To spank or not to spank


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Despite experts’ warnings, American parents spank their children to promote good behavior

(originally posted on March 21, 2007 by The American Observer)

Jennifer Greene, 21, learned to pronounce words and phrases months before her first birthday and was smart-mouthing her parents by the time she was 2.

Her smart mouth often got her into trouble.

“When I started talking, I got popped in the mouth,” said Greene. “When I hit 2 or 3, they popped my butt with their hand.”

By the time she was 13, when she got “sassy” with her parents, her mother hit her first with her hands, then with a belt.

“They spanked the hell out of me,” said Greene, who remembers being angry while getting her punishment, but now understands why she was spanked. “I’m a better person for it,” she said.

If Democratic California assemblywoman Sally Lieber has her way, parents could face jail time and a fine for hitting children under age 3. Lieber introduced the Child Abuse and Infant/Toddler Protection Bill last week, reviving an age-old debate over disciplining children.

“I can see that law being abusive to parents who aren’t doing that much,” said Dr. James Greene, Jennifer’s father. “I don’t think it should be instituted.” The Cleveland physician said that he does not condone child abuse, but that “just a little tap here and there” is not grounds for receiving jail time.

In a statement, Lieber said, “Good parents have no reason for concern as a result of this legislation, while abusers will no longer be able to hide behind the defense of ‘reasonable parental discipline.’”

Existing child abuse laws allow “justifiable corporal punishment of children,” but Lieber’s bill is more specific, seeking to outlaw particular forms of corporal punishment including the use of objects such as a switch, an extension cord, or a belt; throwing, kicking, burning or cutting a child; striking a child with a closed fist; and striking a child under the age of 3 on the face or head.

The effects of spanking

Spanking is one of the most common ways to discipline children in the U.S. About 94 percent of 3 and 4-year-old children are spanked at least once a year according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy’s research also found that 11 percent of parents said that they spanked a child 6 to 11 months of age, 36 percent said that they spanked a child 12 to 17 months of age, and 59 percent reported having spanked a child 18 to 23 months of age. The academy reports that spanking children at these ages could have damaging developmental effects.

Children under 2 are in the early stages of developing a sense of reliance on adults for safety and security. Child development research shows that if spanking is used too often, it could get in the way of these relationships and have negative effects on future interactions with adults and peers. Experts agree that spanking children actually promotes the behavior that parents are trying to stop by using corporal punishment. “Spanking often makes the child’s behavior worse,” said Dr. Alan Kazdin, chair of Yale University’s psychology department and president of the American Psychological Association.

While the effects of mild spanking have not been proven to be harmful, research shows that moderate to heavy spanking is damaging to children. “Moderate to heavy spanking increases aggression,” said Kazdin. “Children who are hit more are children who hit others more.”

Parents who use mild spanking are eventually likely to moderately or heavily spank their children. Kazdin said people who spank a little bit tend to escalate because of the view that increasing hitting will increase in its effectiveness. “You might keep taking it up a notch,” he said.

Kazdin also said spanking could lead to aggression against the parent and damage relationships between the child and adults. The effects of spanking usually last long after the punishment is over. Dr. Drew Permut, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. said spanking is often a sign of the parent’s anger, and hitting sends a message that the parent is angrier than they really are. “Children start to say to themselves, ‘Mom doesn’t like me,’” he said.

While experts say that spanking is not an effective way of punishing children, they do not think that a jail sentence is an effective way of punishing parents.

Permut said that if the bill is passed, it would criminalize something that could be handled by education or counseling. “Turning parents into criminals does not help the child,” he said. Kazdin also said that parenting classes would be more effective than imposing jail time. He said there is always going to be a group of parents who hit their children behind closed doors despite legal consequences, and that the only positive aspect of this legislation is its possible effect on a small group of parents who may fear going to jail. “Passing legislation would get this borderline group,” he said. “If there’s a little less aggression, it’s really good.”

Alternatives to spanking

When Dolores and Kendall Tyre wanted little Timothy to clean his room, they hit him where it hurt. “We told him he couldn’t go to Johnny’s party, there would be no ice cream after dinner and no television,” said Kendall Tyre.

The Tyres have been married for 40 years and raised three children: Kendall, Jr., 40; Timothy, 30; and Jennifer, 22. Both said while they did occasionally “tap” one of their children on the hand or leg, that they did not regularly use spanking as a disciplinary method. “There are other ways to punish a child,” said Dolores Tyre, a teacher’s assistant at Milford Middle School in Milford, Del. Tyre said that time-out was an effective way of managing behavior, and while she does not agree with spanking, she said that children do need some form of discipline. “With the kids that I work with, the discipline is not there,” she said. “Parents need to be more stern with whatever form of discipline they choose.”

According to psychologists, children are very sensitive to their parents’ disapproval. Permut said resorting to physical punishment wastes the best parental resources. He said using “words that express that you don’t like what they did” along with time-out and restrictions on privileges are more effective than spanking.

“They just want your approval.”

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