The Discipline Question No One Can Answer

Of all the tough issues parents face, discipline is tops. I had noted this working with parents over the years, but since I started blogging, it’s become really obvious.

No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame” was my first post about discipline, and it’s been read nearly five hundred thousand more times than anything else I’ve written. It’s the post that typically gets the most visits each month, even though it’s been years since I wrote it.

The “No Bad Kids…” post was recently shared (on Facebook and Pinterest) with a new wave of readers, which means a new round of comments. This time they’re mostly about spanking, a practice I strongly advise against. The tone of the comments range from indignant to angry, and although I’ve tried to be patient and measured with my responses, the deep chasm between our perspectives makes a calm discussion nearly impossible. And we can certainly forget about either of us changing each other’s mind — there’s no way that’s going to happen.

But if there’s one valuable thing I’ve learned from blogging, it is that hearing a radically divergent view is the way to a better understanding of theirs and yours, which can then lead to empathy. After avoiding disagreements for most of my life, I’m finally seeing the value in them.

I always end up with the same question for spankers: If you knew with all certainty that spanking was totally unnecessary for raising well-mannered, kind and successful children, would you still do it? If so, why?

I’ve posed this countless times to commenters on my blog and in discussions elsewhere on the web. I’ve been told my question is ridiculous and that I’m ignorant. Still, no one answers. So it has finally occurred to me that I should put the shoe on the other foot and answer the question myself.

If I became convinced that spanking was totally necessary for my children to become well-mannered, kind, successful people, and if there were many studies that seemed to prove that by not spanking I am harming my children, it would still be extremely hard, if not impossible, for me to spank. This might be because my parents didn’t spank, so it’s not in my realm of experience.  Intentionally causing my children pain is abhorrent and completely unimaginable to me.

Believing in the need for spankings would also mean accepting to my core that my parents failed me. They didn’t care enough to do what was right. How could my parents have neglected the tiny, vulnerable me? How could they not do the best thing for me when I know they loved me?

I’d eventually realize that they couldn’t help it. They inherited their parenting practices from their parents (and so on), and none of them could overcome their visceral response not to spank. It’s not that I wasn’t worthy, right? Did I deserve their neglect?

But anyway, I turned out fine, didn’t I?

I would probably continue to rationalize my inability to spank. I’d be comforted reading anti-spanking articles and surround myself with like-minded parents.

But suppose the more I educated myself, the more compelling and convincing the necessity for spankings became. By avoiding them, I was putting my child and our relationship at risk. I might then go to counseling in hopes of breaking the destructive cycle that had been passed down to me. I’d do all within my power to overcome my fear of physically punishing my child. It would still be really tough. But if I committed myself and worked hard enough, I might one day be as courageous as this dad (mentioned in a pro-spanking comment on “No Bad Kids…”):

My dad would sometimes include that “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” and often had tears in his eyes after placing a few firm pats on my butt. 



I share a complete guide to effective non-punitive discipline in my book,  No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame





Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Dear Janet
    I am sitting here already an hour reading what you posted here and especially reading what all these people wrote.
    I am an orthodox Jewish woman who lives in Israel. I am a mother of 11. My mother died when I was only 4 and my father brought me and my 3 brothers up with so much love and caring.
    My husband came from a very poor family, loving parents but his father would spank him especially for not paying attention to his learning.
    Our eldest son got spanked and I remember being against it and my husband would say “you do not understand it so please don’t mix in”
    I am happy to say that he quickly stopped this and apoligized to my son and always spoke publicly to our other children that the only discipline action that he is very sorry about is when he spanked our oldest son- who really turned out a specially great man- but not due to the spanking for sure.
    As an educational councelor in daycare centers in Israel I teach caregivers EFT to calm down before they reach the peak of nerves. I tell them to tap in front of the kids in their charge and explain “I feel anger and I am going to do something to calm down.”
    This with deep breaths and drinking water is an amazing way to calm down and show the kids that we are normal and there is a way to sooth our nerves.

