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The truth about spanking: new evidence suggests that parents should spare the rod – Living Well Parenting

by Lori L. Tharps

Tonya Andrews, * 28, remembers being spanked a lot as a girl. Andrews’s father spanked his children for any infraction, ranging from being disrespectful to not eating their food, because that’s how things were handled when he was a child. “Spanking is too light a word,” clarifies Andrews, who lives in Brooklyn. “We called them whuppings. My brothers got hit with belts, twigs and branches off trees.”

Now the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, Andrews says she’s putting an end to the culture of corporal punishment in her family. “I think there are better ways to communicate with a child than putting your hands on them,” she says.

Many parents are following Andrews’s lead, believing there are better, safer and more effective methods of disciplining a child than hitting. Forty years ago, more than 90 percent of the population spanked their children. Surveys suggest that today only 50 to 65 percent of American parents say they administer spankings. To some experts, that number is still way too high. “Two thirds of children ages 3 to 5 are spanked three times a week,” says Ruth Beaglehole, director of the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting in Los Angeles. “That’s not acceptable for anybody.”

After decades of silence on the matter, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently drafted a statement against spanking. In it the organization notes that spanking is “harmful emotionally to both parent and child, [and] it also interferes with the development of trust, a sense of security and effective communication.” Which is precisely why child psychologists, parenting advocates and social-service agents are waging a nationwide publicity campaign to discourage spanking.

Despite the current backlash against spanking, many African-American parents have trouble shaking the “if it was all right for me, it’s all right for my kids” philosophy. Howard C. Stevenson, Ph.D., coauthor of Stickin’ to, Watchin’ Over, and Gettin’ With: An African American Parent’s Guide to Discipline (Jossey-Bass), says Black people historically have used corporal punishment because there was and still is an unfair stigma attached to an active Black child. “We are often under pressure to limit the mobility of African-American children because it causes tension and anxiety in authority figures,” says Stevenson. Further, if we don’t discipline them ourselves, he says, most parents believe “the child will receive harsher punishment, not only from the law but also from teachers, coaches, authority figures and adults in general who don’t understand Black culture, history and life experiences.”

But Stevenson reminds us that as parents we have to get beyond those beliefs: “Remember the times when your own parents spanked you and it did not work.”

Why Spanking Doesn’t Work

Researchers such as Murray A. Straus, founder and codirector of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, are tracking the negative long-term effects of corporal punishment, including low self-esteem, depression and a predisposition to violence. Here are more reasons why all parents should consider sparing the rod:

Spanking sends the wrong message. Most of the current research on spanking suggests that it’s an ineffective form of discipline. While it may curb inappropriate behavior in the short term, the long-term lessons are not about right and wrong, but rather about violence and fear. “What we are teaching a child when we spank her is that hitting is the solution when something doesn’t go her way,” explains Marilyn Benoit, M.D., president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

It sets a poor example. Children model their behavior on what they see people around them doing. If a child is being hit, it’s very likely that he will turn around and hit somebody else. The AAP confirms that spanking teaches kids that violent behavior is acceptable and powerful. And for adults, those same lessons are very difficult to unlearn.

It can go too far. If a parent is angry when she spanks her child, that punishment can possibly escalate into something dangerous, even deadly. “Venting one’s frustrations and anger on a child can produce an adrenaline rush or `high’ that can become habit-forming, if not addictive,” says Michael Popkin, Ph.D., the founder of Active Parenting Publishers and a former family therapist. Thanks in no small part to some high-profile cases, there’s a heightened awareness about child abuse in this country. Teachers and social-service agents are now mandated to call the authorities if they suspect a child is being abused at home. And children are only too quick to expose a parent who spanks them. “Kids are catching on that no one’s allowed to put their hands on them, even Mom and Dad,” says New York family counselor Hilary Johnson.

What Does Work

If spanking isn’t an option, what is an exasperated parent to do when a child acts out? The following suggestions can help:

Learn what to expect. Ruth Beaglehole says she believes that instead of hitting children, parents should be hitting the books. “Parents need to learn more about how children develop at each stage,” she explains. “If you don’t understand where your child is developmentally, you may be expecting behavior that is beyond her years.”

Involve your child in the process. Offer your child the choice of either stopping the inappropriate behavior or being removed from the situation. For example, if a child is coloring on the wall with a crayon, tell him he can either draw on paper or not draw at all. Allowing children to make choices helps them learn about decision-making.

