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


From the moment your child wakes in the morning he is slowly using up the benefits of the previous night’s sleep. He wakes up totally refreshed, but as the hours pass, little by little, the benefits of his sleep time are used up, and an urge to return to sleep begins to build. When we catch a child at in-between stages and provide naps, we build up his reservoir of sleep-related benefits, allowing him a “fresh start” after each sleep period. As shown on the sleep chart below, as children age, the length of time that they can stay “happily awake” increases. A newborn can only be awake one or two hours before tiredness sets in, whereas a two year old can last five to seven hours before craving some down time for a nap. When children are pushed beyond their biological awake time span without a break that’s when they become fatigued, fussy and unhappy.

Age “Happily Awake” span of time between naps

As the day progresses, and the sleep pressure builds, a child becomes fussier, whinier, and less flexible. He has more crying spells, more tantrums, and less patience. He loses concentration and the ability to learn and retain new information. The scientific term for this process is “homeostatic sleep pressure” or “homeostatic sleep drive” . . . I call it The Volcano Effect. We’ve all seen the effects of this on a baby or child, as it is often as clear as watching a volcano erupt; nearly everyone has observed a fussy child and thought or said, “Someone needs a nap!”

As a child progresses through his day, his biology demands a sleep break to regroup, refresh and repair. If a child does not get this break the problem intensifies: the rumblings and tremors become an outright explosion. Without a nap break, the homeostatic pressure continues building until the end of the day, growing in intensity – like a volcano – so that a child becomes overtired, wired and unable to stop the explosion. The result is an intense bedtime battle with a cranky, overtired child, or an infant who won’t fall asleep no matter how tired you know he is.

Even more, a child who misses naps day after day builds a sleep deprivation that launches her into the volcano stage much easier and quicker. If she is missing naps and also lacking the right quality or quantity of nighttime sleep…watch out!

Newborns and young babies have a much shorter span in which their sleep pressure builds. They rapidly reach the peak of their volcano in one to three hours. This is why newborns sleep throughout the day, and why young babies require two or three or four daily naps. Over time, as a baby’s sleep cycle matures he will be able to go longer periods between sleeps. It is not until age 4 or 5 that a child is able to go happily through the entire day without a nap, and sleep research suggests that even through adulthood a mid-day nap or rest break is extremely beneficial in reducing the pressure in all human beings.

The Volcano Effect is not something reserved only for children! This biological process affects adults as well. Understanding this can help you interpret what is really going on in your home at the end of a long day, when children are fussy and parents are grumpy – resulting in a whole mountain range of volcanoes.

Sleep pressure can be exaggerated by environmental issues such as the previous poor night’s sleep, on-going sleep deprivation, or daily stress. What’s more, each person’s moodiness feeds off the others, causing contagious crankiness. And then you’ll find yourself losing patience and saying to your child, “I’m sorry, honey. Mommy’s just tired right now.” (This is a very telling explanation we don’t often stop to analyze.) This Volcano concept brings to light one more important point: Quality naps can make up for lost night sleep – but extra nighttime sleep does not make up for missed naps, due to the homeostatic sleep pressure concept. Therefore, no matter how your child sleeps at night – great sleeper or poor sleeper — his daily naps are critically important to release the rising sleep pressure.   From The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, January 2009). Here is the link for information and more excerpts:

The Big Three: Tantrums, Fussing and Whining

by Elizabeth Pantley

Author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution

If you ask parents to list the most frustrating discipline problems during the early childhood years, you would find that these three items appear on every parent’s list. They are so common that I refer to them as The Big Three. All children master their own version of these behaviors, some are more talented in one area over another, and they appear and disappear at various ages and stages – but every parent has to deal with them!

Controlling their emotions

Most often tantrums, fussing and whining are caused by a child’s inability to express or control his emotions. When a child is stressed in any way he’s more likely to lose control. Tiredness, hunger, boredom, frustration and other causes that ignite The Big Three can frequently be avoided or modified. The best way to use this knowledge is to watch your child carefully. When she begins a meltdown, try to determine if you can tell what underlying issue is causing the problem. Is it past naptime? Is she due for a snack? Is the puzzle too much beyond her ability level? Solve the base problem and you’ll help your child gain control of her emotions.

