AP and Spanking Don’t Mix

by Kelly Bartlett on July 27, 2011

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Many parents, even many of those who are focused on creating a secure attachment with their child, spank as a form of discipline.  They may say things like…

“I only spank when….”

“I only spank after I’ve tried [XYZ] first.”

“Spanking is OK when it’s done [a certain way], but not [a certain other way].”

“We did attachment parenting when our kids were infants (past tense).”

“We follow AP, but believe in strong discipline for obedience.”

“We are AP, except for spanking.”

Attachment parenting is about raising children using parenting methods that strengthen relationships, foster empathy, and teach nonviolent communication. Spanking may elicit appropriate behavior in children, but it is a technique that, no matter how it is administered, does not support a secure attachment; it does not meet kids’ emotional needs, and it functions against the goals of AP (communication, connection).

Attachment parenting has no end date.  It is not a stage or a phase, but a mindset.  It’s a perspective that permeates the relationship between a parent and child and all of the interactions they have together.  So, the parenting goals that AP moms and dads have when their kids are infants are the same goals they have when their kids are older; communication, connection, respectful relationships.

Just because children outgrow infanthood, doesn’t mean they outgrow those needs.  And just because parents may be focused on teaching their kids appropriate behavior doesn’t mean they should ignore the principles that drew them to AP in the first place.

The goal of attachment parenting is connection, not obedience.  There is simply no attachment-promoting way to spank.

There are, however, attachment-promoting ways to discipline; to teach children those necessary elements of behavioral limits, expectations, and accountability, while still prioritizing the parent-child relationship.  Positive discipline accomplishes this.  The tools of positive discipline fit well within the context of attachment parenting because they follow the “And” principle…

  • I want to teach my kids how to behave appropriately and I want to prioritize our relationship.
  • I want my kids to be accountable for their behavior and I want to respect them (their autonomy, their development).
  • I want to parent with firmness and kindness.
  • I want to let kids know what is expected of them and I want to stay connected to them.
  • I want to teach my kids respect and I want to facilitate communication between us.

It is common to equate positive parenting with permissive parenting.  As children outgrow the AP practices of infanthood, parents frequently believe that they must “establish control” of their children, expect obedience, and enforce boundaries.  For without limits and authority, children “rule the roost,” right?

Yes, children certainly need limits.  Yes, they need clear boundaries.  Yes, parents must communicate their expectations and hold kids accountable for their behavior.  And yes, parents can teach kids these things without punishments, without threats, without inducing fear, and without spanking.

At the start of her 7-week Positive Discipline classes, author and parent educator Jane Nelsen asks parents, “How many of you would try one other parenting tool before you spanked?”  Inevitably, every hand goes up. She continues and asks, “How many of you would try two things before spanking?”  Hands stay up.  “Three things?  More?”  And still, the hands stay up.

So, many parents are, indeed, aware of the limitations of spanking.  Many parents spank because they are exasperated with their child’s behavior and want it to stop but don’t know what else to do.  This is exactly what Positive Discipline classes do; they give parents new tools for disciplining effectively and non-punitively, while fostering and maintaining an emotional connection with their children.

As children outgrow the practices of AP such as breastfeeding, babywearing, and co-sleeping, they grow into other ones.  Different techniques accomplish the same attachment-oriented goals: connection, security, respectful communication. It is possible to fill parenting toolboxes with a supply of non-punitive, connection-enhancing alternatives to spanking.

There are many.  Some are in-the-moment reactive, while others are primarily proactive.  All are able to accomplish the same results as spanking (setting limits, expecting accountability, teaching kids appropriate behavior) but with the important element of respect.  These are just some (very condensed) examples taken from the set of Positive Discipline Parenting Tools:

  • Positive time out—both parents and children can take take time to cool off and access our rational brains.
  • Focus on solutions—move from thinking, “What can I do to get through to you?” to “What can we do to solve this problem?”
  • Wheel of choice—brainstorm solutions to everyday conflicts to give kids choices in problem solving.
  • Distract and redirect—turn a “don’t” into a “do.”
  • Eye to eye—communication becomes more respectful when you look into your child’s eyes.
  • Hugs—for children and parents alike; we all do better when we feel better. Physical affection restores brain chemistry to a calm, rational state.
  • Limited choices—provide small steps in shared power.
  • Listen—your children will listen after they feel listened to.
  • Use mistakes as opportunities for problem solving, not punishment.
  • Validate feelings—don’t fix, rescue, or talk children out of their feelings, and have faith in them to work it through.
  • Agreements—brainstorm with a child to find a solution everyone can agree to.  If the problem occurs, remind the child, “What was our agreement?”
  • Connection before correction—when emotional connection is in place, the need for correction is greatly minimized.
  • Break the code—misbehavior is an external code for an internal problem; get at the root of the problem and the behavior will change.
  • Empower your kids—share control to help kids develop skills to have their own power.
  • Natural consequences—allow kids to experience the natural consequences of their choices without interference from you.
  • Encouragement—a misbehaving child is a discouraged child and needs to be encouraged rather than made to feel worse.
  • Use nonviolent communication—Speak in acknowledgements, “You feel hurt and you need someone to understand,” rather than in judgments, “When will you ever learn?”
  • Take time for teaching—teach kids what to do and be patient with the learning process.
  • Special time—schedule regular one-on-one time with each child.
  • Curiosity questions—ask questions to understand the child’s intentions, motives, feelings and needs.
  • Show faith—have faith in children to handle their mistakes.
  • Sense of humor—turn discipline into playful parenting.