Make the punishment fit the offense. “Consequences that are logically related to the behavior help teach children responsibility,” says Kathryn Kvols, author of Redirecting Children’s Behavior (Parenting Press). Children, older ones especially, should be expected to make amends for their mistakes. For example, if a child breaks a vase because she’s playing ball inside the house, you could make her do extra household chores to pay for the repair or replacement of the vase.

Give yourself a timeout. Beaglehole, who is the author of Mama, Listen! Raising a Child Without Violence, counsels and encourages parents to take a moment and a deep breath, to step back and allow themselves to calm down before they address a problem with a child. “Too often parents spank their children in a rage, which is when punishment can get ugly,” she explains. “Anger colors the situation, and we don’t see what the child really needs.” More than anything, Beaglehole concludes, children need to feel both loved and safe: “From there, anything is possible.”

* Name has been changed to protect subject’s identity, and models were used for illustrative purposes only.

Lori L. Tharps is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is the coauthor, with Ayana Byrd, of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (St. Martin’s Press).

COPYRIGHT 2003 Essence Communications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

5 Responses to “The truth about spanking: new evidence suggests that parents should spare the rod – Living Well Parenting”

  • TealRose:

    Timothy – you are very innocent if you have never known anyone to spank/hit a child just because they could. Or because the child p*ssed them off by talking when the tv was on etc. NO-ONE deserves to be hit – and that means children. Especially defenceless children.

    I don’t care personally – if spanking actually would have increased my IQ a thousand fold or any of my children – I am NOT hitting another being! Why should children be the only ones not protected by law from being hit?? Animals are… and so are you !

    And I DO care if anyone spanks their child – it’s ignorant and poor, cruel parenting. I am 56 and never hit my children and they are fine adults. I was spanked .. and my parents lost me from day one. I never trusted, respected or loved them again. They were supposed to love and protect me not hit me – discipline a child – teach it .. which is what discipline means. I learned hate, resentment and was totally alienated from my parents for the rest of their lives. They could think they loved me all they wanted, I never believed it. I never FELT loved … during being spanked or after.

    • HasuKumori:

      I will start by saying I was spanked by my parents, and I still love them because I was never physically injured and have since grown up to become a fully functional productive member of society with a good job, a wife a house and 3 kids of my own.
      Well I for one (having lived in one of the worst neighborhoods inone of the worst cities in the country (flint, mi)) have known children that were beaten for no reason by their parents because their parents were cruel. But what we need to do is differenciate between BEATING and spanking. Just as the differences between a hug and a chokehold are the intention and physical pressure with which each is executed. The same applies here. When my child acts up, we talk about his choice and I redirect him to a proper course of action. When he repeats the mistake, I verbally scold him and continue to redirect him to the proper course of action. When he continues on the incorrect course of action I advise him to sit alone and contemplate his actions. And when these tactics fail, I take a survey of the situation.
      Did I preform all four steps of intervention? Yes
      Am I curently mad or frusterated at my child for his decisions? NO
      And if/when I come up with a simple yes no response to my own questions, Then I will calmly ask him to go to his room and wait for me. A few minutes later I come in and ask him to bend over and with my hand I Smack the soft padded center of his Gluteus Maximus one time when the ends of my fingers. I then instruct him that when he can compose himself he can come out of his room and we’ll talk about his actions. Durring the talk I remind him that I love him and that I’m not angry with him, but he needs to be reminded that his actions were incorrect.

      Likewise my friend who is in his late 40s has a child that he never spanked and regularly tried courses of verbal redirection and never used corperal punishment. One day when their child was misusing their cell phone my friend sai “that’s it, give me your cell phone and you’ll get it back when I say”
      In response his child punched him in the face and broke his nose. (that’s the child punching the parent, not the other way around) That was a year ago, that individual (who was never spanked) is not serving 6 months in jail for other offenses.

      I dont offer these to you as pieces of scientifically sound imperical evidence or set in stone ways of life. This is just what I’ve seen and what I do as a result of what I’ve seen and experienced.

