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Study's findings won't put an end to debate over spanking

Research suggests kids who are physically punished are more likely to develop emotional problems. But the issue is not that clear-cut for most parents.

July 13, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Spanking is played for laughs in the 1928 silent movie "Hard Work."
Spanking is played for laughs in the 1928 silent movie "Hard Work." (Bettmann / Corbis )

The timing of the study's release was good — at the start of summer when kids running wild are bound to get on Mom and Dad's nerves.

But its message wasn't necessarily something those harried parents will want to hear:

If you spank your children, even occasionally, you're setting them up for a lifetime of mental and emotional distress.

That's the conclusion of a study by researchers from two Canadian universities. They asked 35,000 American adults whether their parents had ever hit, grabbed, pushed, shoved or slapped them while they were growing up.

Those who'd been physically punished, but not abused — about 2,100 of those surveyed — had a higher risk of personality disorders and substance abuse.

"There is no amount of physical punishment that is OK," Tracie O. Afifi, the study's lead author, told me.

The findings, published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, are the latest salvo in a lopsided battle over spanking — with doctors, academics and child-rearing experts on one side and millions of parents on the other.

Part of the problem is how we define it. Afifi's study never actually mentioned spanking; she lumps it under the "hitting" label. "Spanking is hitting a child," she said. "It's the media that used the term 'spanking'" in describing the study.

I think there's an important distinction. Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing is not the same thing, to my mind, as a parental smack to the behind.

Most parents agree that spanking is not the best way to discipline a child. Yet most parents admit that they've spanked their offspring. The conflict between what we do and what we believe is never tested more than in parenting.

There are zealots on both sides of the issue: Those who consider choices of discipline the unassailable province of parents, and resent the ivory tower intrusion. And those who want spanking outlawed, as dozens of other countries have done.

So it's not surprising that online forums lit up when the study went public this month:

"we all got spanked and big deal so what," wrote MeanDean in his military uniform. The mother of a "polite, empathetic and respectful" 5-year-old countered that she "cannot fathom the mentality that hitting someone makes them behave."

That's the point of spanking, after all: to get kids to behave. And it's remarkably effective at that. "Immediate compliance" is the only upside of physical punishment, researchers concede. And sometimes immediate compliance is all a weary parent needs.

"That's why spanking is popular," Afifi said. "It will get them to stop whatever it is you don't want them to do. Gets their attention. Makes it hurt."

::

I don't spank my children. I don't need to — not now. They're 27, 23 and 21.

And while I would never have called it "hitting," as Afifi insists, I probably whacked a few backsides when they were young.

I couldn't recall, so I asked my oldest daughter if I'd spanked her. "I think you did, a few times," she said. For what? She shrugged. "I don't remember. I probably did something really bad."

Or maybe she's got some sort of spanking-inspired memory disorder.

There's a long and growing list of studies that consider spanking the root of grown-up problems. But none of them seem to answer the question I've always wondered about:

How do we know that spanking breeds emotional problems, rather than that emotionally disturbed children are simply more prone to behavior that pushes a parent to spank?

We don't.

"We can't say that the physical punishment is causing mental health problems," Afifi acknowledged. "What our research shows is for the kid that's hit, there's an increased likelihood that they will have a mental disorder."

I think we can all agree that physical abuse is wrong, but is physical punishment the same thing? We may not agree on the dividing line, because we draw on examples from our own lives.

I found myself subscribing, as many parents do, to the "I got spanked and I'm all right" credo.

Which is ironic, because as a child I put spanking on the short list of things that, as a parent, I'd never do. That list included criticizing my children, making them take piano lessons and secretly reading their journals. Let's just say, I wasn't entirely successful.

Looking back now, I think the spankings of my youth taught me things that lectures and time-outs couldn't:

That my loving mother's indulgence had limits. That pain can be a powerful deterrent. That bad choices have bad consequences; for lying, backtalk or willful defiance, that might be a round with the belt.

Our personal histories can blunt the impact of anti-spanking studies. Most people who have raised children were also spanked themselves as kids.

"In the end, there's a group of people who think that it's OK," Afifi said. "There's a culture that says it's not harmful to do, that you'll have a wild child if you don't.

"They were hit and they were fine. That's what makes it hard to get people to change their minds."

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