    Here is to all mothers, caregivers and all people in the universe who are keen on being good parents and better people by showing the children a model of how it is done. Good luck to us all.

    1. THANK YOU SO MUCH! I’ve been searching for something similar to what you explained in how to calm down and how to tell the child. Mine is 3 so he’ll probably just keep doing whatever it is, but I can take this knowledge and apply it and maybe I’ll be able to calm down to deal with things! Thank you!!!

    2. Thank you! I recently got into a discussion with my brother over my “rules” when it comes to spending time with my kids (they aren’t rules, just tips to assist in the time being spent together, hand washing after playing at an arcade was a request I made). After we both said our parts, I sat back and thought “do people ever wonder how I feel? How it feels to be the chain breaker? The cycle stopper? It is tough to sit there and argue with the people you love most over things that you have had to unlearn and then learn all over again. For my kids, I will make all the requests and continue to cry if I need to after I feel judged. I am committed to all the changes from the big to the small. So thank you, I needed to see this tonight

  2. When my daughter was younger I tried spanking, it only ever made things immediately much worse. I don’t spank anymore. When I think back to my childhood and the times I was spanked, it was usually when my parents had misunderstood or misjudged me.

  3. Thank you for writing this article, your ability to empathise and your quest to understand is amazing. As a parent who is responsible for breaking a family history of spanking and the belt on my husband’s side of the family. I can attest to the anguish, effort and determination it takes both to react differently to the parenting I received and also to offer myself enough empathy where I fail to meet my own expectations to not fall into repeating patterns as I am beyond being able to change it.

  4. Margaret Cordill says:

    I do not spank as a parent BECAUSE I was spanked as a child. I vowed to never do it.

    1. I was spanked, and I thought it so unfair…my sister avoided spankings by running away from hitting parents and hiding, until they were exhausted and gave up, whereas I , as the oldest, stood and took it.
      Well, I never spanked my sons, even though tempted sorely.
      Now I have granddaughters, and to me,
      the greatest joy is to help understand, guide, teach, love, coach and show them, what this world and their influence in it will mean to them and everyone in it.
      I absolutely work for their trust…and its a big job…and I love every minute of it.

      1. My mum spanked (my dad was the passive one) and I feel it was her way of simplifying our behaviour into good vs bad. I wish she’d used the opportunity to connect with us and explain why what we were doing was not appropriate. We weren’t good at talking. I could say ‘Well I turned out fine’ but that’s a lame argument and actually, I’m a very anxious person. My brothers are both very emotionally unstable and although I can’t attribute that to the spanking, I don’t think there’s any good lessons in it.

  5. I was raised in a family where spanking was used as discipline for perceived disobedience or irresponsibilty.
    “Discipline” comes from the latin “discipulus” or pupil, so therefore the act of spanking was to teach me that my behaviors would bring me pain/shame. Therefore, my goal was to not be disobedient or irresponsible, or at least, to not get caught doing so.
    Once I had a child, I tried to discipline in the mold of my parents. After one spank to my small daughter, I just knew, mentally and viscerally that what I was doing was wrong. I apologized and promised to never do it again.
    Styles of parenting are epigenetic and breaking free of a negative cycle is a hard-earned and worthy purpose. It required me to seek out new methods, educate myself, and attempt to educate those around me. I feel sure-footed and confidant in my parenting style now and hope that the work I’ve done will reap benefits for my relationship with my children in the future.

  6. I’ve generally viewed spanking as a knee-jerk, emotionally charged reaction by authoritarian parents and caretakers – those who view children as untrustworthy, incapable, and requiring constant directing. Though my own childhood forces me to acknowledge that it isn’t always emotionally charged.

