Home » Uncategorized » If you spare the rod, do you spoil the child?

If you spare the rod, do you spoil the child?

Conventional, folk psychology… we meet again!

Folk psychology encompasses the sayings our culture has passed down through the ages like, “birds of a feather flock together.” They don’t always agree though! How about “opposites attract”? Well, contemporary psychology has answers to the colloquial sayings, but the function of an “availability heuristic” tends to change our opinion on things (as well as reduce dissonance).

An availability heuristic means making a decision based on the most salient idea that comes to mind (the idea that comes to mind most readily, and easily). Imagine this conversation in middle school, “Did you hear Mary is dating Billy!! I know they are so different, but opposites do attract!”

In this example, we can assume that Mary and Billy are two very different people, yet they are in a relationship. This causes the speaker a measure of dissonance. Perhaps this is  because Billy always gets in trouble, always skips class, and doesn’t pay attention to his personal hygiene  Mary on the other hand never skips class, always does her homework, and is a generally nice person. The idea that these two people would have a lifestyle that has much in common is surprising  and causes us dissonance. To cope with it, we try to find a quick-fix, in this case a folksy saying, “opposites attract.”

According to the Five Principals of Liking, however, we know that similarity is of major importance. Opposites may be interested in learning more of each other, but the relationship will not be as strong as two individuals with more in common. Thus, we have to say that opposites may pique interest, but that’s about it.

While my last example may be benign, think about this conversation of a mother, who is raising a four-year-old, who is speaking to her own mother (the grand mother of the child).

The mother says, “I don’t know what to do with Billy. He never listens, and after warning him not to do things he still does. I have to take him over my knee and spank him, otherwise he thinks he can get away with anything.”

The grand mother says, “That’s how I was raised too. If you spare the rod, you spoil the child!”

In this instance we are talking about child abuse to inflict physical pain on an individual who lacks the ability to defend themselves, and they lack the ability to fully control their own behavior. As children do not have a fully developed Theory of Mind, it’s absurd to use martial discipline to change their behavior.

It’s very important to keep in mind what sort of message we send our children when we use physical discipline. What, precisely, is this interaction teaching the child? Advocates of physical discipline may feel it teaches children to be respectful, it allows a parent to instruct the child without question, and it gives the child discipline in the future.

There is no evidence to support this notion. It’s unfortunate that such an idea is still prevalent in this age.

Let’s look at a simple scenario, first from the parent’s point of view, then from the child’s. This will help us understand what they are learning from the interaction.

The parent comes home from a long days work and there sits six-year-old Billy, with chocolate all over his face. Billy’s parent was quite upset because Billy has been told time and time again that candy is not to be eaten except after supper! It seems obvious that the message has not stuck, so Billy’s parent feels like the only way to make this message clear is with a spanking. Billy is spanked, and his parents tells him why they are spanking him and what is expected of him.

From this example we can see that the parent felt they had done everything they could do to explain the situation, thus they needed to add some “weight” to their rules. The parent now assumes that Billy will think twice before disobeying again.

The story is a bit different from Billy’s point of view.

Six-year-old Billy is waiting around for his parents to come home. He sees something sitting in the fridge, a chocolate bar. Billy knows that his parents do not want him to eat candy until after dinner, but he’s unable to stop fixating on this candy. The more external reasons (rules made by parents) there are to avoid a behavior, the harder it is to resist it (justification of effort). Further, this forbidden item is sitting there right within his grasp, and before too long, his impulses get the better of him. Is this because he has no respect for his parents? No, it’s because his prefrontal cortex has such a long way to go before it is developed (it finishes developing in our 20s!!!!!!). His parents come home, they are mad at him for breaking a rule, and they feel as if they need to punish him.

Billy’s does not think that the rule makes any sense as he can’t conceptualize health behaviors at his age. Why should he have to wait to eat something that tastes good? Since he can’t juggle multiple parts of information at the same time (see more about that with Piagetian theories like transference) he only sees the most salient feature of the situation. I cannot state the important of the next thought enough – the child will tend to think “my parents make up the rules, and can make me follow them because they are older, bigger, and stronger than me.”  

This is not the message the parents intends to convey, but it is the most salient idea the child learns from the behavior. What does this lesson teach the child? Externalizing behaviors and anti-social behaviors.

Landsford et. al. (2009) describe the following effects of children exposed to high levels of physical discipline.

