People ask this question as if there is, for them, a collection of child management techniques with which they are mostly satisfied. However, it is on supposedly rare occasions, they tell me, that they feel there is a need for an ultimate tool; one which they can use reliably when "all else fails". Then, when confronted with the challenge to defend the safety and effectiveness of their ultimate tool, some will return the gauntlet with the challenging question. They expect, I believe, that if there is an answer, some yet unknown alternative punishment will be revealed to them. They do not question the methods they employ up to the point of resorting to physical aggression. The final step seems a natural progression from lesser, usually effective punitive measures, to the greater, more intensive and unpleasant, aversive treatment. They do not seem to be willing to embrace the idea that "all else fails" perhaps because of something they have done less successfully or that they have, in any way, failed to understand completely their child's developmental needs or purposes for behaving the way that they do. Instead, it seems, they conceive of some master list of child management techniques which would include spanking among those which are visible, readable, and easily knowable in our society; and some other techniques which are obscure, are beyond the limits of common human imagination, or are incomprehensible. But, that's not the case. The alternatives to spanking are not a secret.
Penelope Leach wrote, "hurting a child on purpose is hurting a child on purpose, whether it's a little bit occasionally or a lot, quite often" (Spanking: a shortcut to nowhere ...). Since all physical punishments lie on the same continuum, the difference between spanking a child and physically abusing her is arbitrarily described in the various child abuse and neglect laws of our 50 states and it is most clearly evident only after physical abuse has occurred; after injury, intended or not, has been irretrievably caused. It's a line that parents cross easily and usually with no other intent than to cause transient pain in a misguided effort to modify behavior forcefully. Leach explains that the risk lies in the fact that hitting a child is not effective in teaching proper behavior and this is compounded by the method's tension relieving appeal for parents. There is no safe way to hit a child on purpose. We can parent effectively without hurting a child on purpose.
It is better, I think, to chose to limit our list of child management methods-- our bag of tricks -- to those tools which do not involve intentional hurting; physical or other. We aren't making up anything new here. This isn't rocket science. There are no secret techniques. We just throw away the tools which we think put us -- our children and ourselves -- in unnecessary jeopardy. Building the vital bond between family members is not an easy task and we want to do nothing that weakens that bond. We keep most of the techniques that everyone in the literate world already knows. We re-examine them and improve our skills. We can produce the results most parents desire, without violating the principles of democracy, mutual respect, personal responsibility, cooperation, and the good of the group. As it is popularly stated, "children do not come with an owners' manual". Many of us will need to study child development and some of us will consider parenting classes like P.E.T. (Parent Effectiveness Training) or S.T.E.P. (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting).
"Alternatives to spanking?" It seems to me simply a matter of choosing to not include physical punishments in our bag of tricks. If that is hard to comprehend, it is probably because many of us think that alternatives to spanking would be alternative punishments. But these would still share some of the same shortcomings of hitting children.
If spanking is a tool which most users say they intentionally limit, or their children's behavior is rarely extreme enough to warrant such an extreme response, then it must have some negative aspects (mustn't it?), some that we nearly all acknowledge ... because spanking is not like a commodity in limited supply and, therefore, needn't be spared for that reason. And spanking doesn't use large amounts of energy -- physical or mental. So, it must have some negative aspects that everyone recognizes at some level of awareness. And for everything positive anyone thinks might be said about it, I think that there are well-known alternatives (or sources for learning more about those alternatives) which are as effective, if not more so, and are readily available to anyone. They won't hurt your child, either, and they are not as likely to threaten that vital bond between parent and child, which becomes increasingly important to teaching and guiding as the child gets older.
The alternatives to spanking are nearly everything else you already use (polished, perhaps), without the spanking. What do you do when everything else has failed? Mostly you do the same things that you're doing already, but instead of using spanking, as you very likely have used more than once, you do all of the other things more and better. Confidence in your mind, your heart, and your children's capacity and motivation for learning, along with all of the consistency that you can exhibit, will be vital.