    I was spanked as a child, though never by my mother. As a stay-at-home mom, she was the primary caregiver yet never directly disciplined us. My father worked a white collar job which sometimes called for 12 hour days or week long trips out of town, though he was always routinely present in our lives; so much so, that any misbehavior while he was gone was reported to him upon his return and we knew when to expect a spanking. Spankings were bizarrely scheduled and seemingly formal? He would always use the wooden paddles from old paddleball games after the band had broken; I can remember my siblings and I throwing them out every chance we got but he seemed to have an endless supply. He would call us to the kitchen, pull the paddle from the drawer, and we’d lean over the counter to receive our punishment. If any discussion regarding the behavior or punishment took place, I have no recollection of it. It hurt like hell but I don’t remember a single punishable action I’d taken or, thus, lesson learned. Another bizarre punishment we received was having to stand on one foot in his bedroom while he slept (he was working nights at the time)…it seemed like forever at 8 years old but I’d guess it was around 20 minutes or so…he’d be snoring, LOUDLY, and as soon as I’d begin to lower my leg he’d say “get that foot up!”. I’ve never asked what his motivation or objective was in either odd method of punishment, though I suspect his own upbringing and possibly his military background were factors.

    The issue of spanking has rarely come up with my own children…the few attempts at spanking my son (now 15) when he was young were completely futile – I think my goal was to abruptly focus his attention on me and my disapproval of his behavior. I never had the heart (or the rage?) to spank hard enough to inflict pain and, mirroring as kids do, he’d immediately respond by striking me back. As a young mother, navigating the toddler years of my first and only son, I quickly learned that spanking was NOT an effective method of ‘discipline’. I’m now realizing, in reading No Bad Kids, that his behavior was purely the result of an unmet need and developmentally appropriate attempt to communicate that. My daughter (now 18) never received a spanking – her quiet, innocent, reserved nature always made such ‘discipline’ feel entirely unnecessary. Spanking is a non-issue with the youngest (21 months), as I’ve learned tremendous lessons and am becoming much more intentional, gentle, and trusting in my parenting. She is a spitfire and can tantrum like a pro yet I find myself remarkably calm … because the understanding of a childs’ most basic needs, along with age appropriate developmental capacity, is a powerful thing.

  7. Julie Hahn says:

    I have worked as a Child and Family Encourager (CAFE) – and did the rounds of our state giving parenting seminars.
    Out of the hundreds of parents and grandparents I presented to, I had dozens of grandparents in particular who came up to me saying ‘I wish I’d known other options to smacking (spanking)’.
    From both my experience and researchI have learnt that parents resort to their default mechanism–ie what is familiar to them– UNLESS they are given positive and practical alternatives.
    Thank you Janet for doing so.

    1. I don’t spank my kids because I was spanked as a child so I swore I’d never do it I had found it caused a lot of harm to my mental health as I grew older,

      1. i grew up with scheduled spankings too and other corporal punishments such as washing the mouth with soap .

        I was born in a religious cult and most punishments did not come from my parents. the few times my mom spanked was because some authority told her she had to and she always did with tears and saying sorry. .. still fucked up and I decided pretty quickly growing up that I could never spank. I think around when I got my first dog and had to decide how to train him

  8. my mother and my stepfather spanked me a few times when i was a child. i was a pretty well behaved kid so it was infrequent and i already knew i had done something wrong. so was it necessary? i don’t believe it was. i just remember it adding humiliation and disempowerment to the situation, and did nothing to support the relationship with my parents. that said, i remember seeing other kids’ parents and occasionally my own flying off the handle with rage and saying shameful things to their child, and i believe the latter was much more harmful. a calm spanking within the bounds of the child’s understanding is not as painful as name calling, belittling words, or even the silent treatment.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    My 7-yr-old asked me why I’m allowed to smack him, but he’s not allowed to smack his little brother?
    I pointed out that the last time I smacked them both, we were in the car. I was driving and they were fighting in the back seat. I asked them to stop, repeatedly. I pulled over, twice, and explained they had to stop fighting so that I could concentrate on driving – the road, other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, etc. The third time I had to pull over, I turned around and gave them each a smack on the leg. (It was only a 10-minute drive, too! We’re not talking about a road-trip, here!)
    I explained to Mr 7 that when he’s doing something so dangerous that people could DIE, and he doesn’t stop even after I ask him, and ask him, and ASK him, and warn him that he will get a smack if he doesn’t stop, then he gets a smack.
    He thought about this, and decided that it was reasonable.

