Never Spank: Thoughts On New American Academy Of Pediatrics Guidelines

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Our popular culture wants the world to work on two spectrums. On the one hand, we insist that we must always do certain activities—such as loving everyone (there’s Bible precedent for this one!), raising the minimum wage universally, etc.—and never engage in other activities, such as spanking, or supporting President Donald Trump, or disciplining children with an element of something even halfway negative.

That last point deserves our attention and serious thought in light of the recent recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents should never spank their children under any circumstances. AAP is considered the gold standard for research- and science-based information for nurturing children. I fully endorse their support of vaccines to keep kids healthy and reduce the risk of disease transfer, and I’m confident their depth of experience working with children is vastly more impressive than my own.

Further, I will fully admit that the findings they outline based on research are troubling. For example, the research noted at the above link suggests spanking can promote aggression in children, physically and mentally harm babies and toddlers, and lead to damaging views of self-worth among our young people. All of those parental behaviors are red flags that scream abuse rather than constructive discipline, and each of us—myself included—must always be on guard to be providing clear boundaries and correction in a sober, calm and disciplined fashion.

At the same time, it is troubling from a Christian perspective that there is little to no moral framework clearly stated in the guidelines AAP has issued. I understand it isn’t AAP’s mission to argue on morality but rather on the body of evidence-based research. But consider passages such as this one, which instructs parents in how to coach their teenagers through such positive, non-spanking, non-negative reinforcement:

“Set a good example through your own responsible use of alcohol and other substances.”

Hmm. So spanking is unacceptable in all cases, but it is OK to introduce substance use to my children? We are told to avoid damaging our children physically or mentally—which is perfectly valid advice—yet we are to model the “safe” way to use drugs and alcohol that are responsible for tearing apart entire communities (see: opioid crisis) and contributing to fatal car accidents? For the sake of consistency, AAP should be setting far firmer boundaries when it comes to modeling good behavior. Zero tolerance is a brush that should be broadly applied.

For parents of younger children—toddlers and elementary age in particular—the AAP raises additional questions that merit scrutiny. We are told that in addition to ending spanking, we should limit the use of the word “no” in nearly all cases, avoid conflict rather than resolving it (the specific recommendation is: “Acknowledge conflicts between siblings but avoid taking sides. For example, if an argument arises about a toy, the toy can be put away.”), and liberally apply time outs.

I’m personally a big fan of time outs, but I know from experience that even time outs administered swiftly and with an eloquent conversation about the reasons behind the time out often have mixed results. I am not advocating for liberal spanking. I am simply observing that families have applied spanking for millennia in an effort to provide a clear boundary that may difficult to articulate through reasoning, time outs or removal of conflict.

I don’t expect you to start or stop spanking because of this blog post. I simply want you to think critically about discipline. This is one of the most frustrating parts of parenting, and recognizing that I could make a horribly wrong decision or permanently scar my child is terrifying. So we must approach discipline critically, rationally and completely soberly, and we need to understand the underlying principles governing the guidance of independent groups such as AAP.

Speaking only for myself as a Christian dad, I would argue the guidance appears at first blush as a noble yet flawed attempt to find the good in all of our children. Problematically, though, the guidance fails to reflect the fact that life brings negative consequences that go beyond stern warnings and time outs. People lose loved ones. They lose jobs. They make mistakes. They damage relationships. Each and every one of these things causes deep and lasting pain—yet each can be overcome with proper support and community.

In a similar way, my parents applied spanking only when absolutely necessary to articulate clear boundaries of right and wrong. I remember those occasions not because of any damage emotionally or physically—there was none, I assure you—but because they cared enough to draw a clear line that my behavior had crossed a line. They didn’t remove the conflict or attempt to redirect me or avoid the conversation. I had a brief spanking, we had a conversation and I changed my behavior.

Violence isn’t the answer. Meanness won’t help a child in the slightest. Discipline is hard and complicated and ought to be conducted out of the deepest place of love and devotion for your children. And while I applaud the AAP’s effort to spell out in research-based terms the many risks of persistent, anger-based spanking, I also noticed the following:

“AAP recommends that you do not spank or use other physical punishments. That only teaches aggressive behavior, and becomes ineffective if used often.” (bold text added by me for emphasis)

Does this mean spanking could have merits if used only occasionally? AAP’s vague language suggests it’s a possibility. In a world of no spanking ever, it is troubling that AAP’s recommendations are leading parents toward a future where children learn to avoid conflict and pain at all cost.

No matter your views on spanking, we need AAP to reconsider its position on helping our young people see the world for what it is: A broken place with broken people who need structure, guard rails and a whole lot of hope.