What Is the Difference Between Spanking and Abuse?

April 30th, 2012 by Dionna | 59 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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This was a tough one to write, and I am hopeful that it will be read in the spirit it was written – not in a space of judgment or criticism, but in the hope that by rethinking long-held beliefs, we can all communicate more peacefully. There is always more room for peace in our world, especially where children are concerned.

Welcome to the Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival

This post was written for inclusion in the Second Annual Spank Out Day Carnival hosted by Zoie at TouchstoneZ. Spank Out Day was created by The Center for Effective Discipline to give attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior. All parents, guardians, and caregivers are encouraged to refrain from hitting children on April 30th each year, and to seek alternative methods of discipline through programs available in community agencies, churches and schools. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


You know what is difficult? Trying to explain the difference between spanking and abuse to a child. My child doesn’t really understand where the line is drawn.

I understand his confusion.

The other day Kieran and I went to a donation party for a domestic violence shelter. The shelter asked people to bring new pajamas for kids, many of whom come in at night with nothing.

Before we went, Kieran asked me why we were bringing pajamas, and why the kids stayed at the shelter. I explained to him that the shelter was for mamas and children who were abused. He asked, “what is abused?” I said, “well . . . we have talked about how some parents spank. Abuse is . . . when parents spank very, very hard. They really hurt.”

He said, “doesn’t spanking really hurt?”

I remember when we first talked about spanking — thanks, Little House on the Prairie. When we reached the part where Pa spanks Laura, I read through it without inflection, hoping Kieran wouldn’t ask any questions. But sure enough, as soon as I finished the passage he said, “mama, what does spank mean?”

Drawing from an example that happened just that afternoon I said, “you know how sometimes when you get frustrated, you yell or try to hit one of your friends? And sometimes mama gets frustrated and we might both need to take a break to cool down and then we talk? And you know how some kids take time-outs? Well, some parents think that hitting is a way to teach their kid not to act in a certain way.”

{Looking concerned} “They hit? Why?”

I said, “some people think that hitting will teach or scare kids into acting in an appropriate way.”

He said, “But you say don’t hit.” And I replied, “yes, I do, and I do not believe that any hitting is ok. In our family, we do not hit. We want everyone to feel safe, and hitting does not make me feel safe.

Before we were done, he asked me again, “why do they want to hurt their kids, mama?

So when he asked me, “what is abuse?,” I really struggled. Because we work hard to teach him that hitting is not safe.

I do not want him to hit when he is four years old. I definitely do not want him to hit when he is older – his partner or his children. I do not want him to feel that he is deserving of being hit by others, ever.

Therefore, we teach that no hitting is safe.

What is the difference then between spanking (or swatting, popping, etc.) and abuse? There is a fine legal line.

A commonly adopted definition specifies spanking as hitting a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intent to discipline without leaving a bruise or causing physical harm. . . . Physical abuse usually is defined to encompass corporal punishment that is harsh and excessive, involves the use of objects (e.g., belts, paddles), is directed to parts of the body other than the extremities, and causes or has the potential to cause physical harm. Because many parents report using objects during punishment, behaviors that many professionals might consider as clearly abusive are fairly common and included in some definitions of spanking.1

Under many state laws, “[p]hysical abuse is generally defined as ‘any nonaccidental physical injury to the child’ and can include striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child.”2

Two questions come to my mind when I read that: If a parent is intentionally hitting his/her child and an injury occurs, when would that injury be “nonaccidental”? and What counts as a physical impairment?

The answers will depend on your state’s law, how good your attorney is, and who your judge is.

In Connecticut, you will have to argue what constitutes physical injury, because “[t]he term ‘abused’ means that a child or youth [h]as been inflicted with physical injury or injuries by other than accidental means.”3

In Arkansas they’ve gotten very specific about what crosses the line into abuse. Be sure not to tie “a child to a fixed or heavy object or bind[] or [tie] a child’s limbs together.” You should also stay away from “[g]iving a child or permitting a child to consume or inhale a poisonous or noxious substance . . . .” But just so you know, if you throw, kick, or bite a child and it does not result in physical injury, you should be in the clear.4

Apparently the line between acceptable punishment and abuse is a little more explicit there.

