Spare the rod or spoil the child? Another take on this debate

Spanking has an impact on children’s brain responses.

Spanking has an impact on children’s brain responses.

What you need to know:

  • Spanking has been associated with long-term emotional and behavioural problems
  • If your first reaction to child misdemeanor is spanking, the child might grow up knowing that aggression is the first reaction a person is supposed to exhibit when wronged
  • The child may decide that spanking is worth whatever misbehavior he wants to engage in. This renders the punishment irrelevant

The era where children belonged to the community and any adult could punish a misbehaving child is long gone. Excessive caning was banned through a Kenya Gazette notice in March 2001. Spanking also contravenes the Children’s Act of 2001 and is punishable by law. This means that even teachers are not allowed to spank children.

However, many parents believe that spanking is an effective way of raising children. “We are asked to talk to our kids, but I have found spanking to be just as effective when done in moderation,” says Claire Aminga. For Patricia Wangari who is a parent and a board member at her former secondary school, lack of spanking is breeding criminals. “Children beat up teachers, burn their dormitories and bully each other because they know that there will be no punishment. In early 2010, two boys at Endarasha High School were burned to death by their classmates. In June 2021, a student drilled nails on his teacher’s head for being sent home, and another almost knocked off his teacher’s teeth over lunch.” She believes that though spanking should not go overboard, it should be administered. “I hold my child with one hand and a small cane on the other. She has gradually learned to tell the difference between wrong and right, and what may happen if she misbehaves,” she says.

According to an April 2021 report by Harvard University, spanking has an impact on children’s brain responses. “Spanking alters children’s brain response in ways that are similar to severe maltreatment and increases the perception of threats,” the report titled Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children and published in the journal Child Development said.

“Spanking is not effective and can harm children’s development as well as increase the risk of mental health issues. In addition, spanking has a potential impact on brain development and changing biology, leading to lasting consequences,” said Katie McLaughlin, a professor of psychology at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology. If spanking is applied too frequently or too severely during transitions or if its use is increased by other aversive circumstances within a household, such as an acrimony, stress, or poverty, it could inhibit a child's development of trust and feelings of security with parents. There is a positive correlation between frequent spanking and child behavioral problems. “Spanking has been associated with long-term emotional and behavioural problems,” says child therapist Florence Kamau. She adds that spanking children between the ages of 2 and 6 years have neutral effects on their emotional wellbeing and may have beneficial effects on child behavior. It may increase child compliance and, or reduce the need for future punishment by deterring a child's misbehavior.

Florence says that when a parent relies on spanking, the rod will not instill the desired behavior in their child. For example, if you spank your child for arguing with their younger sibling, the rod may tame the child in the short term, but in the long term, your child will not have learned better ways of engaging with their sibling or other people. “There is also the risk of using aggression as a reaction to anger. For instance, if your first reaction to child misdemeanor is spanking, the child might grow up knowing that aggression is the first reaction a person is supposed to exhibit when wronged,” she says.

Granted, millions of parents are culturally wired to spank or pinch their kids to deter misbehavior. The effects of spanking probably depend on how spanking is used and on its “normative acceptance” within particular cultures. But it is riskier for children under the age of 3 years. “Children below the age of 3 undergo several fundamental transitions in emotional and cognitive development, including the initiation of relationships with adult caregivers and the development of a sense of reliance on adults for safety and security,” says Florence. If you must spank, Florence advises that you should be gentle and very rare about it. “Start with mild disciplinary tactics. Spank rarely and not too harshly. It is most effective in response to defiant refusal to comply with milder disciplinary tactics, such as time-out,” she says.

Regular spanking can lead to the cane losing its effectiveness. In such eventualities, your child will become accustomed to spanking. He will engage in misbehaviours knowing that he will be spanked. “The child may decide that spanking is worth whatever misbehavior he wants to engage in. This renders the punishment irrelevant,” says Florence. “In addition, spanking could lead to lower self-esteem in a child, especially if he or she starts questioning why she is so bad that she gets regularly spanked.”

Florence recommends that your disciplining strategy includes understanding the reason why they did whatever they did, engaging them in a conversation about why whatever they did isn’t right, and why such behavior must not be repeated in the future. “The purpose of your discipline should be to teach, train, guide, and mold the child. It shouldn’t be about unleashing pain and regret,” she says.

Beyond disciplining your child, make a habit of praising them when they behave well. This will encourage better behaviour.

An alternative to spanking


This method is used to teach the child how to take responsibility for their behaviour. It gives a consequence that is directly linked with their actions.

According to Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, here are examples of how restitution works:

  1. Age 4 to 6: If a child says one mean thing to his mother, the restitution should be that he says two nice things about his mother, and help her with the dishes if he is of age. If a child fills the wall with colours, his restitution will be to clean the wall he soiled.
  2. Age 10 to teenagehood: If a child steals an item, he or she has to do chores at home to earn money to pay for the item, and write a letter apologising for the theft. If a child deliberately misses the school bus and is driven by the mother or father, he or she has to do extra chores to earn money to pay for the fuel used.

Possible spanking outcomes

  • Spanking may lose impact
  • It can escalate and lead to child abuse
  • It can model aggression as a solution
  • It may impede other forms of discipline
  • It could alter your relationship with your child
  • It might make discipline more difficult as the child becomes an adolescent
  • It may appeal to you as a stress release mechanism

Expected behaviors of spanked, physically abused children in adulthood

  • Criminal and antisocial behaviors
  • Mental health problems
  • Aggressive social behaviour
  • Physical violence towards children or even spouse