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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Power Assertion and Child Guidance: Spanking and Other Acts

 Not only the American Psychological Association, but various other groups with an interest in child development and parenting have been expressing concerns about spanking for many years. Such concerns are felt not only about physical punishment that reaches the level of injury and abuse, but about spanking itself—usually defined as a matter of one or two smacks with the adult’s bare hand on a child’s buttocks or legs.

One reason to be concerned about physical punishment by spanking is that there may be a “domino effect”. Caregivers who feel free to spank may respond to stress and anger by escalating to more intense or frequent blows, or to using a weapon like a switch or electric cord that will cause more pain. With such escalation, the possibility of real injury increases; when no physical punishment at all is used, escalation cannot occur.

A second reason for concern is that among some subcultures, spanking is associated with more rather than less antisocial behavior by children and adolescents. It’s possible that children learn to be more violent by imitating violent adult models. However, the issue is much confused by the fact that in other subcultures spanking is associated with better child development and achievement. All of these points are based on correlational studies that find statistical correlations between children’s experiences and their development, but do not allow us to conclude that an experience causes a developmental change. Children’s experiences of spanking or other punishment do not stand alone, and caregivers who spank may also provide other experiences that influence children.

The emphasis on spanking often focuses on the child’s experiences of pain and potential physical injury, but in fact spanking, as properly defined, probably does not hurt as much as a skinned knee or many other accidental childhood experiences. Perhaps what we need to do, to understand the potential effects of spanking, is to consider the act not as a source of pain, but as a type of power assertion.  Power assertion techniques attempt to create behavior change by associating unwanted behavior with pain, fear, or both.

Although spanking is not considered an abusive act in the United States (at least for children older than a year and not yet in adolescence), there are many other power assertion techniques that may be classed as abusive for research purposes. These may or may not be specified under state laws about child abuse and may simply be considered as aspects of harsh parenting. They include isolating the child by keeping him or her locked in a room alone, depriving the child of food or drink, forcing the child to eat or drink, shouting at or refusing to speak to the child, and restraining the child physically by hand or by binding. Because power assertion techniques may operate through threats that frighten the child, adult threats of any of these experiences can be counted as examples of power assertion, even though the threats do no direct harm and do not even cause pain.

Why might we expect power assertion techniques to have worse outcomes than other forms of child guidance? One reason is that frequent experiences of fear and general anxiety are associated with difficulties about learning and thinking in both children and adults. (Although it may be true that knowing one is to be hanged “concentrates the mind wonderfully”, the concentration is on the hanging and not on other matters to be learned or remembered!) A second reason is that the normal course of development of attachment and social relationships involves increasing levels of compromise, bargaining, and negotiation, which are almost impossible when one party is constantly asserting his or her power over the other. A third reason is that parents who emphasize power assertion techniques with their children must by definition spend less time than others using techniques like humor, playfulness, rewards, and goal-setting, all of which support language and cognitive development as well as positive family relationships.

It does seem as if children can benefit from decreased experience of all of the power assertion techniques, not just of spanking. But there is a paradox here. Is not power assertion implied in all interactions adults have with children? We are big and they are small; we are skilled at punishments and threats and have the power to carry them out. We have the food and can withhold it. We can lock them in a room, we can turn out the lights with a switch they can’t reach. Even if (one hopes) we never do any of those things, we do have the power and they don’t. What’s more, we assert that power for various necessary reasons in the course of their early lives—changing diapers that they don’t want to have changed, snatching them out of the busy street, carrying them kicking and screaming out of a store, taking them to the doctor for shots.

The power differential is unquestionable, and we can never escape it. But we can limit the use of power assertion to times when it is really necessary, and that should go not only for spanking but for other power assertion methods. The reward? Better developmental progress, and probably more young adults who  know how to compromise with others.


