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Children’s Perspectives on Spanking

Some preschool children brought up the subject of “getting spanked.” One girl said that her sister always gets spankings for being mean to her. Another asked, “Why don’t teachers spank?” It was such a good question that I turned it around. I asked the girls why they thought teachers don’t spank children. One girl said, “Because they’re not moms.” Another added, “At school, you don’t really get in trouble. Only at home.” I reassured them that teachers at our school would never spank a child, and they nodded knowingly.

The discussion of spanking extended into Circle Time with a delightful matter-of-factness. Adults are liable to take strong positions or get agitated in a discussion about the pros and cons of spanking. (“My parents spanked me and it made me a better person.”) However, the preschoolers loved having a sharing time about the way they get disciplined. They declared just as proudly that they get spanked as they were to say, “I get sent to my room.” We (the teachers) weren’t concerned about whether the children were making things up. If we asked how many children have ever ridden on an elephant, most of them would raise their hands (when in fact there is probably only one child who has). We were fascinated by the children’s desire to talk about their parents’ behavior-management techniques, and their comfort in doing so.

It seems especially refreshing for children to live in a place and a time when children would assume a teacher would never physically punish them and feel safe to ask questions so openly. California put a law into effect against corporal punishment in schools on January 1, 1987, but it is still legal in 23 states. Prior to the California law, it was not uncommon to see a teacher hit a child, sit him forcefully into a chair, or even force-feed a young child refusing to eat. Parents would tell teachers in the morning, “Give him a spanking if he isn’t good!” Thankfully, the notion of “not being good,” which could mean anything, faded when California public school teachers were banned from using corporal punishment.

Try to imagine how different the atmosphere in a classroom is in California today, when children needn’t fear that a mistaken behavior might result in paddling or rough handling. Would the open communication displayed by our preschoolers be the same if they had to fear us hitting them? One of the unspoken reasons that classrooms are different today might be that teachers who know that they can’t resort to physical “punishment” don’t allow themselves to get into an angry state that might lead to physical actions. In our school, teachers also work hard not to fall back on anger as a discipline method.

Professionals generally warn against spanking in anger or with the intent to punish rather than teach. It’s confusing to children when their trusted caregivers suddenly turn on them and express their anger in painful ways like yelling or hitting. Experts against corporal punishment say that spanking teaches physical aggression as the solution to frustration. Rather than launch into a debate about physical discipline as right or wrong, it seems healthier to ask questions that help us reflect on our own patterns.

Parents who spank, at least in affluent communities in the Bay Area, may feel a little shy about talking to other parents or teachers about their methods. Learning together means trusting each other. We can start by questioning ourselves because our children will question us. When spanking was the norm, children knew that their friends endured the same punishment. Today children grow up to ask parents about childhood experiences – a step forward from authoritarian times when parents were right no matter what.

Teachers are always reflecting on their management techniques, and it’s helpful when we can share perspectives so we can work together for the loving benefit of the child. Does the discipline technique you use change your child’s behavior? Are you and your child able to talk about problem behavior and work through solutions, an approach that becomes more necessary as children get older? Asked if being sent to his room when he’s acting up helps him, a four-year-old said, “Yes, it does.” Self-reflection and dialogue with others helps us all to keep growing.


Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.

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