Handling tantrums, fussing and whining

No matter how diligent you are in recognizing trigger causes, your child will still have meltdown moments. Or even meltdown days. Children are human beings, after all. Young humans, without the experience and wisdom that will grow over time. And all children need the guidance of a strong adult to help them gain this experience and wisdom – they can’t do it on their own. The following tips can help you handle those inevitable bumps in the road along the way. Be flexible and practice those solutions that seem to bring the best results for your child in any given situaiton.

Get eye-to-eye

When you make a request from a distance, yelling from room-to-room, your child will likely ignore you, if he hears you at all. Noncompliance creates stress, which leads to fussing and tantrums – from both of you. Instead, go to your child, get down to his level, look him in the eye and make a clear, concise request. This will catch his full attention. Plus, you will know that he really did hear you and can get him to verify that he understands what you need him to do.

Tell him what you DO want

Avoid focusing on misbehavior and what you don’t want him to do. Children hear far to many Nos, Don’ts and Stops. These negative words bring more resistance from your child.  Instead, explain exactly what you’d like your child to do or say in a positive, specific way. It gives him simple instructions to follow. So instead of saying, “Stop bickering over your toys!” a better choice is, “I’d like the two of you to find a fair way to share your toys.”

Offer the freedom of choices within limits

You may be able to avoid problems by giving your child more of a say in his life. Children crave independence, yet we must remain in control of this growing need. You can do this by offering choices between two or three things that you will accept. Instead of saying, “Put your coat on  right now,” which may provoke a tantrum, offer a choice, “What would you rather do, wear your coat or bring along a sweatshirt?” Children who are involved in their own decision making are often happily cooperating without even realizing it!

Validate his feelings

Help your child identify and understand her emotions. Give words to her feelings, “You’re sad. You want to stay here and play. I know.” This doesn’t mean you must give in to her request, but letting her know that you understand her problem may be enough to help her calm down. Follow the validation with a brief explanation and instructions, “The bus leaves soon, so take one last turn down the slide before we leave.”

Teach the Quiet Bunny

When children get worked up, their physiological symptoms keep them in an agitated state. They become tense, their breathing becomes rapid, and their You can teach your child how to relax and then use this approach when fussing begins.  You can start each morning or end each day with a brief relaxation session. Have your child sit or lie comfortably with eyes closed. Tell a story that he’s a quiet bunny. Name body parts (feet, legs, tummy, etc.) and have your child wiggle it, and then relax it.  Once your child is familiar with this process you can call upon it at times when he is agitated. Crouch down to your child’s level, put your hands on his shoulders, look him in the eye and say, let’s do our Quiet Bunny. And then talk him through the process. Over time, just mentioning it and asking him to close his eyes will bring relaxation.

Distract and involve

Children can easily be distracted when a new activity is suggested. If your child is whining or fussing try viewing it as an “activity” that your child is engaged in. Since children aren’t very good multi-taskers you might be able to end the unpleasant activity with the recommendation of something different to do.

Invoke his imagination

If a child is upset about something, it can help to vocalize his fantasy of what he wishes would happen: “I bet you wish we could buy every single toy in this store.” This can become a fun game.

Use the preventive approach

Review desired behavior prior to leaving the house, or when entering a public building, or before you begin a playdate. This might prevent the whining or tantrum from even beginning. Put your comments in the positive (tell what you want, not what you don’t want) and be specific.

When it’s over, it’s over. After an episode of misbehavior is finished you can let it go and move on. Don’t feel you must teach a lesson by withholding your approval, love or company. Children bounce right back, and it is okay for you to bounce right back, too.


by Elizabeth Pantley

The No-Cry Discipline Solution (McGraw-Hill 2007)


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