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Spanking debate raises bigger questions about parenting

There's no one-size-fits-all method, but a culture that values children more than ours does would be a good start.

July 20, 2012|Sandy Banks

Since my column on spanking last weekend I've been mocked by old-school advocates of spare the rod, spoil the child. And I've been lectured by parents and therapists who blame spanking for crime and social ills.

The only thing the two sides seem to have in common is absolute certainty that their way is the only right way to raise children.

I wrote about a study in the journal Pediatrics that concluded that children who are physically punished by their parents — hit, slapped, grabbed or shoved — are more likely to suffer from mental and personality disorders as adults.

It's become the latest indictment of spanking, a parenting tool that even its biggest proponents can't claim to love.

Some readers accused researchers of tilting the results by lumping spanking in with hitting and slapping.

It's part of an "anti-spanking crusade" that has left us "surrounded by narcissistic, ill-behaved and self-absorbed young people," wrote Giuseppe Mirelli of Westwood.

And several teachers complained that education suffers because of foul-mouthed, disrespectful students who haven't been sufficiently disciplined at home.

Teacher Mark Overstreet said he has "heard a number of students [middle school and elementary] tell their parents … that they would call the police if the parent spanked them."

But others said the findings condemning spanking were common sense and common knowledge.

"Anyone with half a brain," one father wrote, "would know it's wrong to hit a child."

Still, facts aren't always strong enough to dislodge the forces that shape real-life moments.

"There really isn't any 'debate' about spanking or hitting children," acknowledged David Dozier, a San Diego State University public relations professor with a PhD from Stanford.

Spanking is "degrading, humiliating and terrifying" and can set a family's "moral compass" for life, he said.

Yet, as a frazzled single parent in the 1980s, he took to spanking his two young children. Years later, "after lots of therapy," he said, he apologized to his daughters.

::

My inbox was like a peek inside families and homes, where differences in philosophy and temperament produce wildly varying parenting norms.

Parenting is a battleground, and the prospect of a spanking is equivalent to the threat of a nuclear bomb which, "when wielded properly, need never be used," wrote a Costa Mesa father.

"Parents who discard the tool from their arsenal, especially those who announce it, put themselves at a disadvantage," he said. "Unilateral disarmament is unhealthy to the parent/child relationship."

On the other side was the man who said he had never punished or even spoken sharply to his two children, now college students, and they "have never been in trouble or had any other social issues."

"People who think that parents aren't supposed to be their kids' best friends are idiots," he declared.

San Diego psychologist Jerry Adams didn't go that far, but he does consider punishment a parental dead-end. And he's not just talking about spanking.

Reprimands, time outs, social restrictions — they are all part of a flawed approach to parenting, one that isn't very effective in "teaching responsible behavior," he said.

The polarizing debate over spanking obscures a bigger issue, he said.

Punishment doesn't help children learn to make good choices, said Adams, who has spent more than 20 years counseling families and teaching parenting classes. Discipline should rely on positive reinforcement.

Adams backs the claim with his blog, raisehappykids.com, which advises parents to ignore inappropriate behavior and reward good choices instead.

It's not rocket science. But his process involves a heavy familial investment — daily meetings, detailed "targeted behavior" charts, endless monitoring, maintaining, reforming.

I imagine any parent organized, consistent and patient enough to keep that routine going for long is the sort of super-parent who wouldn't have needed to punish anyway.

::

Studies are good, and so is expert advice. But in parenting, no one size fits all.

The daring child needs moderation, the fearful child encouragement. Some children are delightfully cooperative, others frustratingly defiant. It's the parent's job to figure out what works best and steer them toward maturity.

That's both freedom and responsibility. And it's what makes spanking so perilous. A smack on the butt in one home might be a string of beatings in another.

So why not just be done with it and outlaw spanking in this country?

That was a frequent refrain among readers. Most used Sweden as an example; it's the poster child for enlightened, nonviolent parenting.

Sweden was the first country to outlaw spanking. In 1979, it banned corporal punishment of children and dozens of countries followed.

Sweden was also a pioneer in mandating paid time off for parents. The country has one of the most generous parental leave policies in the world.

You would have to be blind to not see the link.

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