Regardless of our own state law, I think I’ll stick with my four year old on this one.

“Doesn’t spanking really hurt?” Yes, it does. Let’s work together to find a healthier way to work with our children.


I know that many of my readers have spanked – once, a few times, or regularly. I fretted when deciding whether or not to publish this post, because I know how critical it might sound to a parent who employs corporal punishment. Heck, I know how it feels to want to spank. I’ve been that mad – I’ve teetered on the edge of such hot frustration and/or fear that I felt like striking my own child. But I have found the self-control to breathe, to regroup, to find a way to communicate that feels better to me and my child. And I’m thankful, because peaceful communication is something I value.

Please do not read this as something I have written sitting in judgment. I simply wanted to share another perspective – that of a child who cannot possibly grasp the fine distinction between a parent who is trying to teach their child a lesson through physical discipline, and one who is lashing out at a child in a rage.

To a child, there may not be much of a difference.


Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival hosted by TouchstoneZ

On Carnival day, please follow along on Twitter using the handy #SpankOutCar hashtag. You can also subscribe to the Spank Out Day Carnival Twitter List and Spank Out Day Carnival Participant Feed.
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  1. Spanking Children: Evidence and Issues (citations omitted)
  2. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect at 2.
  3. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect at 13 (Citing Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-120).
  4. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect at 13 (Citing Ark. Ann. Code § 12-18-103).

59 Responses to:
"What Is the Difference Between Spanking and Abuse?"

  1. Kelly

    I understand and pretty much agree with your argument here. But you do come across as judgmental – this is clearly something that you feel so passionately about that you aren’t able to discern the judgment inherent in your own language. I do think there is a big difference in spanking vs abuse – I’ve seen both in action unfortunately and it is pretty clear what the difference is when you are living it. I don’t believe in spanking my children, but I also don’t believe that good parents who do spank are abusing their kids and that really is what you are implying very strongly in this post. Your child doesn’t see the difference because he’s been raised by you and hasn’t had any experience with either spanking or abuse. And that’s cool. But if you’d ever witnessed true child abuse, you would not be at all confused about the difference between that and a “spank” on the bottom.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I, too, have seen both forms – I used to work in two different care environments where children came in with bruises and black eyes. But there were also children who did not bear any physical marks of “abuse,” but were clearly abused.
      I do agree with you that there is a clear line between an occasional spank on the bottom and regular instances of making Junior cut his own switch, of course there is a difference. And there is a difference between Junior and the switch and taking a lit cigarette to your 6 year old’s arm. I think what I’m trying to get across in this post (and yes, it was hard!) is that it is so murky, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply try to work toward more peaceful methods of discipline?

  2. Violetsouffle

    Wonderful (if heartbreaking) post, Dionna. I appreciated hearing Kierans simple questions about it&how you answered him. It will be Very helpful for when my own little asks me these questions.

  3. So often the truth is the simplest answer, isn’t it? I think explaining this distinction to a small child should end the argument. There is no distinction. We grown-ups think we’re so smart…yet your little one knows the truth. Thanks for sharing this story :)

  4. J

    My friend and I have talked a lot about spanking lately. She has a very stubborn four-year-old who laughs and smiles when she is punished by being put in time out, and extending time outs don’t work because it turns into a battle of wills between parent and child. She is fundamentally against spanking, and while I never gave it much thought (my oldest child never needed much more than a stern look until she was over 5). In our conversation we both came to agree that the largest difference between spanking and abuse (as it pertains to a firm open-handed swat on the buttocks) is whether it is done with intention and understanding on both parts (i.e., “I am spanking you now because you lied,” and doing this after both parent and child have cooled off as an act of discipline) vs. lashing out in anger. I’m not sure what your personal experience with spanking is, but having grown up in a household where spanking as a punishment was done in a calm and rational way, I believe there is a difference. It is a distinction that you have failed to address in this post and I think that you are remiss in telling your child that it is done in anger rather than explaining to him that it is a different form of discipline that you do not believe in, but many parents do.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I appreciate your viewpoint and recognize that we have experienced spanking differently. I have never seen spanking done calmly or rationally – and honestly, I cannot fathom how any instance of striking another human being could ever be thought of as something that the person on the hitting end would receive intentionally (well, other than the adult forms of spanking in play).