Regarding some of the popular reaches for extreme challenges to parental responsibility, I'd say that children starting fires or exposing themselves and others to dangerous situations are often just examples of little failures in proper guidance and/or supervision, rather than willful misbehavior. Parents and their children are going to make mistakes, but we should have less tolerance for our own mistakes. To respond to the parent's failure to prevent the fire-starting or the dangerous walk in the woods with spanking seems as rational to me as burning children to teach them that fire is harmful or committing some other sort of traumatizing assault on a child to teach them that it is threatening to play in dangerous places or with dangerous objects. These ridiculous illustrations differ in degree, but the purpose could still be described -- as people often do, regarding spanking: educational.
Physical punishment teaches children nothing about the likelihood of real dangers from their mistakes and teaches them more than we may realize about ourselves and our capacity for delivering pain. Children who play with fire are not usually accurately anticipating the risks of fire. Hitting them will not change that. Children who present themselves to other dangerous behaviors are not accurately judging those risks unless, of course, they are reckless risk-takers, who purposefully invite danger and personal harm. If this is the case, spanking will be futile, even destructive. It's just another danger risked. On the other hand, if they truly failed to fully realize or respect the risk of peril in their mistaken actions, physical punishment is likely only to teach them to avoid the punisher, which is not what we want. Avoidance and anxiety are common side effects of punishment.
Deterrents work only if the violators of the rules really expect to be caught, which they usually do not. To work effectively, a deterrent has to be the more horrible cost imaginable by the violator along with fairly high risk for and anticipation of discovery. As the punishment gets milder, though, discovery must approach absolute certainty, in the estimate of the violator, or it does not maintain satisfactory effectiveness. Of course, the child does need to learn that fire, or getting hit by a car, or being kidnapped or assaulted are extremely destructive and that the harm to self, others, or property is highly likely under certain circumstances. It is better for them to learn these lessons in advance.
Physical punishment can not be preventive except for the very briefest periods of time following punishment. But hitting a child for getting hit by a car is just stupid. Hitting a child for nearly getting hit by a car is just expressing the parents' alarm and anger. Any prevention is limited to the very immediate period following the child's risk-taking behavior, when the parent is probably still present. This, of course is not where we most want prevention to work. So, parents must use their minds and hearts, not their hands. We must use anticipation as well as reflection. We must supervise our children until they have demonstrated a reliable respect for the kind of caution we want. We must model appropriate behavior always and we must explain our reasoning.
To use physical punishment as an effective deterrent, it must be severe, OR discovery needs to approach absolute certainty. Severity is judged subjectively, of course, and by the child only. This magnifies the potential for greater than expected harm to the child and makes escalation to even harsher force a very real risk. Avoiding our discovery of a misbehavior is always possible, which makes spanking relatively intermittent and too inconsistently applied to assure the effectiveness supposedly desired.
I think it is better if the child learns about the natural and logical consequences of mistaken behavior before they engage in it, especially when the consequences are very great. Natural consequences are certain, as they are inherent in the behavior and its effects. They complete the learning opportunity and allow choice. However, they often deny the parent direct and aversive intervention, which is popular, I believe, but risks alienating the child. Denied direct intervention, the parent doesn't get to do anything to the child, which, for many, will be a major drawback of a nonphysical or even nonpunitive alternative.
I think, as you may be able to tell, that spanking only meets the parent's needs. The resistance to the suggestion of abstaining from spanking is, I think, proportional to its importance to them personally. Except for the need to do something to children when provoked by undesirable behavior, any other personal, parent needs can be and should be satisfied without intentionally hurting the children.
Alterantives to spanking should include modeling appropriate ways to deal with conflict and respecting children in the same way we want children to respect others. We should set and explain appropriate limits. We should model and clearly communicate our expectation that it is better if we all respect order and actively participate in its maintenance. Democracy is a cherished ideal in our society and the family is the place where it can best be learned and taught. We should become very familiar with child development so that we can have realistic and fair expectations of our children's physical, emotional and intellectual needs and abilities. We should remember that children naturally want to please us and they want most to feel like they belong. As we strive to recognize this and reinforce all of the many efforts on their part to behave acceptably, we can nurture the kind of behavior we want to see repeated and, thereby, lessen the opportunities children will find to behave in the ways we do not appreciate.
Intentionally hitting a child in any way is always harmful. It threatens a child's basic trust in the world, presents children to unnecessary risks, impresses their fragile psyches in negative ways and makes them angry, resentful and even more likely to consider violence a legitimate way to resolve conflict. Therefore, it is never right, fair, or justifiable to hit a child.