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Monday, 18 September 2000

Is Hitting an Appropriate Form Of Child Discipline?

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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QDear WholeFamily Counselor,

I would like to hear about the pros and cons of hitting children as a form of discipline, and when it becomes abuse. I only hit my four-year-old son in two situations: Either he just hit or attacked me physically (he's pretty strong), and I respond instinctively, or he is in the midst of a dangerous, violent act, and I prevent it by being physical. My brother-in-law voiced some concern to my wife (his sister) over this weekend, and I wanted to check with an expert about the theory of hitting, and get some feedback about my particular case.


AI'm glad you wrote in with this question, since this is an area of concern for many parents. The definition of child abuse and the line between child abuse and child discipline is a legal matter that differs from state to state (within the U.S.) and from country to country. It is therefore, not possible for me to give you specific guidelines in this area. If you are interested in checking out legal definitions of child abuse in the United States, you may wish to start by reading What Is Child Abuse? at the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

I would, however, like to give you some ideas that relate to your specific situation.

You mentioned that you use physical punishment in two situations:

  1. Your child attacks you physically and you react instinctively.
    It is certainly appropriate to not allow your child to cause physical harm to yourself or others by physically stopping him from carrying out an act. An appropriate response would be holding him as gently as possible away from you or from whoever he is trying to hurt and continuing to hold him until he has calmed down. Certainly you would not be expected to sit and not stop your child from hurting you.

    If, however, by reacting instinctively, you are referring to "hitting him in return" then this reaction is not appropriate. I know that the natural response to being hit is to hit back, but when we are talking about a fight between a four-year-old and an adult, this is clearly not a fair fight. The adult, in this situation, must be the one to keep his cool and refrain from any punishment, physical or otherwise until the child has calmed down.

  2. He is in the midst of a dangerous, violent act, and you prevent it by being physical.
    Once again, you are certainly correct that you should not stand passively by and watch your child do something dangerous. If your child will not listen to your instructions, you need to physically remove your child from the dangerous situation. After the immediate danger has passed, you can then consider if physical punishment is the best way to discipline your child.

In considering what this punishment should be, I would like to address the first part of your question: What are the pros and cons of physical punishment (i.e. spanking, hitting) as a form of child discipline?

In this area, as in most areas of early childhood development, there are differences of opinion between experts. I would agree that for a very young child (under age three), a slight slap may be appropriate as a response to a dangerous act (running into the street, trying to open the oven, trying to play with the gas). Others would differ with me even on this. Once a child reaches age three, however, a child has the cognitive ability to understand and discuss non-physical punishments.

In my opinion, the potential "cons" of using physical punishment with a four-year-old child far outweigh the "pros." The purpose of a punishment is to teach a child what behaviors are unacceptable and to prevent the child from using these behaviors. You might want to consider if responding to your child by spanking or by hitting him will accomplish these goals. If your child hits and you respond by hitting him, no matter what your words are ("no hitting," "no hurting"), your actions are saying otherwise. Your actions say to him that hitting is acceptable behavior.

It is certainly true that many people have been raised with an occasional spanking and turned out "just fine." (By "occasionally" I would say perhaps once every two weeks or longer.) I caution you, however, to consider if physical punishment will benefit your child. I find both with my own children and with the children in my classes (where obviously physical punishment is not an option), that other forms of discipline simply work better.

Here are three alternative methods of responding to difficult behavior that I find both more effective and more advisable than physical punishment.

  1. Set up a time-out program.

    I find time-out to be an effective form of discipline for most young children. For information about how to implement a time-out program you can read Time Out: What Is It and How Can You Make It Work For You?

  2. Make the punishment fit the crime.

    Try and pick a punishment that will make your child "think twice" before using the same behavior again. If your child is playing with an object and then hits you or another child with the object, take the toy away and do not return it for a specified period of time.

    If your child hits you, then make it clear that your "fun-time" together is over for a while. Tell him he must play on his own for a specified period of time.
    (With a young child, it helps to set this time on a kitchen timer so he can literally see when his punishment is over.)

    If your child endangers himself by climbing on a high fence while playing outside, punish him by not allowing him to play outside for the rest of the day.

    In this way, children learn to consider the consequences of their actions and often decide that the negative behavior is "not worth it."

    To read more about this method of child discipline go to Make the Punishment Fit the Crime.

  3. Reward good behavior.

    As parents, we are quick to punish and unfortunately not as quick to recognize and reward good behavior. Just as you can punish your child by not playing with him if he misbehaves, make sure you reward him when he behaves by spending extra time with him.

    If your son does something especially nice or has a really great day, tell him. Play an extra game or read an extra book with him that night. Buy him a small prize (you can keep a stash of stickers on hand for this occasion) to let him know how "proud" you are when he behaves nicely.

    If children only get attention when they misbehave, sometimes they will act-out just for any attention, positive or negative. Make good behavior a positive experience and you will encourage your son to try and think of ways to behave nicely.

    To read more about how to give some extra positive attention to your son, check out Parenting With Love.

As a final thought, I would like to caution you that if the behaviors you describe, physical violence towards yourself and dangerous acts, occur more than on an occasional basis, you may wish to consider consulting with a child psychologist about the source of these behaviors. Most young children show difficult behaviors on occasion, but if these behaviors occur frequently, then a professional consultation is advisable.

The possibility also exists that your son's difficult behavior may be connected to your method of punishment. If his behavior is a regular problem, try some of the alternate methods of behavior management I mentioned above and see if there is any improvement.

Once again, I would like to thank you for sending in this question. I can tell that you are a caring and concerned father and I hope that the information I provided will help you to make an informed decision about disciplining your son.

Best Wishes,

Esther Wolfson, MA
Director, Early Childhood Development Center

Last modified on Thursday, 24 March 2011 15:44
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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