    1. Sounds really stressful.
      I wonder whether it is more helpful to pull over to help them each calm, feel understood, and repair with each other so the sibling rivalry is addressed. It sounds like they will keep fighting if they don’t have alternatives when they are frustrated or hurt with each other.

  10. Janet, I love the way you think and the way you teach, and we follow the RIE way. I don’t believe in hitting or hurting my children in any way. I’m not sure if this was the intent of the above article, but it just sounds a bit tongue in cheek, a bit facetious. Like you’re saying, well if I can come to the conclusion that I need to spank (in this scenerio) then parents that spank should be able to come to the conclusion not to spank. I think it’s a very one layered approach to years and years of repeated and accepted behaviour. I think it’s also about deregulated parents resorting to an action that has almost become imprinted in one’s DNA. I do not believe that you will reach anyone (other than those who already agree with you) with the above approach. It is super clear how abhorrent you believe the behaviour to be, that I just don’t buy this whole scene you’ve set out. It’s a bit condescending – I know you can reach parents who spank – I just don’t think it will be through this article. Perhaps brainstorming from anew will bring up new ideas. Anyway I still think you are brilliant and appreciate everything you do!

  11. I grew up with parents that spanked and have no issue discrediting what they did.

    I guess I’m an exception, they made so many mistakes that I’m surprised when there is something they did that I find myself approving.

    I was born into a cult that my whole family is luckily no longer a part of but when I was a child scheduled spankings or other more creative corporal punishments were the norm. I was mostly punished by other adults and when I was my mom (father was absent) it was always ordered by someone other adult and she spanked my teary eyed and saying sorry. it’s still fucked up and did not make me see the love in spankings, it just made me feel like we were both victims. still I preferred her spankings because they never hurt while the other adults would hurt me. as an adult I do blame now her for not protecting me and see that I was the only victim.

    furthermore the spanking I remember getting were due to misunderstandings or adults deciding I had lied when I hadnt

    I will never spank my kids

  12. The question is disingenuous. Might as well ask if someone found absolutely that the moon was a cheesecake and you could get a bite by standing on a ladder, would you still refuse to climb the ladder?

    You cannot raise a well mannered, healthy, and successful child without demonstrating to that child the concept of unpleasant consequences for unacceptable behavior.

    And a child’s understanding of other-than-physical unpleasant consequences is undeveloped. They can’t conceive that the consequence and the behavior are linked. You then end up having to repeat the lesson excessively, when a swift moment of non harmful pain would have connected the behavior to the consequence instantly in their mind, obviating the need for any repeats.

    Thus some form of corporal punishment is necessary to produce the healthy, successful, well mannered person you are trying to guide them into being. And spanking is the most efficient and effective form for this to take. If you think what you are producing is that, without spanking, you simply don’t understand what you have actually produced.

    We can tell which kids don’t get spanked. We can all see that kids raised without corporal punishment are usually not good people. And if they seem okay it’s despite the lack in their training, certainly not because of it. You only think they are good because you are one of them, and it’s hard for anyone to admit to being messed up.

  13. I raised two children and only spanked one of them once. No matter what I did, I could not get my son to stop running out in the street after the ball. I tried EVERYTHING. Finally, he did it again, narrowly missed being hit by a car and I knew that I had to try spanking. He never ran into the street again and I never spanked him again. I was a police officer for a number of years and can honestly say I’ve never hit anyone in anger. I have had to control situations by sticking people, but never when I was angry or provoked. I know for sure though, that that one spanking saved his life.

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