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Physical Discipline: Fair Punishment or Justified Abuse?

Updated on February 9, 2015

The disciplinary value of spanking has been a hotly debated topic for years. Some parents are more comfortable with dealing out physical punishment (worse than spanking) than others. As with learning, however, it isn't an effective strategy on all children. The human element is difficult to subtract in the heat of the moment, so feelings are inevitably tangled in the matter. From a scientific standpoint, these feelings must be objectified.

Parents often hit their children when they have done something to make them angry. While some parents may justify this as punishment for rule-breaking, the claim only holds water if the punishment can be administered without anger. Psychologically, the pain and/or shock is supposed to dissuade the child from repeating the offending behavior, as the offense and the punishment are now associated. However, this is neither appropriate for all ages nor all children. Some are too young to understand that they are being punished and view the strike as an attack on them. For others, it is overkill, and a stern lecture would have sufficed. Still, the recommendation of psychological conditioning is not an ill-conceived one as long as it is appropriately administered. A mutual discussion of these feelings with children is key.

"We may give in to our feelings and strike it, but then we will hold it and apologize." ~Katsuya Honda, Fruits Basket

Count Spankulot, an adult enemy of children on Codename: Kids Next Door
Count Spankulot, an adult enemy of children on Codename: Kids Next Door | Source

As children grow up, the degree of punishment may have to escalate. They can emotionally overcome time-outs and other consequences if they can associate them only with being younger and therefore more susceptible to them. A parent must carefully consider how they will up the ante. Being grounded to a teenager is like getting a time-out to a pre-schooler, as they still value their freedoms but on a much larger scale. As we are a capitalist society, many parents choose to control their kids with money, rewarding with allowances and punishing with swear jars and the like. Violence begets more violence, and there is a point where physical punishment becomes over-the-top and unnecessary. Whatever spanking escalates to, it shouldn't be something that leaves a mark or leads the neighbors to call the police on the grounds of domestic abuse. As Gabriel Iglesias has pointed out, embarrassment works pretty well as an alternative.

Moreover, parents are supposed to set an example for their children. Parents' disciplinary tactics provide a means of dealing with others in a social setting. Giving advice is crucial to their coming-of-age years, specifically for solving problems. Whether or not a child is being bullied or is a bully, parents need to be supportive and consider how their own behavior might be adding to the situation. Bullying is never acceptable, not even from a parent; it doesn't build character and is more likely to lead young people to suicide. While bullies should be held accountable for their words and actions, they must also receive some consideration for how they became that way. Everyone makes mistakes, and children are certainly no exception. They aren't stupid; rather, they are the best they can be for their age.


In conclusion, there is a fine line between hard discipline and physical abuse. While relatively harmless methods like spanking are accepted in most circles, escalation to beatings are potentially problematic and unsavory to boot. Not all children learn from their mistakes the same way; not all parents learn, either, and they can be very different from their children in this regard. Finesse is usually better than force, so if you can take your anger out of the equation, nonviolence is the better option.

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