“Children whose parents remained high in their use of physical discipline across this developmental period showed the highest levels of antisocial behavior in adolescence,” (p. 1398). (This longitudinal study’s sample started with 10-year-olds and followed them until they were 15)

Externalizing behaviors can be described as “lashing out.” When someone does not deal with negative emotions well, they tend to verbally, or physically abuse someone or their property. This goes hand-in-hand with anti-social behaviors, which are behaviors that completely disregard the effect one’s behaviors will have on other people.

To summarize, we see that children who are punished physically are more likely to take out their frustrations on their peers, and when they do not get their way, they see violence as an acceptable method of persuasion. That’s an incredibly dangerous combination.

Benjet and Kazdin (2003) make a great point in their review of the “spanking” controversy by describing effective methods of behavioral change without the negative outcomes.

“More palatable alternatives, on the other hand, are well established for shaping child behavior. Mild noncorporal punishment such as time out and loss of privileges in the context of contingent positive reinforcement (use of praise and rewards) can accomplish the goals for which spanking is usually employed without the negative outcomes. ” (p. 221).

As we can plainly see, sparing the rod does not spoil the child.  Punishing a child by using corporal punishment creates a child who is more likely to use physical aggression as a method of persuasion. Certainly not every child who was raised with physical discipline developed problems. In fact, we may all know some people who are positively flourishing in spite of an abusive past. It seems likely that such abuse made their overall development more difficult, but by no means impossible. However, did the behavior of their parents help shape them into the person they are today, or was their success shaped more by their peers than anyone else?

If you take the side of author Judith Harris (2002), you might think parent do not really influence the child that much! However, Scarr and McCartney (1983) feel quite the opposite. In my next post, we’ll talk about a seemingly absurd debate as Judith Harris famously stated “Parents don’t matter!”


Specific Citations

Corina, B., & Alan, K. (2003). Spanking children: the controversies, findings, and new directions. Clinical Psychology Review23(5), 197-224.

Lansford, J., Dodge, K., Pettit, G., Criss, M., Shaw, D., Bates, J., (2009). Trajectories of physical discipline: early childhood antecedents and developmental outcomes.Child Development80(5), 1385-1402.




  1. Josh M says:

    We’ve know each other a long time DD, but I’m having a tough time with this post. It was excellently written, I’m just not sure I agree with the outcome. I do not feel that spanking should be compared with abuse. To me, abuse is when your parents hit you with an extension cord, or tie you up, or send you to a room with no dinner, or hit you with a closed fist.

    Even though Jaxon is only 14 months old, we have began to spank his hand when he misbehaves. Obviously, we don’t draw blood or turn his hand red from the spank, but we spank him with enough force that he knows whatever he did, he shouldn’t do again. Does it always work? No. But, there is a much greater chance of him learning from the spanking rather than a time-out! How can you place a 1 year old in time out effectively? I don’t believe you can.

    I can agree with the fact that as babies grow in to toddlers, then to adolescents, the spanking should decrease and communication between the child and the parents should increase when it comes to punishment, but I was spanked until I was 12 years old. I was only spanked when I deserved it (acting crazy in church which I did A LOT!) and I never once felt betrayed by my parents. In fact, no one that I know who was spanked (again, not ABUSED) would say that it has had any negative effects on their adult life.

    I don’t know, the research says what it says. But, I am a believer that you can take almost any topic and make the data meet the ends that you are trying to accomplish. For my capstone research project, my data showed that there was no conclusive evidence to correlate video game violence to real world violence, but several other studies have shown contradictory. Research is wonderful, and studies have greatly increased the knowledge of our society, but not all research is conclusive.

    Great post, this one for sure will be talked about around the water cooler.

    • I appreciate your comment and willingness to share!

      Corporal punishment tends to be more common with younger children, and taper off into adolescents for most families. What a lot of parents may not realize is that the punishment is not responsible for the child learning to following rules and respect authority, it’s their ability to understand that their actions affect others (as well as ability to hold multiple ideas in there head at the same time). The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows us to resist impulses and inhibit behaviors, has such a long way to go when we are children. As the child matures, parents might believe their punishment caused this change, but it’s just maturation!

      We also need to acknowledge that parents are in control of the environment. The environment allows for behaviors to occur, and if the child’s behavior isn’t acceptable, you simply change the environment. In the candy example, if the candy is being kept in an area where the child can access it, perhaps it should have been moved out of sight. The child cannot fixate on what is not there, and the child cannot stop fixation due to their developmental capabilities. A child’s brain functions in a qualitatively different manner than adults, it’s not just a difference in speed and capacity.

