Spanking and Taking Things Away: What You Need to Know

Written By

Jess VanderWier
February 13, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.


As a therapist, I have been asked over and over by parents what my thoughts are on traditional methods of discipline, such as time-outs, spanking and taking things away. Since we have previously talking about time-outs, I wanted to take a deep dive into the research about spanking and taking things away.  

Spanking

In a 2013 study by Elizabeth Gershoff, titled Spanking and Child Development, she reviews the literature that has been done on the effectiveness of spanking on behaviour change in children. Her study concluded that spanking is an ineffective way to change behaviour in kids for several reasons. 

First, spanking does not teach children why their behaviour was wrong or a replacement skill. Instead, spanking teaches children how they should behave when the threat of punishment exists. For example, when they are around mom and dad. Once the threat is gone, however, they have no reason to behave appropriately. 

Spanking may also be ineffective because sometimes a child’s behaviour purpose is to seek attention or connection with you. If this is the reason they are engaging in their behaviour, the time you spend with them spanking be helping them get this need met, even though the interaction is not positive. This means that spanking could be reinforcing the behaviour, making the challenging behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. 

Research done on children who were spanked showed that children typically did not remember the reason they were spanked. Instead, the children reported remembering messages of fear, anger, and sadness towards their caregiver.  

“Do as I say, not as I do”

Something that the research is very clear about is that children learn from what is modelled to them. This is another reason that spanking is an ineffective way to change behaviour.

Instead of modelling to your child new ways of behaving, you may be modelling the very same things that you are trying to get your child to stop doing. Even when spanking is done in a calm way from a parent, it is still modelling inflicting the use of pain from a trusted person in order to create change. This “do as I say, not as I do” model of parenting is shown in the research very clearly as being ineffective in creating behaviour change.

Finally, the research shows that children who were spanked were at an increased risk for mental health struggles, a negative view of a parent-child relationship, and increased challenging behaviour in adolescence. 

There is a wide body of evidence over the past decades showing that spanking is an ineffective way to truly discipline your child. It does not teach new skills, creates a culture of fear in children, models inappropriate behaviour, and could possibly lead to an increased risk for emotional struggles later in life. 

Taking things away

Taking things away from our kids to help them change their behaviour often looks like taking away privileges, toys, or activities. There are a few reasons why “taking things away” is an ineffective method of discipline. 

Alike time-outs and spanking, taking things away does not teach the child new skills or get to the root of the child’s behaviour. It can feel effective in the moment because a child may be highly motivated to have a certain item or activity back.

Another reason that the research shows us that taking things away is ineffective is because little children are most often not understanding the “cause and effect” relationship. What they will understand is that they are angry at you for taking away a valued toy or activity, you are the “bad guy” for taking away the toy or activity, and they want that toy back! Instead of focusing on learning from their behaviour or coming up with new ways to get their needs met, they will focus on their feelings towards the loss of the beloved item. 

Although this is a commonly used practice, the research once again is clear that this is not effective. Taking things away is not going to be your best intervention when you are trying to change your child’s behaviour and feel connected to your child. 

Final thoughts

Whew, that was a lot of information! I wanted you to have this evidence-based factual information on spanking and taking things away. When you know more, you can do things differently!  

If you want to know even more and are looking for guidance, I highly suggest our Parenting Little Kids course. You’ll get scripts, tools, and the deeper understanding to help you discipline effectively.

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    References:

    Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

    Gershoff, E. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We know enough to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137.

    Hoffman, Martin. (1970) “Moral Development.” In Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd ed., volume 2, edited by Paul H. Mussen. New York: Wiley.

    MacKenzie MJ et al. Spanking and child development across the first decade of life. Pediatrics 2013 Oct 21; [e-pub ahead of print]. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-1227)

    Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J., & Rice, J. C. (2010). Mothers’ spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children’s aggressive behavior. Pediatrics, 125(5), e1057–e1065. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2009-2678

    Article By

    Jess VanderWier
    Jess is a seasoned Registered Psychotherapist with a deep commitment to enhancing emotional well-being in children and families. Holding a Master's in Counselling Psychology, Jess has extensive clinical experience in guiding parents through their children's intense emotions, sleep struggles, anxiety, and other challenges with empathy and understanding. In addition to individual sessions, she is known for her work educating parents on social media through @nurturedfirst. Outside of her professional life, Jess enjoys the peace of nature hikes and spending as much time as possible enjoying her family.