Reporter's Notebook

When Is It Ever Okay to Spank Your Kid?
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Readers debate the question, prompted by Olga’s interview with parenting expert Alan Kazdin. Join the debate via hello@theatlantic.com.

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It’s a question that reader Carl is grappling with:

Carl and his son

I know it’s been a [week] since the last note in your parenting discussion, but I have a three-year-old son, and something he did earlier today made me wonder about how to positively reinforce a particular behavior. I know from first-hand experience that positive reinforcement works. It’s easy enough to apply the technique when he does something I want him to do like letting me change him from his pajamas into clothes in the morning before nursery school without kicking and screaming, but what about when it comes to something I don’t want him to do?

He likes throwing things—toys, pillows, books, whatever. It doesn’t seem like he’s doing it out of frustration or anger, but just because sometimes it’s fun to throw things. I understand where he’s coming from, but how do I positively reinforce a behavior when the behavior I want to reinforce consists of not doing something impulsive?

I’m not a parent yet, so if any readers with young kids have good advice for Carl, let us know. Perhaps he can glean some wisdom from this piece by Elissa Strauss, who writes about parenthood for Slate. She is “having a hard time buying” the theory of positive reinforcement advanced by Alan Kazdin, whose interview with Olga spurred this discussion thread. Strauss talked to some childhood psychologists, including Ross Greene:

Our latest reader contributor, Sophie, circles back to the article that sparked this discussion thread:

Anyone who believes that Alan Kazdin’s technique is “radical” has clearly never trained a dog ... or any other animal for that matter.

His method is essentially what is known in the behaviorist world as positive reinforcement, negative punishment training. It involves rewarding behaviors that you want to increase and removing rewards for those that you want to decrease. A fundamental tenet of this approach is to identify predictive triggers for problem behaviors and to change the resulting behavior by changing the consequence.

For some reason, it is so much more intuitive for people to understand with dogs:

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:

So far the consensus in the inbox is a resounding “no” to that question, which was sparked by reader Carly’s staunch opposition to spanking, claiming it sexualizes children. This reader, J Hollis, has the strongest counterargument:

For survivors of actual child sexual abuse such as myself, making spanking equivalent to what is done to children when they are sexually assaulted is kind of revolting and not a little offensive. I’m not a proponent of spanking, but Carly’s reasoning here is specious.

That’s what reader Carly believes, turning a previous reader’s argument against itself:

“One example [of acceptable spanking] 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.”

I really don’t think sexually abusing your son to stop him from sexually abusing his sister is the right approach. Therapy would be a wonderful alternative.

And spanking IS sexual abuse.

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.