When Is It Ever Okay to Spank Your Kid? Cont'd

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

Readers keep the debate going:

Speaking for myself, the use of corporal punishment on a child should be something of the nuclear option of discipline. I was spanked three times that I remember vividly, even to this day. And all three of those times I had done something that directly endangered myself or another. Looking back, if I had been in my father’s place, I would have reached for the physical option too.

Because of how rarely spanking happened in my childhood, it was always given the weight it deserved. On the spectrum of possible discipline methods, this is the one that spoke in absolutes: What has been done is completely and unambiguously unacceptable. To hit a child is a very serious thing, and it should be treated as such. But to me, it’s when it becomes the go-to option of discipline that it crosses into abuse and it ceases to be a drastic corrective so much as punishment pure and simple.

Like so many other things, when one decides it is necessary to step beyond the norms, they should have a very very good reason for doing so, and be willing to take ownership of the action.

Another reader draws a distinction based on age:

I think spanking is necessary for very small/young children. They don’t have the ability to reason. What you say to them makes little sense. If your child is sticking his figure in a socket, you you need to tap his hand, every time he does it. The slight sting will be a reminder that will save his life.

However, when children are able to communicate and understand logic, talking and consistently enforcing consequences is the way to go. Spanking is useless and mean after a certain age.

This reader suggests an alternative way to spank:

We had pretty good luck with timeouts in disciplining our sons, but our daughter just got increasingly hysterical in timeout. Finally my husband got fed up and spanked her. Like magic, the episode was all over and things were good again. I guess it provided closure.

Then we discovered that if you turned her over your knee, laid your hand palm up on her rear, and spanked your own hand, it had exactly the same effect. A faux spanking was as effective as a real spanking! I think, after we had done this a few times, by the time we got to the faux spanking everyone was laughing.

This reader’s email is much less funny:

The doomsday clock of spanking is currently set to three minutes until midnight. Like the original, I hope to never see it tick upward, but I have only so much patience.

Over the weekend, our almost-three-year-old took us on a tour of all things pouting and tantrum and stubbornness and the like. I don’t want to spank, but I’m running out of peaceful options. At what point does the needle tip?

I totally agree with the reader who spanked to get their kid to keep out of traffic. The risk-reward is obvious. But what about for the less obvious?

Last night during dinner was when we ticked up from 11:56 to 11:57. She kept making this pouty face and refusing to eat. I ended up sending her to bed hungry, a lesson in self punishment. But it was close. A large part of me wanted to give her one good slap and reset her circuits.

One day I may, but not yet. Three minutes to midnight.

😬 Update from a reader who elaborates on the emoji:

I have never felt the need to write in to one of these discussions, but the “doomsday clock of spanking” gave me chills. This person sounds like the kind of terrifying parent I grew up with, the kind who lashes out in anger over developmentally-normal behavior, the kind of parent who simply cannot comprehend that a child might have feelings, thoughts, and needs.

A three year old is plenty old enough to decide if she is not hungry, and if her body was in fact telling her it did not need food, what did she learn by receiving anger and punishment from her parents? She learned her parents are jerks, that’s what. She also learned that you should force yourself to eat even if you don’t need food in order to avoid bringing down the parental pain. Your lack of patience and lack of other ways to deal with a normal three year old are not valid reasons to slap the poor child around.

If she doesn’t want to eat, who cares? Leave her plate out and she can come back if she gets hungry later. Done. There’s no need for the parent to get upset or have any reaction at all other than “okay dear, your food will be here if you change your mind.”

I really feel for this young girl, and I hope she’s okay.