      • J

        I can see how if your only experience with spanking was as an emotional response you would have a hard time understanding how it could be done calmly and as a deliberate form of discipline. Christie, below, explains it well when she describes “the wait.” It’s not unlike the time between getting a traffic ticket and finding out/paying the fine. There’s a period of time where you know you did it, they know you did it and you know when the time comes (to pay in this case) it’s going to hurt. When it’s over it may still sting, but you know what you did, and if you’re smart you won’t do it again. In retrospect it wasn’t that much different than being grounded as a teen. When you came in at 3 AM and your dad woke up from his nap in the chair you knew you were in trouble and that some time tomorrow there would be consequences.

    • Christie

      Thank you for posting a succinct response. I, too, grew up in a house where spanking was used as a form of discipline. I always knew what I had done wrong and my parents never spanked us while angry. Sometimes waiting for the spanking was far worse than the actual swat on the butt. It wasn’t the fear of the punishment, it was the disappointment in myself that made it such.

      • I too grew up with parents who used spanking as a form of discipline. I completely agree that the anticipation is worse than the spanking itself! The only time I remember my father being actually angry when spanking is the time that I knew I was going to get spanked so I ran to my room and belted a pillow over my bum. Oh that made him mad!

        I’m not fully against spanking. I do it only in very rare instances, because I always feel miserable afterwards. I think whether spanking counts as abuse depends entirely on the situation as well as the emotion behind the parent’s reaction. Before my mother was put on prozac I recall seeing other forms of discipline that were most definitely child abuse, though they never left a mark. I don’t recall ever having MY head knocked into the wall, but have more than one memory of my eldest brothers going through such.

      • Alexandra

        I was spanked to an excessive degree and it is definitely NOT the case that the anticipation was worse. I was hit with objects and would have bruises. I’m only just realising it was abuse.

    • I just don’t see “rational” and “spanking” going together. I was spanked a lot growing up- and sometimes my dad was calm, sometimes not. But it never made sense to me why someone would strike/hit another human being in order to “teach” or “discipline.” It has always confused me greatly how parents who tell their kids not to hit will then go and hit their own children. How does hitting EVER help, teach, or demonstrate proper behavior?

  5. Crunchy Con Mommy   crunchyconmom

    This is a topic that parents who do spank would obviously have to deal with too, as they too would have to explain to their kids what an acceptable line of physical force is, so I would hope they would appreciate the discussion, even if their stance differs from yours.

    One discussion that came to my mind reading this was when my high school cross-country coach told us about the differences between injuries and pain-basically, he wanted us to run through aches and pains, but rest immediately if we had a dangerous injury that would only be made worse by continuing to run. It can be hard to know the difference sometimes, yet the difference clearly exists.

    While yes, spanking hurts while it is happening, it doesn’t cause lasting pain or injuries. Physical abuse causes bruises, broken limbs, bleeding, and other lasting pain and injuries.

    I’d argue that anger is another key difference in spanking. Parents don’t spank because they are angry-they spank because all other methods of preventing their child from doing something dangerous have failed. It shouldn’t be done until parents are calm. Parents abuse their children in anger. (If spanking is done in anger or while drunk or under the influence of other illegal substances, then I think it has crossed into the line of abuse.)

    Anyway, I think it can be a murky topic because there are so many people who call their abusive behaviors “spanking” to try to make it okay, but that’s not what loving parents who advocate corporal punishment are actually advocating.

    And murky topics are never easy to explain to a 4 year old!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      While I think that in theory, parents are not supposed to spank while angry, I think that the reality is that most parents do spank in anger. I cannot tell you of one single instance when I have seen a parent spank calmly, and I have witnessed a lot of spanking.

  6. I tell my kids one thing. “No one deserves to be hit.” It doesn’t matter if it is done in anger or premeditated and done “calmly,” no one deserves to be hit. The act of hitting someone in order to control them or their behavior is illegal in the States when applied to anyone beside children – the very people loving parents are supposed to protect. There is always a way to talk to someone and come up with solutions which work for everyone. No one deserves to be hit. Until we stand up for the oppressed and quit defending violence against children, it won’t end.

