Spanking, or corporal punishment as it is also called, can be a somewhat controversial topic in this field. I had a meeting with a parent this week who is very upset that an older family member is very-pro spanking. The parent wanted me to talk to the family member and make her "less spanking" and "more ABA".
As a professional in this field it isn't unusual for clients to ask for your opinion or recommendations on services, therapies, methods, schools, etc. The best practice is to provide the family with solid evidence based knowledge. It is not advised to recommend something to a client you really dont know much about. So if a parent asks you "Should I spank or not?", what should you say??
What I typically do is explain to the client that research does support that spanking can have many negative effects that can be long term. I then advise the parent do their own research and reading, and make a decision as a parent what they want to do. What often happens, is a grandparent who views ABA as being "too soft" on the child will make a statement to me about how all the child's behaviors would just go away with one good spank/swat/pinch, etc. Its not uncommon for family members who are older, or who do not know much about special needs, to make such comments. If this happens to you take the opportunity to educate the family member. Don't become defensive or upset, as that will just close down communication. Remember: successful ABA intervention requires a team. The more members of the family you can get on your side the better.
Below is an example of how I would respond to a client or relative of a client who asks me "Whats so bad about spanking?!":
"I do understand your opinion about spanking, as many people were spanked as children, and view it as a discipline tool. There is quite a bit of research on the topic of spanking and corporal punishment, and I can recommend some books too if you are interested. I can tell you that in general, reinforcement will always be more effective than punishment. I think it is up to the parents to decide if they want to have a spanking or no-spanking household. However, I do have a few questions for you--
How effective is the spanking? Is the behavior decreasing as a result? As with any behavior intervention, if the target behavior does not decrease then the intervention isnt working. Are you having to spank your child daily, or every few days? If so, then that is not an effective intervention. Also, what are you doing to teach the child what to do instead? Spanking doesnt teach anything, its a reactionary measure. Lastly, are you concerned about inadvertently teaching your child that hitting is okay? I have worked with children who get spanked, and will hit/swat at peers when angry or upset. I would suggest you think about all of these possible concerns, and if you need help creating a new behavioral intervention to try instead of spanking I would be glad to be of assistance."
Just remember that as a professional you want to give informed, evidence based recommendations. If you have limited knowledge of a topic, tell a client that before answering their question. If a topic is very sensitive or controversial to you, you must remove your own personal biases before giving advice to a client. Also, I am careful to preface advice with "In my opinion" unless I am directly referencing research. Especially a topic like spanking, which can be a cultural issue. Avoid judgmental statements and instead start a dialogue with the client where the two of you solve the problem together. The family asked you for your professional opinion, not for you to judge their parenting.
*Quick Note: I have had clients who were pro-spanking until they realized spanking had no effect on their child, or that their child enjoyed spanking. Some children with Autism may have sensory processing deficits, in which case painful stimuli can feel good. I have seen children get popped on their hand by a parent, and then hold out the other hand to request a second pop. When that happens, parents are usually shocked and don't know quite what to do. Clearly spanking will not be effective if your child enjoys the sensation.
Straus MA, Sugarman DB, Giles-Sims J: Spanking by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior of children. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 1997, 151:761-767.
Gershoff ET: Report on physical punishment in the United States: What research tells us about its effects on children. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline; 2008.
Straus MA: Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effects on children. 2nd edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction; 2001.
Baumrind D, Larzelere RE, Cowan PA: Ordinary physical punishment: Is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff (2002). Psychological Bulletin 2002, 128:580-589.