Wanted: Practical Guidelines
Given those complexities, it's not surprising that even the experts themselves seem to waffle a bit. Take a typical pediatrician -- the only child-rearing professional that most parents ever consult. While the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes spanking, a 1998 survey of its members isn't so clear-cut. Although most pediatricians are against spanking as a primary form of discipline, more than 53 percent believe that, under certain circumstances, it can be effective. And some 35 percent of pediatricians (74 percent of whom were spanked when they were young) say they spank their own kids.
Talking to moms and dads about spanking can be tricky, says Parents adviser Darshak Sanghavi, M.D., a Boston pediatrician. "Most people -- including me -- were spanked, so it can be insulting to hear that spanking is ineffective," he says. "It's like saying, ‘Your mother did it wrong.' But I think the data clearly show that spanking is harmful. Maybe not for every child -- just like everyone who smokes isn't going to develop lung cancer. But children who are spanked are more at risk for behavior problems later on."
Parents, too, are reluctant to offer one another advice. "I'm not a spanker," says Sandee Basile, 24, of Romeoville, Illinois, who has a 2-year-old son. "So it's awkward when we're around friends who spank their kids. On one hand, I don't want my son to see that. On the other hand, people do have the right to raise their family however they want."
So parents -- the spankers, nonspankers, and undecideds -- are left to muddle through the subtleties on their own. Does a light slap on a toddler's hand as she reaches for an electrical outlet expose her to the same risks that more severe spanking does? How about shoving a howling 3-year-old into his car seat a little too roughly? Can an 18-month-old "understand" what's happening when his mom swats his bottom? Can a 4-year-old? Most families negotiate the nuances on their own, and spanking gradually fades away as kids enter grade school.
But while child-development experts are almost uniformly lined up against spanking, they are especially leery of using physical discipline on very young children. "For a 2-year-old or 3-year-old, spanking is not only ineffective, but it could cause significant confusion as well," says Dr. Severe. "At that age, children don't have a good understanding of cause and effect."
Of course, a growing number of activists believe that parents shouldn't even have the option of using spanking as a disciplinary method. Led by Sweden, 15 countries around the world have already banned the practice altogether, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, an advocacy group in Columbus, Ohio. And Canada and Great Britain are the latest to debate whether to adopt similar laws.
In this country, antispanking advocates have attempted to enact bans in several cities, including Oakland, California, and Brookline, Massachusetts. While passing such laws won't be easy -- a Connecticut court recently ruled, for example, that it wasn't a crime when parents spanked a child hard enough to leave a bruise -- experts say the frequency and intensity of the spanking wars at school-board meetings around the country are proof that spanking is falling out of favor.
But those debates, Dr. Sanghavi says, steal attention from the real issue -- giving parents as many methods of firm, loving discipline as possible. "We're all striving for parental authority," he says. "But it doesn't come from physical strength, and children know that. Authority comes from having emotional and psychological strength and control, and the ability to reason with kids. The more discipline skills that parents have in their toolbox, the less they'll resort to spanking."