I’m Ellen (not my real name). I am a single mother, and I have 5 year old twin boys. I love them to pieces, but they can be a real handful. When they really misbehave, by hitting and kicking each other, I spank them sometimes. And it works! They stop their fight and maybe just cry for a minute or go to their room. Even though it works, I feel embarrassed about it, because I’m pretty sure that most of my friends would think it’s terrible. I don’t do very often, and I don’t hit them very hard. My parents spanked me as a child, and I think I came out okay, so I am not sure if it is really a problem or not. What do you think?
I really am grateful that you wrote. I hear how much you love those beautiful boys and want the best for them! I can only imagine what it must be like to be a single mom with two five year olds. I bet it is often very stressful. In particular, I can imagine that it is hard to know how to get the kids to stop fighting each other.
I can see why you would wonder whether spanking makes sense. On the plus side, you have the example of your own childhood, where getting spanked was part of your experience, so it is familiar. You also have the experience that spanking your children “works,” in the sense that they change their behavior right away.
In light of these positives, I think you are asking if there are many negatives.
So I’ll say, yes, I think that there are very significant negatives to spanking your children, which I will name, below. But first I want to say that to me, an important question is: What can you do, Ellen, to help keep yourself feeling good, so you can approach your kids calmly and kindly?
You have mentioned that you are single and that the kids are a handful. It sounds like you need more rest and support! I want to encourage you to call a meeting of anybody else who you and the kids have in your lives, and see if you can have other adults spend more time with the boys, so you have more time for yourself. It could be neighbors, family members, parents of other kids at school, or you can check with staff at recreation centers or the school social worker, who might have ideas about getting more support. We have all heard that kids need a village, and I want to encourage you to try to start pulling together a village of people who might be able to spend some time with your kids, so you get a break!
In terms of spanking, here are a few of the many downsides of spanking:
Spanking doesn’t stop the behavior in the long term: While spanking gets the kids to stop what they are doing in the moment, there is a lot of research to suggest the children whose parents spank or hit them carry a lot of painful feelings inside — feelings like humiliation, confusion, resentment, hurt, anger. These big, painful feelings make the kids more likely to hit others and generally act out in the future.
It’s not good for your relationship: Your children depend on you for their comfort, safety, and well-being, and I know that you do everything you can to keep them safe and well. But when you hit them, it’s likely to damage their sense of trust that you are safe and reliable, that you are a person they can talk to when they are confused, lonely, or feeling down. They may start to be more emotionally closed to you. This, of course, can damage your relationship, over time, which is a huge loss for them and for you.
It puts them at risk, down the line: If your children don’t trust you as a place that they can go for comfort, or if they are hurting inside, it puts them at a much higher risk of things like depression and substance abuse. I know that when they are five years old, these risks seem a long way off — but there are many studies that suggest that kids whose parents spank or hit them are much more at risk for mental illness and drug use.
In another column, I’ll write about some alternatives to spanking and what you can do with yourself when you have that impulse. In the meantime, Ellen, thanks for writing, and I hope that you get some good rest and support so you can love up those kids!