    • alyssa

      this sounds like youre saying people who spank their kids dont love them. and i take strong offense to that, because my kids are everything to me…however, you cant just say something to your children and expect them to understand what you mean all the time. so, yes, talking to someone and working out solutions works with other adults and older children, but usually doesnt work with toddlers and small children.

      • shasta   wave412

        Quoted: “so, yes, talking to someone and working out solutions works with other adults and older children, but usually doesnt work with toddlers and small children.”

        If this statement were true, then no teacher of toddlers, preschoolers, or even young kids with disabilities would ever be effective. And as a former teacher of all those, believe me, it’s not true. There are plenty of non-physical discipline methods (tone of voice, eye contact, proximity arrangements, removal from environment, positive behavior support) that work. Most don’t require extensive teacher training to understand and implement.

      • What I said was that as parents, who love our children, it is our duty to protect them.

        If a person said something to a spouse, a friend, an employee, etc. that the other person didn’t immeidately agree with or comply with, would it be acceptable to hit the person? Of course not!

        Non-violent methods of communication most certainly do work.

  7. Jessica

    I was spanked as a child, although not often, as I was pretty well-behaved in general. But I cannot fathom spanking my own. My son is 2 and is in a phase of wanting to hit our cat. I can’t imagine spanking him and then turning around and telling him it isn’t nice to hit the cat. The way I see it, I can’t spank my husband (or friends or co-workers, etc.) to teach him a lesson when he makes me mad, so why would it be okay to hit my child in these instances?

    That being said, I do feel that there is a difference between spanking and child abuse, but it’s very gray in many cases.

  8. TopHat   TopHat8855

    For me, the idea of spanking while “calm” adds an extra layer of unconfortableness. Can children tell the difference between, “this spank is not ok because they are angry, but this other one is not because they are calm.” And I worry that saying that spanking/hitting/striking/etc. is ok while calm sends the message that there are times in relationships when someone “deserves” to be hurt and should accept that. Where is the difference between a parent saying, “I’m doing this because you ran out in the street/lied to me/etc.” and a boyfriend saying, “You deserved that because you didn’t tell me you were with them/lied to me/etc.”? I have a really hard time with the calm argument because for adults, any sort of hitting (without consent) is wrong, because no one “deserves” it.

    • shasta   wave412

      Funny, I use the same argument when explaining why I don’t like spanking. If we can’t condone the behavior between adults (without consent, of course), how can we condone it between adult and child? The minute you use pain as a discipline measure, your relationship turns into a subjugator-subjugated one, and that’s not something that I feel is functional or respectful to the child. It’s the same reason we don’t let teachers hit hands with rulers – kids need to learn constructively, not through fear of pain.

    • Yes! I was going to write almost the exact same thing. The idea of telling my child “I’m going to leave the room and calm down, and when I come back in I’m going to hit you” makes me cringe. It seems cruel to me. That kind of calculated, intentional infliction of pain might be worse for the long-term emotional health of the child than the impulsive swat done out of surprise or anger.

  9. alyssa

    i do spank my children, but not with intent to hurt them. and, really, only the parent really knows if he/she is abusing their children until somebody else sees physical harm or its too late. and thats the sad part. if i spank my child and he says it hurt him and i can see he isnt playing it up, i always apologize and tell him that i didnt mean to hurt him. that way he knows its not ok to hurt other people. i also explain that its never ok to hit or spank other people…only mommies and daddies spank kids so they will behave. we try to spank as little as possible, but sometimes its the only thing that works after trying to talk to them about what they are doing bad. and we NEVER hit when we are angry or upset…thats when things can get excessive and it turns to abuse. i think sometimes parents just dont have the control, but most parents who spank are good parents and know how to use it without being abusive. as i say quite frequently, “our generation got spanked and so did every generation before us and the majority of us turned out just fine.”

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I think the confusing issue for a child, though, is why it is ok for mommies and daddies to hit, but not anyone else.

      • Alan

        I think it is okay for other people to hit. There are lots of instances of justified use of force. If an old lady is being mugged it is justified use of force to stop the assailant. It is perfectly legal to use the minimum amount of force necessary to rescue the lady.

