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Spare the Rod?

The bottom line on spanking

Once, when I was a consultant for an Internet chat room, mothers were swapping advice on where, when, and how to spank children. I chimed in with what I thought was a nonthreatening question, namely, “Might there be an alternative to spanking?” I got lots of angry responses and the clear message that I didn’t know much about raising young children.

It just goes to show what a polarizing issue spanking is. Not too many spankings are administered by teachers and principals anymore. Though as recently as 1977 the Supreme Court upheld the right of educators to use spanking as a disciplinary method, and today 23 states still allow spanking in schools, the practice has all but disappeared from school life. At the same time, surveys reveal that most American parents still spank their children occasionally or have done so in the past. They just seem to be more defensive about it than their parents or grandparents would have been.

Are these parents scarring their children for life? Not necessarily. Leo Kanner, a pioneer in child psychiatry, used to ask adults if they had been spanked as children. Some would say, with noticeable bitterness, that, yes, they had been spanked. Others would say the same thing, but without resentment—sometimes even with great affection. Apparently, the context in which the punishment is administered makes all the difference. When children know that their parents care about them, they experience spanking as a caring act.

And research confirms that spanking causes problems only in a minority of cases. Millions of parents spank, and their children turn out just fine. Of course, the research also turns up some caveats. First, parents need to know when to spank. Overuse of spanking can mean that children require harsh measures if they are to behave themselves. Second, parents should avoid spanking on the hands, on the head, and with instruments such as brushes or belts—methods that can cause physical or psychological harm. Third, they should avoid spanking infants, who don’t understand, and pre-adolescents and adolescents, who understand all too well (by that age, children realize what a coercive act spanking is).

But none of this addresses the matter of whether spanking is actually the best way to get kids to behave. Why do parents spank, anyway?

The reason often given by parents raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the Bible tells them they should. On close inspection, though, the Bible is not clear on the subject. True, the Book of Proverbs is full of admonishments like “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.” And this one: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” On the other hand, these pro-spanking passages are usually attributed to King Solomon, whose son, Rehoboam, did not fare well at all. In the First Book of Kings (Chapter 12), we learn that Rehoboam grew up to be a detested king, one so bad that his people ran him out of the country. With that in mind, it is at least plausible that the Bible’s message is “Don’t spank.”

Other parents justify spanking on the grounds that “it works.” What they really mean is that spanking works to get children to behave in the moment. But most children who are spanked continue to misbehave in the long term. So this argument, too, is shaky.

The bottom line is that we don’t need to spank children. Virtually no empirical evidence indicates that we do. The discussion, then, should not be about whether to spank or how to make spanking work. It should be about the question I posed in that chat room—whether there mightn’t be better alternatives.

Any alternative should be aimed at preventing problem behavior and offering guidance when such behavior occurs. Gentle, positive approaches yield far better results than negative, coercive discipline, even when that discipline takes the seemingly innocuous form of time-outs and “grounding.”

Which brings me to one of the least-understood paradoxes of parenting: children develop self-control when parents provide only the minimum control needed to keep them safe and reasonably well behaved. Seen in that light, spanking is like using a cannon when a popgun will do.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child De-velop­ment. His latest book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management (Sage Publications),  is due out in 2008. He recently returned from Bulgaria, where he helped found a new laboratory preschool that will have ties to Eliot-Pearson. He also traveled to Nanjing Normal University in China, where he lectured on children’s play and democratic approaches to behavior and classroom management.

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