      Additionally, parents may not realize the negative behaviors the child learns from the interaction. That’s my biggest take away from here. It creates externalizing issues and anti-social behaviors.

      The articles I cited show the effects of continued punishment throughout development up to the age of 15. I’d never endorse physical behavior against a child, but I can say the outcomes get even worse as the child gets older.

      It’s a touchy subject, I know. People have told me before, “how could I know since I’ve never had children?” I’m not here to judge anyone. I’m just hoping that before such measures are used, a parent has a pretty good understand of what sort of outcomes are related to this behavior, and that other methods are effective as well. Toddlers, of course, are notoriously hard to communicate with, I understand, but they still learn from our non-verbal interactions. It’s certainly not easy, I know!

      • Josh M says:

        I can agree with everything you write, except the anti-social behaviors. Again, speaking from those who I knew growing up in my family and in my friendship zone, those of us who were spanked as described earlier, (i.e., not beaten) did not exhibit anti-social behaviors. I think that anti-social behaviors are a chemical imbalance in the mind personally, but as I am not a psychologist, I wouldn’t testify to that in court.

        This is fun DD! Good work!

  2. Gina says:

    I always cringe when I see the Facebook posts on the “it was good enough when we were kids” meme: you often see spanking on lists of that kind. I don’t get it, because that idea leaves no room for growth in understanding. So we should do everything the way we originally did it before we knew any better? On this subject in particular I often hear, “but my parents spanked me and I turned out okay.”

    Okay fine. But what if there’s a better alternative (and as you point out very well, there ARE alternatives). If you could accomplish the same (or even better) results without spanking, why wouldn’t you want to try? And of course, there are so many factors involved in our resilience that certainly the majority of people can say that they were spanked and came out fine. But do we want to put stumbling blocks in front of kids if we can get them to the same point via a clearer path?

    I think some people are afraid that when we talk about eliminating spanking, we’re talking about going to the other extreme (indulgence). This is an unfortunate misunderstanding. As you also point out, children learn much faster through positive reinforcement than through negative ones. But of course . . . it’s hard to think about using positive reinforcement if we didn’t have a model for that in our own background.

    • Thanks for the comment Gina!

      I’m glad you mentioned people defending spanking since “they turned out okay.”

      I mentioned it briefly in my post as justification of effort, but I didn’t want it to run overly long so I left out my extended comments on it. I wanted to say something like this:

      Why was something like hazing so common in university fraternities? People would get physical and mentally abused, then come out on the other side feeling a close bond with their frat-brothers. Was it because they learned to respect their brothers? It’s because they felt as if they were part of an elite group of people who were able to weather the “storm.” The more effort required to complete a task, the better we feel about it.

      But why?

      We experience dissonance about the amount of trouble an action caused us (hazing in this example). I must either think, “I am a silly person allowing them to do this to me. They must not be my friends,” (ego defeating). Or I might think, “this hazing was to weed out people who weren’t worthy, clearly I am worthy because I was able to struggle through it,” (ego supporting). To reduce dissonance we chose the latter. We will think we are a better person than those who didn’t go through it.

      As for physical punishment, we can see a similar defense. It caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people, and it is ego defeating to accept that it probably caused one more harm than good. I know this is an extremely touchy topic, but that’s where the theories point. I’m not trying to judge, just explain behavior!

  3. Gina says:

    Josh, I get what you’re saying, certainly a time-out isn’t going to be effective with a child that young in most cases, but fortunately it’s not the only non-spanking alternative. It’s amazing what a simple, firm “no” will do even without the slap. But the next thing you want to do is find a positive re-direct. “No” for this, but “this instead.” When parents veto an action, it’s important to give them a positive substitute. Close the door but open a window. They can’t have the candy bar, but they CAN have an apple. There are other techniques depending on the situation, but there are approaches that work for every age.

    • Josh M says:

      That assumption is unfair I think. Simply giving a firm “NO” as you said is good, expect most of the time, the child will continue to do that action. As a father of a 14 month old boy, I can attest to that fact. I tell him “NO” as firmly as I can, but as Dustin said, there is little understanding, only their short-term “this is what I want”. My point isn’t to say that spanking is the only way, or even the best way, but to say that spanking your child is not the same as child abuse. When used properly with saying “NO”, time-outs, and such, spanking can be effective and not have an “anti-social” effect.

  4. Josh M says:

    That’s extreme though. “Hazing” is not the same as spanking your child. “Hazing” is trying to purposely hurt someone in order to see if they are “worthy”. They often use paddles and place others in extreme conditions. In other words, “ABUSE” them.

