When to Spank
For decades, parenting experts have said spanking irreparably harms kids. But a close look at the research suggests otherwise
Children are people. The origins of the antispanking prohibition have a lot to do with two social phenomena of postwar America: the rise of popular psychology and the breakup of the extended family. In years past, grandparents used to inundate a new mother with child-raising tips on everything from burping to bed-wetting. One of them was likely to be "spare the rod and spoil the child," an adage some adults used to justify repeated spankings as the only form of discipline--and not just in the home. Half a century ago, corporal punishment in schools was legal in all but one state. But by the early 1950s, young couples increasingly began to look to child-rearing "experts"--authors like Benjamin Spock, whose manual Baby and Child Care counseled against the punitive child-raising practices of earlier generations. Spock, a believer in firm and consistent parenting, did not rule out spanking in his book's early editions. But he salted his manual with concepts borrowed from Freudian theory, stressed the impact that parents have on their kids' development, and introduced what at the time was a radical notion: Children are individual little people, with a host of psychic needs.
The psychologists and child-development authorities who churned out parenting guides in the 1970s and 1980s took Spock one step further, advocating a new, child-centered view of family. The locus of power should shift, these experts seemed to suggest, so that kids are equal members of the household. Many writers, such as T. Berry Brazelton, warned that strict parenting, and particularly punishments like spanking, could promote aggression and discourage children from cooperating with others. One of the most popular of the new crop of books was Thomas Gordon's 1970 million-plus seller, Parent Effectiveness Training, which advised parents to stop punishing kids and to start treating them "much as we treat a friend or a spouse." More recently, writers like Nancy Samalin and Barbara Coloroso counseled an end to punishment altogether. And while such books helped open parents' eyes to the importance of listening to children and respecting their individuality, some warm, fuzzy--and not very reasonable--ideas about discipline also began to gain popularity. (One author suggested that if a child refused to get dressed in the morning, parents should send him to school in pajamas.)
This onslaught of advice did not, on the surface, appear to alter parents' attitudes toward spanking very much. Last year, 65 percent of Americans approved of spanking, not much less than the 74 percent who did so in 1946. But the modest overall shift in numbers concealed a marked change in opinion among the American elite. By the 1990s, the refusal to spank had, in some quarters, become a sign of enlightened parenting. In a 1997 poll, 41 percent of college-educated Americans disapproved of spanking children, compared with only 20 percent of those who didn't complete high school. Whites were more than twice as likely to disapprove of spanking as blacks, and the rich were less likely to favor the practice than the poor.
"Parents became intimidated by expertise," argues Kevin Ryan, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, who thinks the antispanking movement has become too absolutist. "Psychologists and educators corrupted parents, saying that all it takes are rational appeals to a child's better side." Danielle Crittenden, a mother of two and editor of the Women's Quarterly, a conservative journal, adds that "if you say you swat your kid, people now look at you like you're a child abuser. You can't even talk about it because people are so hysterical."