When Is It Ever Okay to Spank Your Kid?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Olga has a really popular interview this week with Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, who advises parents not to punish their kids in any way, not even time-outs, let alone more controversial methods like spanking. Here’s how Olga sums up Kazdin’s outlook:

Punishment might make you feel better, but it won’t change the kid’s behavior. Instead, he advocates for a radical technique in which parents positively reinforce the behavior they do want to see until the negative behavior eventually goes away.

But reader Ethan doesn’t buy it:

My disagreement with this method is that it conditions children to expect praise for doing almost anything beneficial, even just less violent versions of negative behaviors like a tantrum. While this might work well through adolescence to moderate things, college and/or life beyond the home rarely comes with such rewards for doing what is expected of all members of society. Raising children with the “carrot” and without the “stick” might be effective within the artificial confines of youth, but the adult world involves far fewer external “carrots” and much harsher “sticks.”

The extreme example? Few police officers offer praise for obedience if you’re told to “get on the ground” or “put your hands above your head,” but you can guarantee that there are severe consequences if instead you choose to disobey. That might not be right or fair, but it’s real, and that for me is the huge hole in this article’s suggestion.

There has to be a balance; if children never learn that there are real consequences for disobedience in life, parents might be setting them up for failure.

Your thoughts? Drop us an email. Another reader, meanwhile, shifts the conversation to corporal punishment:

I see spanking as something you do when patient, reasonable efforts are likely to be dangerous to the health or welfare of your child or someone else.

One example would be a little kid messing around with his sister. You have to stop that instantly; it’s a sex offense, and they do prosecute little kids for it. Another would be burning down the curtains. Your kid sets a fire and you can’t let him set another one while you gradually teach him it’s wrong. You need there to be zero more fires set.

And reserving it for extreme misbehavior also maintains its effectiveness. A kid who gets spanked all the time grows inured to it and it’s less effective when it’s needed.

This reader has a dramatic alternative to spanking—and some weirder ones, too:

I never spanked my kids. My ex-wife did, but my observation was that it only made things worse.

Our oldest was a rebel without a cause, who really could get worked up. When she did, and my ex-wife spanked her, she only got more wound up. My approach with her was something many have told me was much worse, though I hardly think so—as I would infinitely prefer a cold shower to being hit—yes, the cold shower.

Sometimes it involved my own self in clothing getting soaking wet to pull it off. It had a perfect record of immediately changing her mood. Worked every single time.

Of course that was when she was still under six. One time, when we were camped out, she started bopping me in the nose. This was the one time I did hit her. She would not stop, though I asked her many times. Finally, without really thinking, and certainly not as punitive, but as a purely self-defense mechanism, I bopped her nose back. She was shocked. And she never hit me again.

My younger daughter was an entirely different case: an extremely sensitive, goody goody, girly girl. Just being in trouble would wreck her for hours. And truth be told, she rarely got in trouble—a kid of easy-peasy proportions. Neither my ex wife nor I could ever bring ourselves to laying a hand on her.

As they got older, I had a number of methods that my kids found—how can I put it—annoying. The younger one sometimes had a propensity to pout. If she pouted more than once in a day, I would mark them up. The following morning, for each of the previous day’s pouts, before brushing my teeth and after having coffee, I would put my mouth on her nose and breathe. This worked, and after one summer of this, she never engaged in pouting again.

If they acted out around meal time, I would do a rendition of my “no whining and dining allowed” melody in the scratchiest, most out of tune voice I could conjure. (nowhininganddining, nowhininganddining, nowhininganddining allowed!)

I also would spend some time at the lectern, lecturing. They found this so annoying that both at one time or another pleaded for me to just hit them and get it over with.

For more reading on the question of whether to ever spank or not, check out a piece Andrea Nair wrote for us a few years ago. A reader at the time recalled a frightening experience:

Years ago, I was walking down a busy boulevard holding some heavy bags, with my two-and-a half-year-old daughter by my side. She became entranced with chasing pigeons and suddenly darted out into the street. Thankfully, there was a lull in the traffic, and I grabbed her out of the way.

I explained very carefully and firmly that cars were dangerous and that she was never never to run into the street. I asked if she understood, and she nodded. However, when we resumed walking, she started laughing, slipped from my hand, and ran RIGHT BACK INTO THE STREET! She thought it was a game.

And she was nearly killed by an oncoming car.

Although I’m against corporal punishment, I spanked her on that occasion. It came as quite a shock to her, and she never ran into the street again. I’m not advocating routine spanking, but yes it is sometimes (rarely) okay to spank a child. Would anyone take issue with this example?

Would you? Let us know.