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Is it okay to spank?

By Kitty O'Callaghan, Parenting.com
updated 8:14 AM EST, Tue November 8, 2011
Spanking children, especially at an early age, can cause them to fear their parents.
Spanking children, especially at an early age, can cause them to fear their parents.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many parents say they spank their kids, but experts warn of the harmful lessons it teaches their kids
  • Spanking taught one man how to lie and how to avoid getting caught
  • Research poses the question, is spanking absolutely necessary?

(Parenting.com) -- Why most experts say no -- but many parents still say yes

-- 94% of 3- and 4-year-olds have been spanked at least once during the past year, according to one study.

-- 74% of mothers believe spanking is acceptable for kids ages 1 to 3, says another study.

-- 61% of parents condone spanking as a "regular form of punishment" for young children, according to a different study.

Clearly, the majority of parents say they spank their kids. Various factors increase the likelihood, including geographic location (children in the South are spanked the most), family income (less money means more spanking), race (African-American mothers spank their children more than other ethnic groups), and religion (parents more fundamentalist in their religious beliefs spank more than those who are less so). But all in all, it's a pretty clear picture.

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Meanwhile, for decades a long and distinguished list of experts has denounced spanking as ineffective, even dangerous. Ineffective, they say, because it only teaches a child to fear his parents, not to respect them, and dangerous because using force can injure a child and warp his understanding of how to interact with others: namely, that it's okay to hit someone to get your own way. And experts warn that children who have this antisocial lesson beaten into them are more likely to exhibit violent behavior later in life.

So why is there still a massive disconnect between what experts advise and what parents do? Are so many of us clamping our hands over our ears to "hear no evil," or do we know something that experts don't?

Meaning what you say

Before you go dashing off letters to the editor, let's consider that most people don't agree on what spanking actually is. In Webster's, "spank" means "to strike on the buttocks with an open hand." A mission statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes it as "striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury." But if you ask ten moms and dads what spanking means, you may well hear ten different responses.

Researchers who gather spanking statistics often lump together parents who may smack a well-padded bottom with an open hand once a year with those who regularly reach for a brush or belt strap as discipline, and they combine those who may spank their child because it's "good for them" with those who've done it because they lost their temper. The only definition experts and parents do seem to agree on is that spanking entails hitting of some kind, and that abuse is never acceptable. (Those of you who believe spanking is abuse no matter how it's defined may now be excused to write your letters to the editor.)

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There are any number of reasons that a parent might advocate or abhor spanking, but most influential is her own childhood experience. Christina Togni of Manassas Park, Virginia, can still recall her mother's threat with a wooden spoon. "When my two older brothers and I would do something wrong and hear the kitchen drawer open, we'd immediately head for the hills." Now the mom of a 6-year-old and a newborn, Togni says that she uses spanking only "when absolutely necessary." But unlike her mom, she doesn't issue empty threats. "When I say I'm going to do it, I do it." Jennifer Johnson, a mother of three in Haymarket, Virginia, also remembers fearing "the wrath of the paddle," which she believes was a good thing. She says that she now spanks her kids "when the crime meets the punishment," and feels that there would be fewer unruly children if more parents spanked. Other parents say that they learned a very different lesson from their spankings. Lisa Bacote, a mom of a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old in Atlanta, remembers the few spankings she received. "They were harsh!" she says. But the punishments didn't teach responsibility or obedience, she believes, as much as fill a reservoir of resentment that took years to drain. Her husband says that the spankings he received growing up taught him two things:

-- How to lie ("I didn't do it")

-- How to avoid getting caught.

Interestingly, whether an adult looks back in admiration or anger for being spanked, she rarely indicts her parent for doing it. "I understand that the spankings were fueled by my mother's frustration on those days," says Bacote. I, too, was spanked as a child, and I not only understand why I was spanked but I would probably have done the same thing. Once when I was yelling and acting like a complete jerk to my mom, she hit me, and I distinctly remember thinking, "Okay, I had that coming."

But that doesn't mean it's morally defensible to hit a child when the purpose is to "teach a lesson." "Why is it okay for an adult to hit a child when it isn't even acceptable for an adult to pick on someone his own size?" asks Murray Straus, Ph.D., professor of sociology and codirector of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. "There have been plenty of times when my colleagues have disagreed with me or made me upset, but that doesn't give me the right to haul off and hit 'em."

In this case, whether or not an adult "deserves" to be smacked is a moot point. It's simply unacceptable (and will land the smacker in a lot of trouble). Why is it, then, that children might "deserve" a swat and receive one? Because we're big and they're small -- a morally and ethically indefensible reason.

Still, adults who were spanked as children often defend the practice by saying, "It didn't hurt me in the long run." But, says Straus, just because a well-adjusted adult was spanked as a child doesn't mean that spanking is a harmless act. "I could say, 'I smoked my whole life and I'm okay.' But that doesn't mean smoking isn't bad for you," he explains.

