Don’t spank your kids. Do time-outs and positive talk instead, pediatricians say

parent talking to kid in time out

For many reasons, spanking isn’t a good way to discipline kids, pediatricians say.


Sometime around 9 p.m., before the second leg of a cross-country flight, my just-turned-4-year-old decided she had had enough. She let out a scream and went full noodle right at the end of a moving walkway in Chicago Midway. I had the baby in a carrier and a death grip on my older daughter’s hand, so it was up to my husband to scoop up our enraged, sweaty middle child and keep hold of her and all our bags as we made our way to the gate. 

The poor kid had been traveling all day. Offers of treats were no longer effective. Neither were our warnings. She was exhausted, pushed well beyond her capabilities to self-regulate at that point in our journey. Though I knew this, I was still mad.

Sometimes you just have to white-knuckle through these extreme parenting moments of high stress and little to do about it. But when things calm down, these wild outbursts almost always make me think hard about discipline, and what might work better next time.

Discipline is in the news this month, with the November 5 release of updated guidelines on spanking from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Corporal punishment such as hitting and spanking shouldn’t ever be used to discipline kids, the pediatricians’ group writes. Nor should any method that causes shame or humiliation, including verbal abuse. Parents ought to use other tactics, such as positive reinforcement and time-outs, instead. Some of the tips mentioned in the new guidelines include reinforcing good behavior, such as telling a child, “I love it when you brush your teeth the first time I ask.”

The updated guidelines are bolstered by studies that show links between spanking and poorer outcomes in kids. I’ve written before that overall, these studies are hard to interpret. Most look at correlations between kids who are spanked (some quite severely) and how they do later in life. The trouble is that you never know if the spanking or other factors caused the problems.  

But one tidbit from a small study mentioned in these new recommendations surprised me. To see how parents behave in their homes, scientists equipped 33 mothers with audio recorders that captured family life for up to six evenings. In 15 of the 33 families, a caregiver (mother, father, or even grandmother, in one case) spanked at some point (or points) during the recordings. Here’s the part that floored me: Most of the time, kids who were spanked were misbehaving again within 10 minutes.

If these findings hold for the general population (a big if), that’s remarkable. Spanking proponents often say their harsh discipline is effective in cases where nothing else works. But here’s a bit of evidence that spanking doesn’t always, or even often, get the desired behavior.

As with any study, this small study wasn’t perfect. It included only mothers who said that they yelled at their children in anger at least twice a week — a group that might not represent a broader swath of the parenting population. Still, it’s worth considering that like other forms of discipline, spanking isn’t always effective.

The thing I’m realizing more and more is that there’s no one answer for every child in every situation. What works, or doesn’t, depends on the time of day, the previous night’s sleep, and, along with countless other variables, the individual kid. And, as I experienced in the airport, sometimes there’s nothing to do but take deep breaths and wait. Moments with little children, no matter how absurd, eventually pass.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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