        What spanking teaches is the use of limited and justified force. This i why it is important that the force used not be excessive. Actions have consequences. It’s also good to show mercy sometimes when kids know they have done wrong and are truly remorseful. If you never spank a child or punish a child then they grow up believing they can get away with anything they want.

        I don’t teach my kids not to fight. I teach them not to start a fight. I teach them not to fight over words or names. If attacked though I teach them they have every right to defend themselves or others from unjust aggression. For instance, if three kids are bullying a weaker kid or if a male is beating a female I teach them to defend the weak. This is chivalry and it is justified use of force. So I don’t teach my kids that they should never hit. I teach them when it is right to hit and when it is wrong to hit. What force is just and what force is unjust.

        I anticipate being crucified over this honesty and I expect to be accused of things I haven’t said because this is the internet and that’s what people do. I do not spank excessively like my father did. Most of the time it doesn’t even hurt. Usually the punishment involves the tears that come from having my disapproval. Punishing a child IS an act of compassion because it teaches them to be a better human being. Not teaching a child that there are consequences to actions and that there are boundaries will likely create an entire generation of people who have no boundaries and think they can do anything they want and occupy banks and demand forgiveness of student loans an defecate on police cars and then whine when arrested. Oh wait. That already happened.

      • Dionna   CodeNameMama

        I’m not going to crucify you, Alan, because I don’t see what could possibly be productive in doing so. I appreciate the fact that you shared your views in a non-heated, respectful way. I will simply say, however, that in the case of spanking, if I were to use your verbiage, then I would argue that the parent (the obviously stronger person) is bullying the much weaker child. The problem I see with your definition is that there is such wiggle room about what constitutes limited or justified force.

        How do you distinguish between what sins/crimes/wrongs justify the use of force? Do you only spank in the heat of the moment? If so, then you’re veering into that risky area where the experts advise you not to hit. If you wait until after you’ve calmed down, you’re taking away the element of urgency that you gave in your two examples (the mugging and the bullying). If you think it’s ok to hit when you’re calm – after the moment of the transgression has passed, how to define what behavior deserves physical punishment? And more importantly, how to distinguish that from other wrongs visited on us in life. It’s just too slippery of a slope for me.

      • Christie

        I’m not sure that is all that confusing. There are lots of things adults can do that our kids cannot.

        The premise is that there isn’t a real difference between spanking and abuse. A spank is a slap (typically) on the butt with an open hand. It is a form of punishment meted out on an infrequent basis. Abuse is intentionally cruel habitual treatment of another human. If I see a parent in the store slap their kid’s butt, it makes me personally uncomfortable because I decided to use other methods when disciplining my child. But, my child responds to other methods. I do not know that parent’s journey or their kid so I cannot say which method should or should not be used. I can say that the child should never be abused.

    • Wolfmother   FabulousMamaC

      I think that most people of our generation were spanked and I disagree with the often used expression ‘we turned out fine’ when in turn many of us go on to hit our children ourselves because we have no other way of relating to them. I think the damage it causes psychologically are subtle and the average person does not recognize them. If they are ‘fine’ despite what they went through, how much healthier would they be if they haven’t been hit but treated with compassion and kindness? I think that it is difficult for many people to admit they they themselves are not ‘fine’ because of their upbringing because it means accepting the truth that their parents are not perfect either and they may have caused harm despite loving them and that is hard. Especially if the cycle is continuing in their own families with their own children whom they most likely love just as much. The thing is, it is completely unnecessary to hit a child to teach them values, all studies on the subject point to the opposite effect. All that is needed is an open mind to parent differently and the determination.

  10. MJ

    There is a lot of fines lines everywhere when it concerns discipline. I know that ‘time out’ can also physically hurt when it becomes the silent treatment (also a form of abuse and poor way to handle things)…or that yelling can physically hurt…etc. If you read articles about health and how stress physically does a number on you…then how is it any different from the spanking issue? When a husband gives you the silent treatment or your boss yells at you do you not feel physically affected? Did you never have words cut you worse than a knife? Have you had some scenario bother you so much that you replayed it in your head over and over again and feel nauseous?
    If you say a spank is abuse….be prepared to acknowledge non-violent ‘abuse’ as well.
    I think there is a huge difference between abuse and spanking…I have been through both. I tell you what the ‘non-violent’ abuse I have endured in my lifetime has had far more of a negative impact on me than any tap on the rear ever did.

