When to Spank
For decades, parenting experts have said spanking irreparably harms kids. But a close look at the research suggests otherwise
Dad and Mom are no fools: They know their '90s parenting manuals. So when 4-year-old Jason screams, "No!" and darts under the dining room table when it's time to leave Grandma's, Dad patiently crouches down. "Remember, Jason," he says soothingly, "when we talked earlier about leaving?" Jason, scowling, doesn't budge. His mother shifts uneasily and riffles through her mental Rolodex of tips garnered from all those child-rearing books. She offers Jason choices ("Would you like to come out by yourself, or shall I get you?"), then rewards ("I've got a cookie for you to eat in the car"), and finally consequences ("Get out or no Arthur tomorrow!"). Jason retreats further and cries, "I don't want to!" His parents look at each other wearily. Jason is a bright, cheerful child who, like most spirited kids, is gifted at pushing limits. He is often well-behaved, but lately, when his parents ask him to do something, he seems to melt down entirely, screaming and even biting. Now he sticks out his tongue and announces, "I hate you!" His father hauls the tiny tyrant, kicking and flailing, out from under the table. Jason lets loose an earsplitting yell. Dad, red-faced, finally loses it, raising his hand over his son's rear end.
Now stop the action. If Jason's father reads the newspapers and listens to TV news, he knows spanking is one of the more destructive things he can do to his kid, that it could turn Jason into an angry, violent child--and perhaps, some day, a depressed, abusive adult. He may even have heard the familiar refrain of child-development specialists, who contend that a parent who uses corporal punishment "is a parent who has failed." Yet he also feels instinctively that a mild pop on the rear might get Jason's attention in a way negotiating won't. Besides, his dad spanked him occasionally, and he didn't turn into an ax-wielding monster.
In fact, the notion advanced by a slew of American child-raising authorities that a couple of well-placed swats on the rear of your beloved preschooler irreparably harms him or her is essentially a myth. Antispanking crusaders relied on inconclusive studies to make sweeping overgeneralizations about spanking's dangers. This week, even the American Academy of Pediatrics is expected to tone down its blanket injunction against spanking, though it still takes a dim view of the practice and encourages parents to develop discipline alternatives. An AAP conference on corporal punishment in 1996 concluded that in certain circumstances, spanking may be an effective backup to other forms of discipline. "There's no evidence that a child who is spanked moderately is going to grow up to be a criminal or antisocial or violent," says S. Kenneth Schonberg, a pediatrics professor who co-chaired the conference. In fact, the reverse may be true: A few studies suggest that when used appropriately, spanking makes small children less likely to fight with others and more likely to obey their parents.
Some caveats are in order. By "spanking," the AAP and other authorities mean one or two flat-handed swats on a child's wrist or rear end, not a sustained whipping with Dad's belt. Neither the AAP nor any other child-development specialists believe that spanking should be the sole or preferred means of child discipline, or that it should be administered when a parent is very angry, or that it should be used with adolescents or children under 2 years old. Most experts who approve of spanking suggest it be used sparingly, as an adjunct to other discipline techniques.