    • Josh M says:

      Sorry…I tried to comment to your comment Dustin.

    • It’s am extreme example. A less extreme one is sort of funny. Two groups in a study were asked to sit in on a boring lecture. In group one, they simply showed up to the lecture and rating how much they enjoyed it. They typically rated it as quite boring. In group two, they were forced to fill out a whole bunch of paper work in order to participate, and do a short interview which had to be set up. The group that had to jump through hopes to sit through a boring lecture rating the lecture as more enjoyable.

      Increasing the amount of work it takes, the amount of annoyance it takes, or the amount of time it takes to reach the goal, made them appreciate it more.

      I feel like justification theory does explain why some people may feel it is more acceptable having gone through it themselves. They may attribute their personal discipline on it, instead of things like maturation and social support. At this point we are getting a bit close to opinion territory!! I do feel like the theory is applicable in this case, though.

      • Josh M says:

        That’s a cool example, and I see what your saying about the justification theory. And I agree with you also that this is beginning to slide into the “opinion” category. My soapbox is not all spanking is abuse, just as not all gun-owners are going to shoot someone.

    • Gina says:

      I agree that it’s easier to have these conversations if we do it with non-judgmental language, Josh. I know many parents who spank and I know there wasn’t an attitude of abuse behind it at all. I confess that I spanked sometimes with my first two, but also tried other things with them and had learned other ways of achieving the same ends by the time I had my third.) What I found is that, you’re right–sometimes the firm “no” didn’t do it. most of the time it did. But when it didn’t, no matter how little they were, they’d go on my lap in a snuggle with both my arms around them, my hands holding their hands. I’d make a push-away with their hands toward the “no” thing, and a pull-toward “yes” motion toward the “yes” option. While doing it, I’d talk to them. Even when we think they don’t understand, some amount of what we’re saying is going in–even if it’s just the tone of voice and the understanding that you’re making a difference between the two options. That usually did it for mine, but if they still persisted, I’d completely remove them (or the object, or other child) from the situation. Oddly enough, that in itself seemed to be taken as a punishment sometimes.

  5. I’m no parent so I’m not much of an expert on the matter but based from a discussion we had in my developmental psychology class, I don’t think corporal punishment is effective at all. I believed that punishment, at least in operant learning, is either meant to increase or decrease the occurrence of an undesirable behavior. From what we’ve discussed, when applying corporal punishment, the child is more likely to fixate on the fact that he/she was punished rather than why he/she was punished. This kind of makes corporal punishment pointless if the behavior modification isn’t lasting (of course, this doesn’t necessarily have to be true for all cases. It would be understandable for the child to start fearing a certain behavior if he/she knew he/she would be severely punished for him). I personally would favor an approach that would target the behavior rather than the child. Perhaps, find a way to explain to the child why what he/she did was wrong or provide a more desirable alternative. Again, I’m not a parent so my opinion might not account for much and I do understand how hard it would be to, as I’ve said, explain to the child what was wrong but, at the end of the day, providing the child with a way to morally internalize his/her actions seems the best way to raise him/her.

  6. Gina R says:

    I feel spanking and abuse are two completely different things just as Josh does. I have used spanking as a form of teaching my kids and I’m sure I will again. I have most often used it as a way to teach them not to do something that will hurt them.

    For example, when my son was around 2-years-old, he was curious about what I was cooking for dinner. He got too close while my back was turned and nearly touched a hot burner on the stove so he could try to see what was cooking. He had been told several times before not to touch the stove because it could hurt him. Since the talking to and telling wasn’t working, I decided to give him a good slap to the top of his hand so that he would associate pain with touching the top of the stove. He hasn’t tried touching it since then when I’m cooking. I did the same with my daughter and it worked just as well.

    A firm “NO” doesn’t always work. Taking the child out of the situation doesn’t always work. Time-outs are good as a cooling of period for both child and parent but don’t always work as a form of punishment. Taking something away doesn’t always work either.

    The form of punishment used should depend on the child and the given situation. My son, who’s 6, doesn’t like being told he’s a bad boy. Now, at his age, all I have to do is ask him if he thinks he’s being a good boy or a bad boy, he thinks for a minute and changes his behavior. When he was younger, he would place himself in time out to calm down when he got overly excited in the situation. Time out never worked as a punishment for him because he would find other ways to entertain himself while sitting in the time out spot. I got him to stop throwing tantrums by either ignoring them or throwing a tantrum with him. I have used spanking with him very sparingly but it was the only form of punishment that was applicable to the situation after having gone through other forms of teaching and punishment.