  1. I just want to start off by saying your studies have been a breath of fresh air so far and I am enjoying going through the myths book.
    I was very interested to read your take on spanking as it seems that it is becoming more frowned upon in the US.
    I believe the real problem is not with physical punishment but rather with improper balance of incorporating positive/negative punishment and reinforcement. Man tends to slide to either end of the spectrum resulting in developmental issues or a maladapted adult. The same comes when a child has been nothing but catered to with no form of punishments/ only reinforcement for positive behavior.
    My belief in support of physical punishment is that our world and basis for learning begins with the physical (rewards of nourishment, pains of discomfort.) As language is developed later, direct obedience to the parent should be in the works of establishing.
    Power assertion is a necessary order to have most any 'body' function without chaos. Hierarchy and position of decision making must be understood (Business, school, government, military, family). Man's natural desire is to be lead and some until they can lead. If the father does not take charge, the wife will, and if the wife does not take charge, the child will.
    To loop back around, for young children, the quickest way for a child to be receptive that a behavior is bad or harmful, is for a quick pop (hand, mouth, behind). And if I am not wrong, physical pain would reach the brain rather quickly to associate that behavior negatively, shortly after the memory is made. This form of punishment though, should decrease in frequency as the child ages and matures.
    In conclusion, parenting is a very delicate and stressful job in which we all will mess up to some degree. However, I believe to get the optimal outcome, one must attempt to maintain a balance of love and punishment to have a proper and rewarding parent/child relationship.

    Personal note: When my child misbehaves that requires a spanking, I always gently explain what was wrong and why, administer the punishment, and then have another small talk which includes a loving interaction. I do this to best assure the child understands the reason for what is happening and that I am trying to shape them to have better character because I love them and want them to succeed in life.

    - Noel

    1. Hello Noel-- I just want to remind you that "pops" on the head and face are potentially a great deal more dangerous than smacks on the buttocks.

      Please understand that I do not encourage physical punishment. I think it is largely ineffective if not well-timed, and can be counterproductive for some children, who are overwhelmed by it. It may also lead to modeling of aggressive behavior, and for these reasons should be handled with care.
      However, I have said and still maintain that a blanket prohibition on physical punishment is unwise-- there are circumstances, especially those involving single parents or those with no regular adult back-up, where physical punishment may be the most effective way available to deter dangerous or potentially problematic behavior.

      I understand where you are going with your reasonable explanation and affectionate aftermath to physical punishment, but I think these may not be the most important issues. Does your use of physical punishment result in changed behavior? If not, you may want to substitute some other method, or re-think the timing of the punishment, or even consider whether reminders and rewards may be more effective ways to shape behavior.

  2. I understand and respect your opinion. I suppose it is meaningful to mention my methods extend from a biblical perspective.
    Either way, we have had positive results. I was more experimental with other methods at first but after a couple years, physical punishment seemed to be the most effective as well as made my oldest understand quickly that an action was wrong. Granted, we do not spank for every offense, it is usually implemented after more than one warning or for intentionally hurting another child (which rarely occurs anymore). We use negative punishment at times as well as rewards for good behavior.
    All in all, I am pleasantly surprised with how well adjusted our children are becoming. We receive compliments weekly on how loving and obedient they are from people at church and even strangers (they have no fear of adults and strike conversations with them freely, although we are working on not interrupting adult conversation.) But we don't conclude from our own children alone, for we personally know many examples from Christian families that we grew up with and others that we met as adults.
    However, they are far from perfect and we are not perfect parents. We just try our best, try to guide in accordance to the scriptures coupled with lots of love and let Gods grace cover the rest.
    I don't believe physical punishment is the end-all be-all likewise it gets misused by many people, but if implemented correctly with balance, it (in my opinion) would be the most effective choice for young children.

    1. Yes, I understood from various things you said that you were basing your decisions on religious beliefs. It sounds as if your family is doing very well and I congratulate you.

      Let me just say, though, that as the children get closer to adolescence, I think you would be wise to phase out any use of physical punishment, as this is considered to be abusive with older children-- you have undoubtedly thought of this, but I want to point it out for the benefit of other readers. I also want to say that "one size" of discipline does not fit all children and families. There are children who are so overwhelmed by physical punishment that they learn nothing from it, and there are adults who cannot stop with one smack on the bottom. The ways that have been effective in your family are not necessarily going to be good for everyone.