Experts cite stacks of research that link spanking to mental health problems such as depression and a range of antisocial behaviors that land kids in detention and adults in jail. Of course, not all spanked kids end up in prison. Not all smokers end their days hooked up to an oxygen tank, says Straus, but that doesn't mean that it's fine for parents to introduce their children to nicotine.

Yet for many parents, their own childhood experience is hefty enough to quash any amount of data or well-reasoned line of logic. This doesn't surprise Gary Hill, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. "There's a strong emotional connection to the childhood event," he says, "so parents who spank are often more righteous about it." He also notes that for some adults, it's impossible to blame their own parents for spanking because it would mean that they were somehow scarred by being spanked. Instead, they believe that they "deserved" what they got.

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Safety spank

Along with lessons learned in childhood, many parents spank their kids for another simple reason: It stops children from doing whatever it is they're doing. "One day my son was acting up and was uncontrollable," says Togni. "He wouldn't listen or calm down, so I spanked him and told him to go to his room." The shock of the spanking coupled with time alone put an end to everyone's frustration, she says.

Even parents (like me) who are against spanking in theory admit that it seems to be a particularly effective stopgap when their child is doing something dangerous. Now, I don't spank my kids as a regular punishment, but there are times when I think it works. For instance, if my 3-year-old suddenly tries to grab the burner on the stove, it doesn't occur to me to have a discussion with him about why touching the stove is a no-no.

When safety is the issue, it's hard to dispute that spanking works, and my experience backs this up. But other methods, like positive reinforcement, are better ways to change behavior over time, say experts. While spanking might make a child take his hand away from the stove and avoid injury, they say, it won't necessarily keep him from trying it again or even make sure he understands the connection between his action and the consequences.

Linda McKenzie, a mom of three in St. Louis, recalls when her 5-year-old darted into traffic; she spanked her twice, telling her never to do that again. Later, she even sat her down to explain why she'd been spanked. The next day at school, her daughter told her teacher, "My mom hit me." When her teacher asked why, she replied, "I don't know."

If spanking is merely a behavioral Band-Aid, why use it at all? For many parents, it's the quick solution -- especially when they're dealing with an unruly toddler or preschooler, or when they're stressed out. But, say experts, spanking out of anger is never acceptable. It's vital to step back when a situation is escalating to a point of no return in order to give the thinking part of your brain time to catch up with your emotions.

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Cause and the effect

Despite the fervor of anti-spanking experts, the scientific evidence that spanking does cause behavioral trouble later in life is thin. While spanking has been associated with a wide range of negative effects, such as increased aggression, decreased self-control, and adolescent depression, the studies can't prove that these effects were caused by spanking. For instance, it may be that aggressive kids with poor self-control get spanked more because their behavior makes their parents angrier. Or it might be that aggressive parents with poor self-control spank more and are also more likely to pass on to their kids genes linked to aggression and poor self-control.

And many of the studies tend not to differentiate between parents who spank frequently and forcefully and those who do so occasionally and moderately. So results get lumped together, with different definitions of "spanking" carrying the same weight.

Such studies only prove that nothing was proved, say Diana Baumrind, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, and Robert Larzelere, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha, both of whom have been critical of the wide-ranging conclusions reached by many studies of physical punishment. Baumrind, in fact, has conducted research suggesting that "moderate" spanking has no effect on kids' well-being.

This is just white noise for anti-spanking advocates, who declare that there's more at stake than just hypotheses about long-term damage. Besides the moral concerns, there's the important matter of the relationship between parent and kids. A mother who hits her child could be fundamentally changing her relationship with that child, irrevocably lowering herself in her child's eyes.

Some moms who've spanked their children agree -- not necessarily that spanking was bad for their kids, but that it was bad for them and how they wanted to relate to their kids. Christina Vercelletto, a mother of three in Babylon, New York, doubts the results are worth the guilt. "The other night, I was trying to get my seven-year-old son to brush his teeth. For fifteen minutes he ran in and out of the bathroom, filled the sink with water 'just in case he needed it,' kept rinsing the toothpaste off his brush because it wasn't just the right-size blob. When he knocked the soap dish into the toilet reaching for the toothpaste yet again, I smacked him. He cried. I cried. And I spent the next hour kissing him while reading a shelf full of extra bedtime stories to ease my regret."

A necessary evil?

So if hard numbers can't prove that spanking is good or bad or safe or dangerous, perhaps it's not a data issue to begin with. The question of whether spanking works, or is safe, is beside the point. Maybe the question should be "Is it really, absolutely necessary?" And, given the moral Pandora's box that it unlocks, the less fraught options at your disposal for addressing childish misbehavior, and the fact that your child is watching, waiting, and learning from your decision, the answer seems clearly to just be no.

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