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The Spanking Debate

No parenting issue sparks more debate than spanking. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages all corporal punishment, an estimated 90 percent of parents have spanked. Yet most of those parents are not pro-spanking. According to a study from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, 85 percent of those who spank would rather not. While some parents advocate spanking and others shun it, most Americans fall somewhere in between. Here, experts respond to four families' stances on this emotional issue.

No-Spanking Policy

We have never spanked our children, and we never will.

Dave Taylor and his wife, Linda, of Boulder, Colorado, have never raised a hand to their children, Ashley, 10, Gareth, 6, and Kiana, 2. "We're both very concerned about how violent our society is. We don't want to have that come into our home," Taylor says. But he is careful to point out that no spanking doesn't mean no discipline. The Taylors use time-outs and logical consequences when their kids misbehave. For instance, after their son deliberately broke a chair, he had to use his allowance to replace it. "I bet that's a more impressive lesson than me pulling him over my knee and spanking him," Taylor says.

The experts respond: According to the AAP, taking away privileges and issuing time-outs yields better results than spanking. "The AAP doesn't endorse spanking, because it is not effective in the long term, can hurt a child's self-esteem, and can cause physical harm," says pediatrician William Coleman, MD, of the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, and chair of the AAP's committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.

"Parents who don't spank their children still discipline; they just do it in ways that don't involve hitting," says Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Although some parents may equate spanking with discipline, Gershoff says the two are not synonymous: "Discipline is teaching; spanking is punishment."

I once believed in spanking -- not anymore.

Linda Doty, of St. Louis, Missouri, mother of Katie, 23, Amber, 21, Sarah, 10, Jadyn, 4, and Raena, 2, spanked her oldest daughters when they were little. "I was a young mother, and I thought spanking was just what was done," she says. Doty knew experts cautioned against lashing out in anger, so when she found herself chasing her daughter up the stairs to give her a spanking, that was her "lightbulb" moment. "How can this not be in anger? I'm chasing her for it," Doty says. "It was the last time I ever spanked."

The experts respond: Doty is certainly not the only parent who has spanked in anger and frustration. According to the SUNY study, 85 percent of parents report feeling angry and agitated when they spank. And those emotions can be difficult to rein in. "The intensity will continue to rise if the parent continues to be physical," says Dr. Coleman. And that increases the risk of abuse.

Gershoff agrees. In 2002, she analyzed 88 different spanking studies and found 10 negative outcomes in those who are spanked -- including higher risk for aggression and abuse of their own kids or spouse down the line.

Robert Larzelere, PhD, associate professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, cautions that spanking in frustration sends the message that "if you're frustrated, you can just lash out at whoever you're mad at." And that's not a lesson parents want to teach.

We spank but wish we didn't.

Ken and Molly Crandall, of Nassau, New York, parents of Julia, 5, and Jackson, 3, never thought they would spank. "We knew we didn't want to raise an aggressive or bullying child," says Ken Crandall. So why do they resort to spanking? "We've used it when we're at the end of our ropes," he says. But spanking hasn't worked for them. "It gets Julia to respond out of fear, and we just don't feel right about doing it. Plus we feel guilty when we punish her." Although they'd like to stop spanking, "to say that we won't resort to it again -- we probably can't say that."

The experts respond: Gershoff has seen similar scenarios with other parents who spank and later regret it. "They realize the contradiction between what they're saying and what they're doing. Children begin to fear their parents. And when parents see that, some of them decide not to hit anymore."

"Almost all of us lose it," says Linda Pearson, RN, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, in Lakewood, Colorado, and author of The Discipline Miracle (Amacom). "But instead of swatting, why don't we substitute consequences?" She advocates using time-outs, withdrawing a child's privileges for misbehavior, and rewarding good behavior with "goodies." When parents lament about their disrespectful kids, Pearson asks why they continue to allow their children to watch favorite television shows and have their friends over to play. "Parents forget that a child has to earn these special treats." And rewarding good behavior yields far better results than spanking, she says.

We believe spanking works.

"An effective discipline regimen has a variety of things -- time-outs, separating kids from activities, logical consequences -- and we use spanking too," says Jason Berggren, of Atlanta. When his boys, Aiden, 4, and Logan, 2, are defiant, Berggren and his wife, Lisa, give one warning. If the boys don't comply, they get a spanking. Immediately afterward, the Berggrens discuss the reason for the spanking with their boys.

The experts respond: Larzelere condones conditional spanking -- reasoning first, nonphysical punishment second, and if a child is still defiant, then an open-handed, two-swat spank on the buttocks for kids ages 2 to 6. But he adds a crucial caveat: "If parents are at risk for getting out of control, they need to do something to calm themselves down."

Once parents lose control, however, it's not always easy to get it back. The AAP reports that 44 percent of parents spank because they "lose it." And even if a parent could deliver a spanking calmly 100 percent of the time, spanking is simply not effective over time. "If children are hit, they'll stop what they're doing right away. But they will not stop in the future," Gershoff says. "When people say that spanking works, they're probably spanking and doing something else. They get the child's attention by spanking, and then they talk to the child about what he or she did wrong. Hitting, unfortunately, is one way to get a child's attention, but there are lots of other ways." Speaking in a stern tone of voice or touching a child on the arm are nonviolent alternatives for getting a child's attention. Of her own children, 4 and 2, Gershoff says, "One of the things I'm always trying to teach them is to not hit each other. Why in the world would I hit them if that's the message I'm trying to teach?"

Many parents turn to spanking when a time-out goes awry. Pete Stavinoha, MD, pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center of Dallas, offers these tips for getting the most from time-outs:

1. Before a Time-Out

  • Praise your child for good behavior.
  • Role-play a time-out (when your child isn't in trouble), so he'll know what to expect.

2. During a Time-Out

  • Be firm and in control, not overly emotional.
  • Don't give your child any attention -- positive or negative.
  • If your child refuses to stay in time-out, try holding her in the time-out until she's calm, without cuddling.
  • The time-out should end whenever your child is calm and ready to make the situation right again. A general guideline: one minute per year of her age.

3. After a Time-Out

  • Don't rehash the infraction.
  • Have your child pay restitution, such as apologizing or completing a task that he should have finished before. Then give him a clean slate.

Natalie Lorenzi, a mother of three, lives in Trieste, Italy.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.