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 Children who are spanked, these experts argue, are more likely to be aggressive, become withdrawn, or have behavior problems when they go to school.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.
One explanation for the fascination with discipline is that most parents think -- at least when it comes to physical punishment -- that the experts are all wet. "I was spanked," parents often say, "and I turned out fine."
Sure, most moms and dads are eager to adopt health and safety innovations their own parents didn't use, like car seats, bike helmets, and sunscreen. But when it comes to spanking, many parents doubt the experts have actually ever been on the losing end of a toddler meltdown. And of course, many spankers are following expert advice, just different experts. They cite popular author John Rosemond and church-based psychologist James Dobson, Ph.D., who think occasional and carefully administered spanking can be effective.
In the past, spanking has been regarded as something good parents do, and 79 percent of those we polled say they were spanked as kids. "Most of us have a parenting style based on our own experiences as a kid," says Parents adviser Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! "When we're upset, we're particularly likely to revert back to how we were raised. And since most of us were spanked, we spank."
There's another reason parents today are resorting to physical punishment. "People see that the pendulum has swung too far, in terms of permissiveness," Dr. Severe says. "And for many parents, spanking makes them feel that they are being strict."
But Dr. Severe thinks the main reason parents spank is out of sheer frustration. Raising children is difficult, and the years between 2 and 6, when most spanking occurs, are especially rough. "People just don't know what to do when the child misbehaves, so they spank," he says. "But spanking only works in the same way that giving in to a tantrum and buying a child a candy bar works. It's a very temporary solution."
For parents trying to understand the mountains of data on spanking, the issue is confusing. In 2002, Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, published the mother of all spanking studies. She looked at 88 different research efforts, analyzing them for 11 different effects, including depression, relationship difficulties, aggression, and long-term compliance in the kids. Across the board, children who were spanked did worse in ten of those areas and only did better in short-term compliance.
But there are credible pockets of dissent. Robert Larzelere, Ph.D., associate psychology professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha, has been studying spanking for 25 years and argues that studies like Dr. Gershoff's include abusive physical punishment, such as slapping children in the face. His research has found that nonabusive spanking (typically, that means one or two openhanded swats on a child's rear) is a safe and effective form of discipline with kids ages 2 to 6, as long as it's used to back up milder forms of discipline, including reasoning with a child.
The problem, he points out, is that this method only works when parents are acting calmly, not in anger. Children can tell the difference between a loving, reasoned spanking and a spanking from a parent who is ready to lose it, he says. Angry spanking is harmful. Yet many parents can't resist spanking when they're mad: 39 percent of the spanking parents who responded to our poll say that they spank on impulse, not as a planned punishment. The risk, at the extreme, is frightening. The University of Minnesota reports between 60 and 70 percent of child-abuse cases started out as a spanking.
More commonly, though, impulsive parents simply wind up feeling remorseful after a spanking, which confuses children rather than making a point. "There have been times when my 18-month-old son, Branden, kept turning the power button on our stereo on and off, over and over again, no matter how often I told him to stop," says Lois Mae Byrd, 37, of Sacramento, California. "On two occasions, I put him over my knee. But it didn't work. I felt bad because I had hit him -- and he could sense that."
How could one careful researcher find spanking to be not harmful while others find that it's damaging? "It's really impossible to do a definitive study on spanking because there are too many variables," says George Holden, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "Some parents spank on principle, and others out of strong emotion," he says. "Some are livid; some are loving. Some spank very hard, even with objects, and do it all the time; some barely spank at all." And of course, the child's temperament plays a role as well. Spanking a sensitive child may produce an entirely different result than hitting a child who's easygoing.
What's missing from spanking research, Dr. Holden believes, is information about how children see spanking. "Parents look at it from an adult point of view," he says. "The child misbehaves, the parent spanks, the child stops, and the parent thinks, 'Good, he got the message.' But kids, depending on their age, gender, or personality, may simply see the spanking as an attack. This is especially important because spanking peaks from ages 2 to 3 -- when children's strong emotional reactions to it (fear, anger, or humiliation, for example) may prevent them from focusing on the lesson the parent is trying to teach.
Nor are experts clear on cultural differences. While African Americans spank more frequently than the general population (a 2004 Johns Hopkins University study, for example, found that 49 percent of black mothers of children ages 2 and under had spanked them in the prior week, compared with about 36 percent of Caucasian mothers), there's less evidence that spanking harms these kids. Jennifer Lansford, Ph.D., a psychologist at Duke University, found that although white children who were spanked exhibited more aggressive behavior as young teens, African-American children actually exhibited fewer problems.
Dr. Lansford thinks her research makes an important point about the power of a cultural community. "My theory is that in many European-American families, kids experience spanking as a shameful thing -- it implies a loss of parental control that's frightening and harmful," she says. "In African-American families, spanking is seen as more acceptable."
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."
When actress-turned-parenting-author Lisa Whelchel went on Good Morning America last year to talk about how she dabs hot sauce on her children's tongues when they lie or swear, she shocked many viewers who had never heard of the practice. But apparently, Whelchel's disciplinary method is not unique. "I had a friend who gave hot sauce to her toddler whenever the child gave her attitude," says Bevin Hutchison, a mother from Hampton, Virginia. Still, some experts think such "creative" approaches can be even more harmful than spanking. Kids may see spanking or having their mouths washed out with soap as something that's common, says Jennifer Lansford, Ph.D., a psychologist at Duke University who studies cultural differences in discipline. "But methods like hot saucing add shame to the equation -- kids wonder, 'Why is my mom doing this weird thing to me?'"
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 issue of Parents magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.