    My daughter, who’s 3, is a stubborn, willful, drama queen. She wants to do it her way and by herself no matter what. I have used spanking with her sparingly as well but the same forms of punishment that worked with my son has absolutely no effect on her. I have had to rework everything with her and we’re finally getting somewhere with her behaving appropriately. Time out does work as a punishment for her whereas taking something away does not. And, as with my son, sometimes only a spanking works to attain the wanted results.

    I have used “redirection” when they were younger but I have never really liked the idea. It has always seemed to me like rewarding them with play instead of punishing them for something they shouldn’t do in the first place.

    I get the science you’re referencing when talking about a kid having temptation and not being able to think about anything else. However, I have left bowls of Halloween candy sitting out on the kitchen table and neither of my kids will start eating it without permission. I have gone upstairs to fold clothes or take a shower or some other thing and allowed them to stay downstairs. I never came back downstairs and caught them in the candy. Even my 3-year-old knew she could only have some if she asked for permission.

    Also, I think the parents you used as an example are terrible parents. No child should be left alone in the house by himself at 6-years-old. I don’t care if you have the most well behaved child on the planet, any child younger than 11 or 12 is too young to be left completely alone without any form of adult supervision. The child could seriously hurt himself and wouldn’t have any idea what to do other than call 911. Getting into candy should be the least of those parents worries when leaving a kid that young alone in the house.

    Sorry about getting so long winded and maybe a little off-topic.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal story, it’s appreciated.

      I wanted to show that using physical punishment comes with a cost potential cost. Not every child becomes anti-social, but they do learn a lot more than intended from the interaction.

      Also, the child’s developing brain has trouble with multi-faceted concepts, which are described in more depth in the Piaget link.

      As for my example, I understand it’s absurd to leave a child alone like that. I could have said the parent went outside to check the mail when the misbehavior occurred. It’s just a hypothetical situation where I child may misbehave when unsupervised.

      In the end, the developmental trajectories of children are changed. I’m more of a fan of changing environments to change behavior. I understand that not every “bad” behavior can be foreseen, and I’m definitely not here to judge. The whole point is to help people understand the potential cost physical punishment has and the lesson the children tend to learn according to contemporary social development.

      Thanks again for the comment!

      • Gina says:

        Hello to one Gina from another. 🙂 I agree that a firm “no” doesn’t always work, but I’m a firm believer in the fact that there will be something non-hitting that will work “as good or better” than spanking, and by “as good or better” I mean that even spanking doesn’t always work, right? We’ve all heard that line from parents who say about their kid that “spankings don’t faze him at all . . .”

      • Gina R says:

        I do believe there can be a potential cost of physical punishment. However, I think it comes when parents don’t do it properly. A lot of parents spank and then tell the kid to go to their room. I feel if a spanking is used as a last resort rather than the first reaction, is done in a controlled manner rather than while the parent is still angry, and a discussion takes place after the spanking following up with the child why it happened, then it can be a very useful form of punishment.

        A parent flying of the handle, hitting a kid, and then sending the kid away is obviously going to do more harm than good in the long run. The kid is going to learn that getting physical is the only answer to every situation. If other forms of interaction and punishment are used first, the child will learn that there are other ways of solving problems that don’t have to involve getting physical. Sometimes when teaching a kid what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t will eventually lead to a spanking. It should always be the last resort but should not be considered not an option at all.

        Also, so formal in your response to a friend. Silly Dustin.

      • The thread and replies are all public. I’m gonna try to hide how crazy I am for as long as possible! =)

  7. Gina R says:


    You’re right, for some kids spankings don’t work. From my couple of years as a teacher and speaking with parents, many of them had given up disciplining their kids at all because spanking didn’t work. What I learned though is that most of these parents used spanking first and never tried any other form of punishment. So, their kids learned that all they had to do was put up with a few minutes of discomfort and then they could get back to what they were doing. In that situation, of course the spankings don’t faze the kids.

    Spankings in my house are a last resort and I have used every other form of punishment I can to get my kid to behave in an acceptable manner. When they don’t, they get a very controlled swat on the butt with my hand. After they have calmed down from the shock (I never hit hard enough for it to really hurt), we talk about why the spanking happened and they begin behaving appropriately again. I’ve only resorted to spanking my kids a few times and I have always gotten the desired results.

  8. Today, I went to the beach with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!|

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