  11. Melissa   vibreantwanderer

    It’s amazing how much perspective children can give us. Thanks for sharing this, Dionna.

    I really appreciate the comment from TopHat above. Arguably the most powerful tool we have as parents is modeling. We can try any parenting method we want, but what will stick with our children most is the way they see us behave – the way we treat them. No matter how pure our intentions and noble our goals, spanking sends a message to the child that sometimes hitting is okay. We have to ask ourselves whether or not this is a message we’re comfortable sending. To me, the consequences are too great.

  12. Amy   anktangle

    I really appreciate your willingness to write about this, Dionna. I know it must not have been easy to decide to publish this post, but the discussion is so important.

  13. Dr Laura Markham   DrLauraMarkham

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Out of the mouths of babes…I want to respond to the assumption in some of these posts that if nothing else works, we may need to spank.

    As a psychologist, I read all the studies on spanking. Children who are spanked exhibit more bad behavior. Not just that kids who act badly get spanked more. But if you start with toddlers who begin to challenge us at about 14 months (as they all do), and some are spanked and some are not, the ones who are spanked are the ones who are worse behaved a year later, and a year after that.

    So when a stubborn four year old laughs and smiles when sent to timeout, she is already defiant. That is not a discipline problem; it’s a relationship problem. The answer is to reconnect with that child so she WANTS to behave.

    Breaking her will by spanking her will not work, unless you are prepared to escalate the physical force, and then we are talking about abuse. And even if you “just spank” what will you do when she is eight? Twelve? The kids who drag their child to counseling when they can no longer control them are always parents who spanked.

    When we begin at four to empathize and connect, we raise a child who wants to behave, no matter how strong-willed she is. Why would we use a discipline strategy that raises a child who will rebel more and get more defiant in the teen years?

  14. Katherine   naturalparent

    Spanking IS a form of abuse.. and if you think that’s a judgmental statement, so be it. There is no need to spank; parents need to be in control of their emotions enough to get between their hand and their heads and STOP. A child does not feel loved when they are spanked, they feel assaulted. Because they ARE being assaulted. There are a myriad of other ways to resolve challenges with children; do your research and employ them.

  15. Laura   Puginthekitchen

    *sigh* Both DH and I grew up in spanking homes. He sees nothing wrong with it because in his home, it was reserved for the worst offenses and as a result, he can count the number of times he got spanked on 1 hand. My experience is the polar opposite. Spankings in my home were doled out for grades lower than a B+, chores not completed, back talk, dislike of the supper meal option, crying too long after a spanking, etc. I very rarely comment on articles like this because it makes me physically ill.

    I think the issue with spanking is that while a parent may truly believe that they are doing what is best for their child by teaching them right from wrong (or whatever their reasoning may be), they often do not consider the child’d spirit. A regular old you-disobeyed-and-here’s-your-punishment may be laughable to a incorrigible 8 year-old boy, but it may also be soul crushing to his twin sister. Part of parenting is to learn your child; to figure out what makes them tick. In my case, I have a 2 yo boy with a very spicy personality… I do not have him figured out. I’m working on it. It’s frustrating because it takes time, but I’d rather him listen and obey because he recognizes that it’s the right thing to do than him have perfect behavior because he’s afraid of me.

    That being said, I have friends who spank their children and they have wonderful, healthy, loving relationships with their kids. They have a mutual respect for one another, but it’s because they work at it. WORK is always the key and unless you are willing to put the time into your children that they are going to need throughout their lives, then it doesn’t matter what method of discipline you choose.

    • J

      Very well put. I agree that the punishment should be suitable for the child as well as for the infraction. I have a 7-year-old who at 5 years I could not have imagined ever spanking. The first time I considered spanking her she was 6 (and a half really). When she lied to me about her room being clean so she could go out to play. She had never lied to me before so when I found out I called her in and had her clean it. I also let her know that after cleaning she should stay in her room and that there would be a punishment for lying. When my husband and I discussed it he recommended spanking, but after we thought about it we realized that since she lied to play the best punishment would be to ground her from it (as well as from tv for obvious reasons). If the crime had been, say, crossing the street alone or going “out of bounds” in our neighborhood though (both of which I consider safety violations), I might have resorted to spanking.

