changed My Life

Why Spanking is Never Okay

Top 10 Parenting Controversies of 2010

Infant Pain Impacts Adult Sensitivity

Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ
Spanking Decreases Intelligence? 

Project No Spank 

Dr Sears: 10 Reasons Not to Hit Your Child

Aware Parenting

Natural Child / Jan Hunt

Love Our Children USA


  1. this is a good reminder... we all need reminders of what we're trying to do as parents. we've recently began to have the kids go to their room until they've calmed down (because unfortunately with 3 under the age of 5 the tantrum situation detracted from everyone else) and it has begun to work as a suitable way to overcome behavior issues. as a child I was spanked and always said I did not want to spank, unfortunately I'm not perfect and regret what seemed to be becoming a habit. we found a new way and I'm so glad we did.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You have raised some excellent points. I wanted to share with you one of my favorite bible versus regarding raising children, which I came across recently, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." Ephesians 6:4

  3. While I agree with most of what you say, I do take issue with the counting to 3 method you used. I think that children need to learn to obey immediately and completely for their own safety, if I teach them they have 3 seconds (or 5 or 10 depending on the parent) to continue to disobey there could be dire and irreversible harm for them or others, maybe a spanking would serve as a reminder in these situatons i.e. bolting for the road. I cn count on 1 hand the times I have spanked my 13 year old, I NEVER needed to count though!

  4. I totally agree - spanking is just not right. It makes no sense to me that adults and animals are protected but it's fine and dandy to hit a child if you say the magic word 'discipline'. Even criminals in jail aren't hit !

    Spanking is never good ... all it ever did for this 56 yr old grandmother, was to teach me fear, pain, anger, hate and resentment. I learned too that my parents didn't love me - after all they had just hit me ! And that nonsensical post spanking pep talk of 'oh we love you' never meant a thing to me. Even as a small child I knew that hitting someone and loving them didn't go together !

    Spanking a child for running out in the road? I guess you mean an older child because if it were a toddler then the adult should be responsible. And why spank it, when you can much more effectively teach it the dangers of dashing across roads by only allowing the child out WITH you in tow ... to help them! 'Aw mum ...." Yes.... that has a much better chance of working! - than spanking them and they then feel 'Hang on, I just nearly get killed and mum HITS me?? I thought she loved me?? "

  5. Spanking taught me to run, VERY fast.
    When mum got that look in her eye I got the hell out of there, as a form of disipline it is not very affective

  6. The verse is "He who spares the rod hates his son." Before I found drmomma.org, I had NEVER heard the rod referred to as guidance, rather than punishment. And I LOVE the parallel between "spare the rod" verse and the 23rd Psalm!! SUCH a good point!

  7. TealRose: I'm pretty sure criminals in jail are hit. I certainly did feel that my parents loved me, despite the occasional spanking here & there. I don't feel that it is a necessary disciplinary tool, but I know that they were only doing what they believed was best. And toddlers are fast! Depending on how close one lived to the road, a toddler could very easily run into the road, especially if Mama had her hands full!

  8. it's interesting that this woman uses the 'time out' but the article I just read on dr.momma said time out is not an affective tool because it just teaches children to run away when they're in trouble or that they should just be able to know what's "right" without any guidance... it's all very interesting and I can see that.. but what gets hard is how to discipline a toddler? I would NEVER spank, that just makes me want to cry to think that toddlers or babies would ever have ANY form of pain inflicted and by their parents (the people they should trust in 100% to protect and love them).. So far, I am only coming to eye level and trying to talk to my daughter but she's only 14 months and most often, she is just discovering things but when it comes to her safety.. I must step in and tell her not to do certain things and why...

  9. @ Misty-

    I agree that spanking doesn't seem to get you where you want to go, but also wasn't sure what to do instead.

    This article gives lots of good ideas for that circumstance:

  10. My daughter is 13 months old, and recently I smacked her hand for hitting me in the face. I feel TERRIBLE about it. I can't sleep at nights, because I think about it. What should I do to keep her from hitting us in the face?

  11. You will not realize how much spanking breaks your child's spirit until you connect with the pain being spanked caused YOU.

    I used to spank the kids I nannied for (with permission, of course) however, after I did some intensive therapy (inner-child work), I realized how shameful spanking and being spanked is and how disconnected I was from my own body because of it.

    Get this book for free on google reader or get it used for cheap on Amazon:

    "For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty In Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence"
    By Alice Miller

