What’s wrong with spanking children? It works, doesn’t it?

It depends on your objective

It is prohibited by law in many countries. Yet, it still happens regularly: a child who is hit by a parent. “What is the problem? It works, right? ” some wonder. Well, that remains to be seen. Whether it works or not depends on your objective. If you mean that the child who gets hit does what you say, then you are quite right. Violence, or the mere threat of it, is an extremely powerful weapon for breaking a child’s will. The question is whether you should want to. Because what are the long-term consequences of breaking a child’s will through violence? I have listed a few negative consequences below:

Violence damages your relationship with your child

If you want your child to come to you when they are in trouble, they must be able to trust you. A violent parent is not a parent you can trust. A violent parent is an adult who uses the child’s complete dependence upon them to dominate them. Once the child is big and independent enough to hit back, violence no longer “works” as a corrective tool. That means it only works because children are defenseless against their parents. Children subconsciously feel how skewed this is, but cannot afford the luxury of going through life without parents. The fact that children are loyal to their parents, even when they abuse them, says something about their will to survive. That’s not love, it’s dependency.

The fact that children are loyal to their parents, even when they abuse them, says something about their will to survive. That’s not love, it’s dependency.

Every person has to win and earn the love and trust of a child. Love and trust are built up with everything you do. This applies not only to teachers, nannies, babysitters, aunts, uncles, grandpas or grandmas, but also to parents.

Violence harms your child

The parent-child relationship sets the tone for all future relationships that the child will enter later in life. Do you want them to follow the biggest bully at school docile, or to command respect from other children as a bully? Or choose an abusive partner later as an adult, or become that abusive partner? Do you want your child to become someone who does not dare to stand up for himself against a boss who exploits his employees? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. Nobody wants this for their child. For that reason, I want everyone who deals with children (and almost all of us are) to realize that (the threat of) violence is never a good way to resolve a conflict with a child. Forcing obedience through violence can become a pattern so familiar it feels like “home”. It will be a vicious circle that is hard to break.

Spanking has been associated with a range of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, helplessness and addiction.

Spanking has also been associated with a range of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, helplessness and addiction. To read up on the overview of 20 years of scientific studies on physical punishment, continue reading here.

Violence generates violence

Violence normalizes violence. Violence generates violence. This has been extensively studied and confirmed over and over again. It is actually quite simple to understand if you consider that our socialisations process works through observation and imitation. The message slapping a child conveys is that violence is a useful tool to get your way.

Through the process of vicarious reinforcement, we can also start copying behavior of others they have been rewarded for. Somehow indirectly we feel ourselves rewarded too when this happens. This is why simply watching violent media can make someone more violent. If we want a more peaceful society, this starts with how we deal with the smallest and the most vulnerable in our midst.

Violence generates violence. If we want a more peaceful society, this starts with how we treat the smallest among us.

It deprives children of their sense of agency

Violence affects the way we live our life. We humans have the idea that we shape our lives ourselves. We believe that what we do matters. This is also referred to by the term agency . We feel we have agency, but this is of course only partly true. There are many things that we humans cannot control: just think of a natural disaster or illness, for example. However, having a sense of agency is extremely important to our humanity. It ensures that we are creators in our lives. A person without a sense of agency is a victim, someone who is passive or apathetic, someone to whom life happens and has no control over its course.

In addition to the physical pain we feel when we are the subjects of violence, it affects our sense of agency. The illusion that we are shaping our own lives disappears the moment we experience violence. It gives way to powerlessness. This can be restored, for example by giving meaning to the violence. In this way, someone who can express their story of the violence that has been done to them can be heard. This can give them a grip on the situation. Socially, this person then changes his or her status from a victim to a survivor, an experiential expert with new insights. The listener plays a major role in restoring the feeling of agency. Someone who is not heard can’t undertake this step and risks isolation.

When we relate this to children, we have to further take into consideration how little children have to say about their lives. Parents determine where the child lives, what it wears, where it goes to school, what it eats, what time it goes to bed, etc. And that is good, because many of those decisions a child can’t make for themselves. I am therefore not arguing for the transfer of more responsibility and control to children over crucial aspects of their well-being of children, yet I am trying to make a point of raising some awareness of the dependent position of the child. It is good to ask yourself: Where can the child be creative? In which areas can it safely experiment?

A child needs a parent or educator to deal with violence they’ve experienced by the hands of third parties. You can’t take that role if you (regularly) are the agressor.

Considering we want the child to grow up with a healthy sense of agency, convinced that their actions are meaningful and have an effect on the course of their life, it logically follows that a violent parent or educator does not contribute to this purpose. The child needs the opposite role of the educator, that of the listener when their sense of agency has been compromised, when they have experienced violence. With smaller children, we can help articulate their experiences by offering them the words they have not yet mastered. In older children, it helps to listen and confirm what you have heard. This gives the child the opportunity to regain their sense of agency.

To continue reading about the loss of sense of agency after the experience of violence, I refer to the book The Politics of Storytellling – Violence, Transgression and Intersubjectivity (2002) by Prof. M. Jackson.


Books can be filled with how we can help children when they have experienced violence and how we can ensure that children cooperate when we ask for it. I will also devote a lot of blogs to it. For now, my intention was to convince the reader of the importance of omitting the “corrective spank”. Given the negative long-term consequences it can have on the child, it is not a harmless tool.

How about you?

How did you grow up yourself? Have you ever spanked a child? How did it make you feel? Has this blog changed your mind on spanking children? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment under this blog, email me at info@we-nurture.com or respond via social media.

Written by Esther Maagdenberg

Owner of We Nurture, teacher, child coach in training, child yoga teacher, and anthropologist. She is Dutch and lives and works in Italy.

non-violent communication | non-violent parenting | spanking children | violence


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