And there are even more.  Not all tools are applicable to every situation, and some tools work better in combination with others. Every situation is different with every family.  For more information and explanation on the tools, you can take a class near you or get the Positive Discipline Parenting Tool Cards.

Parenting non-punitively is definitely more time consuming than administering a spanking, but it is infinitely more valuable.  A trusting, encouraging, secure relationship is possible with our newborns, grown-up children and every age in between.  It affects how they see themselves and how they relate to the world, and it starts now.

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Kelly Bartlett (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Shay July 28, 2011 at 6:31 am

We stopped spanking after learning about attachment theory, but I do want to point out that even Dr. Sears gives guidelines for spanking in one of his books. Parents should do what works for their family – that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned about being an attachment parent.

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Brenda King April 27, 2012 at 7:31 am

It’s important to note that Dr. Sears does not endorse or approve of spanking. He did include spanking “guidelines” in one of his books, but it was with a clear disclaimer that he does not recommend it. The guidelines were given more in the spirit of, “I know some of you parents will spank, no matter what I say, so here is how to do it in the least damaging way possible – but I recommend that you don’t spank at all.

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Donna August 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Wonderful article! By definition, something that does not create or maintain attachment cannot be defined as attachment parenting. It just isn’t. Not even when Dr. Sears says it. I think we can all agree that spanking a child does not create feelings that lead to attachment.
People who desire to create attachment with their children are not perfect. Everyone has a bad day once in a while. We all do and say things we regret sometimes. The intention is important and when we do make mistakes, we can ask forgiveness and start over. With wonderful attachment-promoting tools, we can do so much better

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Chelsey December 28, 2011 at 11:12 am

I may have been spanked two or three times as a child, but they ended before I was five. My parents decided that if they wanted to spank me they were obviously angry and it wasn’t right to hit their child in anger. So if they were going to spank, first they had to go take a parental “time-out” and then come back and do the spanking. Funny how they never once spanked us after they had gone away and come back more calm.

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Shannon April 27, 2012 at 7:21 am

In a later book Dr. Sears mentions that a long time ago he thought it was appropriate but as he has developed, he has realized that it is unnecessary

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Misty June 14, 2012 at 9:47 am

I do appreciate a lot of the advice that you have given regarding AP, however, i must add that my parents spanked me when i was growing up and the way they did it was very loving. We always had a conversation before hand, explained the disobedience and the repetitive disobedience and that was the result for the spanking. I was given many warnings but if i continued to disobey then i knew it would result in a spanking. They would 1. Have a conversation with me on why 2. I would always know they loved me because i would be able to sit in their lap afterwards and they would hug me and tell me they love me and are trying to teach me. I don’t think i got spanked past age 4 and I grew up in a very loving family and am very close with both my parents. I also didn’t rebel at all and always loved being with family. Friends who have tried to result in gentle discipline have had spoiled children behavior. I’m doing my best to do a mix of both.

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Danielle June 18, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Misty, I respectfully disagree with you ma’am.

In reading your comment, it reminded me of reading up on Christian Domestic Discipline, where the husband can lovingly discipline his wife by hitting/spanking her. He is doing it out of love of course.

At the end of the day,I don’t know you personally, and we are strangers on the internet, but reading your comment made me kind of sad. When you love someone you don’t hit. There is no loving way to hit. People who love you don’t hit you.

Finally, there is a difference between permissive parenting, and positive/gentle parenting. Permissive parenting doesn’t set boundaries so children are always trying to act out to get their parents attention or boundaries. Positive parenting acknowledges the behaviour but finds alternatives to correct it.

Remember, we aren’t raising obedient livestock, or domestic animals who bend to out whims, but we’re raising a human being, the next generation.

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Laura P. May 1, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Agreed, Danielle. Sorry, Misty, I am so glad that you still have a close relationship with your parents but it seems it is in spite of the spanking not because of it.
I always think of an abusive adult relationship when I hear of spankings delivered in a loving way as well. ‘I hit you because I love you. You made me do this.’ That is what people who hit their partners say when they are trying to manipulate them into staying. Kids can’t leave and don’t know any other way. What does a child learn about how they should be treated in a romantic relationship when they are an adult when they are ‘spanked with love’ as a child? Seems they probably learn that loved ones hitting you is ok and just part of being loved. It certainly is not.

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Kim May 1, 2014 at 8:04 am

Children imitate our behavior to levels we can’t imagine. I firmly believe that my children learnt hitting from seeing me spank. For those who say that you can spank in a positive way, doesn’t know a thing about human nature. When you spank or hit a child it is always done out of frustration and anger.

Children will not separate your right to spank when you are upset from theirs. As a result, they do not learn to handle their frustrations without hitting. It’s that simple. They see you hit when you’re angry, they hit when they’re angry. They’re simply learning from you.

Spanking does not teach discipline. Ask any prison inmate and they will tell you that their parents spanked. Spanking is a temporary band aid to control for a moment. Communication and understanding lasts a lifetime.

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Sonya May 7, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Most parents do not realize that hitting any animals is abuse and they can go to jail. If you hit another adult, you can go to jail. Why does our society allow us as parents to hit/spank children who are small and vulnerable? We do not use any spanking or hitting techniques in our house. It is wrong.

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