To Spank or Not To Spank: A Parents' Handbook
By John Rosemond, Ph.D.
Review by Richard Niolon

In a no-nonsense book, Rosemond discusses the issues associated with spanking your child, as well as how to do it correctly. Along the way, he discusses the anti-spanking rhetoric and basic tips on good discipline.

In the introduction, Richard Wexler quotes Anna Freud as saying, "the younger the child… the stronger is his need to experience his parents as his lawgivers--safe, reliable, all-powerful, and independent." This is a good quote to start the book because it reflects Rosemond's ideas fairly clearly.  Rosemond states several times in the book that he is not a proponent of spanking. He does not believe parents should spank their children, and instead says there are more effective ways to discipline a child than to inflict pain. However, spanking a child, if it is done correctly, is not harmful to a child and actually is helpful.

Problems with Anti-Spanking Arguments

He says most of the anti-spanking rhetoric is flawed on a number of basic points.

  • Those against spanking do not separate spanking from beating.  An open-handed single "swat" to a child's clothed bottom is not the same thing as a closed fist to the face, a humiliating experience of repeated "swats" to a child's bare-bottom in public, or any other kind of "discipline" that leaves a bruise. Rosemond does not advocate this kind of abuse.
  • Studies of the harmful effects of spanking are often based on spanked teenagers.  Rosemond does not advocate spanking children after age 9 or 10, as it is not effective. Further, parents who spank their teenagers likely have not established clear discipline prior to that point, and their teens are likely engaging in significant antisocial behavior. Spanking has no effect, and likely does cause significant resentment. It is not the spanking that has caused the problems; however, it is the history of inadequate or ineffective parenting.
  • Spanking has not been shown to lead to spouse abuse.  Although some people who abuse their partners were themselves abused as children, this does not mean that being spanked, as opposed to abused as a child, will lead to abusive behavior as an adult. He notes that most men from his generation were spanked as children, but the majority did not grow up to be abusive toward their partners.
  • Spanking is one behavior out of many a parent displays. Rosemond argues that a parent's overall style of discipline--authoritative, authoritarian, or permissive-- must be considered. Authoritative parents provide structure, nurturance, and supervision to their children. Their occasional spanking is not harmful. Authoritarian parents are controlling and are likely to use spanking as a way to control children and halt behaviors that are judged as "unacceptable" according to a parent's rigid ideas of "good" and "bad" behavior. Permissive parents provide too little structure and discipline overall. Thus, these last two types of parents, it is not spanking that is the problem; it is the entire parenting style.

So How Do You Spank A Child Appropriately?

  • Rosemond explains that a child should be spanked only as a way to provide an immediate halt to an unacceptable behavior. It is a way to say "STOP" and "Listen!" to a child. He offers the analogy that one, quick, open handed slap to the clothed bottom of a child is to abuse as sending a child to his room is to locking a child in the closet. Of course either extreme is abuse, but at the reasonable end of the continuum, the need to halt the child's behavior is the same.
  • He also notes that spanking is not to humiliate a child. Spanking in public does that. Further, when others are around to see the spanking, the child sees them and they distract the child from the message you are trying to give him or her.
  • Spanking should be followed by a short explanation and a consequence. "You will not be allowed to speak to me or your father like that. Now, go to your room until dinner time." Time out, losing some privilege for the rest of the day, going to bed early, etc… are also effective consequences.
  • He explains that with a toddler age 24 months or so, a quick spank on the butt, followed by the reprimand (i.e., "No, I will not let you spit at me"), then by the consequence is effective. For a young child, placing the child in a chair with the warning, "You will stay there until I say you can get up" followed by taking a step backward, waiting one second, and then telling the child, "Now get up" is sufficient. This catches the child's attention, provides a rule, provides and consequence, and established that you are in charge.
  • Correction should quickly and immediately follow the undesired behavior. Repeated warnings, pleadings, and eventual "blowups" followed by spanking when the parent is out of control and angry are not "discipline" or "correction." They do not slow or halt an undesired behavior. Such correction does not necessary include spanking. Further, Rosemond argues that the value of spanking is in its novelty. If it is only used for immediately halting a child's out-of-control behavior on occasion, then the child will not "get used to it," and learn to ignore it.
  • The same process works for adults when you think about it. If you are "written up" for numerous minor infractions at work everyday, then the process of being "written up" loses its power. If reprimands from the boss only come for serious behaviors and come infrequently, they are taken far more seriously.
  • Effective spankings are not accompanied by yelling and name calling. They are never motivated by rage. They can be motivated by anger, but the point of the anger is not to make the child feel threatened, frightened, or more hurt. The point of the anger is to mark the experience in the child's head, to convey to them, "This crossed some line; this is serious." Everything is not serious, so again, spanking too often defeats the purpose of spanking at all.
  • Effective spanking is not a last resort. Spanking is only useful to draw a child's attention to a problematic behavior and your decisions about it if it is done early, quickly, and without fuss. If a child has repeatedly disobeyed you because you failed to set limits, the problem is that you failed to set and hold to limits. Spanking will not change that. If a child repeatedly disobeys after being warned once, spanked, and punished, then the behavioral cycle is serious and spanking will not help at this point.

How often should you spank?

Rosemond says for young children, if it is more than once per week it is likely too much. With older children once a month is probably OK. With children over age 9 or 10, it is not effective.