  16. Destany

    Dionna, this is a sensitive issue and I think you handled it wonderfully. One of the things I like about you is that you’re always careful with others feelings.
    I am soon going to be writing an article on how parents bully their children, and how this contributes to the bullying problem with children. I will be considering what you have said here.
    I love that you are teaching your children respectful boundaries and empathy toward others, if we all do this, we can make the world feel safer for all.

  17. Wolfmother   FabulousMamaC

    Powerful post, and very well written. I know many will disagree that spanking does not equal abuse or is harmful, but like you I do not believe that hitting anyone, anytime is acceptable. I was raised in that environment and there are lasting impressions and although I know my parents loved me, they had no right to inflict that pain and fear on me in order for me to behave a certain way. One of the subtle ways it has affected me is my choice in partners later on where I stayed in abusive relationships because I thought that they loved me despite how I was being treated, because it was exactly like how my parents treated me. It was my norm. It took much personal work to unravel those harmful beliefs and move past them into a healthier way of being. Now, not everyone will go through this however to deny how violence in parenting impacts a person’s psychology is irresponsible. I personally have to teach myself to react differently to my own son when he pushes me to frustration and anger and it is HARD but spanking does not teach emotional intelligence, an ability I want my son to have in his own life and that means I must find healthier ways of teaching him my values, without coercion and punishment. Thank you for being brave enough to share this.

  18. Red Robin

    My parents spanked, and they spanked calmly. My parents spanked because that was one of the few parenting tools they had to work with, it was what they grew up with, it was what they knew. Now, in this digital age of mass information, we KNOW that there are other ways. You just have to find them.
    I have chosen not to spank my children. In my own experience, I’ve never seen a situation that would not have been escalated by adding spanking to the mix. I also cannot fathom striking my son “while calm.” If I’m truly calm, I can find another way to address the situation.
    I found your post on this extremely sticky subject very tactful. If anyone could think that you were being judgmental, then they obviously didn’t take your preface to heart before reading. Thank you for being honest, and sharing this glimpse into your own parenting experience.

  19. Jennifer   TrueRealMommy

    “But mama! I wasn’t angry at Timmy. I just needed him to know he can not have my toy. He is not crying because he is hurt. He is just angry I hit him, it didn’t really hurt.”

    Makes perfect sense, right? I mean, if the argument works for an adult spanking a child, why not for a child punishing another child? I was spanked, have spanked, work to not spank, but sometimes fail to see what else could possibly get their attention. I truly believe that spanking, even when done as part of a calm, discipline procedure, is illogical. “Waiting” for the spank, they aren’t thinking about what they did wrong and not to do it in the future. They are thinking and fearing the spanking. The lack of connection they have with their parent. How to *avoid being caught next time*. Sure there is a difference between spanking and abuse: doesn’t mean you should do either one.

  20. The other day I was trying to teach Burkley to not “hit” the lamp in our bedroom. He loves to knock it off the bedside table by hitting it. I asked him not to repeatedly and removed him from the area several times, but he kept going back to knock it over again. I was calm, but uncertain as to what else to do to teach him to stop. I picked him up, took him to my lap, and firmly told him “No hitting!” while I hit his hand. Realizing I was actually *hitting* as the exact moment I was saying the words “No hitting!” was a light bulb moment for me about how confused he must be by the way my words contradicted my actions. “No hitting” is a rule that I will choose to abide by as well.

    I should also mention that my “discipline” obviously was irrelevant to him since the next morning he just went and hit it again. :)

  21. Lauren @ Hobo Mama   Hobo_Mama

    I really appreciate this post. Thanks for taking on this hard topic. I agree with Kieran on this one — yes, there are degrees of child abuse, but it all hurts.

    My dad’s a social worker, and the cases he had to work with were horrifying. And then at home, we were spanked. But I’ll tell you, the spankings did nothing good for me and have left me still messed up this long after. I can see the tide changing toward classifying all types of physical punishment as abusive, and I’m willing to ride along on that tide.

