Ask Philip: Parenting is hands-on, but punishment shouldn’t be

Dear Philip:

Is spanking a child okay? My father and I just had an argument about it when my son was behaving badly during my parents’ visit and I put him in a time-out. My father thinks I’m too politically correct and says that since the infrequent spankings I received as a child don’t seem to have “ruined” me, I should consider using corporal punishment with both my kids.

My wife disagrees, and thinks my father is awful for even suggesting it. Is she right?

Sparing the rod

Dear Sparing:

Your dad certainly has an interesting way of measuring success: spanking didn’t ruin you, so you should ignore the reams of evidence that it’s a bad idea (and not particularly effective), and go ahead and strike your child.

I know, I know: I just used the word “strike,” and approximately half my readership rolled its collective eyes, certain that I’m being as politically correct as your father thinks you’re being. Actually, though, I’m just being precise in my language. Spanking is the use of a hand to strike a child in order to inflict pain, generally as a form of punishment for something that probably doesn’t rise to the level of felony. Spanking is a parent’s way of saying, “Step out of line, kid, and I will physically hurt you.”

Which is not something your father would likely be comfortable admitting, or even realizing. Let’s let him off the hook from this standpoint: your father spanked you, so it’s a safe bet that he was spanked, as were his folks. It’s what he knows, and it was something he learned from people who loved him. To see spanking as potentially harmful is to admit that his parents might have harmed him — and that he might have harmed you. He sees your rejection of spanking as an accusation.

If he lets on that he’s feeling accused, gently let him know that if he practiced spanking the way most parents have — rarely and not-very-firmly — it’s perfectly acceptable for him to plead ignorance. Until recently, we didn’t really know any better.

Now we do. Plenty of recent studies find a direct link between spanking and aggressive behavior in school (and later in life). That link makes a whole lot of sense when you consider that taking a hand to a child teaches nothing so much as the idea that getting physical is a perfectly acceptable way to solve problems.

The irony, of course, is that parents don’t really use spanking to solve problems. They use it because they’re angry. Maybe because they’ve been defied, or they’re scared. There’s an important distinction between consequence and punishment, and that’s passion: a parent who can calmly put a child in a time-out or take away a privilege stands a much better chance of teaching that child than a parent who loses it and starts swinging. And honestly, wouldn’t you rather your child fear a loss of privilege and not you?

Actual parenting — coming up with consequences that can be explained to your child before they need to be employed, and then employing them firmly – is hard. It takes thought and planning. Spanking is quick and easy, and can make the one doing the spanking feel better right away: My kid acted up, and I sure taught him a lesson!

But parenting is not about making the parent feel better, it’s about helping a child grow into a secure, healthy person with a set of values. It’s about being the adult in the relationship even when — maybe especially when — both sides could use a breather. The lack of passion that comes in a time-out, or the removal of a toy, gives a son or daughter the space to actually think about whatever rule it is that they’ve broken. Pain makes thinking a bit more difficult: it’s hard to be contrite when you’re too busy being afraid of the person that’s supposed to protect you.

Your father taught you to spank, Sparing, but I’m guessing he also taught you to learn: now that you have access to information that he didn’t have, honor your dad by using that knowledge.

Yours in using our words,


Philip Van Munching is a New York Times best-selling author of advice books, including “Boys Will Put You on a Pedestal (so they can look up your skirt): A Dad’s Advice for Daughters.” Email your questions to