      Namaste, and may Buddha bless you,


    • TB:


      It’s almost like you didn’t read what I wrote before you replied. I wrote about the dishonest use of the word ‘evidence’ in this piece. This is simply Lori’s opinion, and the opinion of Popkin, Straus and a few others, and she sadly tried to bastardize this to shape another’s opinion about corporal punishment by presenting a few people’s personal theories as science. I never commented on my personal attitude regarding corporal punishment, I simply pointed out the gaping holes in her conjecture. It is interesting that you come after me (when you have no idea my opinion on the subject) and all you did was tell us more OPINION. No one cares about your or mine opinion on the subject, but they do care about being lied to and having dishonest reports published and this was pointed out.
      And no, I’ve never seen a single person walking down the street just walk up to a kid and kick them in the face or punch them in the gut randomly. Apparently that is shocking to you and, in your little world, only ‘innocent’ people have not experienced it. Clearly random kicks to the face of children were not endorsed in my piece as moral, sadly you miscued there. I’m not sure how my life experiences change the fact that Lori’s piece was filled with associations and not causation but somehow you missed the boat on that one… so I digress.
      Also, lots of beings are not protected by law from being hit. Animals are hit all the time ‘legally’ or are you so ‘innocent’ that you’ve never seen a horse whipped by his jockey, a lion tamer whip the felines at a circus, training of canines for police use? Have you never seen two boxers punch each other, two hockey players receive penalties for roughing, MMA fighters in the octagon? I’m just pointing out that Zdeno Chara hit another man in the head with his elbow the other night and, believe it or not, he’s not in jail right now… weird.
      And finally, it is your OPINION that it is ‘ignorant’ or ‘cruel parenting’ to spank a child. That doesn’t mean you’re right. It is your opinion that your children are ‘fine adults’, many may disagree. You brag that you never hit your children. Are we supposed to care? So you had a poor childhood and are using your parents spanking you as the reason it was poor… well sorry Teal, that’s not evidence. My argument was purely pointing out the scientific holes in her ‘evidence’ since that is what I do for a living (review scientific data). Allow me to be a little sarcastic for a moment to prove the point. You also drank Kool-Aid as a child. Maybe Kool-Aid caused you to resent your parents and turn into this spankless parent? You also were likely at some point grounded by your parents. Maybe grounding or some other punishment your parents laid down on you caused your disturbed adulthood. You see where I’m going with this? This is all association and in no way implies causation. Using Lori’s same flawed logic, we could say that your parents spanking of you shaped you into the person you are today and directly caused you to become this wonderful parent who has ‘fine adults’ for children. Now that may or may not be true… frankly it doesn’t matter. It is simply used to show that clearly that’s not evidence. But, maybe you should thank them for turning you into this wonderful person you are today.
      Now if you’d like to reply and actually read what I originally wrote and actually refute anything I said on a scientific basis, I’d certainly appreciate your comments. You failed miserably the first time, but here’s a second chance.

      TB, M.D.

  • Timothy Barcomb, MD:

    To use the word ‘evidence’ is a intentinoal misnomer that ‘lori l’ and Murray Straus. The way this entire article is written is biased. She says Straus is ‘tracking the negative long-term effects of corporal punishment’ and then lists depression, low self-esteem, etc as if that has been proven. Remember folks, you can never do a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled trial on this so the BEST you can ever have are ‘associations’ which, as many of you know are fraught misguidance. Hospital beds are associated with mortality. Now we all know hospital beds don’t cause people to die, but most people who die in a hospital, died on the bed. I could conclude therefore that there is evidence that hospital beds cause death, but if I did, I’d be an idiot. People who take insulin have a higher likelihood of having their feet amputated. Does that mean insulin causes your feet to fall off? No, of course not, it means that people with worse diabetes needed more treatment (more insulin) and thus were a sicker group to begin with leading to more amputations.
    Always be wary of associations. Clearly this author is so biased in her own views that she chooses to call conclusions that suit her viewpoint ‘evidence’ when it is nothing of the sort. In fact, to suggest any of this is ‘evidence’ is morally bankrupt.
    I personally don’t care whether you spank your child, but, as a medical researcher, I am well trained in proper study techniques and conclusions. This article spews a bias under the guise of evidence and I think this should be pointed out.
    Finally, along the same ‘association does not mean causality idea’, children and adolescents who are spanked more growing up were likely spanked for a reason. Since most of us don’t know parents that just walk up to their kids and beat them for no reason, it is likely that these kids were behaving so poorly that nothing was working for the parents and corporal punishment was used. Clearly, kids who were spanked more, or spanked more violently, were more troubled than the kid who just sat in the corner and was well behaved. Kids who just sit in the corner well behaved in general do fine through adulthood. Conversely, maybe kids who misbehave or break the laws in childhood or adolescence are more likely to do so into adulthood and thus are more likely to be depressed, have low self esteem, etc. Does that in any way imply it was the spanking that did it to them? Of course not. It is far more likely that these kids were troubled as children leading to their poor behavior and, just as likely, their troubles continued into adulthood. It’s a confounding factor. The spanking is merely an association. How anyone can possibly look at Lori’s spin as ‘evidence’ is beyond me.

    Timothy Barcomb, MD

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