When to Spank
For decades, parenting experts have said spanking irreparably harms kids. But a close look at the research suggests otherwise
For parents who choose to spank, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to do so. Kids under 2 years old should not be spanked, because the danger of causing physical injury is too great. As for adolescents, research suggests a fairly solid correlation between spanking and increased misbehavior; grounding teens has proven more effective. The age when spanking is most useful appears to be between 2 and 6, and parents should take into account the nature of the child. A single disapproving word can bring a sensitive child to tears, while a more spirited youngster might need stronger measures. Finally, spankings should be done in private to spare children humiliation, and without anger. A parent who purposefully includes spanking as one of a range of discipline options may be less likely to use it impulsively and explosively in a moment of rage.
As for how to spank, the AAP warns against using anything other than an open hand, and only on the child's rear end or extremities. The intention should be to modify behavior, not cause pain. "A spanking is nothing more than a nonverbal way of terminating the [bad] behavior," says psychologist John Rosemond, author of To Spank or Not To Spank. It secures "the child's attention, so that you can send the child a clear message of disapproval and direction."
Plenty of parents feel they can deliver that message without striking their child. "Our belief is that spanking, hitting, any overt physical punishment isn't an effective technique for encouraging positive behavior," says Gerrie Nachman, a Manhattan mother of an 11-year-old son. "The last thing we want to do is model to our son physical abuse as a way of dealing with inappropriate behavior in other people."
Parental abuse. At the other extreme are parents who deliver far more than a tap on the rear. In response to a 1995 poll, almost 20 percent of parents said they had hit a child on the bottom with a brush, belt, or stick in the past year; another 10 percent said they had spanked the child with a "hard object." One valuable lesson to come out of the antispanking movement is an awareness of how many parents abuse spanking. Straus found that two thirds of mothers of children under 6, for instance, spank them at least three times a week, which most experts would say is too much.
The current state of knowledge about spanking may cut two ways: Parents who use spanking appropriately can relax and stop feeling that they are causing ineluctable harm to their child. But parents who overspank--and mistakenly believe that their firm thwacks are benefiting little Samantha--should scale back their spankings. Somewhere in between parents' guilt and parents' denial lies a happier medium.