Help Me Sara: Should we consider spanking our child?


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

Parents Canada  guest post : By Sara Dimerman on September, 09 2013

My husband and I were raised by parents who spanked. When I was 11, I started hitting back. Although we know that spanking is not the ideal way to deal with difficult behaviour, we find that this is often the only thing that works. We’ve tried reasoning with them, giving time-outs and ignoring bad behaviour, but nothing works as well as a quick smack.

Question: Is corporal punishment really so bad? Help me Sara!


The short answer is yes, it really is bad – for many different reasons. You’re correct in noting that a quick smack does bring about much more immediate results. Typically, a child is stunned into silence or compliance, which may be exactly what your goal is at that very moment. However, the greatest downside of this is the longer term results. As you experienced, when children grow older, they begin to retaliate – not just by lashing back at parents, but at their younger siblings and peers, too. Parents’ actions speak louder than words and even without meaning to, your children will model your behaviour.

In addition, they will find ways to get even with you. They may disobey later the same day when you request that they do something for you. Or you may see passive aggressive behaviour, which means that he might drag his feet or do the bare minimum so as to avoid further punishment. In the longrun, if a child is disciplined corporally, he’s most likely to comply because he’s afraid of getting punished, not because he cares about helping you. I’m sure you’d agree that a relationship built on a foundation of caring and cooperation is preferable to one built on fear and intimidation.

There’s a lot to consider when disciplining children. First, your shortand longterm expectations. And even more important, how long do you think it should take for your child to do what you’re asking? There’s no doubt that a smack will speed things up, and that the other methods require more patience and thought, but isn’t that what parenting is all about?

Discipline is often easier if you have a strategy in mind and stay as consistent as possible. Corporal punishment falls under the reward/ punishment umbrella. Often, punishments are unrelated to the problem and perceived as unfair by your child. This is why children often seek revenge after they have been physically punished.

An alternate approach to discipline is to consider consequences for inappropriate behaviour. Sometimes consequences such as hunger, after refusing to eat, occur naturally. Other times, a logical consequence needs to be put into effect. For example, when your child refuses to stick within the boundaries of your front lawn and keeps running onto the road, a logical consequence would be to have her play in the backyard only.

You mention timeouts. These may be presented as a logical consequence to hitting a sibling, for example. In this case, your child would be asked to spend some time apart from his sibling. However, if the timeout is implemented because a child has refused to comply, for example, then this would be a punishment rather than a consequence.

You mention reasoning. This is more a form of communication rather than discipline. Depending on your child’s age, sometimes talking less is more effective.

You also mention ignoring. This may be chosen as a logical consequence for attention-seeking behaviour but may be perceived as a punishment if you have not advised your child of your intention to ignore in advance. As you can tell, discipline requires a lot of thought and practise. You may want to consider taking parenting courses and reading books such as Nelsen and Lott’s Positive Discipline.

The bottom line: Fair discipline may be harder and require more consistency to see the desired results, but in the longrun, you have more to gain than to lose.

Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at


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Many parents think of discipline as something that is done in the moment, an action that stops a child from misbehaving, or one that doles out the consequence of past misbehavior. Of course that’s part of discipline, but another part, one that can greatly lessen the need for “in the moment” discipline, is teaching tools. These are tools parents and caregivers can use to curb misbehavior before it happens. Family meetings are one of the most effective discipline teaching tools.

Family meetings don’t have to be long or complicated to be successful.

In fact, the best aren’t. Getting your family all together in a room focused on each other rather than the outside world is a challenge. But it can be done and is well worth the effort. Depending upon the age of your children, the size of your family, and the issues you’re tackling, a family meeting can last between 15 and 45 minutes. Most are right around 30 minutes. By making these gatherings a priority and putting them on the calendar in advance, you can set the stage for how your family interacts for the rest of the week and over the long haul. Working with an agenda lets everyone know what to expect and keeps the meeting on track. Once your family gets in the habit of holding regular meetings, it becomes a part of how your family operates.

Family meetings teach children many important things.

Many of the skills children need to regulate their behavior and navigate the challenges they face every day are taught and practiced in the family meeting. They learn to listen to others respectfully, they get to see and be a part of the problem solving process, they experience the value of a cooling off period before tackling an issue, they come to understand that accountability is an important part of moving past mistakes, and they see cooperation between children and adults in action. Family meetings give children a real voice in the family, help them feel respected, valued, and supported, and let them contribute to the family in a significant way. Imagine how all those things will positively impact your child’s behavior outside of the meeting!

There are four components to a Positive Discipline style family meeting.

When you first start having meetings, introduce one component each week until your family understands each part. After that, you can combine all the elements together.

  1.  The agenda is where family members can list problems they’re having that they want to talk about in a family meeting. Mostly likely not all problems can be tackled in the meeting, but putting them on the list shows the family member his concerns are important and heard. The agenda should be posted in a common area like the kitchen or laundry room. Younger children can ask an older sibling or parent to write their items on the list.
  2. Compliments are a way to connect in a meaningful way to each other. Each member offers one (or more!) compliment to other members. This can be a thank you for something said or done, an “atta boy” for an accomplishment, or something he appreciates about that person.
  3. Brainstorming is coming up with as many solutions as you can think of to a problem listed on the agenda. Encourage creativity by adding silly ideas to the list. After the brainstorming cross off any solutions that aren’t practical, respectful, or helpful. From the new list, work together to choose one solution to try out for a week.
  4. Plan a family fun activity that everyone commits to and add it to your family calendar. The fun activity doesn’t have to be one that all members agree on. Remember, you’re teaching respect for the ideas and wishes of others and cooperation. The important thing is to spend time together as a family having fun. One week you might go bowling, your older child’s favorite activity. The next week you might watch the football game together, Dad’s pick. And the next week you might go to the community pool for the afternoon, something everyone wants to do.

There’s no such thing as a perfect family meeting.


Your family meetings will go faster and more smoothly once everyone learns the basic skills required. However all skills need practice and each meeting will serve as a practice session. The good news is there is no right or wrong way to hold a family meeting. As long as members are coming together, learning, and connecting, you’re on the right track.

Once adults and children experience family meetings in their home, they often use the same format in other relationships and situations. Adults can use the format at work with co-workers, older children can use them with their friends and classmates, and nannies can use them with their charges. Wherever there are two or more people in a relationship with each other, a family meeting can help them live, work, and play happier together.

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