  12. Please hear me out on this, I say this with all due respect to different parenting styles. I find that there is misunderstanding on both sides of this issue. I agree wholeheartedly that some parents take spanking to a level that would be considered abuse. I also know that there are parents out there that never spank but use all kinds of other abuses, including emotional manipulation and verbal abuse. Abuse is an attitude not necessarily connected to any specific action. It is ignorant to say that ALL spanking is abuse. It is frustrating to hear spanking referred to as "hitting, smacking, and beating." It is not the same thing. Parents who use the bible to justify abusive actions would do well to remember that the bible is specific about our heart attitude when administering discipline and also commands "instruction" to be part of it. It is NEVER okay to just lash out at your child; venting your anger/frustration/embarrassment on them has NO part in godly/biblical discipline. When I administer discipline it is ALWAYS in the context of loving instruction and in PRIVATE. We talk about what was done, why it is unacceptable, why the child feels the way they did, that it is okay to feel that way, and what actions would have been acceptable ways to deal with it. After a very controlled and precise (3 times) spanking is administered, I hug and kiss and love my child, making sure that they know it is not because I am angry with them, but it is to remind them that disobedience has consequences that can cause pain and discomfort all through our lives. We then go back to the scene and PRACTICE better ways to act. If you would call this abuse, I would certainly challenge you right to say so. I love my children and am convicted by God that this is right. It also WORKS for my children, who are very well behaved and are a delight to me. That said, if using an form of physical discipline is against your conscience, DON'T DO IT! I would be wrong for you to violate your conscience. But, please, try to understand that there are people out there who ARE convicted about such things and it is their right to discipline and raise their own children the way that they choose. If you see a friend or family member who you believe is being abusive, please talk with them about it. We need accountability and sometimes confrontation. It is never acceptable to use the CPS as a first resort, you could be guilty of wrongfully ruining someone's family in a situation where it was not necessary. I've seen it happen. Let's be more open and tolerant of differing opinions and not accusatory and close-minded. Don't put me in your "abusive parent" box. It's WAY more complicated than that.

  13. The one time that I smacked my boy, and it was a reflex action and totally against my own principles (interestingly, a 'mama lion' moment in protection of my younger one, the red mist certainly took effect) ... I apologised, said that it was the wrong way to deal with the situation, Mummy got it wrong because she let her feelings get bigger than her behaviour, and I paid him a 'hurting coin'.
    The 'hurting coin' has been a very occasional discipline method he has been subjected to when he had hurt a family member or one of the animals, after apologising we would try to make amends of some kind to the person/animal hurt and for a while around 3 years old he was very motivated by his coins .... 10 small denomination coins as pocket money each week .... we went through a phase where we would pick up the 'empty packet' of dog treats at the end of the month and wonder why there were 3 or 4 coins in the packet! Coins to buy the dog treats to show he was sorry and he loves her!
    So, to cut a long story short, when I smacked him I subjected myself to exactly the same punishment as he would have endured had he done it ... and yes, I felt guilty about it for weeks, and really sad that I no longer had the moral high ground to say 'we have NEVER hit you'
    I also realised how desperately overtired I was at that stage of parenting two small boys and worked out ways to give myself a break, which at that stage turned out to be taking the dog for a walk the very instant my husband got home, delaying the 'preparing the evening meal' by 15 mins or so meant little to them but greatly helped my sanity and ability to parent the way I wanted to ...
    As for 'Time Outs' I have always used Steve Biddulph's variant 'Sit and Think' and remained with the child if they have needed company, or given them the breathing space if that is appropriate. It is particularly important to me that they rejoin the family or the situation when they feel ready to deal with it - so no set time period. My motivation is that, as an adult, I want them to be able to step aside from a situation that isn't working, take a break and think it through and then re-engage in an appropriate manner ... I am teaching my kids a coping strategy with this form of 'time-out', not punishing them.
    Hope this essay helps!
    Helen (British mum in Sweden)

  14. This is the first time I heard 'spare the rod and spoil the child' and 'thy rod and thy staff...' I could kiss you for making that connection! I heard this so many times in my life and wondered how to argue back against "THE BIBLE." I kind of suspected there was some child-friendly material in there :)
    I loved this post.

  15. I remain amazed by how much effort over the past four decades has gone into pointing out the evils of spanking while the alternatives get a free pass. Yet, underneath the hysteria, parents continue to spank. Why? Because it is impossible to stamp out what people do over time.
    In their arguments for the abolishment of spanking, some social engineers point out how the world has ended slavery. No it hasn't. Human trafficking (a de facto slave trade) abounds. There are also more slaves in the world today than there were during four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. One might even argue that the American penal system constitutes a collection of plantations. There is likewise the wage-slavery experienced by the working poor.
    Then those opposed to spanking like to point out criminals are no longer flogged. Of course not. These days militarized police Taser, pepper spray, and even shoot suspects even before they're convicted! It's still the same old story. Just as they've done for thousands of years, governments still use physical pain to enforce compliance.
    Then there was that disastrously failed war on alcohol (Prohibition) and the currently falling apart war on drugs. Again, the forbidden materials have used by humans for thousands of years.
    In what had to be one of the grander social experiments in human history, the former Soviet Union tried to wipe out religion. That worked so well that one of the first institutions to emerge after the Soviet collapse was the Orthodox Church!
    Since at least the Bronze Age, moralists have been trying to eradicate homosexuality. Yet, although not nearly as prevalent as opposite-sex couplings, same-sex attraction is still around. Nonetheless, that futile battle also continues.
    The simple fact of life is, approve of it or not, spanking isn't going away any time soon. In fact, as several persons of color have told me, not spanking seem to be as white thing. Statistics suggest is more of a college-educated white female thing.



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