When it comes to raising children, nothing sends parents scurrying to opposite corners faster than the word spanking. Forget debates about breast versus bottle or working versus staying at home: The issue of whether or not to use physical punishment continues to be one of the fiercest conversations parents have.
For years, the country's top medical and child-development experts -- basing their opinions on decades of accumulated research -- have urged parents not to spank. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against all spanking, and organizations as diverse as the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry are opposed to corporal punishment in schools.
Spanking is not only potentially harmful to both parent and child, they say, but it also just doesn't work. While hitting provides a short-term fix, it creates long-term problems. Children who are spanked, these experts argue, are more likely to be aggressive, become withdrawn, or have behavior problems when they go to school. Many parents agree: In one of our recent polls at Parents.com, 39 percent of moms and dads say they never spank their children.
But the majority -- 61 percent of the parents who responded to our poll -- say baloney. Five percent of these parents describe themselves as regular spankers; 56 percent say they spank occasionally. Everywhere, they point out, are examples of children who need a good pop on the bottom, and they roll their eyes when the zealots describe spanking as child abuse. What's really abusive, these parents argue, are mothers and fathers who don't discipline at all.
Everyone likes to feel morally superior, at least now and then. Nonspankers dismiss spankers as red-necked Neanderthals who settle for a quick slap instead of taking the time to teach right from wrong. "I never use physical discipline at all," says Sheila Giambona, 26, of Ballston Spa, New York, who has a 5-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. "It sends the worst possible message. When I see parents spanking, I know it's a patience issue. Because my daughter loves me, she wants to please me -- I don't have to spank."
And spankers, for their part, like to write off nonspankers as overindulgent, permissive parents who inflict their screaming, unrestrained offspring on the rest of world. "I feel like people are afraid to be parents, that they are afraid of their children not liking them," says Wyndi Winters, 28, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who uses spanking "as a last resort" with her children, ages 9, 5, and 2. "To me, you've got to be a parent first and establish rules and consequences." In fact, 88 percent of those who responded to another Parents poll believe that other people let their kids get away with too much.
Parents are also fascinated with who spanks and who doesn't. Everyone was on the edge of their seat when Dr. Phil asked President and Laura Bush whether they'd ever spanked the twins. "Not very often," Mrs. Bush replied.