    On the subject of being judgmental, I’ll just say that what Pa in Little House was doing was what he’d learned from his parents (and probably he made his punishments lighter than what he endured), but nowadays a lot of us would consider his methods abusive. I don’t believe my parents were trying to be abusive at all, and they were doing what they’d been taught. I’m all for having our culture trend toward being less physically retaliative, but I acknowledge that we’re all just doing the best with the information and resources we’ve had till this point. Which is why your writing an article like that is so helpful for changing minds!

  22. Olivia   OliviaStreaterL


    You have done a great job writing an article in calm, measured language and responding to comments in the same vein. This is very important. And hard.

    I think the comment above about most people not being conscious of the effects of spanking is spot on.

    One of the results of spanking, and other punishments, is that we shift into a fear-based state. Spanking alters the way our brains and bodies work and that has great effects on us, both as children and as adults. In that state, we can’t think clearly. We are flooded with stress hormones. We can’t calmly process information, we are in survival mode. Our brains, when triggered, revert back to that state. We learn less.

    I believe that this is one reason why the debate around spanking can get so heated. People, reading about spanking, become triggered and revert back into this state.

    I mean, I could feel myself becoming physically ill reading the above comments and I start to notice what my body does. My brain definitely goes into “freeze” mode. I feel sick. My thoughts race.

    We need to model calm emotional regulation, in both our interactions with our own children and with each other, and the rest of humanity. This, by the way, encompasses forgiving ourselves when we get triggered and revert into survival/fear mode. For the millions of us who were treated with violence as children, this requires a lot of honesty about where we are at now and a lot of work.

    Thank you for a very important contribution, in word and in tone,

    love Olivia

  23. kelly @kellynaturally   kellynaturally

    Thank you for sharing, Dionna. While there is a difference between spanking & abuse, the problem is that both spanking (whether done “calmly” or in anger) inflict pain, both assume that a child should be punished in order to “learn” or “be corrected”, etc., both are shaming to the child, enforce the belief that the adult is bigger therefore “more important”, both cause lingering bad feelings – even when done “out of love”. I think MOST parents believe they are doing the right thing when they discipline their children – but the fact remains that an adult ALWAYS has a choice NOT to hit; they have the power to take a break, to not act out of impulsiveness, they have a choice to lead through example, to NOT use violence.

    Adults shouldn’t hit children, ever.

    • Olivia   OliviaStreaterL


      I agree completely, and I think this wider conversation around how, and why, not to punish at all is critical. People sometimes “chicken out” by saying, well, you can use other measures such as time-out. Less physically violent, equally damaging. Let’s stop shaming, punishing, blaming, hurting, coercing, dominating, forcing. Let’s not be scared to shift the conversation towards embracing the whole paradigm of how to parent peacefully and with connection.

      p.s. I would advise any parent reading this and thinking, ok, so what now?, to read Dr Laura Markham (above), who has written heaps on this (see ahaparenting.com) and other sites that will support you in learning how to model emotional regulation to your children, including purejoyparenting.com and peaceful-parent.com.

  24. Penny

    In our house spanking was only used when ignoring safety issues,things like repeatedly running across the street,jumping off the furniture and after several warnings and explained consequences were given.Now as an older parent and grandparent would I still spank? I still think in the case of repeatedly ignoring safety rules it would be warranted even though redirecting is a great tool for a parent to use.Learning that there are consequences for our actions is a given even at a young age,

    • Jennifer   TrueRealMommy

      I am still confused about this frequently used example. “You can get hurt doing that, so I am going to hurt you so you don’t get hurt?”

  25. Jenny

    I was spanked as a child. I was also beaten. According to modern standards, I was abused as a child. I can remember, vividly, from an early age, knowing the difference between being spanked as a punishment, and deserving it, and being beaten because my father was looking for a way to vent his frustrations. Even when I was very young I could tell the difference.

    I try very hard not to spank my children, I am doing my best to raise them with respect and kindness, talking things through and helping them understand what I’m asking them to do and why. But sometimes I do smack them. Never in anger, never without warning them that they will be spanked if they continue to do what ever it is I’ve asked them to stop doing.

    I’d love to be able to do this without ever having to spank them, and for 99% of the time I succeed, but now and then I find I have tried everything else and it’s not making any difference.

    There is a huge difference between this, and abuse. Having been on the receiving end of both I know the difference.

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